Kip Wilson is the author of White Rose, a YA novel-in-verse about anti-Nazi political activist Sophie Scholl. White Rose won the 2017 PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Children’s Book Discovery Award and is a 2019 Winter/Spring Indies Introduce title. Kip holds a Ph.D. in German Literature, is the poetry editor at YARN (Young Adult Review Network), and wrote her doctoral dissertation about the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. She’s lived in Germany, Austria, and Spain, and currently calls Boston home.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
With White Rose and another new project I’m working on now, I started with a real historical figure in a specific time and place. My short story, Car 393, was sparked by an article I read about an event a hundred years in the past. But the process can be different when the characters aren’t based on real historical figures. I’ve written other historical fiction projects that began with a setting and only once I figured out how I wanted to tell the story did I decide who the characters were and what they wanted.
How do you conduct your research?
Nowadays, I definitely start online with my specific time, place, and historical figure. By starting online, I absolutely mean googling key names and phrases. This often leads to Wikipedia, which is a fine starting place—but like any serious researcher, I obviously never end there.
Google and Wikipedia thankfully lead to images, videos, and book titles. When I find a particularly relevant source, I order it right away. Where possible, I order a source first from the library to see how much useful information it contains regarding my project. But because my subjects have mostly been in German and thus unavailable in libraries and bookstores here in the States, I do sometimes end up purchasing a book or video sight unseen. Once I start reviewing a source that has the kind of information I’m looking for, I often skip ahead to the notes and references in the back matter to order more sources before I’ve finished so they’ll arrive when I’m ready for them.
Google and Wikipedia also often lead to museums, organizations, or historical sites that can provide more information. Some such institutions offer collections of images or other documents online. They generally also include a means to contact the administration, which has led me to people who can answer specific questions or advise me where to turn.
Finally, I’ve also been lucky enough to be able to visit museums, archives, and important settings both in the States and abroad, and highly recommend investing in this if at all possible.
You do have a specific system for collecting data?
I am constantly refining my system, but I do like to purchase sources I’ll refer to again and again, and I place color-coded sticky notes in appropriate places to be able to more easily find specific bits of information again. With online resources, I download important pages when possible, saving them to a “research” folder for a particular project. I do also bookmark pages, but URLs sometimes change, so having the information at hand has been helpful.
When it comes to actually using the research for a project, I’ve tried various methods to keep track of my sources. Stealing a method from nonfiction, I once drafted a (fiction) manuscript with footnotes to track the research. I’ve actually seen footnotes in one published novel-in-verse (Your Own, Sylvia by Stephanie Hemphill) and it worked really well there, but those notes were non-intrusive, whereas my notes were meant for my eyes only.
What I finally did for White Rose was to create a spreadsheet that listed each poem and its source(s). The spreadsheet method was especially useful for me because I could include additional information (dates of letters, people in the poem, page number in source, etc.) that I personally needed in additional columns without bogging anyone else down with it.
What kinds of sources do you use? The more specifics here, the better!
I use whatever I can get my hands on, and I try to get my hands on everything. There’s obviously no substitute for letters and diary entries by the protagonists themselves to understand their emotions, relationships, and situations. My sources for White Rose included a collection of letters and diary entries by Sophie and her brother Hans, as well as letters from a more recently published collection between Sophie and her boyfriend Fritz. In the Scholl archive at the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich, I was able to view Sophie’s own handwritten text and drawings on microfilm. I remember one letter in particular that included a pressed flower, which showed up on the microfilm beside the text. So lovely, and such a reminder of how much Sophie loved nature.
I also studied the White Rose leaflets with their calls to resistance, interrogation transcripts, testimonials, interviews, and letters from those who had known Sophie, and I read all the biographies and books about the group that I could find. Because the White Rose has been so well researched in Germany and because the survivors and family members who remain are growing older, I didn’t reach out to individuals myself for interviews, but instead used existing material. Again, because so many people have already conducted and documented interviews, most questions I still had were ones that unfortunately only Sophie or Hans could answer.
Other wonderful sources to study for historical fiction about a particular era are books, films, and music that came out during that particular time that the protagonists might have read, seen, or heard. For instance, I read The Confessions of Saint Augustine after learning how the book influenced Sophie, re-read some of my favorite poems by Rainer Maria Rilke with her in mind after learning how much she loved his work, and listened to the Trout Quintet by Schubert, because Sophie mentions listening to it in one of her last letters.
I also studied the broader context of the Nazi regime’s rise to power, the laws its leaders developed, and its criminal justice system. Again, I read a lot of books about the subject, but I also watched countless films and documentaries, found an abundance of documentation online, and visited museums here in the States, including the Holocaust Museum and the International Museum of WWII.
At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?
I begin drafting as soon as I have enough basic information to be able to create a scene. I don’t need to know everything about the characters or the plot to be able to place myself in a single moment, but I personally like to get the story flowing to know what questions I have and what I still need to research. When I’m first drafting initial scenes, I often include best guesses about dates, places, and character relationships that I’ll later have to verify, but that works for me.
That having been said, my research never stops. When I was reviewing the second pass pages for White Rose, I was still frantically triple-checking last items and making last wording changes based on additional information. An example I looked up at the end was the word Blitzkrieg, which literally means “lightning war,” and is the type of all-out attack the Germans launched on Poland in 1939. My dad (a WWII history buff) was reading my ARC, and mentioned that he thought the term wasn’t initially used by the Germans, and it turns out he’s correct! It was first used in an English magazine in 1939. I ended up keeping the word in, because the Scholls listened to foreign broadcasts and because Germans did end up using the term as well, but I was definitely glad to learn the details of when and how it came into being.
What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned while researching?
I included a scene near the end of White Rose that takes place after Sophie’s been condemned and is allowed to see her parents. Her mother offers her homemade cookies, and Sophie takes them with enthusiasm. This did happen. However, I learned in a published interview with Sophie’s sister Liesel that the family found the uneaten cookies in Sophie’s coat pocket when given her personal effects after the execution. My heart! What a brave face she put on for her parents. This is a small detail, but learning this affected me profoundly and gave such insight into Sophie as a person.
Because life isn’t always clear cut, the motives behind our actions don’t always make sense. But stories need to follow a logical path. What sorts of decisions have you had to make about “muddy” historical figures or events in order for your book to work?
One disputed event I included in White Rose was a moment in which the prison guards brought Sophie, Hans, and their friend Christoph together for a last cigarette. Or did they? Sophie’s eldest sister Inge described this moment in the first book about the group, The White Rose, published in 1955, and a multitude of subsequent sources quote it as well. However, I noticed that a more recent and extremely thorough source didn’t include it, so I asked about it, the author responded that it’s more probable that it didn’t happen (although not confirmable either way). I did end up including it, because it’s still possible it happened, and because it’s such an emotional, positive moment if it did indeed happen.
In the end, Sophie Scholl’s determination, defiance, and courage combined to create an inspirational heroine, but she was also a very real person, and I tried to bring those smaller, human moments to life as well. Like her, we all possess the power within ourselves to speak out and make a difference—a power we must exercise when silence would mean complicity.