*Edited to Add: Today, Amazon changed the categories for this book from “romance” to “fiction.” The rest of this still applies. Amazon’s Lake Union imprint is publishing this particular book, so you’d think they would know what it was, but apparently they’ve changed their minds.
Today it was brought to my attention that there’s yet another Jewish heroine/Nazi hero romance on the horizon. No, I am not going to link to it. I’m not going to give you the title or author. You can look them up. I don’t want the author to have flags go up if she has a Google search set up for herself because she’s not the focus of this. (Well, okay, she partially is. But honestly, if you give your high-ranking Nazi hero a Dutch name, if you can’t even be bothered to understand that the Germans and the Dutch are radically different peoples, I reserve the right to point out your errors on behalf of my Dutch family and those who sheltered them.)
Let me just put this out there: there are certain periods/events/confrontations that are great, gaping, bleeding wounds in the psyches of huge numbers of people. Am I saying you can’t write about those events, can’t set your novel among them? Nope. But I am saying that there’d better be a vital reason why your story could not take place anywhere else, including in a fantasy society, on a made up world. And more than that, you’d better be deeply, personally connected to that time, place, and/or culture.
For example, what if I wanted to set a novel in a school that was in the process of being desegregated? I went to grade school and high school in an extremely diverse community in the northeast. It was taken for granted when I was a kid that I’d have Hispanic kids, African American kids, Jewish kids, etc. in my class. Yes, I’ve experienced discrimination. I’ve dealt with people who were shocked by the fact that I am Jewish. I’ve lived around people who believed that my epilepsy meant I had been touched by the devil and those who thought depression was just something I should be able to “get over.” I’ve been excoriated for my views on abortion. But none of that occurred in my formative years. I’ve lived in the contemporary Midwest and Southwest, though not the South.
Because I didn’t grow up in the culture, or even in what remains of that culture, writing such a story with an authentic voice would require an immense amount of work. The facts are the easy part. Anyone can go to the library and grab a book on the history of the time. But what did it feel like for the African American kids who were walking into formerly white schools? What was the first impression they had walking in the doors? What happened when the school day was over? How did going to that school change their neighborhood and their relationships in it? And what about the white kids? What are their memories? And the teachers? And the area around the school? What was it like to go from their homes to their classrooms? What changed in the whole community? How was it before the change, and how after? How many years did the change take? What was it like having a huge audience for everything you did? I’d need to know the sights, sounds, smells… There are a million questions I’d need answers to before I could even begin to come up with a realistic setting, realistic characters, realistic emotional depth.
Of course, you don’t have to do the work. You could choose to be Disney. To be mocked for producing utterly unrealistic depictions of every “real” character you write and only lauded for the ones that are completely imaginary. You, too, could write a ridicule-worthy version of Pocahontas, but why would you want to?
I get that World War II carries a substantial emotional wallop. It’s tempting to set your story there because it automatically adds heft. It makes your story seem “bigger.” But if you’re going to do that, you’d better have at least some kind of emotional and cultural connection. You don’t have to be Jewish (though if you’re going to write about Jews during the Holocaust, it would certainly help), or Japanese, or German…there’s no one right connection to have. But you should have a tie that calls to you. And then write from that tie. Don’t have one? Go find a synagogue and spend some time going to services. Get to know the people in that community and listen to their stories, their ancestors’ stories. Sit with their families. Eat their food. And while you’re doing that, read the history books so that the history comes to life for you in the way it has for people who live with it. Learn the facts, but also immerse yourself in the culture.
Or maybe just rethink the whole idea of writing a WWII Nazi romance.