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:

Meet The Writer – Shrutidhora P Mohor

Today on our blog we have a Q & A with writer Shrutidhora P Mohor who is a contributor to our final competition anthology, Swan Song

Can you tell us a little about your story in the Swan Song anthology?

Salt Colonies is a story which developed as a dream out of a relationship lived largely in my dreams. It is a story of an unstructured, undefined, asymmetrical relationship between a man as a mentor, and a younger woman as a learner/ devotee/ giver, the latter’s enthusiasm for love and life reflected in her passion for art as well just as the mentor’s emotional indifference towards life in general and towards her in particular is captured by his coldness for art even though he is a brilliant creator.

I have always been mesmerised by the dialectics of unequal relationships, where one partner has been a disappointed recipient, a seeker and yet a giver too, strapped in a need to give and receive at the same time. 

In this story we find them located in the wilderness of a deserted sea shore, ploughing through the mystery and pathos of an uninhabited seaside, an imagery which came to me from one of my holiday trips and the beach-side restaurant quite some distance away from the main resort.    

What draws you to entering writing contests?

I admit I enter international writing competitions frequently, deterred only by high entry fees, sometimes costing me 2000 INR for a single entry!

I love entering contests primarily because there is scarcely a more effective way of judging the worth of my writing and ascertaining if my writing can be counted anywhere within the perimeters of being of international standard. While it is always a good idea to compare my progress in terms of my own growth, my earlier writings with my present writings, it is also relevant to see where my writings stand vis-a-vis the writing community.

The setting of deadlines imposes a pressure in a positive way, pushing me to stay focused and engaged with my writing, which otherwise stands threatened very often by the mundaneness of my professional preoccupation.

Moreover, a contest entry is a heartening way to connect to the writing community. As we all go about submitting, encouraging each other, wishing luck to one another, sharing our disappointments and joys over the longlist and the shortlist, it makes me feel emotionally connected and gratified.   

Can you share some of your favourite writing influences with us?

I am a lover of classics in all its forms—music, films, books, although I am drawn equally strongly to contemporary and post-modern forms of art as well. So, say, for example, Gone With The Wind is as much an influence as Milan Kundera whose works I devoured as a precocious teenager. I have been a particularly visually driven reader, imagining and sometimes enacting entire scenes and mouthing dialogues secretly after reading books.

Jane Austen, Guy de Maupassant, Daphne du Maurier, W Somerset Maugham, D H Lawrence as authors have moved me (I have visualised each scene vividly in my mind and been intensely scrutinising of the film versions of their books). Hence I generally ‘see’ every scene that I write.

Where can we find out more about you and your writing?

Unfortunately my author website is yet to be launched, my limited technical skills causing me to go excruciatingly slowly on it. As a poor substitute, for some time to come, we have to make do with my social media accounts on all of which I am quite active and all my publications or competition listings are posted. On Twitter my handle is @ShrutidhoraPM, on Instagram @shrutidhorap, on Facebook @Shrutidhora P Mohor. 


Shouting at the page

We all do it I know, the literary equivalent of shouting at the TV. No matter how well researched a book, from time to time something will crash through the narrative and make me want to scream – that moment when the writer introduces something which you know is a terrible cliche or just plain wrong. Worse than that, it’s something you’ve seen a hundred times before and yet it keeps coming up, over and over, jerking you out of the book like a scratch on a record.

Maybe it’s just me, I do come from a long line of TV shouters, but in case anyone else is interested, here’s my list of my pet hates/peeves/soap box rants and the reasons why.


Ahh, there’s nothing so beautiful and classy as the classic pearl necklace, usually, well, always displayed on the slender and elegant neck of a heroine. But wait, what’s this? She’s being attacked or caressed or grabbed from behind – sometimes it’s a little hard to tell the difference – and look, the necklace breaks and the pearls cascade down like hard drops of rain, so metaphorical, such a devastating image – you can almost imagine the pretentious black and white pop video. Of course, these pearls are always THE BEST quality, they are keisha pearls, black pearls, perfectly round – but this is wrong, wrong, wrong!! Why? Because if you have ever had a pearl necklace, from the cheapest plastic number upwards, you will see that each pearl on the string has a little knot between it and the next one. This simple, genius device is so that when the heroine’s slender neck is grabbed and the necklace breaks, the most she’s going to lose is a single pearl. Get it? because they are so perfect and expensive, those clever old jewellers had already thought it would be a shame if they all rolled away down the gutter in an accident, and they spend their time tying tiny knots in the silk between the pearls so this won’t happen. So please, no more pearls scattering like angels tears, ok?

The umbilical cord

I could probably write a whole blog on what cliches people write about birth, but I am a bit of a birth nerd (blame the NCT). My biggest peeve about birth is this:

The baby is coming, yet something is wrong – the midwife cries out that alas, the umbilical cord is wrapped round the baby’s neck – oh no! The life giving cord which has nurtured the infant in the womb is now strangling it – oh, the irony! EXCEPT that doesn’t happen. Yes, the cord can be crushed during labour and cause problems, some of them serious, but this is when the cord is squashed, usually between the baby’s shoulder and the wall of the  birth canal. In fact, the cord round the neck is both pretty common and almost always fine, they are wonderfully stretchy things and very easily slip on and off again, like a turtle neck. Sometimes they even get wrapped round two or three times without problems, so please find another dramatic birth story, because there are loads of real ones to uncover.

He punched in her number

This is one I noticed today, while listening to an audio book. I find that most of these jump out at me when listening in a way they don’t always with reading print, which is why my number one tip for editing is to read everything you write out loud, but I digress. We’ve had mobile phones for a while now, and you’re probably like me in that when you meet someone you’d like to call, you might just have noticed a few digits from their phone number when they put it in your contacts list, but after that you will never look at their number again and so if you’re ever without your mobile, will find it impossible to call anyone. Yet so often in books, characters will ‘enter the number on the phone’ rather than scroll down through the list and choose the correct name. I know it’s a small, tiny thing, but boy, it jerks me out of a narrative.

She ringed her eyes in kohl

No, she didn’t. Not unless she was alive in aching Egypt or was Dusty Springfield, who ever says that? Please, can we ‘apply eye liner’ , draw on eye liner, smudge on eye liner – because that’s what we do now.

She had flowing red hair and green eyes…

I wonder if anyone has counted up the percentage of female characters in books who have red hair and green eyes, compared to their proportion in the world? And what about men with red hair and green eyes, when did you last read about a red haired hero? I mean, sure, I could write a huge blog about how under represented loads of people are, but red headed women with green eyes I feel are in a weird majority. And mysterious heroes with grey eyes, mind you.

I could go on, I really could, but these are five tiny but annoyingly niggley peeves which will always get me huffing at the word on the page. There are of course huge, massive great big ones which will do the same, but that’s for another day and another blog – I’m sweating the small stuff! Comment below and tell me your mole hills you blow up into writing mountains, and we can share each other’s pain!

A Year of Indie Debuts

Interviews with authors of debut novels through independent publishers.

In celebration of working with the fab independent publisher, Urbane Publications, to publish my debut novel I’m running a new blog series entitled: A Year of Indie Debuts.

Small independent publishers just don’t have the marketing budgets needed to promote the wonderful work they’re publishing in the same way that the BIG 5 do, so this is my little contribution to helping them out.

Over the next few months the following debut authors will appear on the blog talking about their books, getting published and the writing life:

So look out for them!

If you’re an author with your debut novel, memoir, creative non-fiction book or short story collection being published by an independent press in the next 12 months, or have had it published already in 2015, then get in touch to feature in A Year of Indie Debuts.