My becoming a writer had a lot to do with my growing up a reader.
I’ve read a great deal of reading novels, but there are a few fiction books that are my favorites. The Jack London stories The Call of the Wild, and White Fang; the Hardy Boy series; the Sherlock Holmes stories; To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee; The Green Hills of Africa, by Ernest Hemingway; A Separate Peace by John Knowles that I read in high school; The Lord of the Rings, by Tolkien that I read at least once a year in college; Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry; and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, which I read for the first time three years ago and have read twice since.
But The Old Man and the Boy, by Robert Ruark may be my number one. I read it in Junior High and probably have re-read it a dozen times. I’ve given it as a gift to several people, and will likely do so for my grandchildren. It is a book steeped in good sense, good education, respectability, honor, courage, humor, boyhood adventures, and full of poignant moments associated with growing up.
Robert Ruark grew up on the coast of North Carolina. As a young boy, his parent’s difficult marriage had him living for much of the time with his maternal grandfather, Captain Ned Adkins. Captain Adkins was many things, including being a pilot for ships that sailed the channels and shoals of the Atlantic coast near Wilmington. Ruark was a loner, but a gifted one, and he spent every hour he could fishing and hunting in the coastal country, under the tutelage of the Old Man, Captain Adkins.
After graduating high school, he enrolled in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, at age 15. He did not earn a degree in journalism but decided on it as his career. In the 1930s, he spent time in the US Merchant Marine, worked for small newspapers, then moved to Washington, D.C. in 1936 and was a copy boy for the Washington Daily News; a few months later, he was the paper’s top sports reporter. During WWII, he was commissioned an ensign in the Navy, and served ten months as a gunnery officer on ships running the convoys across the Atlantic and Mediterranean. After the war, he wrote columns for The New York Times, plus had articles in the Saturday Evening Post, Esquire and other popular magazines.
Then he went on a safari in Africa. He spent three months with legendary hunters, guides, and trackers in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanganyika. When he came back, he was firmly in love with Africa and would go on to become one of its most famous visitors. He became famous by writing Horn of the Hunter, Uhuru, and Something of Value, in the early 1950s, all based on his being in Africa, describing its past and present, and caring about what happened to it.
He became well-known when he began writing a series of stories in 1953 for Field & Stream magazine, entitled The Old Man and the Boy. The stories were mostly autobiographical, though technically fiction, the grandfather of the book being a combination of Captain Adkins and his paternal grandfather, Hanson Kelly Ruark. A collection of those stories came out under the same name in 1957. He would follow it in 1961 with a companion book titled The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older, which has similar stories that follow Robert after the Old Man’s death. Robert Ruark died in 1965 from liver problems brought on by too much alcohol.
I didn’t grow up on the coast of North Carolina, but I had a vast open country in the north Panhandle of Texas, where we could shoot rats at the city dump, go after prairie dogs outside of town, hunt rabbits along the riverbed of the Canadian River, and practice archery at the local archery range. As Boy Scouts, we went to Jim’s Lake and other hidden spots for camping.
Fishing was a little more difficult, but if we caught anything, we’d have to clean it, so there was a tradeoff. We always had the latest issues of Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, Herter’s catalogue, and copies of Hemingway’s Africa stories. Our rifles hung on the wall in our bedroom (one room with three single beds shored up with 2x4s) and I fletched my own arrows (put the feathers on) because we couldn’t afford the finished ones.
When I read Ruark’s stories of hunting and fishing, all under the wisdom of the Old Man, I thought it could be me, which made the stories a whole lot more interesting.
The important thing is that the stories drilled into me that true hunters obey the laws, help maintain the wildlife and each other, respect everyone no matter their color or social class, have high regard for honor, courage, and old men, and gave me the model of how granddads loved their grandchildren enough to help orchestrate the kind of world their grandchildren should live in.
Walter Gempp was head of the Berlin Fire Department on February 27, 1933. I expect that his day was pretty much the same as the day before, but he would be disappointed in how it ended.
Shortly after 9:00 that evening, the Berlin Fire Department received a message that the Reichstag building was on fire. The Reichstag building was where the German Parliament met. The Parliament, roughly equivalent to our Congress, had been meeting there since 1894. After the fire, it would not again be their meeting place until 1999.
Despite the Fire Department’s best efforts, most of the building had been gutted by 11:30pm, when the fire was put out. It must have been a very hot, very aggressive fire to have burned so intensely and so quickly. The reason became obvious when twenty bundles of unburned bundles of flammable material, used to start fires, were found. The fire was declared to be arson.
There was no need for much investigation because the culprit was already in hand: Marinus van der Lubbe, a twenty-four-year-old man wandering Europe as a drifter. He was later described as being a little deranged. He had been a member of the Dutch Communist Party, which he quit in 1931, but still considered himself a communist. An affidavit uncovered in July, 2019, indicated that not only had van der Lubbe been taken in hand before the fire was out, he was actually in hand before the fire started. A former member of the Nazi’s paramilitary SA unit witnessed that he and a group of SA members drove van der Lubbe to the Reichstag, where they found it already ablaze and then helped van der Lubbe feed the fire. His role continues to be debated even today.
Who actually started the fire (Herman Goring once bragged that he had done it) did not matter. All that mattered was that van der Lubbe was a communist. Watching the fire as it was being extinguished, the new Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler, recognized immediately that it was a “sign from God” and claimed that it was a Fanal (signal) meant to mark the beginning of a Communist Putsch (a violent attempt to overthrow a government). The government declared that the Communist Party would soon start large-scale pillaging in Berlin, as well as acts of terrorism against prominent individuals, against private property, against the lives and safety of the peaceful population, and that general civil war was to be unleashed.
By morning, the Preussische Pressedienst (Prussian Press Service) reported that “this act of incendiarism is the most monstrous act of terrorism carried out by Bolshevism in Germany”. The Vossische Zeitung newspaper warned its readers that “the government is of the opinion that the situation is such that a danger to the state and nation existed and still exists”.
I can offer up more excerpts from different sources, but let me summarize: the Reichstag fire was a turning point for Germany. The following day, February 28, German President Hindenberg, at Hitler’s request, signed the Reichstag Fire Decree. It was a one-page document that gave the president the power to take any measure necessary, without the consent of the Parliament, to protect public safety. It suspended most civil liberties in Germany, including the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right of free association and public assembly, the secrecy of the post and telephone, and the protection of property and the home.
Germany began an immediate persecution of communists. Thousands were imprisoned, including the leaders of the Communist Party of Germany, which was a legitimate political party in Germany at the time, and who had had 17% of the national vote during the last election. Subsequently, with the Communist Party so weakened, the next election, which was only six days after the Reichstag fire, the Nazi Party went from 33% of the Parliament to 44%.
On March 23, the Nazi Party was able to arrest enough of the Communist Party members of Parliament that the Enabling Act was passed. It gave Adolf Hitler the powers of a dictator. By July, all political parties except the Nazi Party had been declared illegal.
To summarize even further: on January 30, 1933, when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor, he asked the President of Germany to dissolve the Parliament and call for a new election. The Reichstag fire was on February 27; the Reichstag Fire Decree was issued on February 28; a new Parliament was elected on March 5; the Enabling Act was passed on March 23.
In two months, German went from a democracy to a dictatorship because of hysteria, panic, fear-mongering, inflammatory misinformation and untruths manipulated by the Nazi Party, endorsed by the government, and spread by the media. The Nazi Party did nothing illegal; it did all that it was allowed to do, then, once in power, changed the laws to allow them to do anything it wanted.
America must value truth, but truth takes time. We must value science, but science takes time. We must value each other, but it takes time to do the talking, the listening, and the understanding required to live together.
We need to not stop before the truth is revealed to be the truth whether it’s ours or not. If any part of America is denied a voice, the truth will never be complete, and those who became the dominant voice will never relinquish their dominance.
We must have freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom to gather, freedom to protect ourselves, our homes, and our property, and all those other rights that are defined under the banner of civil liberties.
Walter Gempp, the head of the Berlin Fire Department, who had personally directed the operations to put out the Reichstag fire, had most of those on February 27, 1933, and none of those on February 28, 1933. Consequently, when he presented evidence suggesting Nazi involvement in the fire, he was dismissed. He asserted that there had been a delay in notifying the fire brigade and that he had been forbidden from making full use of the resources at his disposal.
In 1937, he was arrested for abuse of office, imprisoned, and was killed in prison by strangulation on May 2, 1939.
I use a large format calendar to keep up with my activities. Each day has an inch-and-a-half square in which I write appointments, meetings, tasks, TV programs, and other things for the weeks ahead. This helps compensate for my poor memory and it works, if I remember to look at the calendar.
One of the best uses is during the last week of December. I review all the daily entries for the year and compile a list of the major events, projects, trips, people, milestones, accomplishments, and whatever else I’m prompted to remember. Having the list is encouraging and fulfilling; my list this year had sixty distinct entries. It’s nice to see how active I was, how much I accomplished, who I did things for, and if I had a good balance between, for example, days with some writing versus days with no writing.
My objective is not just to track what I did, but to have a way to judge that my life is busy doing something worthwhile rather than watching reruns of Bonanza. I’m old but I don’t have to act like it.
I expected a big impact from COVID but nothing, with one exception, was significant. I’m mostly a recluse so social distancing and staying at home was not hard to accommodate. Among the things I did miss was a trip to San Diego in the Spring, a trip to Germany in the Fall, and a trip to Costco at Christmas.
I also missed my restaurant lunches. I love to eat in restaurants with friends--you know, where you actually go in and sit down at a table and somebody brings you food? On plates that will break if you drop them? With tableware that isn’t plastic? Remember? With restaurants closed, ordering take-out and eating in the front seat of my pickup severely cut back on any semblance of a real social life. Which reminds me: I need to clean the front seat of my pickup; I’ll put that on my new calendar.
Nonetheless, I did publish one book this year – Teddy’s War – and I have another Mogi Franklin Mystery – The Lady in Black - being edited as we speak. It should be published in March or April.
I’m also in the middle of writing a sequel to Smoke Dreams, which was published in 2013. I’m having a great time being back in the 1870s in the wilds of Texas, as well as being back on the Canadian River with a house that has a heartbeat. Smoke Dreams was self-published and I may also self-publish the new novel, requiring me to hire an independent editor and go through the processes of formatting, proofreading, creating the cover, and then working with Amazon to get it printed. All of this is more expensive than time-consuming, but it still may not be out until Fall.
I created a two-minute book trailer for Teddy’s War, a thirty-minute video about my dad’s travels during WWII, and produced an hour-long video giving an overview of my being a writer. The hour-long video was purely an amateur production and is not likely to see the light of day, but I had fun doing it. It was intended to be shown in conjunction with George RR Martin’s bookstore in Santa Fe, but I think that opportunity evaporated in the mist. Nice idea, but my book isn’t fantasy or science fiction and that’s mainly what the bookstore deals in.
I started a sequel for Teddy’s War but didn’t get very far; the story hasn’t had time to jell enough. It concerns what I talked about in one of my blogs – the ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe during 1945 to 1946. I also started a story that combined the Super Collider at CERN with the Shroud of Turin. I made it far enough to get lost in the technical details and I suspect that it’s DOA. I may come back to it in the future. The idea came from a short story I wrote several years ago.
With the publication of Teddy’s War, which didn’t show up on Amazon until December 1, I launched a marketing effort to see if I could make any difference in the number of copies sold. That effort is now finished and it turns out that I really can’t tell the number of books sold until a number of months after the book became available. My publisher is working with me to get the data, but it’s a game of monitoring the printer (the number of books printed) and the distributor (what outlets bought how many books), then subtracting the number of books returned by the outlets. Someplace in there is how many books were actually bought.
Just between me and you, the whole book publishing business is deliberately opaque. It’s not precise in the number of books sold, the amount of money that goes into various pockets during the process, or even whether readers like the books or not. I suspect that each entity (publishers, distributors, reviewers, booksellers, etc.) making money from any individual book doesn’t want the other entities to know exactly how much money they made. So far, my books rarely produce money going into my pocket. As long as I have my retirement pension, my social security, and I like writing books, I can live with that. At least my grandkids can point to the spines of a few books with their grandfather’s name on them. Hopefully, they’ll even read the books someday.
It was also 2020, a year that will be go down in history as being perfectly awful. Paper manufacturers, printers, distributors, publishers, booksellers, and writers were not considered essential, so the interruptions and delays in the product chain were significant.
My one-hour ZOOM presentation scheduled for December 17 was cancelled because no one signed up to watch it. My publisher will try again in the March/April timeframe.
Having finished 2020 with a good list of accomplishments, I’m steadily writing, rewriting, and editing in the days of the new year and enjoying it. That’s good enough and I’m a happy man.
I try to limit shameless advertising in my blogs, but the fundamental truth is that if you don’t know about my books, you aren’t likely to read them. If you don’t read them, I believe that you have missed some good books to read or to give away. I write to entertain; it’s certainly not for money.
However, I am a rabid introvert and am shy about my products, so it’s hard for me to tell you to buy anything. To compensate, I have included in my website, DonaldWillerton.com, the first two chapters of every book that I have published, including all the adult novels and all the middle-grade mysteries. That allows you to determine if the books are interesting to you to read or to buy as gifts without having to spend your hard-earned cash. It also allows you, for the books in the series, to buy one and point to the others to stir a reader’s interest.
And I get to feel a lot better about telling you to buy them. They’re all on Amazon and you can order them through my website.
I have three adult books currently available:
Smoke Dreams, which uses Western history from the late 1800s to portray life among the Comanche Indians, as well as a lot of modern-day techniques to rebuild and remodel a spirit-possessed Victorian house. It’s a thriller that is quirky enough to really enjoy.
The King of Trash, which concerns two disparate topics, ocean pollution and homelessness, until I put them together in a surprising way. It’s a thriller and crime novel that has a side of morality tale in it that will grab you in the end. There are a couple of scenes that may give you nightmares.
Teddy’s War is my most recent book. It is a historical fiction novel that centers on the journey of a young man through World War II and involves not only his experiencing the war, but deals with family betrayal when he is away. I think it’s my best work, is the most complex in terms of themes and characters, and will be interesting to history buffs, veterans of any conflict, adults whose parents were in WWII, and military readers in general, as well as young adults who want to know more about WWII.
I began writing it as a tribute to my mom and dad. Dad trained first in the US, then England, and then landed at Omaha Beach 26 days after D-Day. He was a radar operator, was always close to the front line and combat, experienced the Normandy Breakout, Paris, and was always stationed close to the changing front in the Battle of the Bulge. He was, in fact, in Bastogne when the Germans were attacking. He then served in the Third Army under Patton in Southern Germany until May 8th, when the German Army signed their surrender. It took him another six months to get back home. He was in my mother’s arms the day before Thanksgiving, 1945, three years and ten days after he left.
That was seventy-six years and two days ago, by the way.
My mother, no less important, worked her war years in the chemistry lab of Continental Oil Company.
Teddy’s War is not about my father or mother or any real person I know, but I used my dad’s detailed war itinerary for the locations, timing, pace, and progress of the novel. It gives the story the roots of an honest tale.
In addition to the adult novels, I have nine middle-grade novels currently available (the tenth is coming in 2021):
The Mogi Franklin Mystery Series is written for boys and girls from age 10 to age 14. The books are like Frank Dixon’s Hardy Boys stories but are more complex in plots, themes, and updated vocabulary. They are also Southwest oriented: each story, except for one, takes place in a setting that is within a day’s drive of Santa Fe, New Mexico; you can find each location on a highway map. They are typically authentic to the history of the location, and to the culture, which makes them fun to read and educational at the same time.
My heroes are Mogi Franklin, a fourteen-year-old boy, and his seventeen-year-old sister, Jennifer, who live in Bluff, Utah. He’s got exceptional reasoning skills and a phenomenal memory, and she’s a mature teen with a keen awareness and sensitivity of how people work and what they care about.
The first chapter of each book lays out a fictional mystery that occurred in the past that must be solved to address a present-day crisis that has embroiled Mogi and Jennifer. This structure works very well, and, with the first two chapters featured on my website, you can read the different historical mysteries that I create.
Check them out. If you have a teen, or have a relative who is a teen, or know a teen who could use a book as a Christmas present or stocking-stuffer, consider this series or any of the individual books – they’re written as stand-alone adventures.
After finishing Teddy’s War, my editor recommended a follow-on book, titled Orderly and Humane, The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, written by R. M. Douglas.
Published in 2012, it describes the movement of people around the European nations during the period of 1945 and 1946. Forty million people had been displaced by the war – ex-prisoners of concentration and internment camps, non-German soldiers who had been forced to fight for the Third Reich, residents of Nazi-invaded nations that had been forced into labor camps, residents of eastern European ghettos whose homes had been destroyed, people who had fled their homes and now had no nation or family to go home to, those who were remnants of dispersed families, those who had escaped the tyranny and were returning, and a million children who had been abandoned or lost during the different invasions, relocations, and killings.
Douglas focuses on the plight of Germans who were living in countries outside of Germany.
It was Hitler’s plan to convert most of Europe (and the western part of Russia) into a homeland for the Aryan people. Invading Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Austria, and others, he captured, confined, or killed the residents who had no Aryan roots, and then recolonized the lands with true Aryans.
For example, when he invaded Poland in 1939, he arrested and deported scientists, intellectuals, college professors, teachers, government leaders, religious leaders, community leaders, and others to work camps in Germany. He closed the universities, schools, churches, public buildings, forbid the speaking of Polish, and took ownership of all the property. That left most of the population as women, children, and the elderly in inferior positions, while he proceeded to give the captured farms, houses, and estates to homeland Germans that he moved into the areas.
In Czechoslovakia, he pumped up the number of Germans living in the Sudetenland by moving in Aryan colonists. The Sudetenland was a wide stretch of Czechoslovakia that bordered eastern Germany. Many hundreds of thousands of German families had historically inhabited this area, not necessarily Nazis or even true Aryans, but as a natural result of two countries having a common border. Many of the German descendants considered themselves Czechs, and many did not even speak German. It totaled perhaps 6 to 10 million people.
After the Third Reich fell, the reborn governments of the invaded countries chose to expel the German people from within their borders. They also seized the moment to carry out programs of general ethnic cleansing of any unwanted minorities. In Czechoslovakia, not only were the new German colonists forced to return to Germany, but the historical Germans residing in the Sudetenland were told to pack up their goods, abandon their homes, and go back to Germany. Along with them, any resident Jews were also told to get out of the country. The big cities, like Prague, were emptied of non-Czechs, as well.
This ethnic cleansing movement raged across every nation in Eastern Europe and resulted in the expulsion of millions of people from where they had lived for generations. Adding to the millions already homeless and jobless was devastating to the populations, the social structures, and the economy.
Huge numbers of refugees were forced to live in former concentration camps like Auschwitz until they could be moved outside the country. Consequently, they were treated as badly or worse as the previous prisoners. Typhus, other diseases, torture, and starvation were once again rampant.
The descriptions of what happened in this time period and the pervasiveness of the persecution of Germans was an eye-opener for me. I had never considered what Europe looked like after the war. It was absolute chaos, sewn throughout with hatred, revenge, and violence. It became (with more than 40 million people) the largest migration of people in history.
I recently watched a two-hour documentary on the National Geographic Channel called After Hitler. I haven’t found it available on DVD, so it may only be currently available on screen.
It tells the story of Europe after the war, 1945 through 1949, and covers not only the forced movements and persecutions of people, but tells of the methodical takeover of Eastern Europe by Stalin, the creation of NATO, the Marshall Plan, and the Berlin Airlift. The documentary was captivating and horrifying.
Many people today have no idea of what the Third Reich’s strategic plans, of the beginning of the Iron Curtain, of what Stalin wanted to accomplish, or of how the rest of the world reacted to the events during that time period. Every bit of that history is important to understand, especially with the current contest of who is most like Hitler and who is not, and our bantering about of words like “socialism”, “communism”, and “democracy”.
People need to watch this video with their eyes open and their mouths shut. Today, more than ever, we need to know our history.
I talked previously of buying a video editor and using my digital camera and my computer to produce a book trailer for Teddy’s War. It was a lot of fun putting one together, but I couldn’t share it because of having used music off the TV to imitate the video’s eventual soundtrack.
I continued to mess around with my original effort and then, in a flash of inspiration, I made another video featuring me and some WWII stuff from my dad’s trunk. I used the attic of a friend, with her son working the camera, and produced five or six minutes of raw footage of me opening my dad’s trunk and taking stuff out. Putting various scenes together, I whittled my first attempt at a new trailer down to three and a half minutes and found it considerably more interesting than my first effort.
It needed to be shorter, so I learned how to delete, rearrange, and transition between frames, got it down to less than two minutes, and was appropriately proud.
I showed it to others, asked for comments, and learned that I had made a video that didn’t relate much to the book. My brother suggested that I use photos instead the words and phrases that I had used to heighten the drama, and work for a better book connection.
Following his lead and using the National Archives (photos are free for downloading), I deleted the words and phrases, added World War II photographs, wrote a couple of book-relevant sentences to appear at the beginning of the video, and then purchased a membership in an online business that provides free music tracks and sound effects.
Putting all of these together produced something that seems surprisingly good, lasts two minutes, and has much more context related to the book. I did several iterations and am now ready to show you what I produced.
If you will place your pointer over the URL below, hold down the CTRL button and left-click your mouse, I hope that you’ll see the latest version of my book trailer for Teddy’s War. If you’re using a MAC, things may be different.
I created the book trailer in preparation for having Teddy’s War accepted by the Beastly Books bookstore in Santa Fe. I had given them a copy of the book and expected that the managers of the bookstore would read it and then judge whether it was acceptable or not. If accepted, I would then submit a book trailer and other marketing information.
I clearly misunderstood what they said. I have since learned that the bookstore was not expecting a two-minute book trailer, but an hour-long video featuring an interview with me talking about my background, my writing, my books, plus talking specifically about Teddy’s War, followed by several minutes of me reading selected passages. No book trailer was involved and how I so severely misunderstood is still a puzzle.
They also expected me to demonstrate that I had been advertising my book on social media – YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Well, I doubt if mentioning the book on my blog, website, and Facebook meets their idea of advertising. Since the book wasn’t available yet on Amazon, I hadn’t even really stressed that people should run out and buy it. I guess people could pre-order, but that seemed a poor solution at the time.
Anyway, to now meet their review criteria involves a lot of work for a book that I think has an almost zero probability of being accepted in the first place.
I had a talk with myself and decided that Teddy’s War may be my best shot at Greatness and was probably worth the effort to pursue things a little farther. Even if I didn’t make it into the bookstore, surely I would learn stuff that would be valuable in the future. Besides that, I was really curious to see what happened.
Recognizing my inadequacies in Social Media Marketing and the strong likelihood that I would stink at it (I think there’s an attitude problem), I hired a professional marketer to handle the social media advertising aspects, while I worked on shooting and editing the hour-long video.
For $550 (he offers a package), the marketer will advertise Teddy’s War through each of the four platforms (YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) for four weeks, starting the week before the release of the book (December 1). I am very interested in how this works, what the different ads look like, and if the analytics data show any correlation to the sales of the book. If I don’t get a return on my investment, I won’t do it again.
During the same period, I will be letting people know through Facebook that the book is now for sale. I’ll use my book trailer as a base to work from, and I hope that the book looks like a good Christmas present.
I sat in on a ZOOM meeting last Thursday night. The meeting was the first of a monthly series hosted by my publisher and features authors of books published by them. My turn is coming in December.
The featured author for the night was a lady whose education includes a PhD in Symbolic Learning. She talked for an hour about her latest book, and took questions from the other members.
I confess that hearing the title of Symbolic Learning had me visualizing Robert Langdon, the Harvard professor in the series of books written by Dan Brown, played wonderfully by Tom Hanks. However, he is a professor of Symbology, not Symbolic Learning, and I don’t even know if that’s a real department at Harvard or whether Dan Brown is just pulling my leg.
Getting past imagining this lady as a puzzle solver traipsing around Europe chasing remarkable criminal masterminds, I admitted that I didn’t know what “symbolic learning” meant. Thankfully, skirting a formal definition, she described herself as a professional storyteller, and it is the symbols (people, creatures, landscapes, structures, and more) contained in stories that describe or teach the aspects of culture. More personally, it is how an individual relates to those symbols that reflects their beliefs in life.
That’s my off-the-cuff definition, but not getting bogged down in the details, I can see how someone can reveal their values, for example, by the stories they tell.
The lady, who was very nice, literate, and open, sees stories - be they fairytales, memories, historical renderings of events, fictional portrayals of people, or family hand-me-downs - as the vehicles for showing who we are, what we’ve learned, how we change, how we relate to each other, or why we value what we value. From individuals to societies to cultures. Her day job is hosting workshops that help participants cope with life by teaching themselves to express their feelings and experiences through storytelling.
I stink as a storyteller, so I think of myself more as a storywriter. It’s a fact that I have trouble telling stories because I can’t remember anything longer than a minute, tend to wander away from the script, and invariably change the story as I tell it. Those characteristics are probably hooked to my personality being somewhat obsessive-compulsive, with not a little of perfectionist tendencies. I think more of my being a poor storyteller as just an internal sense of direction connected to a haywire compass: I can’t see, walk, or talk in a straight line from one point to another. It’s frustrating for some but it makes my days more interesting.
So, I don’t tell stories and I’m happy with that; using my voice is not my talent. But I do claim to be a storywriter. I’m comfortable with presenting stories to readers if I can create a story and then revise it umpteen times until I think it’s a reasonably finished product that has a beginning, an end, and a middle.
I won’t belabor the point because I’ve written about my need for rewriting in other blogs, but I do want to talk about the “learning” part of the author’s degree, because, as I listened to her, I recognized that stories are, perhaps, the way we present difficult, complex, and gray-area concepts and values so that the concepts and values are greatly simplified, understandable, observable, and teachable.
Which is probably why Jesus used parables rather than sermons.
My three-year-old granddaughter cannot read, but it doesn’t prevent her from taking one of her picture books, gathering an audience of stuffed kangaroos, pandas, bears, monkeys, and other toy animals into a corner of the room, and “reading” a book to them. She never misses a page, will talk and point to the different parts of each page, and will perform her best imitation of adult voices, intonations, laughs, facial expressions, and string of emphatic gestures. It’s rather remarkable, but there is no doubt that telling her the stories has taught her the stories, and what the adults emphasized is now what she emphasizes. She has learned not only the story but what’s important about the story.
Storytelling and storywriting are like holding up mirrors to people so they make the connection between the story and themselves: what is happening in the story is relevant to what is happening to them. My characters are easier to create, imagine, and fulfill if they look like my readers, and consequently look like me. I can pick a certain trait out of my experience and create an evil person, a good person, a flawed person, a changing person, a fool, an expert, a lover, a hater, and so on. It sometimes takes a lot of imagination to translate the traits into fiction without using stereotypes but the authenticity still comes through.
My readers can identify with my characters’ personality traits because I use common human traits seen every day. I have to work harder on traits that are extreme, but, even then, I never create characters whose descriptions can’t be found in daily newspapers or tabloid exposes. I also make characters change in ways that they perhaps should have, did or didn’t, but still work to make them commonplace. If I do this consistently enough, and obvious enough, then those characters start to stand for something independent of the plot. They, in fact, become “symbols” that reflect the traits of the readers.
That enhances the connection between the story and the reader, and makes the stories more meaningful, relevant, and interesting.
There’s a quaint bookstore in Santa Fe named Beastly Books. It’s next door to the Jean Cocteau Cinema, a small, boutique-level film theater that seats around a hundred people and is devoted to showing small-run films. Both of these, plus the upper floor offices in the multi-storied building, are owned by George R. R. Martin. George is the author of the Game of Thrones book series; he lives in Santa Fe.
If you’re ever in Santa Fe, you should visit Beastly Books. It has two rooms showcasing the books associated with Game of Thrones (including autographed editions), books associated with George (collections, as editor, etc.), popular games and gadgets associated with Game of Thrones and various off-shoots of the series, plus collectible items such as figurines, sculptures, and posters.
It also offers coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, should you want to sip on something while you browse.
Two additional rooms have shelves full of other fiction books, all personally selected by George or his entourage. Most of them are autographed by the authors. There is one rack of books that features local and Southwest authors and that’s what interests me: I’ve asked that Teddy’s War and The King of Trash be carried by the bookstore.
Fat chance. Being offered by the bookstore is a reviewed process. I sent in autographed copies of each book, they are being read and discussed by the bookstore manager and friends (probably not by George) and then a decision will be made. If selected, I will provide autographed copies on an as-needed basis, advertising materials, be available for author signings, and will provide a book trailer.
Book trailer? I didn’t even know what a “book trailer” was, though I assumed it was comparable to a movie trailer. I’d seen short video ads on TV and Facebook, and figured that that was what was being asked for. I have since learned that a book trailer is typically a short (around one minute) video that advertises a book. It can be as simple as a person holding up a book and telling about it (or reading an excerpt), or as complex as a Tom Cruise-type action sequence indicating that the book’s story is a thrilling escapade of adventure, danger, world-ranging daring, and impending death-for-the-hero events. Or it can be mysterious and noir, and have no narration. Similarly, it can be done as cheaply as zero cost, all the way to thousands of dollars per death-defying event or spooky subtones. It can have music, it can have special effects, it can have Morgan Freeman narrating, or it can be as boring as a video of a (literal) page turner that tells the title, publisher, cost, and source for purchasing.
No matter the presentation, the idea is to get the viewer to be aware of the book, or even to buy it.
I decided to experiment and make a book trailer for Teddy’s War, and it turned out to be a ton of fun.
First, I bought a video editor. You can buy one for a one-time cost, or a monthly or yearly fee. I prefer to pay up front rather than have a continuing deduction, so I bought Wondershare Filmora 9 for about $129. I chose it because I googled “video editors”, it had good enough reviews, and was cheap enough. I had seen a video editor being used by a friend, so I had a concept about the features it should provide. In retrospect, I might put more effort into researching for a better editor or getting a recommendation, but I was in the heat of the moment.
A video editor is just a piece of software that you buy, install (it does it for you), and run like a word processor, photograph sorter, or other application. In my case, I double-click on the icon; the video editor begins; uses the full screen of the monitor for a viewing window in the upper righthand corner that displays, at any time, the video that I’m creating; a window in the upper lefthand corner that gives me a choice of what I want to do (add a video, a photo, add text, use special effects…); and, across the bottom half of the screen, has a graphic showing the different video, audio, or text tracks that I’ve added. Displaying all of the tracks at any time shows what my video looks like at that time.
I’m trying to make it sound simple because it basically is. Throw in watching a few how-to videos from YouTube, and it only took three or four hours to build a short video in which I combined a personal video of Omaha Beach that I had taken last year with my SLR digital camera, a personal video that I had made using props on my kitchen table (with the same camera), a sound track that I recorded off the TV using my iPhone, a still photo, and several words of text that I overlayed in certain frames. I could also have used video and audio tracks from free-to-use libraries that came with the editor.
The final video I produced (exported from the video editor into a standard format so I can play it anywhere) is a good, first-try, 90-second, amateur video that shows a picture of my book, gives an idea of what it’s about, indicates that it has drama, intrigue, history, a WWII setting, and an emotional crisis for my character.
Not bad for a first try, and my second try was much better.
I’d post the URL so you can see it, but the music is not mine. I used a recording as a proof of concept so it’s no good to offer the video for public viewing.
Will George accept my book into his bookstore? If he does, then I have a couple of professional film maker friends who will help me turn my amateur version into a professional product that will become my official book trailer (and uses free music). If George doesn’t, then I may invest a little more effort to make it better and use it as part of my marketing efforts for Teddy’s War.
I’ll let you know what happens.
In my last blog, I used an excerpt from Ursula Le Guin about writers accepting their readers as collaborators and including them as partners in the story, “to include or seduce people into moving with the story, participating in it, joining their imagination with it.”
A few pages later in The Wave of the Mind, she adds: “Story is a collaborative art. The writer’s imagination works in league with the reader’s imagination, calls on the reader to collaborate, to fill in, to flesh out, to bring their own experience to the work. Fiction is not a camera, and not a mirror. It’s much more like a Chinese painting—a few lines, a few blobs, a whole lot of blank space. From which we make the travellers, in the mist, climbing the mountain towards the inn under the pines.”
Let’s talk Sherlock Holmes. Or not, because I could go on all day long about how I fell in love with 1890s England—the fog, the horse-drawn cabs, the heaviness and oppression of the moors (…a gigantic hound…), the cramped upstairs apartment filled with pipe smoke, even the emotions of Holmes and Watson as they waited in silence for the viper (…the speckled band…)—and so much more. I occasionally pull my dusty book of Complete Stories from my bookshelf and enjoy a few of Dr. Watson’s tales, finding that I still fill in a lot of the space between the words; the words are 2D, while the images that fill my brain are 3D.
A more recent experience is a novel from a few years ago: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce. It’s the story about an ordinary, shy, reclusive man who receives a card from a woman he had known thirty years before. She told him that she was dying from cancer and wanted him to know how much she appreciated his kindness when they worked together at a brewery.
Harold remembers her and writes a short thank you note. When he leaves his house to walk to the post office box to mail it, however, he hesitates, and then keeps walking. There grows within him the need to express the value of her friendship with more than only a card. As the story unfolds, he writes her a note to say that he is coming to see her and that she should not die until he gets there. He continues to walk, not going back home, not returning to tell his wife where he is going (he calls her every night), completely unprepared, not expecting to do what he’s doing, not planning to do what he’s doing, not even understanding why he’s doing it, but devoutly accepts his goal of walking 500 miles: he lives in the south of England, the woman is in a nursing home in the north of England.
As I listen to him think as he walks (it’s a real walk, with real towns, real flowers, real calluses and blisters, real heat and real cold and real wet), it’s not long until I’m walking beside him. His memories of life mirror some of my own memories; what he notices, I notice; his fears, his worries, his embarrassments, his growing courage, his son, his wife, his work at the brewery as an accountant, all ring familiar; and I suddenly fall into pace with his footsteps, one after the other, as he’s plodding along the quaint backcountry English roads.
By mid-book, I have become Harold, at a distance, and I am as interested in what’s going to happen to him and the woman as I have been with any book. It’s a quiet story, a deep story, and reveals a pilgrimage that I didn’t know I wanted to go on.
That’s one aspect of what Ursula Le Guin was talking about. It isn’t just identity with a character; that’s not unusual and readers do it all the time. It’s the involvement that I was drawn into, and the weight that began to feel heavy on my own heart. Rachel Joyce drew me in and made me think that it was not Harold’s journey but my own, and what he was discovering was somehow related to me. When I found myself walking beside him, my imagination transfigured Harold’s adventure into something crafted to fit my own space, growing into a greater picture than what Joyce had written.
I was seduced and that’s a whole lot more fun than just entertainment.
Several years ago, a writer/friend invited me to join a monthly writing group in Albuquerque. This writing group has a long history, originating with Tony Hillerman when he was teaching at the University of New Mexico. He gathered a number of newspaper and magazine writers, publishers, and editors who had similar interests in the publishing business and began getting together to discuss their mutual problems, solutions and insights.
Some decades later, the group still has a definite bent towards not the craft of writing but with getting books out and sold. There are people who self-publish paperback and electronic books (with a major emphasis on science fiction), a few writers for magazines, a couple of publishers, an editor or two, a bookstore owner, two translators (including a lady who has been knighted by the King of Denmark), and writers like myself who use traditional publishers.
I am, as one might guess, the novice of the group.
I did once have an opportunity to talk to the group about an initial draft of a book I was working on. My draft didn’t yet have much plot but the story, as I expressed it, would be “interesting” to the reader.
That earned me some criticism, most of which was provided by my friend. His exact words were “interesting means boring” and the sentiment was echoed by others. I felt squished.
After the meeting, as was our custom, my friend and I went to eat at a close-by Japanese restaurant. Talking with my friend over lunch was the real reason that I joined the group; discussing books and writing one-on-one with him was a treasure. He continued his “advice” and I understood what he was saying. Internally, however, I wanted to make an argument that readers wanted “interesting” and that any book that didn’t have something that was intellectually engaging would be missing a large connection to the readership.
A couple of months ago, I found someone who explicitly supports my side of the argument. The following is from The Wave of the Mind, by Ursula K. Le Guin, one the finest writers the world has produced:
“Most best-sellers are written for readers who are willing to be passive consumers. The blurbs on their covers often highlight the coercive, aggressive power of the text--compulsive page-turner, gut-wrenching, jolting, mind-searing, heart-stopping—what is this, electroshock torture?
From commercial writing of this type, and from journalism, come the how-to-write cliches, “Grab your readers with the first paragraph,” “Hit them with shocker scenes,” “Never give them time to breathe,” and so on.
Now, a good many writers, particularly those entangled in academic programs in fiction, get their intellect and ego so involved in what they’re saying and how they’re saying it that they forget that they’re saying it to anyone. If there’s any use in the grab-‘em-and-wrench-their-guts-out school of advice, it’s that it at least reminds the writer that there is a reader out there to be grabbed and gutted.
But just because you realize your work may be seen by somebody other than the professor of creative writing, you don’t have to go into attack mode and release the Rottweilers. There’s another option. You can consider the reader, not as a helpless victim or a passive consumer, but as an active, intelligent, worthy collaborator. A colluder, a co-illusionist.
Writers who choose to try to establish a mutual trust believe it is possible to attract the readers’ attention without verbal assault and battery. Rather than grab, frighten, coerce, or manipulate a consumer, collaborative writers try to interest a reader. To induce or seduce people into moving with the story, participating in it, joining their imagination with it.
Not a rape; a dance.
Consider the story as a dance, the reader and writer as partners. The writer leads, yes, but leading isn’t pushing; it’s setting up a field of mutuality where two people can move in cooperation with grace. It takes two to tango.
Readers who have only been grabbed, bashed, gut-wrenched, and electroshocked may need a little practice in being interested. They may need to learn how to tango. Once they’ve tried it, they’ll never go back among the pit bulls.”
My “interesting” book did make it to the bookstores. I worked on the plot and the scenes and gave the “interesting” aspects more context of how they played in the novel. I did put in a couple of near-death experiences for the hero, but it all worked out fine. It is, indeed, an interesting story that invites the reader to imagine what they would do if they were the characters, and requires them to grapple with moral questions, and it makes their reading experience far more engrossing and memorable.
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.