Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Revelations on Research and Writing

     When I set out to write my historical novel The Last Daughter of Prussia I had no idea how all-consuming it would be. I thought I'd bang out the chapters on my keyboard. What did I know about the depth of research this project would entail? Sometimes, I tried to sneak around it, write over it or under it, but that never worked. I learned all too quickly that writing fiction still demands facts.

    Characters in a story have a mind of their own. They want to choose what they are wearing and what they eat. They have likes and dislikes, customs and rituals and if these are not acknowledged they won't bare their souls or tell you about themselves. In fact, they'll stop you dead in your tracks. At least that's what mine did. So, desperate to engage them, I complied and went to work.

For example, a gypsy, such as the one in this picture, would have a distinct look.
However, the picture fixed in my mind wasn't right. I needed details like the sleeves, the scarf and the jewelry,
or this man who resembles Harmon,  one of the minor characters in my book, would not have been happy.

    One night while surfing the web, ( it was 2 am in the morning), I glimpsed my grandfather's name - Baron Walter von Sanden - sliding past me on the screen. I was tired and my eyelids felt like two scratchy burlap sacks full of German potatoes, but suddenly, the heaviness was gone. Scrolling up, I found a post by a man named Klaus Plikat describing his grandfather Gustav Plikat who had been a Master Mason on my grandfather's estate in East Prussia before 1924.  Klaus was asking if anyone remembered his grandfather or the von Sandens of Guja and Launingken, East Prussia. I nearly flipped. Was it possible? Could I make contact? The post was over two years old. All the same, I pounded out a letter.

Gustav and Berta Plikat. (courtesy of Klaus Plikat)
Gustav worked on my grandfather's estate as a Master Mason. 
Apparently. my grandparents always had an open house on Christmas Day. Everyone was welcome.
There was singing and lots of food and as Gustav Plikat was also a butcher, 
he slaughtered many a poor pig.

  The next morning, I rushed downstairs to find a response waiting in my inbox. Klaus wrote that he was elated to hear from me. He wanted to know what I knew. I answered saying that I had never been to East Prussia nor did I know his grandfather, but I certainly knew mine. Our friendship started right there and although I have never met Klaus in person - he lives in Alaska - we talk often - a boon for me as he has been a great help on my journey.

A bathing spot in the Angerapp River with a rope for swinging into the water
Like my grandfather, Gustav loved swimming and fishing in the Angerapp River

    While writing, I often hit roadblocks, tough ones that left me stymied. At one point, I couldn't figure out where the famous Trakehner Horse Farm in Braunsberg was located. Was it to the north or the south of the city? This was a crucial question because the answer involved the route my hero Joshi had to travel. I struggled over the matter for weeks. One day, as I was about to give up, Klaus called. Because he himself had researched his roots, he was in touch with knowledgable East Prussian sources.

    Within moments of speaking to Klaus, I had an e-mail address and phone number. Within hours, the puzzle fell into place and Joshi knew where he was headed. Some stranger, somewhere in Germany had shown him the way. I couldn't help but wonder. Was this coincidence?

The city just to the east of the frozen part of the Baltic Sea
that my travelers must to cross to escape the Russian Army

Braunsberg was also home to the famous Braunsberger Trakehner Horse Farm

    As The Last Daughter progressed, I decided to fly to Gdansk -  a port on the Baltic coast (formerly known as Danzig, Prussia, now Poland). A big part of my story takes place there and I needed to do some research as my heroine Manya and her companions have to escape from that harbor on a barge - not an easy task during WW2 when thousands of refugees were trying to do the same. Again Klaus came to my aid. This time he sent an angel in person - Irek Golojuch - a German speaking Pole whom he'd befriended while researching family ties.

Irek meeting me at the Gdansk (Danzig) airport

    Irek was a godsend. Never, would I have found my way through Danzig without his assistance. He walked me through that beautiful gothic city, along the Lange Markt dotted with shops full of golden Baltic amber, past St Mary's - the largest red brick church in Europe - all places that I mention in my book. He showed me the shipyard - Kaiserliche Werft Danzig - also a vital scene in my story. Finally, he pointed out the Vistula Canal which opens up into the outer harbor of Neufahrwasser, and flows past the picturesque Westerplatte Peninsula, the site of the official start of WW2. All these places were important because my heroine saw them too.

Danzig - the port where my travelers try to find a way out to the west

Westerplatte in Danzig - the site of the official start of WW2 and where the Reich War Flag was hoisted
    Irek took so much time to explain things. He even drove me to Stutthof, the concentration camp some 36 kilometers to the east of Danzig where Joshi was imprisoned. There, he arranged a private museum showing with a lovely Polish girl, Joanna Szymanska, who would not accept a penny in tips, saying it was her duty to give back to the those who had suffered.

    Such was the kindness of strangers I encountered while writing my book. And all because I'd read an old post on the computer. Again I asked myself, could these experiences, so synchronistic in nature, be laughed away as coincidental? No. Something else was at work - some unknown yet organizing power -  and it was directing me. All I had to do was trust and follow. This realization has been one of the most important spiritual teachings given to me through the writing process.

Joanna with me in Stutthof
    After Danzig, I flew to Lüneburg (West Germany) where another kind friend of Klaus's, another stranger - Dr. Michael Otto - took me to The East Prussian Museum. Upon entering the first exhibition hall, I gasped. Standing before me on pedestals were two of my grandmother's bronze sculptures; Ingo, the otter, and Meister Eckhart, the raven - both her pets while she lived in East Prussia, as well as subjects for her artistic endeavors. Around me, on the walls, were stunning nature photographs of birds and lakes in East Prussia, rivers and people that my grandfather had captured through his camera lens years before. There were books too that he had written.

    I started to cry. How could this be? I hadn't known the far-reaching extent of their gifts. Just then, the museum curator arrived and seeing my tears he laid a gentle hand on my shoulder.

    "Your grandparents left  a legacy," he said proudly. "One of great importance - one that will help people remember the existence of a vanished land."

Ingo, the otter

Meister Eckhart, my grandmother's bronze raven pecking at my chin

    I nodded wordlessly. What could I say? And, as I stood there gazing at the sculptures, I felt a deep stirring inside, a shaking in my bones as if my ancestors were standing behind me in a great line, urging me on to complete my story.

(c) All content and photos are the private property of the Gottlieb family, unless otherwise stated or linked,  and may not be used without permission.
(c) Privatbesitz Gottlieb Familie


  1. This is such an amazing story and is bringing tears to my eyes too! Thank you. You are such a wonderful writer!

  2. Part of your history is mine too - Gustav was my Grandma Erna´s father and she used to tell me many stories of Launinken, Angerapp river and your grandparets and her live in East Prussia!