Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Creating verisimilitude in historical fiction, an essay by Linda Kass, author of A Ritchie Boy

Thanks to Linda Kass for contributing an essay on how she created a true-to-life historical backdrop in her fiction. Her novel A Ritchie Boy was recently published by She Writes Press.

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Creating Verisimilitude in Historical Fiction
Linda Kass

As a trained journalist with two works of historical fiction under my belt (and am beginning a third), using the accurate facts of history matters to me. Also critical is that the concrete elements in the story—whether the food, the clothes, or the setting itself—are aligned with the time period. This is how a writer can create verisimilitude in a historical story.

Research plays a larger than life role in keeping authenticity on track. My novel, A Ritchie Boy, takes place between 1938 and 1948. Protagonist Eli Stoff, a character inspired by my father, journeys from Vienna to the Austrian Alps, from New York City to Columbus, Ohio. He is trained to be an Intelligence officer at a US Army camp near Hagerstown, Maryland called Camp Ritchie and the reader experiences him in action stationed in an abandoned villa in a Paris suburb called Le Vesinet. He learns all about Shanghai where his cousin Arthur had escaped at the same time Eli left Vienna for America.


This is a photo of my dad in his college ROTC uniform before enlisting.
This framed photo set to the right of my laptop as I wrote A Ritchie Boy.


In my novel of interrelated stories, the reader learns that Eli Stoff is one of thousands of “Ritchie Boys” whose understanding of the German language and culture led them to their undercover work on the European front to help the Allies win World War II. To convey his decade journey, I had to research many discrete facts. For example, I had to research skiing techniques, as well as the particulars of Alpine skiing back in the late ‘30s to write about Eli’s ski trip with classmates to the western Austrian province of Tyrol. I explored the kinds of music the characters might listen to during this time since seven of the twelve stories include different types of music—from classical to big band hits, from bebop to songs from Broadway musicals of the day. I needed to understand the local geography of all locations that stories were set, as well as the cultural norms of that time period. Through both primary and secondary sources, I learned about the details around the arrival and review process at Ellis Island, the life on the Ohio State University campus as the country prepared for war, and the nuances of a professional photographer who is my point of view character in the final story, “The Wedding.”

I found this photo and it helped me to imagine Eli’s parmy buddies at Camp Ritchie-Henry White, Bobby Salter, and Matt Schultz. My dad is second from the right.  I could imagine the camaraderie that was part of their time together.


And, while research is part of all historical fiction, it is important for the historical novelist not to let the facts of history overwhelm the story itself. In a story called “The Interrogation,” Eli Stoff faces a young German soldier who had escaped during the Ardennes Counteroffensive (what we now know as Battle of the Bulge, the last German offensive campaign on the Western Front during World War II). “Across the table, the young soldier remained silent, staring at his hands, which he clasped tightly on the cold aluminum. A lighter, a broken cigarette, and a black-and-red enameled Deutsche Jungvolk membership badge lay to the side.” Here the reader learns that the young prisoner is a member of Hitler Youth. “Eli was trained to ‘understand.’ He’d arrived in Paris in late December, part of a six-man military intelligence team. His orders were simple: arrest all Nazis impersonating Allied officers, put them through rudimentary questioning, write up a report. But something about Malcolm Schlick made this case more complex. Eli couldn’t put his finger on it.” Here we learn what a Ritchie Boy was tasked to do as the story unfolds.



My dad was always smiling even during war. It is how I remember him. 
His resilience and positive nature carries with him throughout his life, and I gave those characteristics to Eli Stoff.



So, in historical fiction, one must strike a balance between history and story by integrating the facts, so that the history lesson is there, and the reader doesn’t even notice.

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Linda Kass
(credit: Lorn Spolter)
About the novel:

In this moving and memorable novel-in-stories—inspired by her father’s life—Linda Kass shares the little-known account of the Ritchie Boys. Often Jewish German-speaking immigrants, the Ritchie Boys worked in US Army Intelligence and helped the Allies win World War II. Set during the dawn of World War II and the disruptive decade to follow, A Ritchie Boy is the poignant tale of one young immigrant’s triumph over adversity as he journeys from Europe to America, and from boyhood to manhood.

About the author:

Linda Kass began her career as a magazine writer and correspondent for regional and national publications. Her work has previously appeared in Time, The Detroit Free Press, Columbus Monthly, and, more recently, Full Grown People, The MacGuffin, and Kenyon Review Online. She is the author of the historical World War II novel Tasa’s Song (2016) and is the founder and owner of Gramercy Books, an independent bookstore in central Ohio. https://www.lindakass.com/

2 comments:

  1. This sounds very interesting, especially since my father was at OSU at that time and joined the military too. Thanks for highlighting it!

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  2. I'm an OSU grad myself (a bit later, though!) and am interested in reading about campus life during the war - the book is on my list, too.

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