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History Through Fiction Short Story Contest

I graduated with my master's degree in history in 2012 and hopped right into the museum world. I found such a thrill giving tours, writing grants, studying artifacts, dusting dinosaurs... But the painful reality of museums is that the funding was lacking and my passions waned.

Now, over 10 years later, I realize I wasn't expressing my passion for history in the best way I could: writing. In my undergrad and grad programs, one of the most exciting things was picking a semester project and writing that term paper.

The same applied to my master's thesis (check it out here) and all of the smaller works I created that aligned with it. I absolutely loved writing and defending my research and writing.

Fast forward - something clicked in 2022. I realized that I could mix my passions for history with fiction. What a miracle! I could write the mostly unknown stories completely, filling in the gaps with my imagination that leans on truth. What did the historical figures say? What did the people who left behind little or no written record do?

Luckily, my intensive training and research of similar subjects can help a historical fiction author create a narrative that stays true to the story even when the major facts are all that is known. In the case of my historical fiction novel, THE RHINO KEEPER, I had to do this as the rhino keeper himself, Douwe, did not leave behind a journal. Filling in the gaps became inevitable and I could do so with the help of other primary sources: art, news articles, broadsides, and written accounts from witnesses of the one-ton queen of Europe, Clara the rhino, and her journey.

When I attended the Historical Novel Society of North America conference in June, I met a small publisher who aligned with my exact process. History Through Fiction publishes true stories that are fictionalized. You might think: "Isn't all historical fiction this way?"

The answer is no. Some historical fiction is simply based in the past - even the 1990s are considered historical to some! But History Through Fiction encourages readers and authors to delve a little deeper into the historical research side, while still creating compelling fictional narratives. We still get to feel the story while learning at the same time. Beautiful, right?

So they announced a short story contest earlier this year and I leapt at the chance to submit. In the past, the NYC Midnight contests I've submitted to choose your genre, action, and a word, with a very tight word count and 24hrs to completion. This is HARD! Especially when this histfic author got thriller!

History Through Fiction's guidelines were very straightforward: historical, under 4,000 words, many weeks to complete. Whew! A breeze in comparison. I had time to think, rewrite, edit, research.

So I stewed a bit about my topic and a story of memory came to me. I wanted to write about a treasure box, but not in my normal time period. I prefer the 18th century, and writing about it is no longer a challenge, it's a homecoming. I flexed my muscles a bit and took an instagram poll (though I cheated a bit - added the American Revolution to satiate my 18thc appetite!).

Would my readers like to find a box of artifacts from:

World War II - 32%

Space Race - 32%

American Revolution - 24%

A historic presidency - 11%

So what's a writer to do!? WWII and space were tied. So I slept on it, and the buried treasure story came to me.


“She’s here at last,” the old man said, pressing himself upward from the worn wooden chair. He’d moved it to the window in small shuffling turns an hour ago, anticipating the curator’s arrival.

“Time to let it go,” he said. “Well…some of it.”

The living room was nearly empty now, void of life despite the wobbling ceiling fan and its wheezing pulse. There were echoes of furniture: silhouettes low on the wall where the couches had been, divots in the soft beige carpet from the rolltop desk and coffee table. On the plaster walls were white squares where his few paintings had hung for decades. His children hauled his things away to his small apartment at assisted living over the past week.

What remained in the house he’d called home for fifty years was the humming refrigerator, a small burbling coffee pot, the lone chair, and the filing box on the floor. They’d left with his bed hours ago, leaving him to meet the curator alone. Remnants of Alexander’s memories were in the white cardboard box, closed for fifty years.

He had just moments before footsteps fell on the porch, and instead of rising in anticipation, he looked at his creased and age-spotted hands, wondering when he’d grown old. The box on the floor was bathed in sunlight. It practically glowed, dust motes radiating off of it. Alexander took a breath and turned up his hearing aids.

The doorbell buzzed, and Alexander opened the bungalow’s warm wooden door to the stranger, the curator whom he’d only met via phone.

“Mr. Jansen,” said the woman, dressed in high-waisted blue jeans and a soft green blouse. She removed her sunglasses, fumbling with her jangling keys and black designer bag. She smelled like sweet perfume and spearmint gum. He wasn’t sure he liked her. Too young to understand the things inside the box.

“Please, call me Alex,” he said, pressing his lips together in a half-smile.

“It’s so nice to meet you in person, Alex. Please call me Cassie.” She rubbed the bridge of her nose where her sunglasses left two oval dots in her makeup.

A beat passed in silence, Alexander sighed and motioned to the box.

“There’s your treasure, curator Cassie,” he said.

She smiled lightly and removed a pair of white gloves from her purse. She dropped to her knees near the box. Alexander kept his distance. Nothing inside was alive, but it certainly felt like it.

“When you called us, we were so excited,” said Cassie. “We understand the sensitive nature of your collection, Mr. Jansen. Erm, Alex.”

She donned her white gloves, lifting the first documents out.

“Tell me again, sir, how you were allowed to keep this?”

“These are my private records, not official US Army. My journal starts before we entered the salt mine in Altaussee to the day I saw the Ghent altarpiece again, two years ago, in Brussels. Probably the last time I’ll ever get on a plane.”

Cassie lifted a black and white photo showing a smiling young man with a filthy face in US Army fatigues, posing in front of the Ghent Altarpiece leaning on a cave-like wall. This was the salt mine of Altaussee, where Hitler’s stolen treasures were stored, waiting for the museum that never was.

“Last piece we took out, the altar. It was more than a mile in the mines, tucked away, deep in. I found it by lantern light, fingers nearly frozen. You don’t know dark til you know saltmine dark. And then, when you round a corner and a bronze or marble man towers over you after you’ve already seen the terrors of war, well… You’re just not sure if you wanna be above the ground or below it.”

“The things below won’t fire at you, at least,” Cassie said, thumbing through Alex’s journal.

“They loaded that place with bombs. Eleven hundred pound killers that were boxed in crates claiming they were marble. We got lucky. Would have destroyed it all, including us, if they’d have gone off.”

“How did you get it all out?”

“Man power. Will power. I couldn’t have ever see these things without bein’ there, poor farm boy from Kansas, and the deeper I went in the mines the more I realized it. I didn’t have no fancy museum degree like the real Monuments Men. I was ordered to help: uninjured, young, eager. I can’t tell you how many things I touched that even you, fancy museum curator, wouldn’t be allowed to without a pair of gloves and tweezers.”

“Do you remember the art?” Cassie held a photo to him, showing Alexander as a twenty year old, holding a painting of Madonna and child.

Alex took the photo, fingers ungloved, trembling lightly.

“I do, and I don’t. Things have a different meaning when they’re stacked in the dirt. Don’t matter if they’re priceless or not, felt no different than cleanin’ out a garage.” He handed the photo back.

“You said somewhere in your records you said you saw the ballerina painting, by Edgar Degas. A missing masterpiece.”

Alexander nodded. “I remember it because it was unusual. Most things were religious, see, and I’m not particularly religious. But that one was special. I hauled it out, alright, though I don’t think there’s a photo of it. Where it went, I’m not sure. We took out so many paintings.”

“Were any of them damaged?”

“Of course. Punctured, salt-stained, leaned into each other. But most of the masterpieces were fine - see, Hitler wanted them for his museum, and he wanted things perfect.”

Cassie nodded, bringing out more documents and photos, finally coming to a small wooden box at the bottom. Alex stepped forward. He had not opened it in so long.

“My friends and I made those,” he said. She opened the box, smiled. Inside were wooden carvings, small drawings, a set of dog tags stamped with ALEXANDER JANSEN. A piece of crystalized salt from the mine shone dully in the bottom, crumbling pieces of it sparkling. “We had long trips in the back of the truck when we hauled the artifacts. We carved what we saw, drew what was in front of us.”

A mockup of the ballerina painting, drawn in kohl on lined paper, was at the bottom of the pile.

“Alex, you cannot remember where it went? The ballerina painting?”

Alexander remembered the warm July day when they delivered the final load of looted art, and sighed. So many paintings had passed before his eyes, so many marble statues and pieces of armor, crates of objects all blended together, except the ballerina picture. It was clear, vivid, each paint stroke emblazoned in his mind’s eye.

“It was in the sunlight,” he said. “And the people of Munich who’d been hiding in their homes, the few that were left, came out to see it all. Threadbare kids, mothers with cheeks sucked in, gaunt. Few fathers were around at that point. They watched us, quiet as mice, seeing the masterpieces and crates unloaded. Like a free museum, like watching Hitler’s wealth bein’ put on the dirt in their neighborhood was a victory to them, y’see?”

Cassie nodded, standing to let Alexander take the wooden box. He rifled through it, taking the piece of salt in his hand. It was milky-clear, shot through with black.

“Little girls with no idea what a ballet class was, little boys seein’ statues of healthy bodies carved of marble when they’d had no real meals in months… Imagine their surprise at the stuff we hauled.” Alex paused.

“If you’d seen a pink ballet picture and had nothin’ left, knowin’ it was Hitler’s, knowin’ who fought and died for that thing, wouldn’t you think you had some claim to it? To make up for all you’d lost?”

The curator stayed silent. Alexander turned the salt in his hands.

“Belongs to them, all of it,” he said. “The people who lost things. Lost their youth, their limbs, their buddies, their families. Masterpieces or not, salt in my hands or in the ground of Hitler’s caves, don’t matter. Regardless of whose wall it hangs on anymore, regardless of when it was painted or made, those things we found have a more complicated story now. They belonged to evil, and the good guys fought to get them back.”

Cassie held out the wooden box for the Monuments Men to place his sole treasure, his piece of salt, back inside.

“I’ll see you in a week, Alex, when we come to interview you,” she said. “At your new place, yes?”

Alex hesitated, thinking. The hollow space on the wall where a painting once was gleamed in his peripheral vision.

“How about I come to the museum instead?” he said. “See your masterpieces.”

“That sounds great. It’ll take me a while to document your archive, but hopefully I can have some things on display before you come in,” said Cassie. She scooped up the box and Alex escorted her out. He clicked the door shut.

His grown children would be back soon for the last load of his belongings, to the new small apartment, where a painting of dancers graced the wall.

I submitted it in July, and got my scores back from History Through Fiction's contest in September. Here are the judge's scores:

57/60! For my first genre specific short story contest, I was thrilled to get this feedback.

Sadly, I didn't make the final cut, though all stories with a score over 53 were considered for finals. I am proud of this one, and feel reassured in my writing! Every writer needs good news!

It certainly won't be my last time participating in this contest, and I hope you enjoyed my story. Let me know in the comments what you think!

Until next time.

- Jillian

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