My editor for Teddy’s War, my new novel about World War II, returned her edited version of my manuscript on Tuesday. Yea! She and I then talked (on the phone; stay-at-home rules plus our usual coffee shop meeting place is closed) for 3 hours on Tuesday afternoon, 5 hours on Wednesday, and an hour on Thursday morning, working through a list of questions that she had written down regarding specific words, sentences or paragraphs in the text. She also had some questions about the story itself, usually regarding how much a reader was going to understand or appreciate the information I was using.
Here's a survey: if I use the terms in the context of World War II, how many of you know what a grease gun is? What a deuce-and-a-half is? Who Sad Sack was? Who Willie and Joe were? Can I use those terms without explaining what they mean or who they reference?
When we were done, she created a pdf of the file and taught me how to use the “notes” feature in the pdf reader to indicate changes that I would like to see. Following this, I launched a marathon editing session of my own that eventually involved almost 25 hours over the next three days of my going word-by-word through the text, making changes for correctness, conciseness, smoothness, and completeness. I made three passes through everything, including one pass where I went backwards through the chapters.
I finished with about 100 changes to be made, which, using the “notes” feature, will take my editor less than an hour to put into her Word file. I deleted more words, phrases, and sentences than I added. In my mind, at least, the resulting manuscript will be near perfect in both content and structure. I am very happy with the effort that she put into it, her final result, and my final result. The book reads much better than what I had initially written. It is a helluva story.
The next step is the publisher transferring the final Word file into Quark, which is publishing software; reformat the text for appearance, including page size, text size, font type, pagination, page numbers, and special features (like italics, underlining, different margins); add in the front pieces – title page, copyright page, blank pages; and then put the cover on it, including the front page with title and author, and the back page, with the text, bar code, and pricing.
The next time I see the book, which may be a month or two, I will be able to hold it in my hand. That will be the “proof” of the novel and I will review it for any printing errors. I’ll return it to the publisher and he will incorporate it into his final publishing file and give it to the printer. He’ll then notify the distributor that it’s ready to sell.
The editor and publisher have asked that the book include two special, back-of-the-book features: an interview with the author (me!) about writing the novel and a list of questions that can be used for book clubs. This is exciting to me because it sounds like they consider my book worthy of the features and also that there will be an audience who will appreciate the features. I will work with my editor to create these.
The bad news for the month was the publishing schedule. The initial projection was that the book would be available on Amazon on November 1st. Whoa! This year is the 75th Anniversary of the end of the war in Europe (VE Day), the liberation of all the concentration camps, the end of the war in the Pacific (VJ Day), the Trinity Test, the dropping of the bombs, the Nuremburg Trials, the return of the soldiers, and a slew of other dates that celebrate the end of the war. Waiting until this year is over to publish a WWII-centered book seems like a disadvantage to me.
Ignoring the fact that COVID-19 may prevent many of the activities, I was expecting the book to be published by early summer so I could take advantage of the many military veteran activities, newspaper articles, magazine stories, and media reports that would occur. I don’t honestly expect to participate in these things, but I wanted to identify the people (especially the military) who were talking, hosting, or were heads of the organizations involved, and get them a copy of the book. I’m hoping that they will then talk about it to others who would be interested.
I wanted printed books to give them, not a sheet telling about a book that wouldn’t be available for several months.
The problem, by the way, is not the publisher or the printer, but the distributor. The book distributor is an organization that front-ends the publishers to the sellers. Amazon and Barnes&Noble, for example, don’t buy books from the publisher, but from the publisher’s distributor. Distributors work on their own schedules that define when books are released to the sellers.
I expressed my concerns with my publisher, who negotiated with the distributor, and the publisher has decided to print the book by sometime in July and have it available for preview, give-away, and selling-by-hand before the books become available from seller outlets on September 1st. That’s three months earlier and I can live with that. Given COVID-19 slowing down businesses everywhere, no one will be surprised.
The problem with my living in a “socially distant” society is that my creativity goes to zero. I’m not sure if it’s directly related to being forced to be “socially distant” because I’ve always been relatively that way, but being forced to stay away from people and places (especially places to eat) is feeling vastly different from it being a simple choice on my part.
Being isolated is not the same as feeling isolated. I rely on seeing life to write stories about it and if I’m prevented from seeing (touching, talking, hugging, listening, sharing), it’s as if I’m waiting for someone to restore my password or something. Just waiting. Not working, not thinking, not feeling like I’m on a vacation, not using the time to dream – just waiting. It’s not freedom or extra time off. It’s like being constantly reminded that I’m boring.
The Tucson Festival of Books was canceled so verbally selling my books at large gatherings remains to be tested. My regular meetings of the New Mexico Book Association have been canceled. The New Mexico Book Co-op meetings have been suspended. My regular writers’ group in Albuquerque is also on hold.
The community of writers that I like being part of is trying to convince itself that we can still socialize and support each other without physically being around each other. I don’t think it’s going to work. Even if you don’t overtly visit with individuals, there is a connectedness that develops when you’re surrounded by a group of people with similar interests. I don’t think having an “electronic closeness” will satisfy us.
There have been some positive things happening.
My novel editor, whose regular job is being a high school teacher, is at home for a while (NM schools are closed for three weeks). I’m expecting her edit of Teddy’s War may be completed by the end of next week, so I’ll be getting back to it. A preliminary book cover has been developed and I think it looks great. Wait until you see the historical photograph that was used.
I’m working on the tenth Mogi Franklin mystery, called The Death Train. It features the Castaneda Hotel in Las Vegas, New Mexico, with a bank robbery and murder happening in 1942. The plot is tied up with the troop trains that were used during World War II to move soldiers around the country. I wrote it two years ago but was not satisfied with the plot and put it on the shelf. I’m now rewriting it for publication sometime this year. I’m not sure what to change to make it on the par with the other mysteries, but I’m working on it.
I am continuing to read books about the Santa Fe Trail and have made the commitment to drive the trail in the fall. It should be a lot of fun. I’ll take two or three weeks to hit all the good spots and I’m planning on using a small RV to make the drive, rather than staying in hotels and buying every meal. I’ll keep a daily journal and will self-publish a cheap travelogue about the trip that will guide other travelers. Next year is the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the Santa Fe Trail and there should be a heightened interest for learning about it.
I’m going to the yearly Tucson Festival of the Book next week, held at the University of Arizona. It’s the third biggest book festival in the United States. I’ve not attended before and it’s not clear how or how long I will be involved. Saturday and Sunday will have talks, classes, presentations, interviews, round table discussions, and panels, plus a large venue where individual guests, writers, authors, publishers, sellers, distributors, librarians, bookstore owners, representatives from big box stores and other organizations can visit with authors, writers, and publishers, and buy books.
My role is to be at a table full of books for sale, amongst which will be three of my own – The Lost Children, The Lady in White, and Outlaw. Each serves as an example of the Mogi Franklin Mystery Series. The table is hosted by New Mexico Book Association officials and will feature books written by the members of the NMBA in Santa Fe. I am a member and I have volunteered to be at the table and talk with people who stop to peruse the books.
I’m betting that shaking hands will be discouraged; I will have to remember to take disinfecting hand wipes.
I will have five copies of each Mogi Mystery at the table, with more copies in the trunk of my car. I can sell each copy (NMBA handles the money) but I prefer to use them to illustrate the form, function, plots, characters, and types of stories used in the series, and then give away lists of all nine Mogi books, with addresses of the distributor and publisher.
I expect to not sell a single copy of any of my books, and expect that no one will be interested in ordering them. Not that the Festival is a worthless trip, but I have been to other venues for selling my books and most of the buyers that I meet, other than random individuals, will be accustomed to buying books recommended to them by national organizations like the American Library Association; the six major publishers (Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin USA, and Simon & Schuster); bookstores like Barnes& Noble; or follow recommendations from best book lists (like the New York Times Best Seller list), Goodreads, BookBub, Amazon, and the million book bloggers and/or book reviewers who put out suggestions.
In short, an individual author with a hang dog expression, standing next to a table of typically unremarkable books, holding a never-heard-of book in his hands, doesn’t stand a chance.
Unless the prospective buyers actually stop and talk.
My writing books, as well as other authors and publishers, tell me that personal contact is everything when you’re selling books. Not blogs, not websites, not fancy brochures, not business cards, not bookmarks, and not even the cover or the blurb on the back of the book, is as effective as an author personally telling someone about their book. That’s why I will develop and rehearse a short (under a minute) paragraph about my books – what makes them different from other middle grade mysteries, why they are good to read, and why middle grade students will enjoy them. I’ll also prepare a short paragraph about myself – how I got started, why I write for middle grade students, and what I like most about the series. After that, the buyers typically ask questions.
I’m not, and never have been, Mr. Warmth when it comes to talking casually with strangers, but I will answer honestly and directly, and then, hopefully, ask questions of my own – where the buyers are from, what kinds of books they are interested in, who their audience is, how they like to buy their books, and how successful they have been in the past with picking the right books. If I can make to that level, then my speaking to others will go okay.
And, to be honest, selling my books isn’t really why I’m going to the Festival, anyway. I’m going because I’m a writer and an author and I like to be around other writers and authors, and because I like to be around books and the book business. I like the excitement of people who have created books; I like their stories of how they did it; and I like being reminded that I’m a member of a community of people who write.
First Lt. James Vincent Pelosi flew B-17s and B-24s during World War Two, then flew cargo planes that shuttled food and supplies to the citizens of Berlin during the Berlin Airlift. In 2014, his son, Dr. James Joseph Pelosi, honored his father and the memories of other veterans by walking the route of the Allied Army from Omaha Beach to Berlin.
That’s 844 miles. He carried 38 pounds on his back – about what a GI would have carried during WWII - with a two-person tent, a poncho to put underneath the tent, a sleeping bag, an air mattress, a raincoat, first-aid kit, flashlight, a few layers of clothing and personal hygiene items, two pairs of socks to rotate and five days’ worth of MREs (army rations), with periodic resupply points along the way.
He wrote about his journey in 2017, publishing Normandy to Berlin: The Trek to Honor the Legacies.
I have the greatest admiration for the guy, who is an aerospace biomedical engineer in Houston and was 62 at the time. What an accomplishment! I read about him yesterday and woke up this morning wondering how much rental cars are in Europe. That’s a bad sign. But 844 miles is less than the height of Texas. For a Texan, it’s only a two-day drive.
The reason I was thinking about Europe was that my editor suggested that I be ready to give talks when my war-story book comes out. A local chapter of the Military Writers of America meets monthly in Albuquerque and I can see myself giving a presentation at one of their meetings. The local VFW meetings might also be a venue. I still don’t know much about the war, but my dad’s story would be resonant with many veterans, as well as children of veterans.
In anticipation of that, and out of curiosity, I took my dad’s itinerary and used Google Maps to draw a fair representation of his route from the time he landed in England to the time he boarded a troop ship in France to come home.
After the war was over, when he stepped onto familiar ground back in Ponca City, Oklahoma, he had been gone 3 years and 10 days. He had spent six months in the States, a year in England, and then, from stepping onto Omaha Beach to leaving Europe at the port city of Le Havre, he had spent 485 days in the middle of a war, traveling through France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Germany, and Czechoslovakia.
The map with his route is in the photo, with a larger version on the MogiFranklin website.
The letters on the map tell more of the story:
A – He spent 6 months training in Florida, then left Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, on board the Queen Mary, on June 23, 1943 and arrived in England (probably at Portsmouth or Southampton) on June 30.
B – He was in England from June 30, 1943, to June 27, 1944, working as an operator of a truck-based aircraft detection radar system.
C - He landed at Omaha Beach on July 2, 1944, and set up his radar system a few miles away, just south of Point du Hoc, next to a temporary airfield created by Army engineers (AF-2).
D – The “breakout” from Normandy occurred around August. His unit followed the First Army out of Normandy, helped them celebrate in a just-liberated Paris, turned north into Belgium and Holland, then back into Belgium. He was in Bastogne from October 29 to December 19, when the Germans began the Battle of the Bulge. The irregular loop on the map shows that his unit stayed close, but not too close, to the front line.
E – After the battle ended in January, 1945, he was linked to the Third Army (Gen. George Patton) as they fought their way into Germany, from January through April, 1945.
F – He moved into Czechoslovakia on May 1, and was there when Germany surrendered on May 8.
G – During the Allied Occupation period after the war, he spent 3 months at the 86th Replacement Depot in Darmstadt, then was stationed at the Furstenfeldbruck Air Field outside of Munich when he received orders to go home.
H – It took a 24-hour bus ride to get from Munich to the port city of Le Havre, but I bet no one complained. He waited a week to board his troop ship.
I – I believe that one of the things he did during that week was to take an Army-sponsored excursion to Mont St. Michel, which was about 3 hours away. A photograph shows he was there.
J – Finally, after 485 days from when he landed on Omaha Beach (about 30 miles away), he boarded a ship in Le Havre and, 178 hours later, walked down the gangplank into New York City on November 16, 1945.
He made it home at 4:00 in the morning on Friday, November 23rd, 1945, just in time for Thanksgiving. His war was finally over.
On Saturday, between viewing short movies at the Santa Fe Film Festival and meeting friends for dinner, I had several hours of free time. True to my nature, I ended up in downtown Santa Fe, looking in the windows of the shops and galleries around the Square and being inspired by the talented potters, painters, weavers, sculptors, jewelers, photographers and other craftspeople who display their works. Some people create incredible art!
I went to the Collected Works bookstore and found two books that I could not resist. One is a storybook about two frogs for my granddaughter, and the other is Thunder and Lightning, Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft, by Natalie Goldberg. Natalie is a world-renowned writing teacher, as well as being the author of several well-known and successful writing books. She lives in Taos, about 90 minutes from my house, and travels around the country hosting writing seminars and classes.
I finished her book this afternoon and am encouraged. Natalie is dedicated to dealing with the emotions experienced by writers and poets as we attempt to reproduce on paper what we see, hear, and feel in our minds. It’s all touchy-feely stuff, but I’m a touchy-feely guy, so I pay attention to her honest and witty guidance. She has great advice on the mechanics of writing fiction and nonfiction, and wants writers to be authentically centered so we can get over the cultural filters that inhibit our describing reality with clarity. I’ve read several of her books and this one is exceptional. Reading her books have made me a better writer.
I have a growing interest in the Prisoner of War camps that were created and maintained in America during World War II. There were about 700 camps in 47 states that housed a half-million prisoners from different European countries, including Italy, Poland, France, and Germany from 1943 to 1946. A local historian has recently written a couple of articles for the Los Alamos newspapers about POW camps in New Mexico and it’s made me want to know more. It’s fascinating to hear the stories. I mention the camps in my upcoming book, but know little about them. Once I get a break from more prioritized reading, I’ll order a few books from Amazon and see what I can learn.
While surfing Amazon this week, I found a book describing the Allied need for combatting German submarines in the early years of WWII. It tells the story of a British officer and his team of 12 WRENs (the British Navy equivalent to our WACs), and their development of a “submarine game” to model the movement of U-Boats in the North Atlantic. The “gameboard” was the floor of a high school gymnasium where they set up a grid, drew in the countries that border the sea, and then moved “game pieces” around the floor that mapped the encounters of U-Boats with Allied ships. Using decrypted ENIGMA machine messages between the submarines and the German command, the team mimicked the movements, proposed and tested the strategies involved, and learned how to predict their behaviors. The game became successful and allowed the Allies to defend themselves against the U-Boats.
Devising a physical game to discover such important stuff sounded fascinating, so it’s now on my reading list.
This week, hopefully, I’ll also begin laying out the structure for my next novel. I know how it begins and ends, but haven’t the foggiest about what happens in between.
Changing my DonaldWillerton.com website is in the works and may start next month. I will be including the text of the first two chapters of each published book displayed on the website. There will be a button with each book’s blurb that will take you to a pdf-formatted text that you can read straight off your computer screen. I’m hoping that reading the set-up and the introduction to each story will entice people to purchase and read the whole book.
Each Mogi Franklin Mystery uses the first chapter to highlight a historically-authentic, fictional incident that results in an unsolved mystery during that time period. The second chapter introduces a story set in the present day and features my two sleuths, Mogi and Jennifer Franklin. They become involved in a mystery or social situation that requires solving the historical mystery to solve their present-day problem. It takes both the first and second chapters to see the whole plot.
For SMOKE DREAMS, the prologue, set in the Canadian River valley in 1870, plus the first chapter will be featured. The first chapter begins the story in the present day. Those of you interested in the Comanche and Cowboy history of the southern plains will like this book. There’s also a house that’s been possessed by a spirit who will keep you on your toes.
For THE KING OF TRASH, the first two chapters will introduce two parallel storylines that follow ocean-cleaning and homelessness until they suddenly join to become one crisis involving genocide and betrayal. Those of you who like moral conundrums will like this book.
For TEDDY’S WAR, the first chapter is essentially (and may yet be) a prologue to the story, while the second sets the stage for my main character’s journey through World War II. I’ll be recommending this book to children of WWII veterans (like me), to people interested in military stories, and to young adults who would like a good introduction to the European Theatre of WWII.
Other changes will include more photographs related to each book, especially of the San Juan River trip that I did in July, and the trip to London and Normandy that I did in October. I would like to increase the number of photos included in each section of the photo blog.
Meanwhile, waiting for the first edit of TEDDY’S WAR, I’m continuing to read WWII-related books (I’m hooked), some research books on the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, a few books on the Shroud of Turin, and guide books that describe the Santa Fe Trail.
Next year is the 200th anniversary of the opening of the Santa Fe Trail and I’m thinking that driving the roads along to the Trail would be a good and fun thing to do. The Trail officially starts at Boonville, Missouri, and terminates in Santa Fe. It’s about 800 miles by highway (a little more than 900 miles by wagon), and can be done fast or slow, depending on how many side trips, museums, gift shops, and viewing locations you want to stop at. The big thing is to see the wagon ruts that still remain along the trail and to hear tales of the early pioneers and traders.
The trip may also result in a new Mogi Franklin mystery that features the Trail, but I haven’t yet imagined a good plot. If I was smart, I’d get it written so that it was published in time for the Trail-centered events planned for the anniversary. The Santa Fe Trail Association should be hosting several.
I had to spend a couple of weeks decompressing from TEDDY’S WAR. I began writing the story a year ago and have spent a good portion of the time since then with my brain sitting in World War II. It was surprising how hard it was to stop thinking about Europe, my dad, the war, and concentration camps, and to get my mental state back to focusing on other literary things.
I’m sure that you’ve also seen newspaper and on-line references to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. April 29th is the anniversary of the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, which figures prominently in my story. There were several hundred other camps in Germany and other Nazi-occupied regions of Europe, so you’ll see more liberation anniversaries between now and summer.
On December 7th, I sent my publisher the FINAL draft of a historical fiction novel based on my dad’s itinerary during World War II. It is the story of one soldier’s journey through the war, set against the historical realism of combat, and is also a love story between the soldier, his girlfriend back home, and his brother. It’s about 100,000 words and almost 200 pages of text.
Three weeks later, on December 31st, I met with two editors to discuss their comments and suggestions. One editor was there to give his input early in the effort and then assume an advisory role; the other, Barbara, is the manuscript editor for the rest of the process. They recommended significant changes to the storyline, and I spent the next week revising and rewriting, then sent them a new FINAL FINAL draft on January 6th. I later regretted some of my deletions, added some scenes back in, and sent another draft on the 12th.
We met again on January 18th. They had a handful of suggestions, only one of which was significant: I used a third-person, omnipotent perspective for a scene that extended over four chapters, but had the scene being described by a character (the wife) as if she was repeating words provided by her husband, who has died. Looking at it closely, the scene had information he could not have known, told in a voice that was not hers, so that needed to be revised.
The editors have been reading and noting problems at the level of plot, situation, characters, themes, point-of-view, structure, design, and other high-level concerns. Once those concerns were addressed, Barbara would begin a word-level edit of the draft. She will tweak words or sentences or paragraphs, and will work through the whole manuscript before I get it back. She may ask questions or want me to revise a passage along the way, but, otherwise, I will not be part of the process until she’s finished.
Keeping myself out of the word-by-word edit is important. Imagine that Barbara goes through one chapter, word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence, straightening out the grammar, the spelling, the sentence construction, and clarifying (by reorganizing or rewriting my words) to make my story better. If I then take that chapter and change the dialogue, change the context, mess around with the characters, move words around, replace words, or such, she has a right to stand up and holler at me. It would be the same if she were the author and I was the editor; I would resent having my work negated.
My objective in talking about this is to show that there are steps in writing a book where the work of writing requires more discipline than creativity. For me, after the meeting on the 18th, the next draft was expected to be the FINAL FINAL FINAL draft and I would no longer make changes until after Barbara had worked through the whole thing.
With that in mind, I immediately went home after the January 18th meeting and spent another fifty hours making several hundred minor changes to the manuscript, to the point of not only reworking the first sentence of the story, but also the last sentence. Note that I didn’t change any of the high-level concerns that had been discussed with the editors and already addressed.
It was a good thing to do, but embarrassing. I’ve been working on this story for a year, and have gone through a dozen distinct drafts, each one supposedly better than the previous one, so making that many changes at this point in the game probably reveals a fundamental character flaw in my personality, as well as my craft. But the threat of not being able to freely make changes caused me to panic and I ferociously attacked the entire book.
Most of my changes were deletions – taking out unnecessary words, tightening up the dialogue, simplifying words and sentences, removing paragraphs, removing unnecessary scenes, taking out passages of information that get me all excited but the reader probably doesn’t want to read, and making the story simpler, clearer, and more authentic. I also made the characters more distinct in their speech and actions. One character is now definitely a bad guy, whereas I had previously left it up to the reader to decide; It didn’t take many words and it now reads better.
After a ton of work, the result is better story-telling with better writing, so I sent the FINAL FINAL FINAL draft to the editors on January 25th.
I hope I’ve done everything that I wanted because it’s now out of my hands. Barbara has, indeed, begun a word-by-word edit, and I am sitting idly by until she and I meet sometime in the future to review what she’s done. She has a full-time job in addition to being a book editor, so it will probably take a couple of months.
The reward in the system is that I know she will improve the story and the writing. She’s been my editor on several of the Mogi Franklin mysteries and I’ve always appreciated her style and guidance. The products have always been better for it, which is the purpose of an editor.
Today is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, January 27th, 1945, by the Soviet Army as it pushed from Russia into the German-occupied Eastern Europe. Auschwitz was not the first camp to be liberated; that would have been Majdanek, an extermination camp outside Lublin, Poland, in July,1944.
When my son and I visited the Imperial War Museum in London in October, we viewed a Holocaust Museum established in the back part of the building, on the 3rd and 4th floors, separate from the rest of the exhibits. It was two floors worth of pictures, artifacts, and video presentations (mainly interviews with survivors), but the thing I remember most was a model of the “reception area” of Auschwitz.
Taking up the full length of a long room, the model (buildings, trains, train tracks, figurines) showed how the trainloads of people were received at the train station, unloaded, and then herded down a long path next to the train tracks. The able-bodied workers would be diverted through one gate that led to processing rooms and barracks; the not-as-able-but-still-able workers and the women would be diverted through the next gate, leading to processing rooms and barracks; then another gate, and another gate, the last being the gate through which people would be herded into a processing room (to take their clothes and belongings) and then marched directly into gas chambers. The crematorium to burn their bodies were behind the gas chambers.
It was like a meat processing plant.
When Auschwitz was liberated, they found 800,000 women’s outfits, hundreds of thousands of men’s suits, and more than 14,000 pounds of human hair (used to make industrial felt). At Buchenwald, there was a bin of thousands of pairs of baby shoes.
Between 1943 and 1944, an average of 6,000 Jews were sent to the gas chambers EACH DAY at Auschwitz. In total, across all the camps, about 6 million European Jews, about two-thirds of the Jewish population at the time, were murdered during the Holocaust.
The Jews were not the only targets. The Third Reich’s master plan included anyone in Eastern Europe and Western Russian who were not descendants of the Aryan Race, including the Poles, Slavs, and Russians. Six million Poles were murdered; four million Soviet troops; eight million Russian citizens; and the list goes on. The intention was to destroy most of the native inhabitants of the lands so that Germany could resettle the lands with Aryan descendants. Any remaining natives would become serfs to the German landowners.
How did they murder so many? By design. The lead editors of the Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-45 of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Geoffrey Megargee and Martin Dean, cataloged some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe, spanning German-controlled areas from France to Russia and Germany itself, operating from 1933 to 1945. They estimate that 15 million to 20 million people died or were imprisoned in the sites.
How could all of this happen? How could Hitler and the whole nation of Germany become a society based on irrational hate?
Hitler and the National Socialist Party (the Nazi Party) were elected to power. They did not overthrow the previous government. When new elections were held, they controlled the media, controlled their message, whipped the populace into fanatical rallies, and played dirty with their adversaries. After getting into power, they made it illegal to oppose the Nazi Party. The first concentration camp at Dachau was established in 1933 by Heinrich Himmler to hold “political prisoners”, who was anyone who opposed the National Socialist Party. Within a year, almost every city and village in Germany had at least one of their citizens imprisoned at Dachau, having been arrested for “opposing the government” or for “disturbing the calm” of the rest of the population.
The purpose of the camp was expanded in 1934 to include the “racially undesirable elements”, such as Jews, Gypsies, Serbs, Poles, disabled people, and criminals. Later on, it included Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and Catholic clergy.
Dachau, at the end of its 12th year, had held 200,000 people and had murdered 41,000 of them.
This is a day to remember.
The last six weeks have been exciting. I had a wonderful Christmas with all my kids and grandkids; ripped out 800 sq. ft. of carpet and helped lay a new engineered vinyl plank floor (with new wall paint, trim, baseboards, and rugs; the two rooms look fabulous); stayed cosy with my fireplace roaring during a few snowstorms; started and finished three books, including my customary how-to-write book; began researching my next writing project; and made progress in getting my current novel into the publishing cycle by submitting a finished manuscript to my editor.
Working with my editor has been unusually productive. It’s always uplifting to get a professional to read and critique something that I’ve worked long and hard on creating. As much as it makes me risk looking like an amateur and ruining my day, it gives me a solid opportunity to revise my manuscript into a better story. Working solely on my own makes me too used to seeing the words but not their effect.
From a meeting right before New Year’s Day, my editor’s suggestions brought several changes: I deleted more than seventy pages of what my editor thought was an unnecessary distraction from the main story; changed how I presented more than half the book; changed my character’s family name to sound more Norwegian, since they came from Norway; added violence to one scene; and expanded two characters to have darker and more dramatic personalities. Wow. It took rearranging things, but resulted in a stronger presentation of the plot, a better framework to involve the reader emotionally, and gave the three major characters more involved, and interesting, relationships. And made it more believable that the family came from Norway.
The good news is that she didn’t have any changes to the descriptions, actions, and scenes of my character’s journey through World War II, which is more than half of the book. She may when she does her word-level edit, but she was impressed with the vitality and energy of my war-time presentation. I feel good about that.
I sent my editor a version of the manuscript with the changes last week, and then another one yesterday. I restored a few pages that I had taken out (I deleted too much needed character development), threw a plot twist into one of the most significant scenes, and added more drama. My next meeting is this coming Saturday and I’ll see how much she believes her suggestions improved the story.
I started this novel in March by creating what, in the movie script world, is called a “treatment”. It’s like writing a short story with the beginning, the end, the middle, the storyline, the characters and their relationships, the settings, actions, and scene progressions that I expect to use in the longer work. I find it more beneficial than using preliminary outlines or summaries.
My twenty-thousand-word short story used the structure and mechanics of the longer story, and developed enough of the various points of view, narrators, and dialogue to give me a feeling of what the reader would see. My treatment “told” the story rather than “showed” the story, which requires a lot less words. I used examples of what the text would look like instead of writing the actual text. The resulting short story was terrible, but it served its purpose by anticipating what the full story would look like.
I even shared the treatment with other people to see if the story worked, and received good feedback.
Several months later and after a dozen or so drafts of the full manuscript, what I have still models the short story, but has almost 100,000 words, which is a good size for an adult novel. Visiting London and Normandy, by the way, made a significant difference to my story.
Beginning with the treatment and then using an incremental approach to writing made it easier to adopt my editor’s suggestions without feeling like my work was being ravaged by an outsider. The edits did require me to change my mental vision of the story (the “movie” I saw in my mind) so it took some mental effort to reorient how I felt about the story, and especially to get used to changes in my characters; I’d lived with most of them for months and making them different was like meeting someone I didn’t know.
My level of enthusiasm for the book has jumped significantly in the last two weeks. My characters behave more authentically, have stronger emotional connections with the reader, and I see that some unexpected things have come to light – underlying motifs, evolution of values and perceptions, a beginning-to-end journey instead of several disjointed actions, and a creative ending that has both power and resolve. I’m pretty sure that I’m not smart enough to have planned those from the beginning, so I’m happy to see the complexity show up.
I’ve missed doing a blog for a couple of weeks but it hasn’t been from neglect. I’ve been busy.
I submitted a final draft of my new book to my editor on November 5th. I also sent it to a couple of readers, and proffered a copy to a person here in town who had done a factual review of a local military history book, to see if she would be interested in reviewing mine. My book is an adult-sized 100K word, 200 page historical fiction novel. Most of the book is set in World War II. The main character experiences a number of significant events: initial training in Florida, a year’s training in England, D-Day and the invasion of Normandy, the Breakout, Paris, Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge, crossing over into Germany, a Task Force sent behind the front lines, the end of the war in Europe, the Occupation Army, dealing with the Dachau Concentration Camp, and the return home.
In short, I covered a lot of the war.
I wanted confirmation that I used the historical World War II events and facts correctly. I want to be right in what I’ve written because I’m sensitive to being roasted alive for getting it wrong. I know the book is fictional, but it’s historical fiction, which makes it a different animal. Historical fiction uses a situation from history as a basis for a fictional story, but readers expect that the historical events are basically true. Some readers can be truly hostile if they’re not.
I’ve seen several situations where someone knowledgeable in history blasts the author for making simple mistakes – wrong names, wrong weapons, wrong vehicles, wrong time of the year, wrong vegetation, wrong clothes, wrong food, even the sun being in the wrong place – you name it and the author gets burned by the righteous. Sometimes in public, and sometimes loudly in public. It’s not what any writer wants.
I want to be right. The book isn’t nonfiction but I want to be correct where I can be.
I couldn’t find a historian qualified and willing to review a book that addresses the whole war. My next approach was to find the sources for all the facts that I did use. Obviously, I wasn’t in WWII, I wasn’t an operator on an SCR 584 aircraft warning radar, I didn’t fight in any of the battles, I didn’t live among combat soldiers, I have never dug a foxhole, or cowered in one because an enemy was trying to shoot me. I have not visited Dachau Concentration Camp, gone on a Task Force behind enemy lines, gone cross country in Bavaria to escape German patrols, or ever eaten C rations. Well, wait a minute. I have eaten C rations but it was long enough ago that I don’t remember anything beyond the crackers and the can opener.
Anyway, I haven’t done the things on that list, but I have read about all of them, in some form or fashion. I believe I know enough and am skilled enough that I can write about it with confidence and authenticity. But proving that I know what I’m writing about is something else, and that’s the purpose of my finding source materials to support it.
I think I’ve done a good enough job. See the picture. That’s my office during the last two weeks. There are 28 books, most of which I have read cover to cover, while the others I have skimmed for what I needed; 42 articles that I have printed off the web, all of which I’ve read beginning to end; I’ve used ten or more maps of the areas involved; and I’ve visited England, London, Normandy, the Allied beaches, Paris, a number of major museums, and one town in Germany whose cathedral was bombed by a B-17. Additionally, I had my dad’s pictures, itinerary and military papers.
When I finished, I had cited 137 instances in the book with a factual source for the associated piece of information or event, all the way to quoting from Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler. I had read all of the sources before I wrote the story but I couldn’t point to where. Now I can.
It took every day of two weeks to do it.
I am happy I did. I was surprisingly faithful to the sources, but still found several instances that needed a better job of conforming to the facts; I changed the structure of the book to make it read more in the moment; and I added a few thousand words to make the events more substantial. The major effect was that once I saw all the information sources together, I better understood the story I was trying to write and how the story should be told.
It is stunning to truly see the width, breadth, and depth of the vision that Hitler, Himmler, Goring and the other Nazi leaders were set on fulfilling. If my book can show that vision, if it can make readers understand the fundamentals of waging war, if readers can imagine the level of atrocities that happened and why, and comprehend the terrible consequences of what losing the war would have meant, I will have written a book worth writing.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.