Refraction: Combining Contemporary and Historical Fiction

Today on our blog we have a guest post from Jennifer Harris with a fascinating insight into the writing process behind her novel, The Devil Comes To Bonn. And we’re delighted that the book was written on our Novel Creator Course, a year-long online course with support and mentoring, plus the option for a lower cost un-mentored version too.

Straddling past and present via backstory is a standard novel writing tool, but some novels continue the past-present dichotomy throughout, therefore, requiring readers to jump between stories. Well known examples are Restless(2006) by William Boyd and Sarah’s Key (2008) by Tatiana de Rosnay. 

I thought frequently about these novels while writing The Devil Comes to Bonn (2023). I do not know how Boyd would articulate his technical aim in writing Restless, but mine was refraction. I wanted readers to read the contemporary story in The Devil Comes to Bonn as refracted or angled through the historical story.

My 2015 story of Stella, a woman who is bullied at a conference in Germany, was planned to be angled through the experiences of Hildegard, a woman who in 1941 finds herself pushed into the position of chambermaid to Hitler in one of his favourite hotels. By contrast, in Restless, the daughter discovers the historic story of her mother and thus must cope with the unravelling of the life she thought that she lived. In the other example, Sarah’s Key, the present resolves and heals the past as the contemporary story focuses on discovering what happened long ago. The two timelines of these novels have clear narrative links.

At first sight, the 2015 and 1941 stories in The Devil Comes to Bonn have little in common, but the differing responses by the women protagonists to life challenges are the links. In my novel, the women characters have different reactions to what has happened to them and make different life choices. There is no resolution. The refractive angling continues beyond the end of the novel. One woman seems honourable and the other not — or at best confused rather than dishonourable — but at the end who has taken more life leaps? Who has remade herself? 

Refraction in writing distorts and angles and thus creates new ways of seeing, sliding us sometimes subtly between stories, and sometimes brashly. Writing with refraction as my chief tool, meant that neither of the stories in The Devil Comes to Bonn could be told in a straightforward manner; they interrupt each other constantly, sometimes only a page separates them. The aim of the sudden halt of one story and jolting re-starting of the other creates a space for readers to ponder beyond the compulsion of the narrative drive of ‘what next?’  Refraction is a technique of rupture which propels readers into thought; the theoretical aim is for readers to use each story to reflect on the other.  This is not to say, however, that as a writer I want readers to be emotionally detached — far from it.  I want readers to feel strong emotional attachment to relatable characters. 

In Restless, Boyd brought the two timelines together via the plot as the main characters, mother and daughter, confront the antagonist. In The Devil Comes to Bonn, the two storylines come together differently: first via having the two protagonists talk to each other, and secondly by having them overlap in places. They meet repeatedly in the contemporary 2015 story on the shore of the River Rhine. Then they overlap in one room in Hitler’s hotel — but seventy-four years apart. 

I wanted the slightly secondary 1941 story to be as compelling as the modern story without overly reducing the presence on the page of the main protagonist, Stella. That was an on-going challenge. The two women protagonists have well-meaning, loving husbands who overstep loving relationships into the coercive. I use the historical-contemporary refraction to illuminate the long history of moral ambiguity that women often find themselves in — apparently loved and coerced. How should they respond?

My novel also contains references to other historical periods: ancient Roman settlement on the Rhine, and Japanese enslavement of Koreans during World War II. It was a risky leap to use these apparently extraneous historical times as plot points because of the possibility of diluting the central stories. I enjoyed the challenge of keeping readers close to the main protagonist, Stella, while she had life altering emotional responses to historical periods beyond either of the two timelines. With the main character being an historian, it was not unreasonable that she might think beyond the contemporary everyday. 

No-one has yet said to me that it is outside the scope of the intensity of a novel to invoke several other eras. I look forward to more responses.

About Jennifer Harris:

I write literary fiction inspired by the historic environment—not historical fiction, but fiction set in the contemporary era that responds to the past, remembered either publicly in monuments and memorials, or in subtle, private ways. My PhD is in Cultural Heritage theory and I have lectured in and researched cultural heritage and museums for many years. I have run a small museum, and worked as a journalist in Australia and London. I am from Western Australia and have lived also in France and the UK. In 2020 I relocated to Seattle in the spectacular Pacific Northwest of the USA. I enjoy water colour painting, hiking, skiing, dogs – and, of course, visiting heritage sites and museums. Website: