Category Archives: History

Another Experience to Write From

Ship

Late last month a friend and I were discussing Mediterranean cruises that she was interested in taking. Today, there is a large selection of cruise ships in the region for her to consider, but my friend became really interested when I told her that I had sailed the Mediterranean back in the ‘70s. That, of course, was when ships were significantly smaller and there were a lot fewer of them.

The ship I was on, I explained to my friend, didn’t carry more than a couple of hundred passengers for the three-day cruise from Haifa to Pireaus with stops at Limassol and Rhodes. In fact, it was sort of designed as a half car ferry and half passenger ship. That was ideal for my family and I, as we were able to bring our car with us. I still recall, with vividness and a degree of trepidation, as it was hoisted off the pier by the ship’s crane, swung over and then lowered into the cargo hold. What a relief it was once our swinging car was safely on the deck below.

I bring this up, because I realized shortly after speaking to my friend that this experience will more or less fit into a story I began writing several years ago. I am still puzzled, in fact, as to why I didn’t think of applying this experience sooner.

Plus, there were a few other experiences from the ship that will not only enhance the story, but with a few revisions, will automatically resolve a couple of nagging loose ends.

The really nice aspect about the ship was that, even though it was technically a car ferry, we had our own cabin, there was galley with table service and real waiters and even a swimming pool. The water in the pool, I vividly remember would slosh back and forth as the sea became a bit rough. I was amazed at how rough the Mediterranean could get for such a relatively small sea. The crew even had to lower the pool’s water level a bit to prevent it from splashing on to the deck.

The most memorable part of the trip, however, was being able to visit the bridge while enroute – something I assume is forbidden in this day of hijackings and terrorism. I met the first officer, a rather hospitable fellow, who was in command, because the captain was in the sick bay, having slipped and fallen on a banana peel during port call.

There is a lot more I can add about this point-to-point trip, but will hold on to them until I can properly arrange them for the chapter or two of the story I have set up. As I keep saying, personal experience, at least for me, seems to make the best contributions to my stories, as I can actually picture the experience, complete with the reality of the detail.

 

Are Writers Crazy?

possesed

Why do I write? Why do I allow myself to agonize over typing words onto this laptop screen? I really don’t know. But it seems that I need to do it.

It can’t be because I’m hoping to get rich by doing this. Let’s face it; I’m sixty-three years old. According to Amanda, who heads our Twisted Writers writing group, you need about ten titles out there before you really start to see a significant amount of money from your efforts. I’ll never get ten books out at the rate that I write. I’ll be about eighty or so by that time. Closer to ninety most likely.

So, why bother? Why put up with the writer’s block that makes me want to scream, sometimes. Why drive myself crazy from the pressure of trying to finish a novel or a short story? Why do I subject myself to the indignity of hoping that someone likes what I’ve written? I don’t know, but I seem to like it.

It doesn’t really make sense. There are more reasons not to do it than to do it. When I’m trying to write and the words just aren’t coming it can put me into the sourest of moods. And so I stop and then I’m in a lousy mood because I’m not writing. It’s like I’m out of my mind.

But when it’s working and the thoughts are flowing out onto the white surface in front of me then all is right with the world. You may not be able to tell by looking at me as I write, because I may look the same as I do when I’m in a bad mood. But it’s different. This time it’s because I’m not here. You only see my body. My mind has passed over into another plain of thought. You should never bother a writer when they are in this mental state. It’s like waking a sleep-walker. It can be dangerous. You never know what they’ll do! Again, it’s like being out of your mind.

So, I have to ask myself that question again. Why do I want to do this? Is it because I am out of my mind? So, is that the answer? Are all writers, nuts?

No. I don’t think so. I actually think that we have to write to keep from going crazy. We are people with vivid imaginations. We have characters in our heads and even entire worlds and stories about it all that have to be let out. If we don’t…then we start going crazy.

Of course, having people in your head who need to come out may very well be one of the definitions of what crazy is!

So, okay. Maybe we are a little off. But walk into a library or a book store and look at all that great stuff written by all of those lunatics. It’s a good crazy. With the condition that the world is in, maybe everybody should sit down and let all of their stories out of their heads.

The Future of the Past

Pluto

Several Fridays ago I mentioned my aborted attempts at writing science fiction, which I am reminded about with this week’s news that the photo-snapping New Horizons spacecraft has reached, and even passed, Pluto.

Back in the 70s, when I was in grade school, I remember studying the planets. We had already reached the moon with Apollo and had sharp, clear pictures of it. And, other than earth, of course, we didn’t have pictures yet of the other planets. But, we had some fairly accurate depictions of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

Pluto, however, was so far away and beyond even the most powerful telescopes available at the time that pictures of the then-“planet” were a bad guess. In fact, the diagram of planets that I had hanging in my bedroom showed Pluto to have surrealistic stone arches, similar those near Moab, Utah. And, who would have thought it would be binary and that such a small body would have moons. We didn’t have a clue.

Today, however, it feels as though we are living in a new age – a dramatically different age. In many ways, life today has surpassed our predictions and future perceptions from the 70s and 80s.

Digital photography, with this week’s flyby of Pluto, has brought home most of the larger bodies orbiting throughout our solar system. Notice that for Pluto’s sake, I didn’t use the word “planets.”

Short of “warp speed,” the velocity of space travel with New Horizons, according to NASA, has accelerated by eight fold since the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions. Pilotless drones have lowered the costs, increased the efficiencies and reduced the risk of going to war. Cell phones have revolutionized communications, allowing teenagers and, yes, even adults, to never have to hang up on each other. Alternative energies, such as solar power, have gained efficiencies greater than we imagined 40 years ago.

I recall watching episodes of Star Trek, The Next Generation, where they used laptop computers about an inch thick that the show’s producers envisioned a couple of hundred or so years in the in space-flying future. It was amazing, I thought at the time, how small and thin computers could conceivably get. Of course, laptops now, barely two decades later are a quarter of an inch thick and have evolved, in many cases, into devises that easily fit into the palms of our hands.

The differences between now and 40 years ago are tremendous, which leads me to be overwhelmed as I attempt to predict the future 40 years and even just 20 years ahead.

So, what is next?

 

Operation Overlord: The Beginning of the End

D-Day Landing

 

Row after row of crosses and Stars of David at the Normandy American Cemetery and War Memorial mark the day, 71 years ago, tomorrow, that Allied Forces hit the beaches of northern France. But, reinforced by Germany’s “Atlantic Wall” fortifications, the beaches hit back.

While the D-Day Invasion was the beginning of the end for the nightmare of the Nazi Reich, the price paid in heroism and sacrifice by the US and other allies was tragically high. American forces landing at the beaches of “Omaha” and “Utah” lost more than 2,500 lives that day, while another 1,900 soldiers, sailors and airmen from Canada, Britain and at least another 10 allied countries were killed attempting to take the neighboring beaches, designated as “Gold,” ” Juno” and “Sword.”

The goal was to take the cliffs and bluffs, just a few hundred yards ahead, and to establish a beachhead. But, while most of the troops made it off the beaches, many, especially in the first wave of the invasion, didn’t.

It took two years of planning before 150,000 allied troops landed on those five beaches on that cloudy Tuesday morning of June 6, 1944. But, to read about it in an article or book does not do justice to the largest seaborne invasion in history.

Even having visited Normandy, beginning with Omaha Beach, as I did about 15 years ago, it takes a tremendous imagination to visualize the obstacles and challenges American and other allied troops faced as they stepped off their naval landing craft into the surf and rushed on to the sands of the Normandy beaches. Left in the open with no cover and the sea behind them, crossfire from bullets and shells from the cliffs ahead, as well as from the left and right flanks, weaved a ubiquitous net of death for many of those arriving in the first wave. Additionally, there were tens of thousands of tank traps and mines strategically placed by the Nazis over and under the sand to impede such an invasion.

My next stop was the coastal town of Arromanches, where the British had established a temporary pontoon port a week after the initial invasion to support and supply the D-Day invaders, who were already moving toward Paris. With a dozen or so of the giant pontoons, or caissons, still rusting and laying waste on the beach, the town’s invasion museum helped set the imagination on the massive logistical effort it took to tow the caissons one by one, across the channel from England.

Once in place, the port, referred to as a “Mulberry harbor,” landed more than 300,000 troop reinforcements, 50,000 vehicles and more than 100,000 tons of supplies. Considering this was all accomplished in the heat and confusion of war, how can we not be astounded and ever so grateful for the efforts and successes of the Allied Forces 71 years ago, tomorrow?

D-Day Caissons

 

Is There a Line to be Drawn?

For years I have considered writing a mystery with a crime or spy plot based on the 9/11 attack on New York’s World Trade Center towers. Even if I did have the time, however, I’ve never thought too seriously about it because I am concerned the plot would come across as being morbid or as though I was taking advantage of a horrific event. I mean, more than 3,000 innocents lost and nearly a decade and a half later I still have nightmare visions of so many of them jumping from the two towers.

Not that I have a shortage of story ideas (just a shortage of time to work on the half-dozen or so plots I already have sitting in my files), but this particular idea just keeps coming back to me like a boomerang.

So, the big question, at least in my mind, is whether piggy-backing on other peoples’ tragedies is fitting or appropriate?

My thinking, on a technical level, however, is that it seems as though fiction is best served with at least some reality for a point of reference. But, of course, this is one major heck of a point of reference.

By applying such a connection, such as a real-life event or of a noted individual, I figure readers can better relate to the story. For instance, I find it a lot more intriguing to read a story of fiction about World War Two, with at least some frame of reality, rather than a story about a futuristic U.S.-Russian nuclear exchange with people and events that may or (hopefully) may not ever exist. Although World War Two is fading into history, I grew up watching films based on the real-life war in Europe and the Pacific, along with knowing people who actually served in or survived the war.

And yes, I have not missed the irony here, at least on some level, between the tragedies of WWII and 9/11.  I’m just ignoring it until I can figure out what if any differences there really are.

While on a human level, I may be hesitant to write fiction based on the 9/11 tragedy, the subject in a practical sense, would open up opportunities for many plot possibilities and twists.

Of course, 9/11 could be viewed as just one of many examples. I am sure there are plenty of similar other instances, or am I just making a big deal of nothing?

Anyway, relevant or not, it’s been interesting sorting all this out in writing.

 

So Many Ideas…So Little Time

story ideas

Where do you guys get your story ideas from? There’s gonna be a lot of different answers, I know.

It could be a movie you saw, a book you read, a video game you played or even a dream you had. Or, of course, something that you experienced. There’s no right or wrong way. Whatever works! A lot of my stories come from history. Some, just pop out of my head. They’re swimming around in there, all the time. Just got to reach in there and grab one of the little buggers.

I got an idea for a story, once, by seeing a street sign. Out by me there are two roads that cross one another. One is Anita and the other is called Bourland. I saw the signs hanging over the street;  Anita Avenue and Bourland Road. Hmmm…Anita Bourland. What a great name for a character. I started running the idea around in my mind. Who could that be? It sounds like an old film star. Maybe she’s in an old age home. Yeah…she’s being taken care of by a young girl who works there who doesn’t believe all of the stories that Anita is telling her about the great old movie stars of the past. Now, I’m driving and I’m thinking about all of this. Such is the messed up brain of a writer. I got home and started writing it. It’s one of the many stories out on the back burner.

That’s the way it happens for me, sometimes. There are so many story ideas all around us that I can’t understand some of the things I see people asking in the writers sections of Facebook. “What should my character do for a living?” somebody asks. “I’m trying to think of a good idea for a story that I want to have take place in my home town. Any suggestions?” says another one. My favorite was one who wants to do a non-fiction, self- help, book. She says, “I’m writing a book called, ‘How to make a Million Dollars on E-Bay in 14 Days.’ Does anyone have any ideas on what I should put in it?”

I had to answer that one.

I said, “If you are writing a book called ‘How to make a Million Dollars on E-Bay in 14 days,’ and are asking US what to put in the book, then maybe you shouldn’t be writing a book called ‘How to make a Million Dollars on E-Bay in 14 Days.’ Because you obviously don’t KNOW how to make a million dollars on e-bay in 14 days.”

I did start the post with the words, “No offence, but…” I’m not all that bad a guy. But really, was that a bit too harsh? I don’t think so. How can anyone who calls themselves a writer be asking other people what she should write?

It’s got to come from you. Having ideas is actually a lot more important than knowing how to write. That part you can learn. Nobody can teach you how to have an imagination, however. I see two people arguing in a car and I see a story. A text message just came over their cell phone. The wife is angry because it’s a woman asking her husband about getting together. Uh…oh, busted. “Are you cheating on me?” she’s screaming as he’s trying to navigate through the traffic. I was sitting outside with my laptop one morning and sipping my coffee when I heard a motorcycle roaring by. I was annoyed at the racket at that time in the day and began typing a little snippet about a ‘bike rider who is screeching through a quiet neighborhood one morning and runs a stop sign. A car is coming and, well…you know. Yeah, I killed him. Felt good.

Sometimes I worry myself. My wife is from Chile and we spent a week down there on vacation. We were at a beautiful beach and I saw a girl walking into the water. My brain went into story mode. I imagined my character sitting on the beach watching the same scene. All of a sudden some men run up and try to grab her. He saves her and winds up getting tangled up in a story involving drug dealers and the white slave trade. I thought all of that just by watching a girl walk into the water. Is that even normal?

But that’s the way my mind works. It’s not always a good thing. It means that I have what OUR LEADER calls “popcorn kittens.” Ideas all over the place that aren’t complete. But boy, if I ever get to them all and finish them, I’ll have quite a body of work out there!

So much is going on around us all the time that a story idea should be easy. And if you can’t think of any fictional ideas than maybe non-fiction is for you. But if you need to ask others what you should put into your book about becoming a millionaire on e-bay, then maybe that’s not for you either. Maybe, just maybe…(Dare I say it?) you aren’t a writer. And that’s okay. It’s not necessarily a good thing to be someone who drives around talking to himself about a story idea he got after reading a street sign.

Writing History, Right

 

Noah

I’m a history nut. Historical non-fiction and historical fiction is what I enjoy reading most. When I read that stuff I expect the writer to know what he or she is talking about. I don’t think it’s too much to ask, is it?

I’m also an aviation enthusiast. My wife would replace the word, “enthusiast,” with the word, “fanatic.” I prefer the former. So being a fana…um, enthusiast, it’s another area where I expect an author to do their homework. Information is too easily accessible, today, to accept lazy writing. There is no excuse for having your characters going out to the airport and boarding a Boeing 707 when your story takes place in 1949. There were no 707’s in 1949. A quick Google search would have told you that.

Recently, I read a crime thriller. Something I don’t normally read. The bad guy works for the U.S. Government. The Government, as in many recent books and movies, were all bad guys. He enters the story flying an F-14 Tomcat. Now, okay, it’s a novel so I’ll forgive the fact that the Navy gave a civilian an F-14. My problem is when he lands. The writer says that he “engaged the reverse thrusters.” Reverse thrusters? On an F14? It’s a jet fighter not an airliner. Sorry, no reverse thrust on an F14. Am I being too much of a geek to expect that to be correct? I don’t think so. But he got away with it because 99.9% of the population doesn’t know an F14 from a Piper Cub. But okay, I’m just enough of a geek that it bugged me.

Now, like most writers, I tend to write what I like to read. My novel, ‘Jenny,’ is an historical piece that takes place in 1928 Texas. Obviously things were different then. It’s up to the writer to know, or at least find out, just how different. We’ve already established the fact that it’s no longer hard to do. I actually find the research enjoyable. I have a Model T Ford that plays a prominent part in the story and I did a lot of reading and Google searches on Model T’s. I like finding out things like the fact that the car’s gas tank was under the front seat. I love passing information like that on to the reader. I even watched a video by a guy who owns one. He showed how to start it. I got a kick out of that and worked it into the story.

And the history itself has to be right, too, of course. Not just the little details. If it’s 1928 you have to be careful that you don’t have your characters talking about something that happened in 1932. Make sure you don’t have them heading out to see ‘Gone With The Wind.’ That wasn’t until 1939. You have to do the research. I’m sure this scares a lot of people away from doing period pieces. It’s time consuming, that’s for sure. But, again, I like it.

But a writer can also have fun with history. Embellishment often works when doing historical novels. Putting your own slant to an historical event. In a great novel about the old west called, ‘Little Big Man,’ Thomas Berger decided to make George Armstrong Custer slightly insane. There’s no way to know if he was, or not, so he could do that sort of thing. He shoots down a bunch of other western myths, too. Terrific book. But even there, his history was on the mark. He just made use of a little artistic license, that’s all. (Which reminds me, mine is up for renewal, soon).

However, I don’t think you should mess with the facts as much as Noah’s biographer did (see cartoon). Then you’re leaving the historical fiction genre and moving into fantasy. If I pick up a book about ancient Rome and it starts with Nero pulling up in a limousine, I can be pretty sure that the writer didn’t do his research. Or that this is gonna be a really good story!