This will be my last post about the French Revolution. I’m surrendering to the reality that picking various aspects of the conflicts and talking about them does not do justice to what happened in France during the decade of 1789-1799. I’ve read a couple of dozen in-depth articles from the Encyclopedia Britannica and three books (the best of which is The French Revolution, A Quick Immersion, by Jay M. Smith), and I am overwhelmed by the difficulty of putting all the pieces together into a coherent picture. My review of the French Revolution has been fascinating and there are many parallels between it and the current US national environment, but I’m out of my league on this one.
I do want to return to why I was interested in the first place: the French Revolution’s test for an individual’s loyalty and patriotism.
It turned out, in my opinion, that the “test” had nothing to do with loyalty or patriotism, but had everything to do with the fear of punishment.
It begins with recognizing and valuing the inherent rights of individuals.
The principles of universal individual rights consumed several 18th century philosophers and theorists, including those centered around Paris, like Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau. For me, I recognize the usual key words, like Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness; freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly, petition, and the right to keep and bear arms; the right to due process and to having counsel (remember Gideon’s Trumpet from high school?).
Rights can be expressed in different ways. FDR, for example, laid out four fundamental freedoms: the freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and the freedom from fear. Today, many other things are referred to as “rights” but I’m not sure they all qualify.
In the second half of the 1700s, France was a hotbed of discussions about individual rights, and it was an advantage for the Enlightened Leaders to have a populace familiar with the ideas. On August 29, 1789 (two months after the storming of the Bastille), the newly formed National Assembly voted for a document that became the guiding light for the Revolution: the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.
It included some familiar and some unfamiliar items: Men are born free and equal in respect to their rights, which included liberty, property, security, and resistance of oppression; freedom to speak, write and publish; freedom to participate in setting taxes; the right of citizens that all agents [representatives of local and federal governments] should be held accountable; and the right to property.
But every time a “right” is cited, it’s followed by a specific or general caveat—that the rights of the society are superior to the rights of individuals. Specifically, the freedom of speech is absolute, unless it disturbs the public order established by law; the freedom of property is absolute, except in cases of “evident public necessity”, according to law; political liberty consists in the power of doing whatever does not injure another, with limits set by law; every man is presumed innocent until convicted, as provided by law.
In general, individual rights have limits or may be applied differently when individuals choose to live and function together, while laws are determined by the “will of the people”.
Remembering that the Declaration was produced by a nation only lately removed from hundreds of years of feudalism and absolute monarchies, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was enthusiastically received, supported and included in the upcoming French constitutions: the National Assembly of 1789-91, the National Legislative Assembly of 1791-92, and the National Convention of 1792-95, which produced a Declaration of Rights in 1793 that included the right of insurrection as “the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties” whenever the government “violates the rights of the people”. There was also a version for The Directorate, which was the French governing body of 1795-99. Napolean produced his Civil Code in 1804, something he felt was his greatest accomplishment. They were all modeled after the document of 1789.
There is no question that the delineation and declaration of a code for Rights is a dramatic and enduring legacy of the French Revolution. Recall that the United States’ Bill of Rights was accepted in December of 1791, so there’s no doubt that each nation was influenced by what was happening across the Atlantic.
This emphasis and recognition of individual and national rights makes it very hard for me to understand the following:
- the National Assembly issued a decree on August 10, 1789, that called on all local militias and public officials to be vigilant, to keep lists of known “disreputable persons”, and to take all measures necessary to preserve the public peace.
- the National Assembly splintered into political parties devoted to undermining its own unity, which resulted in the passionate Revolutionaries siting on the left-most side of the gallery and their opponents (the more conservative delegates) seated on the right, which originated the common usage of the “left wing” and “right wing” in politics. These parties were ruthlessly hostile and antagonist towards each other.
- the National Assembly nationalized the considerable landholdings of the Roman Catholic Church in France, as well as its gold and silver. It also decreed the abolishment of monastic vows, requiring that supreme loyalty be directed toward the nation and not a religious institution.
- The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, in 1790, made the clergy of the Catholic Church civil servants of the government, requiring them to take an oath of loyalty to the nation and not to the Church (France was overwhelmingly a Roman Catholic nation, so this was not a popular move. The Pope didn’t like it, either. Nonetheless, it was enforced.).
- the exile of 30,000 priests and the killing of hundreds more. Many priests were forced to marry against their will, and to perform Mass after they had denied allegiance to the Church. Many more were imprisoned or deported to penal colonies.
- the renaming of cathedrals (Notre Dame was called “the Notre Dame Temple of Reason”), and the forbidding of the ringing of church bells, religious processions and displays of the Christian cross.
- on July 17, 1791, a protest against the National Assembly’s actions resulted in the Champ de Mars massacre, where National Guard troops killed dozens of bystanders and unarmed protesters, and resulted in the Assembly banning political clubs and collective protests.
- the establishment of “surveillance committees” across France to watch for, identify and incarcerate “suspects” who were against the revolution or its principles, and the establishment of a special Revolutionary Tribunal to judge and execute those “suspects”. They were accused of “political crimes”.
- on August 30, 1792, home-to-home searches were authorized for the “requisition” of guns and ammunition, and the rooting out of any remaining counter-revolutionaries, a term that had just been coined.
- the appropriation of buildings owned by people [mainly nobles] who had immigrated to other countries during the revolution, or that were owned by the Church. They were converted to foundries or barracks for soldiers. Horses and draught animals were “requisitioned’; women were conscripted to work in hospitals, or to make uniforms or tents.
- in Vendee, a section of France south of Brittany that had previously surrendered during a British attack, Revolutionary generals indiscriminately slaughtered men, women, and children as punishment. Whole villages disappeared in the carnage. Boats were loaded with shackled captives and sunk in the Loire river; thousands were drowned. In all, the revolutionary forces were estimated to have killed over 100,000 people.
- in December, 1793, local Jacobins (a popular Revolutionary society) were sanctioned to execute a thousand citizens of Toulon in punishment for their non-revolutionary views.
- in August of 1793, the Law of Suspects was passed. It demanded that any person be identified as a “suspect” if they were against the revolution or the National Convention, and to then be brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal for judging. Local “surveillance committees” again roamed the towns.
- the Committee of Public Safety, a committee of the National Convention, not only punished “traitors” but “even those who were indifferent” to revolutionary causes. The Committee developed an obsessive and violent desire to “purify” the political ground and to “cleanse” the Republic of France of those who had betrayed it before or those who might betray it in the future. Two former leaders of the revolutionary movement were guillotined for having been “moderates” in the Assembly.
- the passing of the Law of 22 Prairial on June 10, 1794, (Prairial was the name of a month in the new Revolutionary Calendar), that allowed the Revolutionary Tribunal to hear cases of people accused of “slandering patriotism”, “seeking to inspire discouragement”, “spreading false news”, and “depraving morals, corrupting the public conscience and impairing the purity and energy of the revolutionary government”. It required all citizens to identify, denounce, and bring to justice these “suspects”, making rumors sufficient for bringing someone to trial. It limited the trials by the Tribunal to three days; it was prevented from calling witnesses; it was not allowed to provide defense counsel for the accused; it established the principle of the accused being guilty unless proven innocent; and it required the Tribunal to come to only one of two possible verdicts in any case – acquittal or death.
How’s that for upholding the inherent and universal Rights of Man?
It is estimated that more than 16,000 people were sentenced to death by guillotine or hanging, while ten thousand more died in prisons waiting for trial. The total number of casualties is estimated to be from 250,000 to 500,000. Many were leaders of the Revolution one year, who had their heads cut off the next. Many had served faithfully in the Assembly, just to have their heads cut off by the Convention. Whole political societies were started, became dominant, and then were assassinated out of existence.
It was a time of great exuberance in new freedoms, but also a time of great, great fear. It resulted in absolute, pervasive, and savage intolerance. France became a nation set on destroying itself.
Besides individuals being punished solely for personal beliefs and convictions, I saw other warnings for our current political and social situations:
The last years of the 18th century was a terrible time to live in France. The country began as an absolute monarchy (a divinely recognized king) with a feudal system (landlords commanding non-landowning peasants), but, by the last decade, several factors had combined to make it a hotbed of violence and rebellion.
First, the feudal system was crumbling as a social structure and had already disappeared in parts of Europe, mainly due to the improvement of the standard of living and education among the lower classes of the population. The peasants didn’t look like the peasants of old and they wanted more rights; those citizens who were business owners, craftsmen, or merchants wanted more power and control.
Second, the population of Europe had doubled between 1715 and 1800. France, with 26 million inhabitants in 1789, was Europe’s most populated country. There were constant demands for more food and consumer goods, while inflated prices and hoarding did nothing but increase the brutal poverty and hunger of its citizens.
Third, there was a rise of intellectualism concerning the inherent “rights of man”, led by notable philosophers like Montesquieu and Voltaire. Everything had become questionable: political structures (like the long established “Divine Right of Kings”), social environments (the class structure), economics (the opulence of the aristocracy versus the rampant poverty); and religion (the dominance of the Catholic Church, its integration with the aristocracy, the burden of tithing). This Enlightenment was spread throughout the culture by popular clubs, lodges, “societies of thought”, agricultural societies, and reading rooms, leading to many people becoming “woke”.
Fourth, France had spent heavily fighting in or supporting wars, the most recent being the revolution in America, leaving it deeply in debt. That translated into more and higher taxes, forced conscription for the military, and widespread anger with the actions of the aristocracy.
By the last decade, all that was needed was some incident to bring an eruption to the discontent.
It occurred on July 14, 1789, at the fortress of Bastille.
The stage had already been prepped. In June, a National Assembly had been formed from groups of non-aristocrats, non-upper-clergy, and non-nobles, that resembled a representative form of government. It’s proclaimed purpose was to create a French constitution, which the Assembly expected the king to accept. King Louis XVI was not so inclined and suppressed the idea, but was eventually forced by the various powers surrounding him to acknowledge that the Assembly had a popular authority. The Assembly renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly on July 9th, 1789, and blatantly stated that its power was equivalent to the king’s.
There had already been skirmishes: a crowd had broken into a prison to release grenadiers of the French guards, reportedly imprisoned because they refused to fire on locals; large crowds had formed to protest the King’s dismissal of Jacques Necker, a finance minister sympathetic to the commoners, businessmen, and crafts people; attacks were launched on customs posts that were blamed for causing increased food and wine prices; and the plundering of a number of places in Paris where food, guns, and supplies were thought to be stored.
By July 13th, the Hotel des Invalides [“hotel” was a general description, not a Holiday Inn] had been invaded to procure around 30,000 muskets. Unfortunately, the commandant of the Invalides had previously moved 250 barrels of gunpowder and shot needed for the muskets to the Bastille for safer storage.
By the morning of July 14th, Paris was in a virtual uproar. A crowd of about a thousand people gathered outside the Bastille and demanded the gunpowder and shot. Representatives were sent inside to negotiate demands. The negotiations dragged on and, around 1:30, the crowd grew restless and surged into the undefended outer courtyard. A small party climbed onto the roof of a building next to the gate and released the drawbridge that allowed access to the large, wooden door of the fortress.
This lit up the crowd, but amid the ensuing noise and confusion, as the soldiers of the garrison inside shouted for the people to withdraw, the shouts were misinterpreted as encouragements to enter. Then somebody fired a shot and the whole place erupted; the crowd became a mob. The fighting increased in intensity and violence, and any calls for a cease-fire were ignored. There were 5,000 Royal Army troops nearby that could have put down the crowd, but were not ordered to do so.
Meanwhile, the commander of the garrison inside the Bastille knew that he had enough cannons to fire cannister shot into the crowd, killing all or most, or that he could have torched the gunpowder and blown the place up (he did make that threat). He finally made the decision that the carnage was not worth it. He announced his surrender, opened the gates and the crowd swept into the fortress at 5:30 pm.
Ninety-eight attackers and one defender died in the actual fighting. The commander of the fortress was taken and stabbed to death, as was a local magistrate. Their heads were chopped off, mounted on pikestaffs, and paraded through the streets. Three officers were savaged and killed by the crowd, and two militiamen were hanged.
In retrospect, the crowd had taken a 400-hundred-year-old, decrepit, outdated, massive stone prison that they hadn’t come for in the first place. Once inside, the crowd found only seven prisoners, and it was becoming evening; I can’t imagine what the bowels of the Bastille felt like by the light of a torch. People came back in the daylight and when they did, the search became one of looking for souvenirs (some thought they found the skeleton of The Man in the Iron Mask). I found no reference to any fires being set or of any wholesale destruction. I assume that they did get their barrels of powder and shot, but there was no great hoard of food or treasure; the garrison of soldiers had been small and ill-supplied.
King Louis XVI did not learn of the action until the morning after, but it was confirmed that his troops had been defeated and the fortress taken. He told his commanders stationed in other military positions around Paris to return to the garrisons on the frontier, and then announced that he would recall Jacques Necker as finance minister, probably hoping that the de-escalation would cause the whole thing to blow over.
It didn’t. The “storming of the Bastille” became the “inciting incident” that would soon be promoted for what the revolutionaries wanted it to be: a symbol of insurrection, unity, and the defeat of tyranny. It gave the majority of the country a readily-identifiable event that allowed them to disregard royal authority, to recognize popular sovereignty, and a reason to set up parallel structures of municipalities for civic governance and local militias for civic protection. In rural areas, many people burned title-deeds as well as a number of chateaux. A “Great Fear” spread across the countryside during the weeks of July 20 to August 5, with attacks on wealthy landlords, led by the belief that the aristocracy was trying to put down the revolution. Many of the nobles fled to other countries.
The Bastille, itself, was proposed as a monument to liberation, or as housing for a revolutionary Guard, but the municipality of Paris ordered it destroyed as planned. The demolition began immediately and was finished in five months. Bricks from the rubble were carved into replicas of the fortress and sold, along with medals supposedly made from the chains used on prisoners.
In 1790, the Marquis de Lafayette [the same Lafayette of the American Revolution] gave the wrought-iron, one-pound and three-ounce key to the Bastille’s front door to the President of the United States, George Washington. It is now on display at Mount Vernon.
The Bastille Saint-Antoine (“The Bastille”) is one of the most famous fortresses in European history. Its biggest moment was as the location of the inciting incident that anchored the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789.
The foundation work started in 1357, with the main construction occurring after 1370. The end result was a massive stone enclosure secured by eight circular stone towers several stories tall. Its initial purpose was to house the soldiers and cannons that protected the eastern end of the river that flows through the center of Paris. The fortress served in various defensive roles in different wars and battles for many years. From 1659 onwards, it functioned as a state penitentiary.
In the 1700s, Louis XIV (he’s the one who built the Palace of Versailles) used the Bastille as a prison for upper-class members of French society who had opposed or angered him, including a few French Protestants. Louis XV and Louis XVI also used it for political prisoners, but by July of 1789, it was mostly empty. It held only seven prisoners (four forgers, a “lunatic” imprisoned at the request of his family, an assassin who had attempted to kill Louis XV thirty years before, and the son of an aristocrat who had been imprisoned by his father). The decision had already been made to tear it down and replace it with an open public space, but demolition had not yet begun.
From the thousands who had passed through its gates, one prisoner became famous.
A letter written in July of 1669 was sent from one of Louis XIV’s ministers, to Benigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, governor of a prison in southeast France. In the letter, a prisoner named “Eustache Dauger” was due to arrive in the next month or so. A cell was to be prepared for him, but it should have multiple doors, one door closing upon the other, to prevent anyone from listening to anything spoken inside the cell. The prisoner was to be seen only once a day, and he should never speak about anything other than his immediate needs, under threat of death. The man would be wearing a veil (a mask or hood) over his face when he arrived and was required to wear it continually. No one was to see his face.
The prisoner would wear that veil for the next 34 years.
Saint-Mars did as he was told and when appointed governor of a different prison in 1681, took Dauger with him. In 1687, Saint-Mars was posted to a prison on an island half a mile offshore from Cannes, and, again, took the veiled man with him. A similar cell with multiple doors had been arranged.
It was during this time that rumors spread that the man was wearing not a cloth veil, but an iron mask.
Twelve years later, Saint-Mars became the governor of the Bastille prison in Paris. As Dauger was again moved, an officer of the Bastille witnessed that the prisoner wore “a mask of black velvet”. It was in the Bastille that the prisoner died in November of 1703, never having been seen without the mask.
What little is known about the historical Man in the Iron Mask is based mainly on correspondence between Saint-Mars and his superiors in Paris. Some 800 documents were discovered in 2015 that indicated that Saint-Mars was, indeed, the lifetime jailer of Dauger and had been diverting for his own use the money provided by the king for his care. This could be an explanation of why Saint-Mars always took the prisoner with him to his new assignments. The documents also provided a description of the cell used by the masked prisoner, which contained only a sleeping mat, but no luxuries, as was previously thought.
The Man in the Iron Mask became a well-known character through the French author Alexandre Dumas in the late 1840s; a section in one of his Muskateer novels featured The Man in the Iron Mask. In it, the man is forced to wear an iron mask, and is portrayed as Louis XIV’s identical twin.
The rumors had already been going on for years. Voltaire claimed that the prisoner was a son of Anne of Austria and Cardinal Mazarin, and was therefore an illegitimate half-brother of King Louis XIV. In a 1965 essay, another author claimed that the prisoner was, indeed, Louie’s twin, but was born second, and was kept hidden in order to avoid a dispute over who would ascend to the throne.
There were other claims, including that the man was the natural father of Louis XIV; the illegitimate son or grandson of Henry IV; a French General who had angered Louis XIV; the son of Charles II of England; or an Italian diplomat kidnapped by the French; or just a common valet who had fallen from favor.
I remember the 1977 movie that featured Richard Chamberlain and Patrick McGoohan, but missed the more recent 1998 remake with Leonardo DiCaprio, Jeremy Irons, and John Malkovich. There is a long list of other appearances in the media by The Man in the Iron Mask, including DuckTales, and an episode of The Simpsons.
I became interested in the French Revolution listening to a history lecture by the travel guru Rick Steves. He referred to the Reign of Terror as having a test for patriotism during the French Revolution. Wanting to know more, I was soon swamped by descriptions of the Revolutionary Enlightenment, the storming of the Bastille, the various governing bodies and constitutions, the horrors of recurring persecutions, the shifting values of the politicians, and some of the individuals involved, all occurring in the decade after 1789.
I’m going to write about that decade for the next few blogs because I find a lot of similarities between what was happening then and what is happening now in the political and social climate of America. We can, again, see history repeating itself.
I was in a ZOOM meeting yesterday that featured a question-and-answer session with David Morrell. He lives in Santa Fe and most of you probably don’t recognize his name, but every one of you know the name of his first book’s main character – John Rambo.
That’s how he’s usually introduced, and many of the questions in a typical Q&A with him will center around the Rambo movies and how “Rambo” got into the Oxford American Dictionary (I just looked it up). But David Morrell is so much more. First Blood (Rambo #1) was only the beginning of a forty-year career (so far; he’s currently working on his first Western) that has included more than twenty major novels, movie novelizations (including Rambo #2 and #3), a TV miniseries (The Brotherhood of the Rose), and countless other short stories, reviews, and nonfiction books.
His most recent work includes a three-book set of detective/mysteries involving Thomas DeQuincy (a real person who became famous for exposing his own opium addiction), all set in 1850s England. I’ve read the three and the stories are enthralling and mysterious, as well as being incredibly interesting. He writes well enough that I feel like I’m walking the dirty smelly fog-laden streets of Old London and need to clean my shoes.
For you writers, read his Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing, published by Writer’s Digest in 2002.
The Q&A felt like a conversation with a simple, straightforward, smart, comfortable, and genuine guy who loves to talk. He packed his interview with a wealth of experience, advice, and wisdom. I could have listened to him for another couple of hours.
I like to read about writers as much as I like to read their books, sometimes more. My list so far includes Ernest Hemingway, Louis L’Amour, Jack London, Harper Lee, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Ray Bradbury, Truman Capote, Larry McMurtry, John Steinbeck, Robert Ruark, Tony Hillerman, Willa Cather, Norah Ephron, Anne Lamont, and Stephen King.
It's fascinating to hear about their childhoods, the teen years, their education, jobs and families, what inspired them to become writers, and especially how hard they had to work at it. They are all people of grit and determination, and I’ve found none that didn’t have to sacrifice to reach their goals.
David Morrell’s father was killed in WWII; David never knew him. After the war, his mother couldn’t support the two of them, so he was placed in an orphanage and, later, with a Mennonite farm family. His mother eventually remarried and he was brought back into the home, but the husband didn’t like children. He was also abusive, so David recounts plumping up his pillow under his sheets to look like he was asleep and then hiding under his bed for protection. He told himself stories to bring on sleep. He was in a gang as a teenager and was declared worthless by his school principal. Everyone was astounded when he got interested in being a writer and went on to get a doctorate in English literature.
This is not to say that every well-known writer had a terrible childhood, nor that anyone who aspires to be a successful writer has to experience major traumas, nor that they have to be well-schooled in literature. Or that they have to be excessively quirky, unusual, or gifted with talent. Yes, there are writers who are a little strange, like the guy who rented a small office with no windows, put on a suit every day, left his house and family, went to the room, took off all his clothes, and wrote naked all day long. Promptly at five, he’d put his suit back on and go home.
Or, the writer who grew up with dysfunctional and mentally ill, alcoholic parents, traveled the world, became internationally recognized for his newspaper columns, repeatedly cheated on his wife, stayed more drunk than sober, and then died when he was fifty from a liver that had turned to mush.
Or the writer who became internationally famous for her first book and never wrote another.
David Morrell always asks two questions at the beginning of his writing classes: why people want to write, and why people want to be writers. The surface answers have to do with wealth, fame, creativity, freedom, and such, but Morrell would claim that great writers become writers because they have to—that there is something inside of them that has to get out, that demands to get out, some bare necessity of survival that overwhelms them to communicate, to explain, to teach, to demonstrate, to elucidate and articulate for other people what’s going on inside them.
It’s a complex question and typically has complex answers.
I’m not a great writer and certainly not one who knows the real me well enough to tell you all the reasons why I want to write novels. I do appreciate the honesty involved because it does, indeed, reveal what’s inside of me. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes not, but it’s always interesting finding out.
Writing something meaningful involves a lot of work and a good, working knowledge of writing craft, and when it all comes together in the right place and right time, it feels almost like magic. I will sometimes write a paragraph that is spot on, says exactly what I wanted to say, says it in an interesting and enlightened way, with the right words, has rhythm, pace, and reads easily, and causes sympathetic feelings in the reader; at the end of the paragraph, they feel my emotions as if they were their emotions.
It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I feel more than just good—it is a sense of accomplishment, fulfillment, and delight, and that's one of the reasons I write.
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.
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.
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.