LEAD ME ON

The best historical fiction breaks free from the confines of its genre.

Unlike fans of Sci-fi, romance, mystery, horror and suspense who generally know what to expect from a book in those genres, readers aren’t drawn to historical novels simply because they’re historical. They are instead attracted to specific eras or events. People who like the Middle Ages, World War II, or Colonial America, may not be interested in a racial tragedy set in the American south in the 1940s.

That’s why it’s so rewarding when an historical novelist lures us in and keeps us reading a story that we didn’t know would interest us. They transport us to bygone places to experience and explore. They introduce us to period characters whose attitudes and expectations are shaped by a world much different than our own. They intrigue us with mystery, ply us with romance, scare us with horror and make us hold our breath with suspense. And they do this while gently folding in details that dress us in period clothing, feed us tasty dishes and fill our ears with music and sounds of the times, all without giving us a history lesson.

Some historical novels which have delightfully transported me to times and places beyond my usual interests are:

Jeff Shaara’s To The Last Man takes us beyond the legend of the Red Baron to let us fly along with the skillful Manfred von Richthofen as he becomes the most deadly and the most feared pilot of WWI. He also shares with us the hardships of the men in the trenches who carry out General Pershing’s plan for bringing the war to a quick and victorious end.

Lizzie Page’s The War Nurses brings us to the battlefront with women whose exemplary courage forever changes women’s roles in times of war. I didn’t know a story about WWI could be so fascinating.

Soraya Lane’s The Girls of Pearl Harbor. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder existed long before we had a word for it. We know that WWII soldiers suffered what was then called shell shock, but we too often forget about the nurses who lived through the sickening horrors of trying to save broken and mutilated men.

POINT AND SHOOT

At a recent talk, author Steve Snyder discussed his book, Shot Down, the story of how his father trained as a WWII B-17 bomber pilot, bailed out over Belgium, was aided by the underground and fought with the French Résistance.

What culminated in an informative PowerPoint presentation began with an email I sent to Steve to let him know that I enjoyed his book and that I was particularly interested in one of the crew members who was from our town. The program took shape by networking with the Mayor’s office, the Library Board and the Historical Society.

IMG_1858 Snyder talk 1IMG_1856 Snyder talk 2IMG_1855 Snyder talk 3

The takeaway from all of this was how connections between writers can lead to opportunities for authors as well as people in the community. It also reminded me how slide shows and other visual aids help hold the audience’s interests and provides those of us historical writers, who would rather write than lecture, prompts to help us stay on track and keep our talks moving smoothly.

This came at a good time for me because I’m working on a PowerPoint of my own to supplement my talks about the underground in WWII. So I’m soaking up what I can by attending presentations such as this, arranging photos and working up a dialog to go with the pictures that will be both informative and interesting.

One thing I’ve learned through all these years is that the only antidote to those flashbacks to oral reports in front of high your school class is preparation.

G.W. The Father of our Country

“G.W.,” our history teacher would shout as he pranced from one side of the room to the other. “Come on. You know this. G.W … father of our country … chopped down a cherry tree …”

“George Washington,” someone would finally respond and end the torture.

To drum history into those students who find the subject duller than watching cement trucks drag race, teachers have resorted to things like dressing up as Abraham Lincoln and reciting the Gettysburg Address, tying a cloth around their head and marching around the room playing Yankee Doodle on a fife, or standing on a desk rowing an imaginary boat across the Delaware River on Christmas eve, 1776.

I admit that sometimes when I’m researching for a book, the stuff I’m reading makes me sleepier than a bear in winter, but I’m always hoping to find that rare fact, that yellow nugget in a prospector’s pan, that autographed Mickey Mantle rookie card in the drawer of a ten dollar desk I bought at a yard sale, that tidbit of information that makes me want to jump up and yell, EUREKA!

Of course, it doesn’t have to be grand and glorious, something small and simple can also be rewarding (although maybe not monetarily rewarding like a Mickey Mantle baseball card!)

In my novel-in-progress, Night and Fog, for instance, I had written in my first draft about how Dédée de Jongh, the daring twenty-four-year-old Belgian girl who organized the brilliant WWII underground line, Comet, had been ambushed by the Gestapo while helping allied airmen escape over the Pyrenees mountains into Spain. All I knew from my initial source was that it happened one night in the fall. Then, while reading reports by the airmen evaders, I discovered the same incident told from the evaders’ points of view. Now I knew who was present, when it happened, what the weather was like and how they got away. I also learned that it wasn’t the Gestapo, but French police!

A historical writer discovering a new fact is like a detective finding a new clue in an unsolved crime. It’s not the dull history teacher prompt of “G. W.” It’s the guide at the Natural Bridge in Virginia pointing out the initials, G. W. carved into the rock by George Washington himself.

That prospect of discovery is what makes research fun. It’s like stopping at a yard sale of history on a fine spring day.

You just never know.

You just never know.

For quite some time, my only contribution to the local historical society was a check for my annual dues. This was an embarrassingly poor showing on my part. I resolved to do better and get more involved.

I don’t act, so getting dressed up in period costume to partake in skits or demonstrations was out. I don’t bake pies, so I’m pretty useless when it comes time for the fall apple festival. But when Jeff, the Board secretary, and I discussed the Society’s newsletter, an idea struck. We thought that by publishing a short nostalgic piece in the local newspaper, we might interest others in sharing stories of bygone days with the Society. Jennifer Amato, editor of the Suburban Newspaper, liked the piece and offered to run a periodic column by the Society.

In the meantime, an opportunity came along to meet Lt. Helene Cattani, a WWII army nurse who served at the Battle of the Bulge. I was thrilled to chat with this wonderful war veteran and my enthusiasm came out in my writing. Although the article, with its magnificent photos taken by Jeff, was twice as long as the normal column, we pitched it to the newspaper anyway. Newspaper space was hard to come by, Jennifer explained, but she loved it so much she not only published it in the Suburban, but subsequently in a number of other weekly newspapers.

Volunteering to help others is its own reward. But sometimes it pays surprising dividends, like when you get to share those unexpected delightful little nuggets of history with others.