I visited the Imperial War Museum in London. The picture on the left is the front of the museum; the big guns are from a retired battleship. It’s a fabulous museum that features equipment and weapons that I had read about but not seen up close. Who knew that they had “soup trailers”, pulled by Jeeps, that carried large caldrons of hot soup around to troop units? They also had the front half of a Lancaster bomber. It’s not as big as our B-17s and the cockpit would be cramped even for me. It was a significantly successful bomber and flying it was supposedly a dream for pilots, but the soup caldrons looked more substantial.
The Museum has a large atrium, about 5 stories tall, in which hung a Harrier fighter, a British Spitfire, a V-1 buzz bomb, and a full-size V-2 rocket. The floor exhibits included a T-4 Soviet tank and a twisted girder from the World Trade Center. Of real interest to me were scale models of the landing ships used to transport vehicles to the beaches of Normandy. My dad’s outfit would have ridden the Channel in transports such as those.
A new addition, the 4th floor led to a multi-story exhibit concerning the Holocaust, the killing of 6 million Jews by the Germans. My son and I had barely enough time to take it in, so I’m sure we didn’t get the full impact, but it had a few hundred pictures of the ghettos, the concentration camps, piles of murdered prisoners, and videos of interviews with survivors. Additionally, taking up a half-room, there was a 3D model of part of Auschwitz, showing where trains of prisoners arrived and were separated into groups of workers and non-workers. The workers were marched away to receive the striped uniforms with various badges indicating their category, taken to barracks, etc., while the non-workers (old men, women, children) were further separated in those that could be useful (women to serve in the factories or the brothels, children to be used for medical experiments) and finally into groups that would be led down the track to the gas chambers and crematoriums.
It was a sobering exhibit and had considerable impact on me. I have seen other presentations of the Holocaust, not to mention Schindler’s List and Band of Brothers, and have seen History Channel and PBS Channel presentations. I had already read about Dachau and the pre-war history of the Nazi campaigns, but being reminded of the horrors of the Nazi genocide was good. It presented an important side of World War II that should never be forgotten.
It’s too significant a chunk of history to miss, so I added a brief reference to the use of concentration camps in my current novel; it fit in well and helped the ending.
I’ve worked on my manuscript every day since coming back from Normandy and England. There was a big rush to add more “meaning” to it and I finally, to be truthful, had to admit that I had lost the story. I was trying too hard to emphasize the change that the main character experiences, and ultimately ended up with cumbersome and complicated words, dangling motives, and disjoint scenes.
I remember writing the blog about “meaning” and “motif” and the sympathy I had for my high school English teachers, but, sometimes, forcing something into a story makes it sound unnatural. Sometimes, it’s better left to the reader to find meaning rather than trying to blare it out.
In an inspired fit of simplicity, I yanked out the words and constructs where I attempted to create literature rather than just telling the story.
I am much happier. I now have told a substantial story of a man who becomes a soldier and follows along as he journeys through World War II and afterwards. There are things that prepare him for it, things along the way that affect him for good and bad, several unexpected happenings, and a finish that gives him perspective that helps him resolve the conflicts he felt.
I think that’s good enough.
I’m letting it sit for a week, will do another read through, and then will send it to my editor to read over Thanksgiving. If she thinks it’s worth publishing, then we’ll write up a contract and she’ll work on it over the Christmas holidays. She’s a high school teacher that does editing for the publisher, so she needs the holiday break to fit it in.
It’s time for a new set of eyes. Stephen King says that you should write the first draft of a new story with the door closed, then rewrite it with the door open, meaning that any story needs to be reworked with other eyes looking at it. I’m happy to move it along.
I have returned from my ten-day trip to London and Normandy, and it was almost everything I had hoped for. It was an extraordinary adventure and my son and I had a great time. In my last blog, I gave a list of what I was expecting, so let me continue in that format.
What didn’t work?
The most remarkable thing was unexpected. It had been low tide in the morning and afternoon, making the ocean almost a half-mile away, and making the beach area around the Mont St. Michel Abbey flat, muddy, and empty. You can see it by looking at the website picture. We had just finished shooting pictures and were walking into the Abbey area to find dinner. As we did, we saw a foot-high wave of water moving up the river (not down). The tide was coming in. When we came out after dinner, all the mud flats were covered in twenty feet of water and the waves were strong and aggressive. It was lapping up against the girders of the walkway we had used to come to the island (see the picture again and imagine how much water it must have taken to fill that area). It was unusual, it was powerful, and it was glorious.
Now, that’s what our soldiers were facing when they were lingering in their boats off the Normandy coast, waiting to land.
As it is with all the adventures I go on, I wanted to go back before I had even left. Maybe someday I will.
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.