Award-winning author Libby Fischer Hellmann left a career in broadcast news in Washington, DC and moved to Chicago thirty-five years ago, where she, naturally, began to write gritty crime fiction. Fourteen novels and twenty-five short stories later, she claims they’ll take her out of the Windy City feet first. Learn more about Libby and her books at her website.
Novels or Novellas? When Short is the New Long
I don't follow trends. In fact, I seem to catch on just at the moment the tide turns and starts fading. The same goes for my writing. I envy writers who can generate thick, 500 page thrillers. I can't. Happily, it looks like there's an emerging trend for short stories and novellas.
I love dreaming up plots and defining characters, figuring out who does what to whom and why. But the actual writing part has always intimidated me. It's still the hardest thing I’ve ever done, even after all these years. In fact, if I could write stories like a one-panel cartoon, I would.
The same goes for the subject of World War II. I love reading about WW2, and a vast amount has been written. Novels like Nightingale, All The Light We Cannot See, The Book Thief, Sarah’s Key, the Bernie Gunther and Alan Furst crime novels, Unbroken, and The Winds of War are awesome in their power and beauty. What on earth could I possibly add?
On the other hand it's hard to resist. World War II was the last time when the distinction between good and evil was so clearly defined, with absolutely no gray areas. And that paradigm allows authors to create complex, conflicted characters as well as explore themes of heroism, cowardice, and sacrifice.
In the end it was another World War II junkie and prolific reader who inspired me to give it a go. The very first short story I ever wrote was set in 1930s Lawndale (in Chicago) a few years before the war began. After reading it, my reader friend nudged me to try another story. I was on an espionage kick and was researching WW2 espionage techniques. So I wondered what would happen if a German refugee was forced to spy on the early years of the Manhattan Project in Chicago. But a novel? No way. Far too scary.
I wrote a novella instead: The Incidental Spy, set between 1935 and 1942, about a German refugee who is forced to spy on the early years of the Manhattan Project at the U. of Chicago. I felt it turned out rather well, so I contemplated writing a companion novella. A visit to Bletchley Park in the UK had made an impression on me, but I couldn’t quite imagine a story that was so compelling I just had to write about it. Then I was in exercise class (See? there are benefits to working out) when, out of the blue, someone mentioned an old German POW camp a mile away.
The what? Where?
That’s when it happened – that tingle you get when you suddenly know you've found the right subject. Research revealed almost half a million German and Italian POWs were incarcerated in the US between 1943 and 1945. There were conflicts between the soldiers, but the US Army treated the POWs so well that many didn’t want to leave at the war’s end. Ultimately the companion novella, POW, more or less wrote itself. I packaged the two novellas together, added the short story I mentioned, and there it was.
Writing shorter eliminates a lot of pressure, at least for me. Given my insecurities about doing the era justice—indeed, about writing in general, it's a comfort to know I don’t have to write seventy thousand words. I can, as Elmore Leonard said, “leave out the part that readers tend to skip,” stripping things down to the essential elements of plot, character, dialogue, and narrative. It has been an eye-opener, and I'm growing fonder of the novella format every day.
As a reader, what's your opinion? Can two or three related novellas be as good as a single, thick novel?
War Spies and Bobby Sox
As World War II rages across Europe and the Pacific, its impact ripples through communities in the heartland of America. A farm girl is locked in a dangerous love triangle with two Germans soldiers held in an Illinois POW camp ... Another German, a war refugee, is forced to risk her life spying on the developing Manhattan Project in Chicago ... And espionage surrounds the disappearance of an actress from the thriving Jewish community of Chicago’s Lawndale. In this trio of tales, acclaimed thriller author Libby Fischer Hellmann beautifully depicts the tumultuous effect of war on the home front and illustrates how the action, terror, and tragedy of World War II was not confined to the front lines.