As a writer, I have my fingers typing away at many different projects, which keeps my creativity flowing. Today’s topic is my young adult series, Between Worlds, and the historical protagonist, Elisabeth. Elisabeth’s story is historical fiction, which means her timeline is based on documented facts about her time period. But does that mean Elisabeth really existed? Yes and no. Elisabeth Schuhmacher was inspired by a person who did exist, but she is not based on that person.
What’s the difference?
Writing About Real People in Fiction
There are two people who did actually live in the historical timeline of Between Worlds: Herr Blum, the teacher for the school that housed grades three to six, and Pastor Fröhlich, the Lutheran church pastor. They act as anchors in that time. I have some information about Pastor Fröhlich, who was apparently a controversial figure in the village, but I have almost nothing about Herr Blum.
However, if I need either of these figures in a novel, I’ll have to fill in all the holes. I’m comfortable doing that with the pastor, because he’s down in the congregation’s minutes as causing a lot of issues. Writing about Herr Blum, though, is more difficult because of the lack of information on him, so you probably won’t actually see or hear him too often.
But besides those two, I generally avoid writing about real people in my fiction for three reasons:
- There’s often too little information to create a fully fleshed character.
- No one likes having their negative sides on display in public.
- A good story requires showing characters’ negative sides.
So I started with someone and built a character from that starting point. In other words, a real person was the inspiration for Elisabeth.
Who Was the Inspiration for Elisabeth?
Elisabeth was inspired by a great grandmother of mine, Katharina Wolf. But Elisabeth Schuhmacher is not Katharina Wolf.
Katharina was born in 1901 in Semlak, Hungary. I only know her through a few stories in the family and several postcards she had written, though, because her son, my grandfather, died before I turned nine. Katharina got stuck behind the Iron Curtain in Romania, so she could never leave to travel to Canada, and for a period of time, Romania had also remained closed to travellers. Sadly, by the time her son and his family could travel to Romania to visit her, she had died.
Katharina strikes me as an outspoken woman who placed family above all else. One of these postcards (or, more accurately, photos with a letter on the back) was her “most cherished”: it showed her father in his coffin, with her family standing behind him. (It was normal to take photos of deceased ones back then.) She numbered each person, and on the back wrote down who they were. This was all so my mom would know her father’s family.
Where Does Katharina Wolf End and Elisabeth Schuhmacher Begin?
Elisabeth is outspoken and does get herself into trouble because of that. She was born a few years later, in 1905, but also in Semlak. Like Katharina’s father in real life, Elisabeth’s traveled overseas, to Pennsylvania, too.
However, I have no idea what Katharina’s childhood was like, what she thought about the war, if she had an opinion on what we nowadays call PTSD, what she liked to eat, what she disliked…I have no information on any of that.
In addition, photos I have of Katharina Wolf suggest she began modernizing her personal fashion around 1917. (This assumption comes from some of the research I had done in Romania for Between Worlds 3.) Elisabeth, in contrast, still follows the traditional style of dress in 1920. (But keep reading the series, and you’ll see that eventually change.)
If I had based Elisabeth on Katharina, I would have had to make a lot of assumptions about someone whom some people alive today will have known, and that’s just not fair. Plus it would have needlessly limited what I could do with Elisabeth and therefore affect the series.
Folding More Family Stories into Elisabeth
The various experiences my grandparents on both sides of my family shared with me also helped me make Elisabeth Schuhmacher more real and not a cardboard cutout of an Eastern European peasant girl.
For example, the family name, Schuhmacher, was inspired by my dad’s side. My grandfather lost his father at age 4 to appendicitis, and his mother never remarried. (I knew her as well as any grandchild knows a grandparent: She died when I was 17.) My great grandfather’s profession was shoemaking. In addition, because he had contracted an infection* from working in the fields barefoot as a boy, he had a limp, which is why Samuel Schuhmacher, one of Elisabeth’s cousins, has one.
The Larger Circle: Incorporating Others’ Stories into Elisabeth
It’s hard for me to envision a life in the 1920s that still didn’t involve electricity, indoor plumbing, and “the Roarin’ Twenties” culture. As part of my research for the novels, I asked others from these German communities in Eastern Europe for their stories. If you’d like to see such discussions, you can subscribe to the Donauschwaben Villages Helping Hands listserv. It’s a group of family historians interested in researching this branch of their family tree, and through their questions, memories spring up that the older members share with us young’uns. It’s some of those memories that I try to incorporate into Elisabeth.
Elisabeth Schuhmacher in a Nutshell
Elisabeth Schuhmacher is a fictionally living, breathing character in her own right. But to help me better understand what her life may have been like, I’ve collected stories from several people and researched (and continue to research) her era, country, and village. If you have any questions about Elisabeth, feel free to email me or ask me online! All my contact info is in the footer, and I’d be happy to answer whatever I can.
*Update February 15, 2020: I believed that my great grandfather’s limp was due to polio. I corrected that information.