Koestler on Writing Historical Novels


In researching my next novel, Ella, I have been reading the second volume of Arthur Koestler’s autobiography, The Invisible Writing. Koestler wrote, among many other books, Darkness at Noon, a novel about the Moscow show trials in the late 1930s, which is one of the best of the 20th century.

I should have put The Invisible Writing down by now, having read past the time period of interest, but it is so engaging I keep on reading. It covers, among many other things, Koestler’s thoughts on writing historical novels.

His only historical novel, as far as I know, is The Gladiator, a story about Spartacus and the Gladiators’ War, 73-71 BC. It amuses me that he came to the topic because the German Communist Party grew out of an organization calling itself SpartakusBund, and Koestler, not knowing anything about Spartacus, looked him up and became intrigued. I can sympathize with Koestler being swept up in an historical event, and discovering similarities between a previous time and the current events.

Koestler talks about the weeks he spent researching the novel. He dug into the condition of slaves in antiquity, the rules governing gladiator fights, the folktales of Trace and Gaul, and on and on. This sounds like my research of Hungarian history, the legends about Hungary’s founding, the diet of the Hungarian laborers, the social structure of the country.

The materials available to Koestler on the slaves were minimal, but the information at hand about their opponents, the generals and senators of Rome, was abundant. He found this an advantage, being able to use his imagination about Spartacus and his army. At the same time, the information available about the times, gave him a foundation upon which he could build his story. He found that “filling in the details became a problem of intuitive geometry, the piecing together of a jigsaw puzzle.” Koestler, Arthur. The Invisible Writing (Arthur Koestler’s Autobiography – Part 2) (p. 325). PFD Books. Kindle Edition.

I hope to feel similarly when I start filling in the characters that my grandparents inspire.

But the following passage made me pause:

This led me into a study of such far-fetched subjects as the nature and shape of Roman underwear, and their complicated ways of fastening clothes by buckles, belts and sashes. In the end, not a word of all this found its way into the novel, and clothes are hardly even mentioned in the text; but I found it impossible to write a scene if I could not visualize how the characters were dressed, and how their garments were held together.

Koestler, Arthur. The Invisible Writing (Arthur Koestler’s Autobiography – Part 2) (p. 325). PFD Books. Kindle Edition.

I laughed out loud. Clothing is not my sticking point, but plumbing is. For some reason I cannot write a scene without understanding whether my characters had to fetch water from a well or whether they used chamber pots and outhouses.

As much as I enjoyed this passage, it was immediately followed by:

I decided half-way through the book never again to write a historical novel. There is a basic inertia to imagination which sets limits to one’s capacity for projecting oneself into worlds distant in space and time. Every culture is an island. It communicates with other islands, but ultimately it can only experience tragedy and laughter in its own climate…There are, it seems, only two possible techniques for the novelist to bring these shadows of history into focus. One is to turn them into silhouettes with sharp profiles, into character-types as entertaining as the shadow-plays of childhood, but without the depth and warmth and luminosity needed to make emotional identification possible. The alternative technique is to cheat; to bring the shadows alive by projecting into them the feelings and ideas of the writer’s own period.

Koestler, Arthur. The Invisible Writing (Arthur Koestler’s Autobiography – Part 2) (pp. 325-326). PFD Books. Kindle Edition.

I hope Koestler is wrong. Of course it is difficult to understand a time and culture well enough to be able to write realistically about characters’ actions and feelings. And, of course, some writers overcome these obstacles better than others. But well written historical fiction explicates the times and the culture. And that is what I hope to do with Ella.

Women of Tomorrow – Part 2



If you have read my previous blog, Women of Tomorrow, You know that I have found a book online written by my grandfather.  The only problem: it is in Hungarian.

I am now in the throes of trying to translate it.

I am becoming better at it. I am using Bing Translate and Google Translate; when the results of one give nonsense, I try the other.

I have also discovered that part of my difficulties are the result of the vagaries of copying from a pdf and pasting into the translate program. Sometimes, for reasons I do not understand, this process will split a word in the middle. Currently I look at each line and correct the line when necessary. Once I understand what is going on, I may be able to write some code to solve this problem.

I am also learning Hungarian! I now know that és is “and.” If I have trouble with a sentence and there is a és in it, I will split the sentence before and after the és. Sometimes this yields something comprehensible. It seems strange that compounding a sentence would cause so much trouble. Maybe some of you linguists out there can explain the problem to me.

I’ve also learned that the third person singular does not differentiate between genders. So ő means he, or she, or it. This can make a sentence which refers to a man and a woman difficult to understand. How do the Hungarians do it?

Even worse, consider a sentence referring to a man, a woman, and a horse!

All this work has paid off. I found the following sentence in my grandfather book:

“The marriage of the ignorant daughter for petty reasons is not qualitatively different from prostitution.”

Way to go, Grandpa!



Women of Tomorrow

Commemorative medal in honor of Ede Harkanyi

I am doing research for my next novel, Ella, which is based on my grandmother’s life. She was born about 1884 in Nagykanizsa, Hungary, a town of about 20,000. She married Ede Harkanyi, a man from the same town, who earned a law degree and PhD in sociology in Germany. The Harkanyis moved to Budapest.

I knew my grandfather Ede Harkanyi was a progressive, although I was not sure exactly what that meant for a young lawyer/sociologist in Budapest in the first decade of the twentieth century. So I started reading everything I could find about that period. I found references to Ede Harkanyi’s books and articles with titles such as “Woman of Tomorrow,” “Men of Tomorrow,” and “The Bankruptcy of Marriage.” Interesting!

I googled Ede Harkanyi, trying to get more information about him. I found some of his 100+ year-old books for sale and the bare essentials of his life, date of birth 1879, date of death 1909, list of his books, and organizations he belonged to. Not a lot of meat for my novel. Frustrated with the lack of detail I tried searching on the name of one of his books, A holnap asszonyai (Women of Tomorrow). I found a pdf of the book! In Hungarian….

Now I am working with translation software.The software is far from foolproof.

Take, for example, this quote from Socrates from the beginning of the book: TANÍTSÁTOK AZ EMBEREKET ÉS AZOK MEGJAVULNAK

Google Translate gives me: Choose the people and these shows

Bing Translate gives me: Teach people and improve

Translate.com gives me: Teach the people, and their reform

And a native Hungarian speaker gives me: Teach the people and they will improve

From what I can tell from the table of contents, my grandfather’s book discusses major issues of women’s rights: the need to educate woman and allow them to be financially independent, birth control and abortion, the treatment of children born out of wedlock, and what marriage is and what it might be. I want to explore these topics in the context of Hungarian history, so I will figure out how to make the software translations make sense.

And I will probably learn Hungarian in the process.


Hungary’s Parliament Building

I am diving into research for my next novel, Ella, based on the life of my maternal grandmother. Ella was born in Nazykanizsa, a Hungarian town of about 20,000 at the time of her birth in 1884. I must learn everything about Hungary between 1880 and 1930 to write this novel and a good place to start is Hungarian history.

I had already studied Hungarian history starting around 1910 to sometime in the 1930s. The period just after World War I was particularly difficult and therefore also particularly interesting. The Hapsburg Empire collapsed at the end of the war and Hungary had, at last, her freedom from foreign rule. But that freedom came at a price. Hungary lost 72% of its former land area and 62% of its former population.

In addition, populations once under Hungarian rule, for example the Romanians, attacked Hungary and the newly formed pacifist government did nothing to repel these attacks. The pacifist government fell and was replaced with a Soviet-style communist government, which managed to wreak economic and civil havoc in its brief 133 days of control.

The Social Democrats, who replaced the communists, governed for three days before the Romanians invaded Budapest. In the weeks Romania controlled Budapest, they took everything they could load on railroad cars: livestock, food, furniture, jewelry, artworks and on and on. And they kept the trains.

The ravage of Budapest ended when Admiral Horthy rode into Budapest on a white horse. Horthy became the “regent” for Hungary and ruled until 1944.

This was hell, a great background for a page-turner. Ella’s life, through her 30s, could not possibly be as interesting.

Or could it?

In 1843 Hungary had been a conquered country for centuries. Tariffs and travel limitations impaired modernization. The Magyar aristocracy lived off the land, had almost complete control over their serfs, did not pay taxes, and was, essentially, the law in their domains.  Latin was the language of Hungarian courts and administration. A citizen of medieval Europe would have felt at home in 1847 Hungary.

By 1867, after the Ausgleich (Compromise) with Austria, the serfs were freed, tariffs were reduced, travel bans lifted, and the privileges of the aristocracy greatly reduced. The country was ready for economic take-off. Agricultural output soared, railroads were built, telegraph, telephone, and electricity were installed. Industries such as coal and iron mining, grain milling, engineering, textile, leather and clothing manufacture all thrived.

Budapest, the center of this growth, bustled. By 1900 it had three times as many people as it had in 1867. It had built the first subway system on the continent. It was the largest milling center in the world. It had built an opera house, and palace-like villas graced its main boulevard, Andrássy út. Famous poets, writers, musicians, and painters, as well as gymnasium boys and their teachers, frequented its cafes. The Parliament Building, completed in 1904, embodies the frenzy of 1900 Budapest; it covers six acres, has 10 courtyards, 13 passenger and freight elevators, 27 gates, 29 staircases and 691 rooms.

But this magnificent city rested on an unstable foundation. Almost 50% of Hungary’s population was non-Magyar: Croats, Romanians, and Serbs among others. Jews had prospered during the economic boom and some had become “Robber Barons,” while the aristocracy had become poorer and conservative. The Magyars still wanted their independence from Austria and the non-Magyars wanted their independence from the Magyars. Budapest and the rest of Hungary were no longer sure they liked each other. Coalitions broke apart. There were riots in the streets, and even riots in the new Parliament building.

It is said that a Hungarian is someone who enters a revolving door behind you but comes out in front. Perhaps Hungarians need these supernatural powers to survive their history. And such a history makes a great setting for a page-turner.

Harvard Places


Widener Library on the Harvard Yard decked out with the Harvard shield and it’s motto, Veritas.



Photo credit Paul Horowitz

Harvard yard in the snow, as it was in Mia’s time.





The fire escape that was Mia and Jamie’s private entrance.




Of one the lions guarding the math department at 2 Divinity St.

Review: Becoming Mia

MoonOver Tamalpais
View from Mia’s Inspiration Point

The following is my friend Carol Edge’s review of Becoming Mia.

Perhaps it is too soon for history to be thoroughly objective about the second half of the 1960s in this country. But the period always evokes opinion, firsthand or secondhand, lived or imagined, condemned or romanticized. Wendy Teller’s depiction of the ’60s — Becoming Mia — is both lived and imagined. Rooted in the author’s personal experiences, this engrossing story focuses on a young woman’s coming into her own during a transitional period when many young women were awakening to their potential.

Teller paints a convincing picture of what “co-eds” faced at a time when the phrase “math phobic” was freely applied to girls, even those with talent. Protagonist Mia must overcome some very real obstacles before embracing mathematics, where her true talent lies. Her journey is fraught by that other preoccupation of youth: falling in love. The latter is often as much an obstacle as the system that prefers its women students to seek “MRS” degrees. Mia’s quest to realize her potential is complicated by her love for and loyalty to her family, in particular her beleaguered father, whose brilliant accomplishments cast a long shadow.

Teller’s novel, while drawing on her unique history, speaks to universal themes of love, adversity, and growth. The process of “becoming” is ultimately about self awareness.


Carol Edge, 5/1/18


The staircase in Ella’s childhood home.

Since Becoming Mia has launched, I have started doing research for my next project, Ella. This novel will be loosely based on my grandmother’s life. Ella was born sometime between 1880 and 1885 and died in 1956. Despite my parents attempts to get her out of Hungary, she was never allowed to leave, so I never met her.

All I have are the crumbs of her story my mother told me. How I wish I had listened more carefully and asked more questions!

One tidbit flashes in neon lights. Ella translated Huckleberry Fin into Hungarian. Why would a wealthy Hungarian lady translate Mark Twain?

After doing some research – thank you internet – I discovered Ella was born to a wealthy family in Nagykanizsa, a town of about 50,000 in Southwestern Hungary. Nagykanizsa is a 5 hour train ride to Vienna.  Might a wealthy family spend time in Vienna? Of course they would. And who spent 20 months in Vienna in the late 1890s? Mark Twain! So maybe Ella met Twain in Vienna and they talked about his novels.

But wait. That’s in English. Would Ella speak English? Of course she would. Any properly brought up young Hungarian women spoke German, French, and English in addition to Hungarian.

Did this meeting really take place? I don’t know. But it is certainly possible and I am writing fiction, so in my book Ella met Mark Twain when she was in her teens. And that changed her life.

Stay tuned.