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.
By 1876, the first centennial of the United States, no one in the world had ever been to the North Pole. For that matter, no one had ever been to the South Pole.
What was there? What happens to your compass when every direction points south? Every modern Arctic expeditionary attempt had found a sea of ice that was impenetrable. Was everything covered in ice or was there something beyond the ice that was more remarkable?
As early as the 1600s, it was generally accepted and heartedly endorsed by the renown scientists of the day that the top of the earth was crowned by an open sea. Several felt that not only was it an open sea, but that the temperature of the water was temperate. If an explorer could make it through the annulus of thick ice that surrounded the North Pole, they would find sailing to be much like in the Caribbean. Some even theorized that a new continent existed there, full of flora and fauna, and it was not such a wild idea that members of the human race would be found flourishing there.
On the outer edge of the theories, in 1820, an American from Ohio, John Cleves Symmes Jr. theorized that the earth consisted of concentric spheres, with large holes at the North and South Poles that connected to networks of inner cavities. It was even likely that the spheres were inhabited.
Perhaps scoffed at by the leaders in science and government, the public became enthralled with the idea that the poles of the earth consisted of veritable wonderlands waiting to be discovered. This made a new theory remarkably believable – that there existed a large hole at the North Pole through which all the water from the oceans poured, traveling through the center of the earth and emerging out a similar hole in the South Pole, where they became the tail ends of the same oceans flowing north.
When Jules Verne published his Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1864, a considerable number of people didn’t believe that it was fiction.
One of the largest and most famous voyages sent to find answers was the Franklin expedition of 1845. Captain John Franklin and his crew of 129 set sail from England in the Terror and the Erebus, two well-provisioned ships. Within weeks, they sailed into chunks of flowing ice, and were never heard of again.
That was typical of an Arctic voyage.
Other expeditions had launched, would be gone for a year or two, and then a group of scraggly survivors would be found on an ice flow, barely alive. Their stories described sailing into an ice field, their ships then being surrounded by floating chunks of ice which froze and held them immovable. Ultimately, the ice crushed the ship by pressing against its sides and it sank to an icy grave. The stories always ended with terrible ordeals of starvation, sickness, exposure, and continual suffering.
After the Civil War, however, a growing wave of American national pride demanded that the idea of Manifest Destiny be expanded to include an international facet and by 1876, the call for scientific discovery (and planting the American flag on newly discovered territories) gave birth to the U. S. Arctic Expedition and the USS Jeannette.
It took until July 8th, 1879 to get her launched, but the USS Jeannette was all that an arctic explorer would want. Already a proven ice-breaker in the seas to the far north of England, the Jeannette was 146 feet long, three-masted, with a steam engine that powered a single screw propeller. She carried eight boats, including 3 whaleboats, and required only a crew of thirty.
Bought and fitted, she made the trip from England around the tip of South America, spent several months being rebuilt by an elite team of boat builders in San Francisco, was reinforced for every possible challenge of ice-laden seas, and laid in enough provisions for three years of sailing in the upper reaches of the world. Her crew would consist of experienced Arctic sailors, nautical craftsmen, forty sled dogs, two Inuit hunters, two Chinese cooks, several scientists, a doctor, a reporter from the New York-based Herald newspaper, competent junior commanders, and George Washington De Long, a determined, seasoned, and now nationally famous ship captain who would prove to be the best man on the planet for the job.
The New York Commercial Advertiser declared, “Should success crown the efforts of the gallant commander, it will be one of the most brilliant geographical adventures ever won by man. The solution of the Northern Mystery would be the event of the century.”
Having stopped along the way to replenish his store of coal, De Long and his ship sailed from the shores of Alaska for the North Pole and was seen on September 7th, 1879, by a whaling fleet in the Arctic Ocean north of the Bering Strait, struggling through an ice flow. It was the last reported sighting anyone ever had of the USS Jeannette.
It wouldn’t be until May 5, 1882, that a formal dispatch informed the world that De Long had been found, frozen, in the delta of the Lena River on the northern coast of Siberia. He had been dead since October. A few others of the crew survived and their stories of what happened included spending a full year locked-in by ice before the ship was crushed, and taking an extreme escape route of a thousand miles across hundreds of miles of ice while pulling a few thousand pounds of gear and lifeboats, and the rest across the treacherous Arctic Ocean, striving to get to the Siberian coast. Even when there, it was months before any of them would find another human being.
There was no open sea to the North Pole.
And, once again, I’m going to stop complaining about wearing a mask.
In the Kingdom of Ice, the Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, is a wonderful book to read. Exhaustively researched and cleanly written by Hampton Sides, an editor of Outside magazine who lives an hour away from me, it is only one of several great books that he has written.
In other news, the Roswell Daily Record newspaper agreed to review my historical fiction novel, Teddy’s War. The review should be coming out next Sunday. I’ll post the URL so you can read it.
Wandering through the books on Amazon.com, I came across a history series whose titles began “The Things Our Fathers Saw,” written by Matthew Rozell, a high school history teacher, now retired.
Each book in the series relates interviews with WWII veterans from across the different parts of the military. The first book concerns the war in the Pacific, the next two are about the Air War, the fourth is about the WWII generation, and the fifth addresses WWII in the European theater from D-Day up to the Battle of the Bulge.
For those of you who have read my historical fiction book, Teddy’s War, or have read the first two chapters of it on my website, the story is centered around the experiences of a young man going through three years in the European Theater during World War Two, with a healthy context of his life before and after. I begin and end the book with a question of my own: why didn’t my dad talk about what he did in World War II and why didn’t I ask him? He never said a thing. He had some souvenirs, pictures, European coins and currency, and some other stuff, but he never told me or my brothers what he did, where he went, who his buddies were, or described any of his memories during the war.
I’ve only discovered pieces in the last couple of decades: he trained in England for a year, landed on Omaha Beach, and was at Bastogne when the Bulge started. He served under both Bradley and Patton.
I believe that if he would have said anything, he would have had a lot to tell.
My dad’s silence is pretty much standard for parents of other post-war children like me. Of my friends I’ve asked, none of their parents talked about what they did during the war, whether they were in combat or not, where they were, what they saw, or what kind of experiences they had. I wish I had a couple of hours, or days, to talk with my dad about the war; there are things I passionately want to know.
The book by Matthew Rozell filled in a lot of what might have come out of that conversation. He was a history teacher in Glens Falls, New York when on the occasion of the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, he asked his students to interview family members about their involvement in the war. The students were so interested and enthusiastic about what they found that, on the 50th Anniversary of the end of the war, he expanded the assignment to include people in the community. His students became collectors of stories, and, thirty years later, now internationally known for working with veterans and survivors of the Holocaust, Rozell is currently working on book number six of a ten-book series about what veterans would say if someone asked them to describe what they saw.
In the book that starts with D-Day, he interviews a master mechanic, a paratrooper, a glider pilot, a cryptographer, a combat engineer, a demolition engineer, a tank driver who unloaded his tank on Omaha Beach on D-Day, a Military Policeman, an artillery sergeant, a Navy Signalman, and others. The interviews cover the veteran’s pre-war story, then follows each one through the end of the war and sometimes beyond. He transcribes the actual words of those interviews, surrounds the interview with context, and makes each a compelling story.
The stories present incident-by-incident actions – detailed, gritty, violent, confusing – of what the war was like on a daily basis for the veterans and how those days stretched into years of fighting the German Army in Europe. He also captures how they felt at the time and how it still affects them. It’s the stuff of good men doing hero work, though they typically don’t like being called heroes.
It’s usually heart-wrenching but the authenticity of the experience is unquestioned.
I wish that Matthew Rozell had interviewed an SC-584 Signal Aircraft Warning radar operator, which is what my dad was, but he didn’t. It leaves me still wishing for my own conversation with my dad, but the book gives me some collective information to reconstruct part of what I might hear.
I’d give a set of Rozell’s books to every high school history class in America if I could. How can we expect the coming generations to “never forget” if they don’t know what we’re talking about in the first place?
Matthew Rozell’s website is teachinghistorymatters.com.
Most of us know the story of the Bataan Death March. On April 9, 1942, after three months of holding off the Japanese invasion of the island of Luzan (the island where Manila is located), U. S. General Edward King Jr. surrendered the approximately 75,000 American and Filipino troops on the Bataan Peninsula. The Japanese rounded up their prisoners and promptly marched them to a POW camp at San Fernando, 65 miles up the island.
The exact figures are not known, but thousands of prisoners died because of the brutality of their captors. They were starved, beaten, or bayoneted to death.
I read recently of similar marches made by Allied POWs in Europe, in the winter and spring of 1945, but they were more extensive and involved many more miles. Collectively, these forced marches are referred to as the March, the Black Death March, the Death March, the Bread March, or other names. Most survivors just call it “The March”.
There were 257,000 Allied prisoners held in German military prison-of-war camps throughout Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and other occupied lands. Between January and April, 1945, over 80,000 of these POWs were forced to march from camps in Eastern Europe to camps in the west.
The POWs traveled in groups of 250 to 300 men and not all groups followed the same route. They marched maybe 15 to 25 miles a day – resting at night in factories, churches, barns, or even in the open. Soon, long columns of POWs were wandering over the northern part of Germany with little or nothing in the way of food, clothing, shelter, or medical care. It seems that three major routes were followed, but the longer they marched, the more confusing the situation became. Getting to a destination seemed less important than to just keep marching.
In addition, January and February were among the coldest winter months on record, with blizzards and temperatures as low as minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit. Even the month of March had temperatures consistently below freezing. Most of the POWs lacked the basics of cold weather clothing, and given their poor rations and already poor health, the situation was appalling. The men resorted to stealing food along the way, sometimes eating dogs, cats, rats, or vegetation. There were no bathroom facilities, no water except for snow, streams, ponds, and rivers crossed along the way, if they were allowed close to them, and it was rare that any shelters provided protection against the weather.
After being liberated, one survivor said that his four-month journey zig-zagged across Germany, and even circled back to where they had been, covering an estimated 990 miles! More typical were travels of 500-600 miles.
Because of the unsanitary conditions, near starvation diet, and the exposure to the weather, hundreds of POWs died of diseases like dysentery and typhus, exposure like frostbite, gangrene, and literally freezing to death, plus exhaustion and malnutrition, not to mention that stragglers and poor performers were typically taken into the woods and shot.
I can’t figure this out. I’ve read common explanations: that Hitler was moving them to concentration camps to be killed in retaliation for the intense bombing by the Allies, but the fronts kept shifting, changing their destinations; that Hitler wanted to keep the POWs away from the invading Soviets but he didn’t really know what to do with them; that he was keeping them on the move so the POW camps would not look overcrowded when liberated; that the Nazis were planning on negotiating a peace deal using the POWs as bargaining chips, so it was better if they looked like hostages rather than prisoners; or that the Nazis were hoping most of the men would die from exhaustion, malnutrition, or exposure while on the marches so that their deaths could be counted as a natural deaths, as opposed to having been executed - it would make a difference if someone was accused of war crimes.
The more I’ve read the less I can make sense of it all.
I want to make an observation, though.
During this time, there were also attempts to empty the concentration camps on the Eastern Front and move the populations to other camps. Auschwitz, in Poland, had been discovered and liberated by the Russian Army on January 27th, 1945, so the news was getting out about the conditions in the German concentration camps. As the shock and horror was growing, Hitler ordered the evacuation of some of the concentration camps, putting the inmates in railway cars, trucks, or moving by foot. A vast number were murdered along the way (there were several instances where inmates were locked in train cars and left to die on sidings along the way), probably by design.
Secondly, during this time, there were also constant movements by the German Army, typically by train and truck convoy, but increasingly by foot because of the congestion of the railway system and the shrinking geography. Thirdly, because of the expansion of the Soviet front into Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, a huge number of German inhabitants of those countries were trying to escape to the west, trying to reach Germany; the number was maybe in the millions. Fourthly, there were non-German refugees (from liberated German labor camps, for example) that followed the Allied armies as they moved toward the east.
Fifthly, the Allied armies were encountering miles-long lines of surrendering Germany soldiers walking west. The Ninth Army in the north was repeatedly slowed because of having to stop and set up temporary barbed-wire areas to accommodate the flood of soldiers with their hands up. It had become obvious that Hitler was insane, the officers were running away, Germany was losing the war, and the soldiers knew that it was much better to surrender to the Americans or the British than to the Russians.
And let’s not forget all the Allied soldiers that were invading Germany from every direction. By May, there would be a million and a half American soldiers in Germany, not counting the British, the Canadian, the French, and the Soviets.
Yeah, it was crowded. My point?
Every country road, lane, by-way, regular road, highway, railroad track, railyard, every town, village, city center, every place that people could travel was full of people, many of them not speaking the same language. Millions of people, most of them in a state of confusion wandering through a territory that wasn’t that big – it’s only 400 miles from one side of Germany to the other.
Chaos. It must have been utter chaos. And anything to make it even more chaotic would have helped anyone who wanted to disappear into the crowd.
I think that’s what the Nazi commanders wanted. Hitler was going to die; he believed that it was his destiny, so he’s out of the picture. But the other commanders had long been developing escape plans. They needed camouflage to get the hell out of Dodge and hiding themselves in plain sight was the ticket to South America. That meant creating an atmosphere of utter chaos so that individuals could slip out the back door unnoticed.
I’m just making this up, but it doesn’t sound too far-fetched.
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.