Elvis Movie

I recently watched the movie ELVIS. It’s definitely worth seeing, but I came away with mixed feelings. Austin Butler, who played the lead did a terrific job portraying Elvis when he was young and just breaking into the business as well as when he was older and making a comeback. He had the moves, the voice, and the mannerisms down perfectly. Nobody could have played the part better.

I can’t comment on Tom Hank’s portrayal of Colonel Tom Parker because while we are all familiar with the name, Colonel Tom was always in the background, so we never got to really know him.

Too bad so many people watching this movie today weren’t around to see the young Elvis who electrified audiences. The movie attempted to show how Steve Allen, a devout hater of rock and roll, tried to humiliate Elvis by forbidding him from shaking any part of his body except for his finger and making him sing to a live hound dog. The movie showed a small group of teens outraged by this mockery, but it failed to convey how widespread the backlash actually was. Kids from coast to coast rebuffed this insult to their idol and attack on their music. The establishment simply had yet to comprehend the financial power 76 million baby boomers would have on the nation’s economy.

The movie quickly moved to Elvis being drafted in an attempt to show how the older generation tried to nip the rock and roll movement in the bud. This quick shift made it appear as though the establishment had won, that they had snuffed out the flame and that Elvis was finished until his comeback concert in 1968.

What really happened was that after Steve Allen’s mockery, Elvis appeared on the Ed Sullivan show three times, sending TV ratings through the roof. For four straight years prior to Elvis’ notorious army induction, he completely dominated the record charts. The Everly Brothers, Ricky Nelson, Buddy Holly and others might have been in the running for number two, but there was no question as to who was number one.

The movie did a great job showing his intimate connection with black artists and how Elvis felt the music from his head to his toes and turned his body loose in reaction to it. It was this sexual hip-swiveling that scared grownups the most.

But Elvis also sang deeply emotional ballads. Perhaps the best example of this is the song “Love Me.” Mike Stoller, who with his partner Jerry Lieber, wrote many of Elvis’ biggest hits, said they once wrote an amusing song about a poor sap who was so in love with this girl he’d do anything to be with her. Elvis didn’t treat it as a silly tune. He felt the pain of this poor guy and when he sang the words, “Treat me like a fool, treat me mean and cruel, but love me,” he ripped our hearts out.

The movie does a good job of showing why Elvis was loved by black audiences as well as white. Some revisionists say that all Elvis did was copy black music, but black artists at the time, like Little Richard and B. B. King, understood that Elvis kicked the door open so that black music could be heard on radio stations other than just the so-called “race” stations.

The movie was good, although it sometimes jumped around so much that even scenes that looked as though they were going to be really interesting became nothing more than a flash, while other scenes were dragged out unnecessarily. I couldn’t help feeling that the incredible performance of this young actor could have been put to better use.

Thank goodness this movie didn’t portray teens as goofy comic book characters as has often been done with movies set in the 1950s. I think baby boomers are waiting for a movie that shows the movement for what it truly was—a cultural revolution that swept the entire world and proved to be about much more than rock and roll.

Buried in Torben’s Fountain

Many old farms contain family burial plots. But what if more than just bodies were buried among the graves? What if one of the plots was a different kind of final resting place—a grave without a body—a place that holds secrets of a former life—a life that those who buried it didn’t want to interfere with their current life? This supposition became an essential element in my novel, Torben’s Fountain.

The adage, write what you know, doesn’t necessarily mean you have to keep your stories within your expertise. I’ve never hiked over the Pyrenees Mountains like the airmen escaping the Nazis in my novel Night and Fog, but I’ve force-marched miles in army boots with feet so blistered and lungs so burning that even the slightest inclines felt as though I was trudging up foothills in the Alps. So it wasn’t hard for me to imagine what endurance it must have taken escaping airmen who’d been idle for weeks or months to hike over the mountains from France into Spain in only one night.

As writers, we may not have been members of the underground helping downed airmen escape the Nazis, but we can draw on our experiences, the traumas, the patriotism, the compassions and the fears as we bring those episodes that have been dryly recorded in military records and historic narratives to life.

Perhaps instead of write what you know, it should be use what you already know to capture what your character is feeling and experiencing.

WWII Soldiers in Their Own Words

Back in 2018, I was one of about 7,200 citizen-archivists and citizen-historians who participated in an initiative to transcribe comments handwritten by military personnel about their service during World War Two. Soldiers on active duty filled out questionnaires on topics like: women and gender, race and ethnicity, recreation and welfare, ground combat, air combat and medical care.

Unlike memoirs which are written after some time has passed, these questionnaires were filled out while the soldiers were still involved in the war. So unlike writing from memory, their responses were reactionary, honest, fresh and unfiltered.

Because they were handwritten and old, some of the words were difficult to make out, so each passage was given to multiple transcribers then compared to achieve the most accurate transcription.

Subjects discussed in the questionnaires include things like military posts, assignments, food, housing, medical care, furloughs and recreation. The respondents didn’t hold back, speaking their minds on such touchy topics as attitudes toward women in uniform and attitudes toward black soldiers serving in a segregated military. The comments were not edited for spelling or grammar which lets the respondents’ education and upbringing shine through. They are compelling, authentic and eye-opening.

 Here are a few examples:

This excerpt is from one who has had his fill of fighting:

“If the Italian Front is important enough to continue why in the hell can’t there be a few more divisions sent here instead of replacements.”

From a battle weary soldier:

“I think battalions like mine that have been on the three invasions should get a chance for some relief. We have been in all the big battles. Most of us are getting very nerves [nervous].”

From a black soldier:

“In a Nazi dominated country perhaps I would be required to wear a badge to show that I was inferior, even though I know I am not, but in America my badge is the color of my skin.”

From a soldier annoyed by what he has read in the newspaper:

“About these strikes back home they ought to put them men in the army (I mean over here on the front) and then they wouldn’t call to strike and be satisfied with there [their] high wages.”

There are about 90 different surveys which have been preserved, with as many as several thousand responses to each. Most contain questions to which the survey taker chose the answer that most closely aligned with his/her beliefs. Only a few of the questionnaires offered an opportunity for the survey taker to write out a free response to questions.

The completed, searchable survey came out earlier this year. You can check it out on the site: The American Soldier in World War II.

While the surveys help to draw a general consensus of conditions and attitudes, for me, the free responses are of most interest. One drawback is that if you leave one questionnaire, you can’t easily pick up where you left off. When you come back to that survey, you have to click your way back down to where you left off. But all in all it’s worth checking out.

Gardens

It was late winter. I was looking forward to warmer weather and itching to build cedar planting boxes to expand the raised bed garden I built last year. My plan was to construct the boxes in March, set them up and fill them with soil in April, and plant vegetables in early May.

Last Year’s Garden

In March, I headed off to the lumber warehouse stores only to find that they had few cedar boards in stock and their garden centers had virtually no concrete pavers or base material. It rained for half the month and when the stores finally restocked in April, the price of materials had gone up 120 percent.

I forged on anyway. While it rained outside, I worked inside the garage cutting, sanding and assembling. Although a month behind schedule, I still hoped to finish sometime in May.

Construction

But the outside vegetation, which had been peacefully dormant when I began my project, had awakened. My yard had transformed into a rain forest—foot-tall grass, boxwood hedges bulging like unshorn sheep, honeysuckle vines creeping through forsythia branches like body snatcher tentacles, wisteria smothering tree limbs like Devil’s Snare over the Chamber of Secrets … I finally managed to knock down the lawn, whack the weeds, take a few swipes at the snares and tentacles and get back to my project.

Finally Done

People ask if I’m working on my next novel and when it will come out. Like the garden boxes, I’m filled with ideas and intentions, but things rarely go according to plan and my next book is still a work in progress.

Bikinis and Thomas Jefferson

“All I need to know about Thomas Jefferson is that he owned slaves!” a fellow said.

The past is full of social practices that may be abhorrent to us today: killing animals for their fur, bloodletting to cure disease, burning women for suspicion of witchcraft, scalping enemies, buying and selling human slaves, forced child labor … When I hear a condemnation like the above, it makes me wonder whether people today can relate to how people viewed their world a century or more ago.

Is the eighteenth century trapper who sells furs a bad person because two centuries later we’ve condemned the practice? Should we boycott the Waldorf Astoria because it’s namesake dealt in the fur trade?

Undoubtedly, people who lived in the eighteenth century would find some of our practices today to be questionable, deplorable or even sacrilegious.

In the popular TV series Outlander, Claire, a twentieth century woman is transported back to eighteenth century Scotland. Knowing the future outcome of an upcoming battle, and pregnant with the child of her eighteenth century husband, Jamie, she escapes back to the twentieth century for the sake of their baby. Once the child has become an adult, Claire returns to the eighteenth century. Jamie is shocked by one of the photos she brought to show him his grown daughter. To his thinking, the girl is practically naked. Claire explains that wearing a bikini is quite normal in 1968.

While some may only need to know whether Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, others may want to know why the man who proposed ending slavery in his draft of the Declaration of Independence and continued to argue for a plan to end slavery when the Constitution was drafted, didn’t free his own slaves.

We’re all influenced by our present world, but I hope we can also relate to how the times and environment affected people’s actions in bygone days.

Metaphors and Uncle Miltie

I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.

The first time I heard that phrase, I thought it was pretty clever. After a couple hundred times, it got under my skin worse than poison ivy.

It reminds me how golden age television comedians used to zing “Uncle Miltie” (aka Milton Berle, aka  “Mr. Television”) for stealing their jokes.

But it also reminds me to search my work for clichés and reused metaphors.

Slang, idioms and jargon can be used effectively to reflect a person’s personality or occupation as long as they naturally fit the person’s character. They should never be forced into the story just to show off what you know.

We use clichés, slang and idioms all the time. It’s part of who we are. It shows we’re in sync with the latest trends. After all, as social creatures no one wants to feel old and left behind. Some phrases are used so commonly, they’ve become as natural as breathing. But an expression that’s trending today, will flare bright for only a moment then quickly burn out. So a story containing today’s slang will soon feel dated.

That’s not always a bad thing. For a story set in the past, dialog should reflect how people spoke at that time, but we must be mindful that the meaning of certain words and phrases have changed over the years. Being gay in the 1890s is different than being gay in the 1990s. Calling someone a penguin today might refer to someone in a tuxedo or a dancing bird in Mary Poppins, but to a WWII pilot, a penguin who flies a mahogany plane is a derogatory term for an air force officer who sits behind a desk.

Sometimes a foreign idiom used in a book may be clear by the tone of the speaker, but sometimes an explanation may be necessary. Consider two examples from Night and Fog: One scene contains the phrase black as Newgate’s knocker. As Americans we might not be familiar with the British expression, but in the context in which it is used, we know it must be bad so we need not explain it.

Another scene has Virginia, my American heroine, using the phrase, “Vous avez de araignées au plafond,” which roughly translates to you’ve got spiders on the ceiling. But since the literal translation doesn’t help us, Virginia adds, “What? Did I say it wrong? Maybe you’d rather hear the American translation. You’re nuts!

We must also take care not to put American slang in the mouths of foreign speakers (unless it is humorous misuse or otherwise intentional). Some phrases are used so often, they’ve become part of everyday speech. This makes them harder to find and eliminate from our novels. A battlefield nurse in WWII who experiences her first bloody battle might tell herself to get a grip, but a person tending the wounded at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 wouldn’t know that term and therefore wouldn’t even think it.

That reminds me of a story our Italian tour guide in Rome told us when asked how she had come to learn to speak English so well. “I lived in London for about seven years,” she replied. “I do all right except for some of the slang phrases. One time a couple in an American tour group hadn’t shown up at the appointed time, so I told the others that I would go ‘round and knock them up. I didn’t know why the Americans were laughing until they explained that in the U.S. that meant that I was going to get them pregnant!”

While idioms and slang can flavor our novels, we must strive to create our own fresh prose. During editing, we should keep Uncle Miltie in mind so our writing doesn’t become worn out like an old joke.

Keeping Writers Writing by Posting Reviews

As an author I know how important reviews are. Some readers won’t take a chance on a book that doesn’t have a fair amount of reviews. That’s why when I finish a book I’ve enjoyed, I try to follow up by posting a review.

Since “Voyage of the Heart” was a Christmas gift, Amazon declined to post my review because the book was not purchased by me and they couldn’t verify that I had read it. So I’m posting my review here:

The risks of loving—A Review of Voyage of the Heart

When we think about World War II, we usually think of the bravery of the men who went into battle knowing that the odds of making it through to the end of the war in one piece were pretty slim. But there is a different kind of courage that we often forget about, the courage of the war brides who risked leaving the security of their homes, their countries, their families and their friends to be with the American servicemen who swept them off their feet.

Voyage of the Heart, by Soraya M. Lane, published by Lake Union, 2014, draws us in with well-developed characters forged by love, war and a chance at a new adventurous life. I’m glad Soraya took me on this journey. I have childhood memories of soldier friends of my parents’ who married war brides. I now have a greater appreciation of what it took for those women to come here.

Soraya skillfully weaves the riveting stories of four British women who follow their hearts across the vast ocean hoping that the love they feel for their new American husbands will be enough to sustain them in this foreign land.

Will this new adventure become their happily ever after or will it end in disaster?  

We simply can’t help rooting for each of these young ladies as they face difficult challenges and surprises, some welcome, some quite unpleasant.

I highly recommend this book.

P.S. To learn more about war brides, check out “War Brides of World War II”, by Elfrieda Berthiaume Shukert and Barbara Smith Scibetta, published by Presidio Press in 1988 and Penguin Books in 1989.

Paint Like a Writer

Very few of us are so gifted we can just sit and write without the benefit of learning from others. From time to time in “Within my Writes”, I like to share what I have learned on my writing journey.

Not long ago I read “Word Painting”, the revised addition, published in 2014, by Rebecca McClanahan.

It disrupted my game—but in a good way.

It reminded me of my seventh grade English class where I had tried to get by with my usual minimal effort. My classmates were brimming with grey matter and I felt like I’d been thrown into the deep end of the pool with deflated Swimmies. I learned quickly that what had worked for me in grade school wasn’t going to cut it with Mr. K. He demanded much more.

Mr. K. compelled us to study the art of effective writing. He made us work on plotting, characters, plot twists, descriptions and poetry. He pushed us to open our minds to see that through words, writers like H. G. Wells could even make us believe that invisibility was possible.

I never fully overcame my laziness that year. I was lucky to scratch out a “C” in the class and was happy to be done with that torture.

It wasn’t until I was receiving high marks in high school and college for creative writing, that I understood how much Mr. K had positively influenced my writing. I haven’t written a single book or short story without thinking about him and what he’d taught me.

In her book “Word Painting” Rebecca McClanahan provides vivid examples and techniques. She teaches us that writing descriptions is more than just describing what we see, hear, feel, smell or taste. She shows us how to see through the eyes of our characters and use vivid descriptions to bring those characters to life. And she shows us techniques for writing prose that captivate and delight readers.

Just as I didn’t like the lessons in Mr. K’s class, I don’t like the lessons in Ms. McClanahan’s “Word Painting” because she makes me work harder on my writing.

Thank you, Rebecca McClanahan and Mr. K.

But Who Should Write It?

One night, before I wrote Night and Fog, my wife asked why I was watching a You Tube video in French when I don’t speak French. It was Dédée de Jongh modestly relating how she and her comrades simply did what had to be done to save Allied airmen during World War Two.

Though much older in the video than the young girl whose daring had become legendary, Dédée’s body language and tone still bore the essence of the courageous young girl who organized the most resilient underground line of World War Two and told me more about her character than merely reading about her could.

Continue reading “But Who Should Write It?”

History lessons tell you about it—Historical novels let you live it.

Readers aren’t drawn to historical novels simply because they’re historical. Someone who likes the Middle Ages, World War II, or Colonial America, may not be interested in a racial drama set in the American south in the 1940s. This makes for a smaller pool of potential readers than say romance, mystery, horror or suspense novels. So when historical novelists keep us reading a story set in an era we didn’t think would interest us, it’s special.

Continue reading “History lessons tell you about it—Historical novels let you live it.”