From 1936 to 1940, John Steinbeck published Of Mice and Men, The Long Valley (a collection of short stories), Their Blood is Strong (a compilation of newspaper articles), and The Grapes of Wrath; he witnessed a long-running New York theater production of Of Mice and Men, as well as the Hollywood versions of that novel and The Grapes of Wrath; he traveled and did research for the nonfiction Sea of Cortez; and he scripted and helped produce a documentary film, The Forgotten Village (a story about a family in Mexico).
For those writers reading this, consider my efforts for my latest Mogi Franklin mystery.
I toured the Hotel Castaneda in Las Vegas, New Mexico, in December of 2014. The hotel was built by the AT&SF Railway in 1898 and was the first trackside Fred Harvey Hotel, managed by Fred Harvey, the famous restauranteur who established very successful hotels at 80 different locations in America, making them the first national hotel chain. The eateries at each hotel had excellent dishes, fresh coffee, and wonderful pies and cakes, all served by a bevy of young, single women known as Harvey Girls. There was a movie about them made in 1944, starring Judy Garland.
The hotel and restaurant in Las Vegas were very successful, but fell on hard times after the WWII, and have been closed for seventy years. It was purchased in 2014, remodeled beginning in 2018, and reopened in 2019. It is a fabulous commercial center that houses the restored Fred Harvey dining rooms, hotel rooms, a number of in-house condos for purchase, and commercial shops. It is a star attraction of New Mexico. Check out castanedahotel.org.
Seeing the hotel in its unimproved state, I thought of a story that had Jennifer Franklin as a high school summer intern with a college architectural assessment group, Mogi Franklin as a non-intern who shows up to help with databases, a bank robbery in 1943, troop trains, soldiers in WWII, a ghost that haunted the hotel, a locked trunk from 1943 in the attic, and a reunion of Harvey Girls. The story was centered around a Harvey Girl who had committed suicide.
I was working on other books, so I didn’t get around to writing a first draft until November of 2017. It was titled Death on the Tracks, and the manuscript was 60 pages and 23079 words long. It wasn’t very good and it was too short (the other Mogi books are about 90 pages and 40,000 words; when the books are converted to paperback size, they have about 180 pages).
The final draft was ready in May of 2018, was titled Death Train, and was 112 pages. I did not like it at all, could not see a way of revising it, so I shelved it in long term storage.
Given COVID 2020 last spring, I resurrected the story, changed a number of things, and produced a new draft in April of 2020. It was titled The Lady in Black, and had 112 pages. I thought I had improved it, but didn’t feel that it was comparable to the other Mogi books. I shelved it again.
In September, under the influence of Teddy’s War, which was published in June, I was inspired to rewrite the story. I added more WWII experiences and context, changed the characters, and changed the mystery, as well as the clues to solving it. I produced a revised draft in September that was titled The Lady in Black, and had 108 pages. It was definitely getting better, the WWII emphasis making the difference.
A couple of major iterations later, I produced a final draft and gave it to my editor on December 30th, 2020.
She made some great corrections and rewrites, had several suggestions, and then sent me her revisions last week. After doing what she told me, it is now titled War Train, and has 77 pages and 39916 words. I like it a lot and so does she. It will now be reviewed by the senior editor at my publishing house, Terra Nova Books, in Santa Fe. It will have a cover created, be converted to a book-appropriate format, be registered with the Library of Congress, and then be published in, maybe, three or four months. It is the tenth book in the Mogi Franklin Mystery Series, and my thirteenth novel.
Along this whole process, I put into the story and then took out: a murder; a torn piece of paper that had the ultimate clue to the mystery; a visit to the Harvey House Museum in Belen, New Mexico; an interview with a Harvey Girl; a ghost of a woman dressed in black; the surveillance of Mogi and Jennifer by a hidden internet camera planted by a bad guy from Ohio; a stolen bible; and a flashback to a soldier during WWII who was in Czechoslovakia.
I put into the story and kept: handwritten letters from two WWII soldiers while in Europe; the clues needed to solve the mystery (hidden in the letters); a story about the Combat Engineers during WWII; a Prisoner of War camp; a bad guy from Trenton, New Jersey; and secret tunnels under the hotel.
Having now sent in my final effort, it’s been about six or so years that I’ve had this book under some level of work.
I’m now taking time to read John Steinbeck’s notes that he kept while writing The Grapes of Wrath. It took him four months to write a book that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and led him to win a Nobel Prize in 1962. He wrote everything using a #2 pencil.
Maybe I should get a faster computer?
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.
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.