I find tales of people who ‘beat the odds,’ ‘stayed the course, (or whatever cliché you prefer,) fascinating, as well as encouraging.
There is solidarity in suffering, and perhaps perversely, comfort in seeing that someone was able to survive much worse than whatever I might be struggling with.
I’ve had the privilege of reading a number of pretty amazing survivor stories through other bloggers. It seemed fitting to use today’s post to share one that I recently discovered.
Bill Ash was a Texan, who disliked bullies. Thus, hearing the stories of Hitler’s conquests overseas, Bill decided that he would join the war, even if his country would not.
He traveled to Canada, gave up his U.S. citizenship, and ended up flying Spitfires with the RAF.
Bill loved to fly. “Once in the sky, a Spitfire pilot is alone- a hunter, an acrobat, and a warrior king. The only trouble in my case was that the king was about to be beheaded.” (pg. 9)
Bill’s plane was shot down in France. He was caught, arrested, tortured, and eventually imprisoned as a POW.
For many, imprisonment would spell the end of the war. Bill, however, was an officer. It was illegal for him to be pressed into forced labor. Instead, he was sent to a camp run by the Luftwaffe, where he continued to fight from the inside.
Bill and many of his fellow prisoners considered it their duty to cause as much trouble and to keep as many of their captors busy as possible. To do so, they became “escapologists.”
The tales Mr. Ash tells in this book are extraordinary. I grew up watching reruns of Hogan’s Heroes, and laughing at the absurdities. Some of the stories Mr. Ash shares could have fit well into an episode.
From the well-organized ‘Escape Committee,’ to digging tunnels under latrines, to secreting hand-made radios inside of table legs, the ingenuity of the POWs reads more like fiction than fact.
Some have claimed that Steve McQueen’s character in The Great Escape was based off of Bill Ash. He did not agree with the comparison, not the least because of his lack of motorcycle skills. He did, however, know many of the men involved in the real-life Great Escape, though he was not available to participate in it himself.
(Side note, if you haven’t seen the film, it’s worth your time. And if you need some levity afterwards, the spin-off below has some nice homages 🙂 )
Full of laughter and sorrow, gross abuses and courageous kindness, Under the Wire is a fascinating story of survival.
Watching movies with my children is an exercise in patience.
“What’s she doing?”
“How come he’s a llama now?”
Yes, I enjoy seeing them discover new worlds and sharing stories I love. It’s just difficult to enjoy the movies themselves, now that I am narrating as well as watching.
I have to remind myself that they’re little. They don’t have the background knowledge to ‘get’ the stories without a bit of help.
I felt like I’d fallen back into that role last year- the novice without a real clue of the big picture. You see, I thought I had a decent grasp of history, until I started studying it.
“Wait, who’s Reynaud? The Battle of Britain was…what exactly? Um…I thought the war only lasted four years…”
I recently posted a review for the movie Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Before diving into personal study of the Second World War, I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even know the significance of the name.
Apparently it was kind of a big deal…
Once the movie came out, I found that I wasn’t alone. A number of people I talked too weren’t familiar with the evacuation of Dunkirk, or many of the surrounding events.
The teacher in me got waaaaaaay to excited about that. The first reaction was to grab some REFERENCE MATERIAL!!!
“Oooh! Well, I can tell you all about this, and then this, and then this…”
BUT, as I’d like my friends to still answer my calls, I thought I’d periodically vent these urges into my blog instead.
Aren’t you excited?! 🙂
I am NOT going to attempt an exhaustive history. If you want that, pick up Winston Churchill’s Memoirs of the Second World War. The abridged version is just over 1,000 pages, so it’s a hefty read, but worth it if you want a look at the period from the eyes of one of the major players.
It also won the Nobel Prize for Literature, so evidently I’m not the only one who enjoyed it.
Here’s my brief rundown on Life After Dunkirk: The Fall of France. *
Operation DYNAMO, the massive evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches and port of Dunkirk wrapped up on June 4th.
I’ll try to avoid ‘movie spoilers’ here, but for those of you who have seen it and wondered about the outcome of some plans mentioned by a naval officer towards the end, the evacuated included 112,000 Belgian and French troops. Ships even returned once more at the end of the operation looking for their French allies and retrieved 26,175.
While the rescue of the army was tremendously important, the evacuation cost a great deal in equipment.
7,000 tons of ammunition, 90,000 rifles, 2,300 guns, and 120,000 vehicles were left behind.
The British Army had saved most of it’s manpower, but how would they all be armed?
The evacuated men were given 7 days leave, and the leadership wrestled with planning the next steps as the fighting in France continued- and continued to go badly.
As Mr. Churchill’s memoir states, “we were subjected by our duty to France on the one hand and the need to create and effective army at home and to fortify the island on the other…First priority continued to be given to sending whatever trained and equipped troops we had, in order to reconstitute the British Expeditionary Force in France.” (Churchill 143-144)**
These efforts to reinforce the sagging lines couldn’t last for long. June 5th marked the beginning of the final phase of the Battle of France.
The remaining British divisions, joined with the French Army, tried to hold the line north of Paris along the Somme. The German attacks continued to punish them, but more was to come.
On June 10th, in spite of British and American attempts to keep the peace, Italy entered the war on the side of Germany. They launched their own attacks on France through the Alps.
On June 14th, Paris fell.
The Allies’ situation looked dire, but they had not given up hope.
Churchill had declared several times that his government would not seek peace with Germany, no matter the fate of France. He and M. Paul Reynaud, the French Premier, discussed options for the French to continue their fight from a government in exile in North Africa.
Not all of the Allies were so optimistic. The French General Weygand and other were convinced that all was lost. One commented, “In three weeks, England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.” (Churchill 213)
The negative pressure was too strong. Reynaud was replaced by Marshall Petain, who quickly sought an armistice with Germany.
This pro-German government would be set up in Vichy, France- hence that quote from Casablanca when Rick asks Louis if he’s pro-Vichy or Free French.
(You don’t remember that one? You should probably watch Casablanca again. It’s always a good choice!)
On June 17-18th the French troops were informed that all was over. The armistice was signed, and all fighting officially ceased by the 25th. (All fighting, that is, by the army. I hope you’ve heard some of the stories of the courageous French Resistance!)
The British troops, along with over 20,000 Poles, “repeated now on a considerable scale, though with larger vessels, the Dunkirk evacuation.” (Churchill, 193) In all, 156,000 men and 310 guns crossed the Channel.
It’s an interesting bit of ‘history hindsight’ that at this point the USSR and Germany were on friendly terms. On the same day Paris fell, Moscow sent an ultimatum to Lithuania, and the Soviet Union proceeded to use the events in the West to annex the Baltic States. According to Churchill, Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, congratulated the Germans on their “splendid success” on June 18th, after the fall of France. This was almost exactly a year before Hitler’s brutal attack on the Russian Front.
Her nearest ally out of the fight, Britain prepared her shores for Hitler’s inevitable assault.
Some writing blogs will likely come in between, but…
Coming Soon: The Battle of Britain!
*If you like visuals, here’s an excellent animated map which shows these events.
**Any quotes cited above are from Their Finest Hour, the second volume of Winston Churchill’s six volume set of memoirs of the Second World War. Page numbers are from the separate volume, not from the abridged one.
“And remember, lecture is the least effective method of teaching.”
My class dutifully noted this point, then settled in to listen to our professor’s extensive lecture on the other methods we ought to use.
The temptation to slip into lecture-mode is strong for experts on any subject.
This includes writers.
Who doesn’t like to go on a bit when given the chance? If you’re like me, you do your research, your background work, your world-building, and quiver with excitement as your little paper universe finally takes shape. It is so tempting to stand before your audience and share, share all of it!
It is tempting to forget that perhaps they don’t care about all of the background details- the minutia of shoe styles or the history of farming techniques etc.
I love reading history. I love finding interesting tidbits to tuck into my writing. I don’t love how easy it is for these tidbits to pile up into blocks of text that choke the flow of the story. Researching my current project, set in 1939-1946, presented waaaay more information than I needed, but I wanted to use it ALL!
I was fascinated by ways the people on the ‘Home Front’ adapted to restrictions and rationing. Of course I would have to write about wedding dresses made from old parachutes and knitting projects using pet fur…somehow!
Then there were the ‘cloak and dagger’ stories. Spies! Code breakers! Exploding Rats! (Yes, I said EXPLODING RATS!)
Flail tanks! Oooh, I’d never heard of flail tanks!
Of course, I realized that flail tanks didn’t factor in to the areas I was writing about at all, for obvious reasons…
At that point I realized my danger, and asked the big question. Where does detailed world-building morph into eye-glazing lecture?
The answer is simple, even if the execution is not.
Information shared for world-building, whether historical or fantastical, must serve the story.
If it doesn’t serve the story, it needs to go.
As fun as it might be to have a character just happen to walk past a flail tank, and have them ask about it, and have someone else give a detailed description…well, that doesn’t sound fun at all, does it? It sounds forced and stilted.
Interesting background details that require long explanations and do nothing to forward the plot loose their interest value quickly.
I have read numerous books and articles which will contribute nothing to my current project, but I don’t count that as a loss. I learned from them, got a stronger sense of the era I was writing about, and maybe I’ll finally get someone into Norway in another book. Or into a tank. Or stopping baddies with exploding rodents!!!
Sometimes a bit of lecture is unavoidable.
My male lead ends up at Monte Cassino, a MAJOR battle site on the Italian front. The story in this section of book would make no sense without an idea of the landscape, the history, etc.
My first attempt was dry. Rereading it, I could almost picture myself at the front of a classroom with a chalkboard an pointer.
I asked a few questions of myself, which helped improve the writing.
Rather than a big ‘ol block of text, could the information be woven into the story, or at least presented in shorter paragraphs and phrases?
Could the information be better conveyed by a conversation?
Could the reactions of the characters set the mood- for instance, rather than the old monastery on the mountain looking “threatening,” perhaps the characters could move or speak in a way that shows fear.
It all comes down to the ever popular bit of writing advice, “Show! Don’t Tell!”
NOW, like most advice, the above is subjective.
For instance, I had a couple of professors whose lectures I loved. One would tell us about his expeditions to Antarctica. Another would occasionally slip jokes into his lectures hidden under a perfect dead pan- only those of us who kept sharp knew how funny he was.
There are popular authors who give immense lectures in their books. I immediately think of one who writes military fiction and one who has warned us about the inadvisability of dinosaur theme-parks. Both have been successful and had movies made from their work.
How do we decide on the strongest way to tell our stories? One of the best pieces of teaching advice that I received was, “Do everything with a purpose.”
Whatever style of writing we employ, we should do so purposefully, to best convey our story and to share the joy of it with the readers who come along on the journey.
Writers, have you found any techniques to keep lecturing/ info-dumping tendencies in check?
“So, you know that episode of Thundercats I was finishing?” my husband asked one morning.
“Urnghuh? Um…sure,” I answered, my foggy tones conveying that no, I hadn’t had my morning coffee yet. I wrestled my hair into order with a scrunci and tried to look awake.
“It had the same plot as that Harold Lloyd movie we watched yesterday.”
That got my attention. “What?”
“Grandma’s Boy, the Harold Lloyd movie? It was the same as the Thundercats episode.”
For those of you not familiar with these two entities, Harold Lloyd was a famous comedic actor, known for a shy persona juxtaposed against daredevil stunts.
His career stretched from the silent films in the 19teens all the way into the ‘talkie’ era.
IMDB sums up Grandma’s Boy:
“Always the mama’s boy, or in this case a grandma’s boy, Sonny joins a posse after a tramp accused of robbery and murder. He is unable to conquer his cowardice until Grandma tells him of his grandfather, also a coward, who overcame his fears with the help of a magic amulet. With new courage (and the charm), Sonny captures the fugitive and becomes the hero of the day.”
While I don’t imagine that the 1922 film was the first to use the idea of ‘the lucky charm that gives courage,’ it certainly wasn’t the last.
Enter a 1987 cartoon, in which a cat-lizard creature on Third Earth needs to save his more physically capable friends. He lacks courage until…you guessed it…he gains a ‘magical’ talisman. Which doesn’t end up being magical at all. Just like in Harold Lloyd’s film…
Of course the two stories are different. Different setting, characters, medium of presentation…but the bones of the story are the same.
The question, I think, is whether this is a failing in the stories.
I’d say, no. (Edited to: Not always.)
Is it any surprise that ideas get reused? After all, in the wisdom literature of the Bible’s Old Testament the author acknowledges,
9 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
This was, oh, about 2,500 years ago…
I asked my husband the obvious question. “Which was better?”
He thought for a moment. “Thundercats.” *
Writers, I find this encouraging. If your story idea isn’t exactly original, it doesn’t mean that it is unusable. A new voice might breathe new, exciting life into an old story.
Cat-lizards don’t seem to hurt either.
My conclusion: If you use an old theme, make sure you do it well!
Has anyone else seen this same basic plot used elsewhere?
*My husband just gave me a hard time about ‘lying to my readers,’ so here is a disclaimer. All conversations are approximated. “Baby brain” ensures that I don’t actually remember things like words people say to me anymore. If I actually remember having a conversation pre-coffee, I count that as a win. 🙂
Hours of fretting over this miniscule 200 word piece produced nothing but a few scattered sentences with no connective tissue- dry bones on the valley floor. Lifeless. Useless.
Then came the moment of change. To use the word “miraculous” seems presumptuous, but it certainly feels like something came from nothing. I woke up this morning, and the words were there, all laid out and formatted perfectly in my head.
Unwilling to lose the moment, I grabbed an unused Christmas card off of the floor and the first writing utensil that I could find- a dull, red, colored pencil. (Ahem. I may not be the best housekeeper.)
Joy of joys, the words still made sense post-coffee. I’d done it!
Yes… I’d done it, but how? Where did the inspiration come from? What changed internally or externally that finally broke the block?
Is creative inspiration is just the resurfacing of bits of background knowledge that have stewed together long enough for the subconscious to make them into a new thought? Or is it something that can be tracked down manually, by following the right steps? Or is it different for each individual?
I think I traced the roots of my novel, but how the sources managed to inspire what I’ve written is still a mystery.
I had expressed my dislike for the James Bond franchise to my husband some time ago. On closer questioning, he discovered that the three films I had seen were what he would consider the worst of the bunch. The solution: watch them ALL with me. (This included the unofficial one Sean Connery did after he was retired from the role.)
Mix in the fact that I had just rediscovered my love of Agatha Christie’s cozy mysteries and had just begun reading aloud The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe with my children and voila! I was visited by a dream detailing the climax of my story in vivid color. While it didn’t look a thing like the three sources I believe it sprang from, I can see little bits of influence from Bond, Christie, and even Lewis. (No, it doesn’t include anyone throwing killer hats. I wish…)
Of course a climactic scene does not a story make. The who’s and why’s and wherefore’s presented themselves as I let my mind wander while washing dishes.
The inspiration was just there without me seeking it out. I didn’t have to do any real work on the story until I started research.
In the end I don’t have any great thesis to present for why ideas come how and when they do. I’m just grateful that they do, and for the chances I have to capture them before they slip away.
Now, if only I can stay on this ‘inspiration high’ and keep myself from picking my query apart again. (Of course the word ‘problem’ in the second paragraph may not be the best word choice… hmm….)
Writers, where do you find your inspiration? Is it more a process or a revelation? Do you work better within defined roles, or in open-ended situations?
We don’t often go to the movies. It just isn’t worth it- having to manage babysitting, scheduling, and the fact that most of the newer films just aren’t interesting enough to spend ten bucks a ticket on (just think how much chocolate that can buy!!!)
It takes something special to get us out the door and into a theater.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk was one of those rare cases.
The story behind the movie caught my attention a year and a half ago. I began writing a story set in 1943, fairly confident that I knew World War 2 well enough that I would be able to flesh it out with just a little research.
Surprise! A 6 year war involving most of the world was a bit more complex than I remembered from highschool history. In particular, mentions of ‘the bracing defeat at Dunkirk’ kept appearing in my searches.
Dunkirk? What IS that- and what in the world do they mean by a bracing defeat?
I looked it up. I realized that if I didn’t know about this event, I knew nothing about the era I was trying to understand. The real research began…
For those of you who, like me, don’t know the significance of Dunkirk, I’ll try to summarize.
Hitler’s Germany, after a long period of threatening actions in Europe, invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. France and the United Kingdom declared war on Germany.
And…the war stalled. Little actual fighting took place as the Allies waited behind France’s defensive Maginot Line. (This time period was nicknamed ‘the phoney war.’)
Months later, in the spring of 1940, Hitler made his move. The Blitzkrieg, or ‘lightning war,’ smashed the French and British defenses. The Allies were driven back, and back, and back. Finally, the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force ended up marooned on Dunkirk beach, waiting for Hitler’s troops to capture or kill them, or for rescue to arrive from across the Channel- a miracle that would get them home.
This is the point of the story where the film begins.
Without giving anything away, (though, if you know the history, you know the overall outcome,) here are a few of my impressions.
Rather than tracking the broad military strategies and leadership of the day, Nolan choose to follow a few of the ‘regular people’ of the conflict: young soldiers trying to survive, RAF pilots flying their Spitfires across the Channel, hoping to have enough fuel to be of some help to the troops and evacuation ships, and a civilian sailor doggedly facing challenges at sea as he heads across to help in the evacuation. I liked this choice. Since I knew how the battle came out, following individual characters kept the suspense high as I wondered whether they would survive.
I haven’t really cared for dogfight scenes in other films; Dunkirk surprised me. The aerial scenes were well done- it was, as my husband said, the most successful attempt we’ve seen to put the audience into the cockpit. Of course, I also like Spitfires 🙂
The writing and dialogue impressed me. Having just watched a few movies with chronic over-explaining in them, (Revenge of the Sith…shudder,) the carefully placed words and silences gave the feeling of observing actual events rather than of sitting through a movie.
Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack is also worth noting. I didn’t find it musically interesting- it’s not the sort of thing I’d buy and listen to for fun. However, he used a variety of sounds to punctuate and accompany the action. In particular, a sound of a ticking clock in the background created a sense of urgency, of time slipping away.
On the negative side, the chronology of the film was somewhat confusing. The section of the film about the soldiers covered one week, the section about the boats one day, and the section about the planes one hour. Each of the sections was interspersed with the others so that the audience wasn’t away from one group of characters for too long, until the end when all of the threads came together. This was an interesting idea, but I didn’t feel that it was executed well. Some of the scenes became a bit repetitive since they had already happened in another timeline, and I was sometimes confused by what had happened and what would happen, as the timeline kept moving back and forth.
I’m not well versed enough in the uniforms and vehicles of the day to bring up critiques on misplaced or misapplied straps or webbing with any credibility- I’ll leave that to others. Overall I liked the ‘look’ of the film, though yes, I suppose the troops were still a little too clean, and their teeth were certainly too good for the era. 😀
SO, I’m giving Dunkirk my personal rating of 8 out of 10. (It’s a bit higher than it might be otherwise, because I like the era.) Chronologically confusing, it was still an interesting, well done ‘slice of history’ film, and worth the watch.
Playgrounds are difficult. Supervising three children on our morning excursions leaves me longing for my afternoon coffee.
My eldest is an organizer. Last week she had half a dozen kids using the wood chips that covered the ground as ‘ice cream’ in a makeshift shop, which they ‘sold’ to other children, stashing other wood chips in a hole in the playset for a bank… it was elaborate.
My middle child has followed his big sister around for years, allowing her to run the games. That era seems to be ending. He will still go along, when he wants to, but he is also beginning to assert his independence. He spent most of that day trying to time out a run up the slide between other children sliding down.
My youngest just wants to play. She wanders and dreams and I try to steer her away from wandering too close to the swings, again.
I…I try not to hover. I keep a sharp lookout that they are all safe, but I try not to worry about the bumps and bruises, the dirty faces and the woodchips in their hair and whether the other children like them.
‘Try’ is the key word. How can I love my little crazies so much and not worry about them?
I feel some of the same anxieties for the characters in my stories.
After all, I have given them life, in a way. I’d like them to be happy in the little world I’ve made for them, able to muddle through their story and hopefully come out better for the journey.
The trouble is, like my children, these fictional people don’t live in isolation. They need to be able to play well with others, but in their case, the others aren’t their peers. They are their readers.
No one wants their kid to be ‘that kid,’ the one left on the sidelines, the one desperate to be liked but forever lonely.
No author wants their creation to be ‘that character,’ the one readers write off as cliché or predictable or unlikeable.
However, my protagonists didn’t exactly come out of their first exposure to professional readers looking like the popular kids. My feedback from the Athanatos writing contest pointed out a number of weak points.
Please, don’t write this type of character- it’s overused.
She’s too sweet.
Avoid using this name- we see it all of the time.
And so on.
The critiques were kindly given, and meant to be helpful. Still, my first instinct was “Mama Bear.”
WHAT? Oh yeah? Well YOU don’t know them! And I deliberately tried not to write her that way- GRRRRRAAAA!
When calm returned, I skimmed through my draft. Ok, some of the criticisms fit, maybe, but there were reasons why the characters acted that way…
There was the problem.
I knew my characters backwards and forwards.
My readers didn’t.
I needed to do a better job of portraying my protagonists. Their motivations needed to be more clear if they had any hope of being likeable. With a goal in mind, I got to work.
From childhood experience, I knew that if my characters seemed overeager to be liked, they would probably fail. (I mean, how can you NOT like him? Look, he speaks in poetry, saves puppies, volunteers every weekend, everyone in the BOOK likes him, you HAVE TO LIKE HIM!!!!!) Like the ‘cool kids’ on the playground, they’d need to come by it naturally.
First, things first. If you’ve written at all, you’ve surely heard the advice, ‘show, don’t tell.’ I searched out any places in the books where I said nice things about the character. If they made sense to the story, I kept them, but otherwise they were chopped. I searched out scenes where the characters showed admirable qualities, and strengthened them.
Second, no one likes a show off. I knew that my characters had flaws, and that these flaws drove them. My female protagonist is so overeager to maintain good relationships with her remaining family that she bends over backwards and sacrifices happiness to keep the peace, and inadvertently puts herself and others in danger. My male protagonist is so hyper-responsible that he almost gets himself killed because he can’t handle the guilt of someone else being hurt on his watch. Re-reading, I realized that I hadn’t shown the darker sides of these traits, and as a result they both just came off as ‘goody-two-shoes.’
I wrote and rewrote, trying to give my paper people room to breathe, to be flawed, to interact with others in organic ways. Several drafts later, I hope that I am closer to realizing that goal!
A good character needs a balance of positive qualities and flaws, of personality quirks and inane normalcy to live and breathe and become more than just flat words on a page. They need these things, this attention to background to become likeable- more than that, to become relatable for their readers.
Writers- what tricks do you use to make your characters likeable? (Or at least interesting- whether a character needs to be likeable is another topic 🙂 )
Readers- what stands out about the story characters you love?
This was supposed to be a year without a vacation. Suffice it to say, life has taken some twists and turns, some pleasant, and some challenging.
On the bright side, some of these challenges resulted in a trip to Redwood National and State Parks in northern California.
I had all sorts of pithy writing topics jotted down to blog about after our return. Unfortunately, the effort of not destroying my children after spending over twenty-four hours in a van with them has left my intelligence at low ebb.*
INSTEAD, I thought I’d share some of the lovely photos my husband took on our journey. Maybe they’ll provide someone with some writing inspiration as my brain re-charges.
First, we must get the quintessential Redwood cheesy tourist picture out of the way.
I wasn’t so much impressed at the girth of the tree, but that the tree was still alive. The damage that these beauties- the tallest living things on Earth- can take is astonishing.
I was also impressed that our rental made it through safely. Maybe grateful is a better word, as we weren’t planning to have to rent a vehicle. The person who decided to steal our back tires and rims the night before we were to go changed our mind. Sigh….
Back to beautiful nature.
The kids had a good time looking for Ewoks in the forest. They were unsuccessful-those little fuzzballs are stealthy!
Still, they enjoyed the flowers and tree tunnels and trails through the warm, damp forest.
And they laughed and cheered as they ran over plank bridges under hanging walls of millions of dripping green ferns.
As far as they were concerned, the only downside was that all of the beautiful nature kept us away from the playground at the old school house we stayed in. (Nope, I did NOT make that up.)
It had been converted into a rental, large enough for our family, with the bonus of a playground and gym. Peaceful evenings on the swing set, watching the local horses and the doe and two fawns who joined their grazing every night, closed each day.
I tried to ignore the fact that an abandoned school house sounded like a perfect setting for a horror story. Especially since the little history that the owners left us said that it was built on native sacred ground. And it had a moose head hanging just above our bed… Evil Dead, anybody? Sometimes an overactive imagination is a bad thing!
Thankfully the children didn’t have any similar worries- they kept asking when we could stay there again.
Our time in Redwood went too quickly- here’s hoping we can hold on to some of the peace of that wood as we ease our way back into the day-to-day grind.
And, here’s hoping you’re finding your own beautiful, peaceful places to enjoy this summer!
* I exaggerate. The kids did quite well, considering the distance. 🙂
I must admit, I was skeptical of my husband’s interest in silent films.
I had never seen one, but I thought I knew what to expect. Silent films equaled the jangle of organ-grinder style music, makeup resembling cake icing, and overacting reminiscent of the comedic scenes with Lena Lamont in Singing in the Rain.
With such low expectations, the Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd films he played for our family were a pleasant surprise. The comedy bits were engaging and creative, and the music was well-orchestrated. Best of all, the kids found the movies fascinating- this was something we could ALL enjoy!
By the time I unwrapped TheBigParade, I was prepared to give silent films the benefit of the doubt. Still, King Vidor’s serious film was a departure from Keaton’s comedic Steam Boat Bill Jr. How would a film about an American soldier’s experiences in France during World War 1 play out as a silent film?
I didn’t expect to find a new favorite movie.
The leading man, John Gilbert, plays a wealthy American with no real idea of war, who grows into a protagonist we can root for and weep for. Renee Adoree plays his love interest in France, and the two of them pull the viewer inexorably into the story until one can almost forget that in the entire film they haven’t spoken a word.
While a silent film must lean heavily on the skills of its actors, creating one must have also posed interesting challenges for the writers. I wonder how much time it took to distill the text to its barest elements, highlighting the key points of the story without bogging down the pacing. Text that fit the situations would have to be chosen carefully, to tell the story, but also to avoid a fuss from the censors. (For instance, I suspect that the words to the song “In the Army Now” may have been edited for the film. “Rich” and “Son-of-a-gun” don’t quite rhyme…) However long it took, it was time well spent.
The attention to the story shines through the filming of each scene. One of the most powerful sequences is Gilbert’s introduction to battle. The following quote from imdb.com describes it very well.
“King Vidor recalled, “I timed the march of the US youth into battle and possible death as a slow, measured cadence with the muffled beat of brass drums heralding doom–a metronome to simulate exactly the gait of the soldiers”.
The sequence is eerie and tense and tragic, without the need for flashy special effects or gore. The story carries the emotional impact, even through a black and white movie made 92 years ago.
Another nod to the skillful writing of the film- it manages to be anti-war without diminishing the courage and the sacrifice of those involved. I could go on, but as The Big Parade demonstrates, sometimes fewer words make more impact!
Writers, Readers, and Movie Viewers: Have you found other areas in writing and filming where ‘less is more’?
My past experience teaching creative writing to elementary school students only went so far when attempting to write a novel, so I’d been brushing up my writing craft.
As you may have guessed from the title of my site, my time is not my own. It’s not easy to squeeze self-education in between meals, and snacks, and potty runs, and grocery runs, and play time, and Band-Aid applications, and stories and… more coffee, please!
My writer friends put me on to some very helpful articles, which I studied each evening while waiting for my middle child to finally give in and sleep. (What is it about bed time that shrinks a child’s bladder to something that can only stay unrelieved for five minutes?)
This article worried me, and it wasn’t alone in giving this sort of advice.
Start in the action. Start conflict right away. Hook your readers at once, or they’ll leave! No backstory!
I mentally sifted through my manuscript, and cringed. The action was there, eventually. but the first chapter…well, in the first chapter my MC has been invalided to northern England, effectively removed from the ‘action.’ This worked for the story, at least, I had thought it did.
But was there enough action?
Great. I’ve blown the beginning. I am submitting this thing to a contest I’ve paid for in a month, AND I HAVE NO BEGINNING!!!
I pummeled my brain for ideas, looking for SOMETHING that I could do to liven things up. Something that would make sense…
AH! The main conflict revolves around an undiscovered murder, committed four years previously.
I’ll write a prologue! With action!!!
I gave it a go, sat back and considered. It wasn’t too bad… though it did worry me that the characters involved wouldn’t become relevant again until much later in the story. Also, the murder was one of my bigger ‘reveals’…that was gone now.
But the articles SAID action…
I kept it.
It wasn’t until after I’d submitted that I read my first writing advice on prologues, how they’re generally frowned upon for first-time authors, and it’s safest not to attempt them.
The contest judges said essentially the same thing. Their response reminded me of myself, trying to kindly critique a students’ work. “Hmmm…I can see what you tried to do here…”
Long story short(ish), the prologue disappeared, and I tried some other beginnings, one of which involved a character waking up. Guess what else was on the list of things to avoid in your story if you’re a first time author?
In the end, I haven’t tried to add any crazy action scenes to the beginning of my current (final?) draft. They wouldn’t make sense. I tightened up the story, slimmed down the backstory as much as possible, and went with, essentially, a leaner, meaner version of the beginning I started with- which DOES have action, incidentally. It’s just that most of the conflict at the beginning is internal. I just panicked from reading too much advice and couldn’t see it.
My advice to those struggling with the beginning of your story is STAY CALM! There are many ways to add action and hook readers! Find good advice, but don’t forget the value of your gut instincts, or the feedback of other readers who are experiencing your story as the author of the article that is terrifying you hasn’t.
I’m confident that this new/old beginning is the best start for my story. Hopefully the people who will soon be clamoring to publish it (hey, dream big!) will agree…
Just for fun, I’ve included a slimmed-down version of my deleted prologue below, a deleted scene, if you will.
I’m happy with the fact that it is no longer part of the finished product, but hey, I spent enough time worrying over the thing. May as well print it somewhere…
France: May, 1940
“Are you all right, sir?”
“Yes, of course.” The captain lied, and finished wrapping the bandage around his arm, pulling the knot tight with his teeth. “Phillips, get the rest of these men back behind the new lines. There’s no use waiting around any longer.” The statement was punctuated by distant reverberations that could almost be mistaken for thunder, and brilliant flashes on the dark skyline.
“Aren’t you coming along?” Henry Phillips glanced over his shoulder. The rumbles of the tanks and artillery weren’t an immediate threat, but his foot hovered anxiously over the lorry’s accelerator.
“I’ve got to go back.”
“Captain, you don’t even know…”
“That’s the problem. I don’t know. No one’s accounted for him, he wasn’t with his company, and I can’t just leave. Not until I’m certain.”
“But the retreat’s been called, you’ll be going alone. Shouldn’t I…”
The captain clapped him on the shoulder. “Thanks, Henry, for the lift. Get yourself safe, and God willing… In any case, I’ll, or we’ll, follow quickly, never fear.”
“Yes, sir.” Phillips hesitated a moment as the captain vaulted down, then added, “And good luck.” He was rewarded with a wave, then quickly put the lorry back into gear. With a roar of the engine and a spin of tires, he was gone.
The captain set a brisk pace in the opposite direction, towards the positions they had lately abandoned. He loped along through the night, surefooted on the uneven dirt track, breathing deeply, ignoring the throbbing pain in his arm. The May air was cool and smelled of damp green countryside, laced with petrol and cordite and acrid smoke.
The dark effectively disguised the wounds on the land, but as he reached the first buildings there was light enough from the fires to distinguish the piles of rubble, broken machinery and spent shells. The French and British Allied defenses at the ‘impregnable’ Maginot Line were broken, and the brief success of their counter attack could only buy them a little more time before they were overwhelmed.
The rumble of artillery was growing louder.
He navigated the shadowy streets, unchallenged. He’d waited until the very end, until everyone that he was responsible for was out.
Almost everyone, anyway. In spite of everything, I can’t just leave him behind.
He paused, catching his breath and trying to think. Where would he be? There was that house where I saw him the other day… He changed course, searching about for familiar shapes in the flickering shadows. Down one side street, one more alley-
He called out, and the figure turned towards him. He felt a surge of relief as he recognized the other man’s face. The feeling was quickly supplanted by irritation, tinged with fear as he heard another shell impact. Too close…
“Thank God I’ve found you. What are you still doing here? You need to get back to your company at once. This is irresponsible, even for you. I ought to… ” Another shell, blast followed by the rattle of shrapnel and rock flung up from its impact. “Never mind- we need to move. C’mon…” he reached for the other’s arm, then froze.
The dim light glinted off of the barrel of the Luger, leveled at his chest.
“What…?” The captain never had opportunity to complete the thought.