Monday 22 February 2016

Past tenses and the first person in Girl in a Smart Uniform

I started writing this originally in third person close. Even though I’d seen it as a young adult novel and first person is often used successfully for these, I’d opted for the close third person so that the reader may more enjoy the growth with the main character. The story takes place over three decades.  And that is where it became a little problematic.
I feel the reader does need the explanation as to why protagonist Gisela Schmidt becomes so enamoured of the Nazi doctrines. Some of it lies in the poverty and anxiety caused by what happened in the 1920s and 1030s. So, originally I started the story when she was a very little girl in the 1920s. The problem then is that the voice is too young for the perceived reader. So, I switched to first person, with the older brother Eberhard, nicknamed Bear by Gisela, telling this story.    
After a chat with an agent, I knew I had to start the story when Gisela is about to join the BDM, the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the girls’ version of the Hitler Youth. Bear fills in some back story later as he waits to take part in raid on a Russian village. 
Initially I chose for both of them what I call the immediate first person. This has only just happened and one young person is relating the events to another, partly in an attempt to understand them better. This wasn’t working as the story covers 22 years, even though  Gisela only tells us about 15 of them. 
Because I’ve now abandoned the “First person immediate” I’m asking myself whether this is in fact young adult novel at all. Even if it is read by young adults it may be equally palatable to older readers.
I do believe, however, that when the novel ends, Gisela does not know what is going to happen next. She has told us how she has got to that point. Right at the very end, then, I revert to first person immediate. I won’t quote the words here as that will create a spoiler. However, there are some examples below that don’t cause spoilers.

23 March 1932

. Herr Silber kept saying he would buy me the uniform and Kurt thought it would be a good idea. Bear, though, said I would have plenty of time for those sorts of things later. Mutti just smiled and shrugged her shoulders every time the subject came up. Anyway, back then, I wasn’t sure I was than keen on creepy crawlies and sleeping outside. I wished, though, that I could enjoy things like Thomas did.
(Note the addition of “back then”.)

7 September 1932: girls in smart uniforms    

I hated school that year. I’d really liked it up until then. I liked learning new things and I’d even liked everything Herr Lindemann had told us about how Germany would be glorious again one day. School had been so cosy and nice before. I always did well in class.
(“That year” takes us further back and implies that Gisela is now over these things)

23 March 1933

The crisp white shirt felt smart and very grown-up. The skirt fitted perfectly. Even the shoes were exactly right and they smelt of new leather. I pulled the little jacket on and then looked in the mirror again. Goodness, I looked so much older. The skirt came half way down my calves. How elegant! I didn’t know how to do up the neckerchief, though. I fiddled with it for a few moments but couldn’t make it look right.
(She is looking back in this scene – we don’t see her put the uniform on. There is a hint of reflection)
This was all lovely. It was so good to be praised for looking smart. The other girls did seem nice, even if Tabitha was a little strange. It all sounded quite good. I found myself looking forward to meeting the rest of the pack. Reluctantly I had to admit I must thank Herr Silber for that. 
(Very firmly in a distant past)

20 April 1933: great expectations

It really made me squirm sometimes. In the early days when Herr Silber used to stay over I didn’t understand what was happening. Strange noises would come from Mutti’s room. Groans and screams and the bed sounded as if someone was using it as a trampoline. It used to scare me and I thought he was murdering Mutti. I used to hold my breath and hope it would end soon. I sometimes wondered whether I should go in there and try and stop them but I was worried that Herr Silber might try and hurt me as well. Besides I didn’t like the way he looked at me sometimes or the way he touched me.
(“It used to”. “would” “in the early days” all imply distant past.)