The Path to Story

There are many ways that a story comes about. Author Kieran Donaghue relates the imagined intersections of the Church, family and personal histories that became his novel German Lessons.

Church History

While Germany is the home of the Protestant Reformation, a substantial proportion of the German population has since the time of Martin Luther remained adherents of the Church of Rome. At the time of the rise of National Socialism in the 1930s, almost one third of the German population was Roman Catholic. The Catholic Church therefore had a vital and direct interest in National Socialist Germany.

In the minds of many historians, the Church egregiously failed the test which National Socialism represented. The most common focus of criticism is the purportedly weak response of Eugenio Pacelli (Pope Pius XII) to the systematic murder of European Jews during the Second World War. Defenders of Pacelli point to evidence of hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives saved through the Church’s actions, but critics maintain that he could and should have done much more to prevent the Holocaust. The current Pope has reacted to the ongoing controversy by announcing that the Vatican Archives on the Pontificate of Pius XII will be opened on 2 March 2020, eight years ahead of schedule.

The Vatican’s response to the Holocaust understandably stands at the centre of the criticism of its stance towards National Socialism. But the Church’s actions leading up to and immediately following the Nazis’ accession to power in 1933 are also of significant interest. It is this early period of Church-Nazi relations that forms the historical background to German Lessons.

Prior to March 1933 the Catholic Church was a vigorous opponent of National Socialism. Hitler feared this opposition, and once in office made overcoming it one of his highest priorities. He raised the prospect of a concordat (a legal agreement specifying the rights of the Church in Germany), something he knew the Vatican was keen to achieve. In return Hitler sought a withdrawal of Catholic opposition to his regime, from both the Catholic political parties (the Centre Party and the Bavarian People’s Party) and the Church hierarchy. 

The Nazis were strikingly successful in defusing Catholic opposition. On 23 March 1933 the votes of the Catholic political parties were crucial in passing the Enabling Act, which empowered Hitler to govern for the following four years without recourse to parliament. On 29 March 1933 the German bishops published a statement formally withdrawing their opposition to National Socialism, paving the way for Germany’s Catholics to support the new regime with a ‘clear conscience’. A concordat between the Vatican and the German Reich was signed on 20 July and ratified on 10 September 1933.

A large proportion of Germany’s Catholics reacted with relief to the Church’s accommodating position on National Socialism, willingly embracing the ‘new Germany’. But many Catholics reacted with dismay, unable to reconcile the Church’s teaching on faith and morals with the words and deeds of the Nazis.

The history sketched here is largely settled, although there remains some debate about how central the prospect of a concordat was in influencing the Church to moderate its opposition to the Nazis. German Lessonsdoes not take a position on this question. Its task is rather to depict how a small number of ordinary Catholics, German and foreign, laypeople and clergy, perceived and responded to the events that were to have such disastrous consequences for Germany and for the world.

Family history

As a young man in the 1930s my father studied to be a priest. He went straight from school to the seminary, first in Australia and then to Genoa in Italy. He returned home in the mid-1930s and rejoined life outside the seminary.

In Genoa one of my father’s fellow seminarians was a German, Ludwig Lohmer. Ludwig had difficulties with Italian. He taught my father some German, and they became firm friends.

When I started to learn German in high school my father told me a little about Ludwig. He said that they had lost contact, but he was planning a trip to Europe and would try to locate his old friend. But my father died before be could make this trip.

After my mother’s death several years later I found among her papers two letters written in German and addressed to my father. One of the letters was from Ludwig; four pages of closely written but quite legible handwriting. The letter describes his life since his ordination to the priesthood in 1937: a difficult period in the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland before the war, an easier period (primarily due to the lack of language difficulties) in eastern Germany during the war, flight from the Soviet army in 1945, and a fulfilling if demanding job as a priest ministering to displaced German Catholics in south Germany after the war. Ludwig thanked my father for a care package already received, but stressed the difficult material conditions he continued to face two and a half years after the war (‘our ration cards give us too little to live and too much to die’). He respectfully asked if my father or other ‘good Australian Catholics’ could provide additional help.

The second letter was from a woman who worked for the Catholic charity Caritas in Stuttgart. She had also received a care package from my father, and thanked him in moving terms for his thoughtfulness. She also gave details of her life: the death of her father in the First World War, the loss of her mother in the interwar years, and the death of her last remaining family member, a brother, in an air raid in the last days of the Second World War. She thanked my father for ‘building a bridge’ to a defeated country and its despised people.

It was through Caritas that my father and Ludwig Lohmer resumed contact after the war.

In German Lessons I make use of the relationship between my father and Ludwig to establish the fictional rationale for the protagonist’s (Frank Hannaford’s) trip from Australia to Germany and to help establish the social context of Frank’s life in Germany. But beyond this there is no relationship between the fictional Father Klein, particularly his relationship to National Socialism, and any information available to me about Father Lohmer.

Many thanks for sharing the story behind the story, Kieran. I wish you great success with German Lessons.

German Lessons by Kieran Donaghue ~~ A novel in which the events take place during the period Autumn 1932 – Spring 1933. Frank Hannaford, a young Australian from a sheltered Catholic background, is searching for a deeper version of himself in 1930s Germany. At the university and in an organisation of young Catholic men he finds friendship and a new confidence in his own resources. A German identity begins to form, surprising and delighting him. But he also struggles with the unexpected possibilities of love, and with political events and commitments he does not fully understand. The Nazis come to power, previously strong opposition from the Catholic Church evaporates, and Frank is left floundering, at odds both with himself and with the young woman whose friendship he most values.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

The evolution of a novel (3)

… or how East Rising Sun morphs into The Admiral’s Wife. I left off with my wonderful colleagues at Lake Union suggesting I weave a historical thread into the contemporary novel I set in Hong Kong. And you might recall that I was not exactly pleased 🙂

This little suggestion was tantamount to starting over. I fussed and fumed, muttering less than positive statements about my publisher. “They have no idea how difficult this is!” “Why did they encourage me to write this novel in the first place?” “I should throw it out and work on something else.” Mutter, mutter, mutter. My poor husband had to listen to all this and I’m grateful for his patience and encouragement.

After several days of paralysis an idea twigged. I scrolled through the WIP looking for something I’d written – a few throwaway lines about one of my characters’ family background.

Early in the nineteenth century, the Wen family fortune began with diamond mining in China then expanded to ship building and lucrative trading across Asia. In a move against the British, Patricia’s great-great-great-grandfather used his trading company, cleverly hidden behind several shell companies, to transport opium to Europe and Britain. That decision generated even more wealth.

Maybe this could lead somewhere. Thoughts swirled around. This could happen. No, that wouldn’t work. What about this? What about that? I kept mulling until something finally gelled.

I now had two story lines and a sense of how they would connect. The present day story featured two expat women: Patricia, a Chinese American, and Sara who was from Boston. The past storyline focused on Winifred, the admiral’s wife, who was British and had arrived in Hong Kong because her husband had been posted there. And of course, there was a connection between the two stories that would gradually emerge.

I discussed the general idea with my editor. She liked it and made several suggestions. She wanted roughly 75 pages and a chapter-by-chapter synopsis. I worked on it for several weeks – hardly did anything else. My agent reviewed it. I made changes. My agent reviewed it again. A few minor edits. Then we sent it off.

Wait, wait, wait. After a heads up from my agent, I received feedback from my Lake Union editor. The floor plummeted out from under me again – they weren’t going to take it. Didn’t think my writing was good enough. But, but, but.

To make matters worse, I then sent the same material off to a freelance editor I work with. She gave me the honest truth. Definitely not my best writing and there’s too many main characters. You should cut out one of them.

Bloody hell. Did I tell you writing is hard work?

So here’s where I am. The present day story features Patricia, my Chinese American character. She’s married. She and her husband have moved to Hong Kong to reunite with her parents and older brother. Having lived in the US her entire life, this new world is foreign and disorienting. The past story focuses on Winifred, the admiral’s wife. She’s moved to Hong Kong because of her husband’s naval career. She too finds the place foreign and disorienting. And there’s a mystery connecting the two timelines – hopefully a fascinating, dramatic connection.

The novel has taken shape. I’m excited about it and love my main characters. With any luck I’ll have the first draft completed by the end of March.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

The Evolution of a novel (2)

We left East Rising Sun firmly tucked in the digital equivalent of a bottom drawer as I worked on a historical novel titled Lies Told in Silence.

The writing journey continued. In 2013 I self-published Unravelled and in 2014 Lies Told in Silence hit the shelves at Amazon and other online retailers. These generated modest success. I finished Time and Regret in late 2015, approached Lake Union Publishing with it and they published that dual-timeline novel in 2016. A joyful sense of accomplishment.

Lake Union had right-of-first-refusal for my next novel – Paris in Ruins – which I turned in to them in early 2017 and the world came crashing down when they rejected it. Joy to rejection in less than a year. I pitched several ideas and my editor said yes to East Rising Sun. Actually, she said ‘send us 50 pages and a detailed synopsis’.

Returning to a novel after a seven year absence is a challenge. Who are these characters? Why on earth did I write that chapter? What’s the story and where’s the plot? I’d learned a lot about writing and East Rising Sun definitely needed work.

So I conceived a new story with the same characters and a similar expat journey but added a twist involving a nasty father and a kidnapping, a scheming husband and a divorce, a shaky marriage, and a woman who became the confidant to each of the friends involved.

As you can imagine, all of this took several months. I now had an agent (fist pump) and she submitted the materials last August. Crossing my fingers and toes, I kept working on the story.

Less than a month later – quick turnaround in the publishing world – my agent informed me that Lake Union would prefer me to add a historical timeline to East Rising Sun since that would be more consistent with my brand! While I managed to keep my temper under control – my inner self was saying ‘what the fuck?’.

Sigh … back to the drawing board once more. Next instalment coming soon.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website