Up close and zoom out. Character. Place. Time. Wide view and zoom in.
Choices, choices, choices. Every time I sit down to write I deliberate. Do I start with the place? Should it be an action scene? Or maybe just the setting. Whether I’m writing about a quest to locate lost Holocaust-era art, or the worst maritime disaster in peace or war I struggle with this question. There are just so many possibilities. Sometimes it feels like the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books I read in elementary school – if you start wrong you get mired in the muck. As Jeff Vandermeer explains in “Wonderbook” the “How and where you start your story is critical to the reader’s reaction, the effects you can achieve, and how successfully you reach that vision in your head.”
Fair enough. Still, easier said the done. That’s why so much of writing is rewriting.
Getting the start right means getting the rest of the work right. Starting at the right place, with the right person, or the right setting allows the reader an idea of the tone of the work, it’s proposed pace and essence. A good start offers the reader promise.
“Beginnings are an exercise in limits. You can’t make the reader love you in the first sentence or paragraph, but you can lose the reader right away,” Tracy Kidder writes in “Good Prose.” I tell my journalism students the same thing students about the function of a lead. You need to hook the reader. You want to persuade them to stay – not just for moment, but for the whole journey.
I’ve started my books in many different ways. “Shot From the Sky” started with place. “Death In the Baltic” started with people. “A Professor, A President and a Meteor” started with the event itself. When you do finally figure out where to begin it should feel that no other choice would possibly work. The opening of “Death in the Baltic” allowed readers to first stand alongside the East Prussian refugees as they first gazed upon the Wilhelm Gustloff. Then, as the lens pulled back, the start allowed the readers to see the larger, basic context in which the tragedy of the sinking played out.
“You can’t tell it all at once,” Kidder writes. “A lot of the art of beginnings is deciding what to withhold until later, or never say at all.”
In the space of just a couple weeks a trio of incredible World War Two stories surfaced. There is no deep meaning to these discoveries. However, it shows the importance of persistence in ferreting out stories thought to be forgotten, be they from WW2 or any other period in history. It shows there is still ”breaking news” when it comes to history.
1. The screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s “lost” Holocaust documentary.
For the first time an Alfred Hitchcock documentary about the Holocaust will be screened in full. After the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was liberated in 1945 Hitchcock was asked to put together film shot by a British army film unit. However, the film was not shown for political reasons until 1984, when an incomplete version was shown at the Berlin film festival, according to The Guardian. The film will soon be screened in its entirety.
2. An 88-year-old German man charged for participating in one of worst Nazi atrocities in France.
The man, identified only as Werner C. was charged for allegedly taking part the WWII massacre of 643 men, women and children in Oradour-sur-Glane, a small French village in southwestern France.
3. A guillotine used in numerous executions during the Nazi era was found in a museum in Bavaria.
According to a New York Times article, the Nazis executed thousands of people by guillotine during WW2. According the Bavarian National Museum, the guillotine that was used to execute White Rose members Hans and Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst, on Feb. 22, 1943 by guillotine has been in storage since the 1970s. Now there is debate over whether to display the artifact.
When author Jeff Vandermeer wrote Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction he probably didn’t realize that nonfiction authors might find the book incredibly useful and educational.
Gorgeous, intricate illustrations fill the advice book. Each drawing, a world unto itself, buttresses Vandermeer’s work. Chapters analyze plot points, scene creation, narrative arc and characterization. In addition, there are writing prompts and essays by authors including Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. Le Guin and Karen Joy Fowler. It’s all very practical advice for aspiring fiction writers. So why did I, a nonfiction author, buy the book? Simply put, I’m open to learning. I figured Wonderbook to be another avenue to learn.
As I read through the book and dissected the drawings, I realized how useful the book would be to nonfiction authors. After all, we too want to lure in our readers. We too want to captivate our readers, hold their attention and deliver a story they’ll not soon forget.
Of course nonfiction has certain inviolable rules: material gets sourced, there is no room for conjecture and quotes must be attributed. There is no poetic license in nonfiction. However, many elements of fiction work quite well in nonfiction. Be it history, biography, travel or memoir – a nonfiction book requires smooth transitions between scenes, context, and different levels of characterization. Nonfiction books need tension, a well-realized setting and a strong narrative arc.
Wonderbook offers an in-depth analysis of the writing process. It takes one from inspiration to revision; and that’s something that can benefit all writers – regardless of genre.
As an author and a journalist I work in both long and short form. I write short 500-word to 700-word pieces for The Christian Science Monitor and several regional magazines. My books average between 65,000 and 80,000 words.
During a recent Q&A about Death in the Baltic I was asked how I know when the material I’m working on is better suited for an article or whether I think it has book potential?
An article has a narrow focus. It’s self-contained, much like a short story. Or if you prefer a visual metaphor, it’s like a snapshot or a Norman Rockwell painting. In one frame the reader will get enough backstory to get a sense of the person or issue. There will be enough telling details to anchor the story and the person or persons. An example of this can be found in a recent article I wrote for The Christian Science Monitor about Edward Zellem and his book of Afghan Proverbs.
A book is still self-contained in that it follows a narrative arc. It has a beginning, middle and end, but it’s more like a film or a play. It develops the principals and gives their backstory, but it will also develop the secondary people as well. For example, in Death in the Baltic the survivors drive the narrative. They are fully realized on paper, and their backstories are fully developed. However, the “secondary characters” – various military leaders and civilians – are also developed. The landscape and the ship itself, the Wilhelm Gustloff also become “characters.” It also has to speak to a larger theme. Personally, I’m drawn to those stories in history that have been absent from the narrative. I am drawn to events I would have wanted to cover as a reporter.
I know something has the potential to be a book when I realize I can’t stop thinking about the subject. I know that I will be able to commit to that time period, those people and that place – whatever “that” may be – for more than a year. Although I don’t write fiction, I live so closely with the material that I have to be prepared to (figuratively) plunge into the icy Baltic Sea, try and burn down a Vermont town or crash land a B-17 on a Swiss field.
In other words, the subject and its people have to be something so compelling that I want to live with it and let it inhabit me for quite some time.
“To the Victor Go the Spoils.”
In the most literal sense the oft-used proverb speaks to the tangible: the victor gets the goods and material, the people and the land. But it has another, intangible message: the victor decides the narrative of the history.
As a graduate of Fairfield University’s American Studies program, one of the things I loved most was reading the books and works that tackled history from an unfamiliar point of view, including African American women during Reconstruction, Native Americans in Jamestown, or Veterans in the aftermath of the American Revolution.
Each day more books are added to our collective history and the historiography of any given subject becomes that much more complete. Books such as Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent and Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands are but two works of nonfiction dealing with World War Two that fill in gaps in the historical record. Lowe’s book delves into the post-war Europe: how crime rates soared, economies toppled, violence escalated and ethnic cleansing continued. Snyder’s book examines the Eastern front. He shows how the Nazi and Stalinist regimes started the mass killings long before the war officially began. He tells the story of this overlooked chapter.
Some stories have been told, but forgotten.Recovering these stories is essential. One such book is Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup. The memoir tells how in 1841 Northrup, a free black man, was betrayed, kidnapped and sold as a slave in pre-Civil War South. Now a film, the memoir was written 160 years ago. Edward Zellem’s Zarbul Masalha: 151 Afghan Dari Proverbs is not a history in the traditional sense. But it fills a historical void nonetheless. In Afghanistan the Taliban and other extremists burned books and attacked education thereby gravely threatening the nation’s cultural heritage. This slim volume not only helps increase literacy, it helps conserve a rich culture.
Next month, I will travel to Ithaca, NY for a series of events, coordinated by Swenson Book Development. In honor of Veteran’s Day The History Center in Tompkins County is hosting a public program in honor of Veterans Day about “the latent experiences of American military veterans of soldiers through time.”
I’m looking forward to being on a panel with Katie Aldrige, author of No Freedom Shrieker: The Civil War Letters of Union Soldier Charles Freeman Biddlecom, 147th Regiment, New York State Volunteer Army. We will talk about the experiences of Civil War soldiers, and examine the difference of first-hand Civil War experiences. History Center director Scott Callan will moderate. Also present will be Iraq War veteran Nicole Goodwin. She’ll read from her forthcoming poetry book about the challenges faced during and primarily after coming home from the war.
History is dynamic; new stories will always surface. Only time and diligence will fill in the blanks.
Letters are more than words on paper. They are voices in ink.
A World War II soldier’s letter to his daughter reached her nearly 70 years after it was written. According to news accounts, Peggy Eddington-Smith, received the letter from her father, Pfc. John Eddington, in a ceremony. Having this letter from her father, who died in Italy in 1944, allowed her to gain “more knowledge of who he was.” Eddington-Smith never knew her father.
Letters always played a big part in my research. Some are housed in archives, some in historical societies, some framed on walls. All are epistolary windows into a time past, a time charged with heightened emotion. Today the Legacy Project seeks to preserve the personal correspondence of American veterans, active-duty troops and their loved ones. The project, founded in 1998, is an all-volunteer initiative.
Some letters stand out in my mind more than others; each book is different. For “Shot From the Sky: American POWs in Switzerland” it was a letter from a downed US Airman trying, desperately, to let his parents know he survived. For “Burn the Town and Sack the Banks: Confederates Attack Vermont” one of the most memorable letters came from a Union soldier, who had just survived the Battle of Cedar Creek. Having heard of the Confederate Raid on his home of St. Albans, Vermont he wrote to his wife. He feared for her safety more than he did his own.
While researching “Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff” I read a letter Irene Tschinkur East and Ellen Tschinkur Maybee discovered many decades after the war in a suitcase in a Parisian apartment. Their mother penned the letter, dated November 1948. It relates the tragedies that consumed her family in 1945, primarily the sinking of the Gustloff and the drowning of her niece. For the sisters, the letter allowed them to reconnect with their beloved mother and all that had passed.
One of my favorite collections of letters is “Letters From a Lost Generation: First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends.” Published in 1998 this incredible collection contains letters from 1913 to 1918 between Brittain and four young men: Roland Leighton her fiancé, Edward her younger brother, and two family friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow. All four men were killed in action during WWI.
Of course some letters are personal. On April 25, 1940 my great-great-uncle Pinkas Prinz* wrote my great-grandfather, Leon Prince from what was by then the Soviet Union. “At least we are all healthy. We all send our heartfelt greetings. Pinkas. ” So closes the letter. The next year Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. In October 1942 the Jews of Zhuravno were rounded up and sPinkas, his wife and daughters were murdered in the Holocaust. Only Max, Pinkas’ son survived; he jumped off a deportation train and after spending the rest of the war in hiding eventually made his way to Israel.
There is something about wartime letters. Perhaps its how they allow us to time travel, to hear the humanity amidst the conflagration.
*Immigration officials changed the spelling of the name Prinz to Prince name when Leon arrived in Ellis Island with my grandfather Nathan in 1921 aboard the Celtic.
I recently visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to see the exhibits “The Civil War and American Art” and the accompanying “Photography and the Civil War.”
The first is a major exhibition of about 60 paintings that show the period between 1852 and 1877. Eleanor Jones Harvey curated this magnificent show that depicts how American artists reacted to and perceived the American Civil War in its entirety: from its onset, duration, and aftermath. Frederic E. Church, Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson and Conrad Wise Chapman were among the artists represented.
Each painting tells a story, from the landscapes to battlefield scenes, from the daily life to coming home. For instance one learns the landscapes, some quite grand in scale, are not just landscapes. They are allegories for the impending violence and rupture facing the new nation. In Churches’ “Icebergs”, painted in 1861, one learns that people viewed it as a story of Union patriotism and abolitionism. The biggest surprise for me was the work of Conrad Wise Chapman, an academically trained painter and Confederate solider. His realistic, detailed oils offer up close views of Ft. Sumter and The Hunley. They offer a rare glimpse behind Confederate lines.
The exhibit, much of it comprised of paintings on loan, is moving because aside from the battlefield scenes, it shows life in the south during and after the war. Two standouts are Eastman Johnson’s “Negro Life at the South” painted in 1859 and Winslow Homer’s “A Visit from the Old Mistress” painted in 1876.
Upstairs at the photography exhibit visitors can see about 200 photos as well as campaign buttons for Abraham Lincoln, photos of war-torn southern towns, battlefields and somber soldiers posing in uniform. The Civil War was the first conflict to be so documented. The work of Alexander Gardner, sometimes called the man who laid the war at America’s doorstep, is haunting. Timothy O’Sullivan’s work with light and shadow astounds.
In concert I picked up “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Tony Horwitz’ nonfiction “Midnight Rising” about John Brown and the novel “My name is Mary Sutter.”
The Civil War changed the way artists painted and it brought a new medium, photography, to the forefront. These artists tried to make sense of the war, the destruction it wrought on the land and the people. The war killed upwards of 750,000 and impacted the American psyche for generations to come.
If you live near New York City, hurry and catch this exhibit, it closes September 2. Afterwards think about picking up a book – fiction or nonfiction – and continue delving into the world in which these artists lived.
A few months ago I started writing ‘Up Close’ for Books, Ink, an online literary site. It’s a short column where I show how one passage, one sentence, or one dialogue exchange illustrates the larger work. Here now are the most recent all together:
THE HEADMASTER’S WAGER by Vincent Lam
In “The Headmaster’s Wager” the whole of the book comes across in the following exchange between Percival Chen, the headmaster at an elite English-language academy in Saigon and his lover, Jacqueline.
“Why don’t I buy you a record player? Or some novels? There are so many things you could enjoy. It is better to ignore the news. It can be upsetting.”
“Jacqueline laughed. “Like you do? I see you reading the papers that I buy, and hear you listening to the radio—both the Voice of America and the late-night Chinese broadcasts. I even heard you listening to the Vietnamese news one day. You don’t ignore the news. You just find it convenient to pretend to be oblivious. The question is, what do you do with what you know, when you feign disinterest?”
Sometimes the essence of a novel comes through in one particular turn of phrase, a well-chosen word, or a telling detail. Sometimes it’s a conversation that reveals the whole, as is the case here. Chen is an ethnic Chinese man living in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He strives to keep his elite school running all the while keeping the war at bay. Throughout the novel he remains wedded to the idea of returning to China, a country he hasn’t seen since he was a boy. After his son gets into political trouble, Chen makes a series of decisions that will cost him dear.
For the most part pivotal events in the Vietnam War - the 1963 coup, the self-immolation of monks, the 1968 Tet Offensive, the fall of Saigon – happen on the periphery. That makes the above exchange all the more effective. It allows Lam to convey the crux of the novel though the mouths of two principal characters. It’s a perfect example of “show, don’t tell.”
DUST TO DUST by Benjamin Bush
“Dust to Dust” is compelling, thoughtful and poignant. It tells of his growing up with the woods of rural New York as his playground and his time serving in Iraq as a Marine Officer. Busch deployed twice to Iraq. He is also a writer, film maker and actor; he had roles on both “The Wire” and “Generation Kill.”
Let’s look at the first two lines of the work:
“I was not allowed to have a gun. My parents were fresh from Vietnam War protests, and they had no intention of raising a solider.”
The opening two lines work because they immediately show the reader that Busch, the son of the novelist Frederick Busch, is, in many ways, about contradictions. It is about war and art. It’s about death and life. It’s about children and parents. Busch writes about his parents with the same poignancy as he writes about the death of fellow Marines. In the end readers see that life is as temporary and as complex as the earth, stone and ash of which he writes. In just 25 words Busch makes it made clear that he chose a different, contradictory, path from his parents. He would indeed become a soldier. Yet, the same 25 words also make it clear that Busch is an artist. For in the rhythm of these two sentences show an intrinsic understanding for the way words sound, whether read silently or spoken aloud.
THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy
“He tried to think of something to say but he could not. He’d had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and the dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of the things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of the birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought.”
A boy. A man. A father. A son. They have no names. McCarthy’s novel centers on a father and son walking the road, pushing a cart loaded with their few belongings and food they scavenge along the way. The pair is headed south after a cataclysm left the United States utterly devastated and nearly devoid of life. The road is dangerous –thieves and cannibals, starvation and injury constantly threaten the boy and man. Death looms. It’s specific, just as his word choices in the above paragraph.
The above passage gives us a sense of the novel’s essence for several reasons. One, it echoes sentiments felt in the months and years after a loved one dies. How the details of a loved ones face, or timbre of their voice may recede with the passage of time. Here it is the details of earth itself – pre-apocalypse – that are fading.
The passage also shows tenderness in a novel where hope seems shredded. Throughout McCarthy’s dark novel moments of extreme humanity shine. Here the words “colors” “birds” “fragile” evoke feelings nostalgia, faith, gentleness and sorrow. Lastly, its precise word choice. Just as McCarthy never refers to it as “a” road, but rather “the road” he could have used the words “sound,” “buildings” or “cars.” Instead he chose words that depict creativity, emotion, flight and freedom. These words contrast with the savagery father and son encounter on The Road. They conjure up images of life, resilience and love.
CONCEALED: THE BOOK OF JOSHUA by F.R. “Fritz” Nordengren.
“The next morning, the sun shining through the window created a rectangular shape of light and shadow on the floor of his second bedroom-turned office. It reminded him of a Mondrian painting as he walked across it holding a cup of coffee in one hand and a printed copy of as student essay in another.”
The debut novel is set in a typical small Midwestern college town. The story revolves around the protagonist Professor Joshua Stone who must put his life together after a brutal, unprovoked attack. In Stone Nordengren has painted a portrait of a complex man. The professor rides around campus on his bike with his dog in tow, he meets colleagues for drinks and enjoys 3-on-3 basketball games. Stone strives to keep order – he keeps four seasons worth of clothing in carefully labeled garment bags and he memorizes the high school mascot names of every student. These character traits serve to highlight the sense of loneliness and vulnerability that pervades the novel.
I am a voracious reader with tastes that run from John Sanford, Alex Berenson and Vince Flynn to Dolores Kearns Goodwin, Edmund Morris and Eowyn Ivey.
As an author I am drawn to little known, or overlooked, historical events. As a writer I am drawn to new ways of using words that create vivid images. I relish finding new similes and new metaphors. With these two sentences Nordengren has not only put the reader inside Stone’s study, he has underscored novel’s tone. The image of “a rectangular shape of light and shadow” echoes the thick, black lines that compartmentalize color in a Mondrian painting. These sentences speak to how Stone works to compartmentalize his life in the days and weeks after the assault.
Last week, while on Mount Desert Island, we stopped in Somesville for quite the treat. It was the annual Mount Desert Island Historical Society Strawberry Festival. Talk about two things I can’t resist: history and strawberries. While pints of the bright ripe berries were sold out when we arrived, the men and women of the society were still dishing out strawberry shortcakes. On the way out I treated myself to the society’s magazine “Chebacco.”
A couple days earlier we walked along the historic Shore Path in Bar Harbor, taking in the Museum in the Street signs. One learned how steamboats and ferries used to bring visitors to the island. One sign explained how many of the ships were centers of “alcoholic festivities and merriment” in which the captain and crew often took part. Needless to say, once upon a time that merry making led the captain to run his boat aground. Of course not all the wrecks around MDI are steeped in such frivolity.
One of the first wrecks occurred in 1604. Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer who named the island ‘l’Isle des Monts-deserts’ or island of barren mountains, apparently struck a submerged ledge near Otter Cliffs. Inside the Somesville Museum there is a rather dramatic rendering of Champlain’s arrival on the island. The painting depicts the explorer in a suit of armor atop one of the island’s mountains, behind him a crew member struggles to climb the mountain while holding aloft a standard.
In 1911, the Schooner Tay crashed on what is the present day Sand Beach in Acadia National Park. According to an article in “Chebacco” the ship was carrying lumber. The crew sheltered in the house of Louisa Morgan Satterlee, J.P. Morgan’s daughter. Incidentally Morgan’s 117-acre estate was one of more than 60 that burnt to the ground during the great fire of 1947. (The fire actually destroyed 10,000 acres of Acadia National Park, more than 2,000 acres of Bar Harbor, and upwards of 200 homes and estates.) One can see remnants of his estate during a hike around Great Head, which is just above Sand Beach. Apparently, the wreck appears each winter when the winds force the dunes of Sand Beach retreat.
Another wreck of note took place in 1920 when the steamship the Norumbega ran aground in Southwest Harbor. It crashed into a rocky outcrop. Ironically the ledge sits near the site of the U.Ss Coast Guard’s station.
Today I write as a journalist.
The Connecticut State Legislature approved a blanket prohibition on the release of and access to photos of homicide victims. As an eloquent Op-Ed in “The Day” points out the law is most disquieting because it deals yet another blow to Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Law, FOI.
The law came about because family members of those killed in Newtown on Dec. 14 sought to block not only photos but also records related to the crime. They argued that access to this information was an invasion of their privacy and that some degenerate people might exploit the images. They also argued that pictures posted on line would feed conspiracy theorists.
The law will ban the release of photographs, film, video and other images depicting a homicide victim if those records “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of the victim’s surviving family members.”
No one wants people with prurient interests to use crime scene photos in unsavory ways. And yet that is not enough reason to whittle away the First Amendment. Prohibiting access to information further feeds said conspiracy theorists. Moreover, blocking information further increases the public’s distrust in government. Checks and balances are removed.
Indeed, the legislature, with Gov. Dannel Malloy’s full support, operated with what can only be described as arrogance. It passed the law after secret discussions, without public hearings or committee meetings. Again, the issue here is the precedent being set. Changes to FOI now open the way for further erosion to FOI in the future.
The Obama Administration too has lowered the curtain on its promised window into government. It has prosecuted whistle blowers with uncommon zeal. The result, as depicted in a new documentary “War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State,” is a chilling affect on the press. These past few weeks Attorney General Eric Holder has come under (well deserved) criticism for the Justice Department’s seizure of records from news organizations including Fox News and the Associated Press. Holder’s office then had the gall to invite news organizations to an off the record lunch meeting.
Without access to information citizens can’t make informed judgments or cast informed votes about policies being enacted in their name.