During the month of May, I delved into historical moments which have impact in my novels. The novels I am working on take part in different periods of US history— the Viet Nam war era, post-World War I, and the years leading up to World War II. To integrate historical facts accurately into my fiction is an engrossing though sometimes dispiriting task. Unfortunately for most of the 20th century, war was the distinguishing feature. My exploration of political as well as social and artistic history is helping me strive for precision within the unique time frames. I am not writing specifically about the wars in any of my books but rather about their impact on my characters. Neither am I writing dystopian fiction because I prefer to highlight the aspects of the human spirit that triumph despite horrendous events.
The Vietnam War Era
Political history covers a broad sweep including events, individuals, and movements. My first novel takes place from the late 1960’s to the mid 1970’s which was when the Vietnam War dominated the news. The war disrupted the lives of young Americans, particularly those susceptible to the draft, while in Vietnam the battles displaced and injured individuals of all ages on both sides. All over the United States, American college students protested the US involvement in the war. On the campus of Kent State, as students protested peacefully, the National Guard fired on the crowd killing four and injuring five. The massacre occurred in 1970, so this year—2020—is the 50th anniversary of the event. A current video about the Kent State fiftieth year commemoration featured a professor who was an eyewitness to the horrific scene. He spent his entire faculty career on the campus, thus he spoke to the shifts that have occurred over time. It was heartrending to listen to him as he walked around the monuments at the site. He explained to the film crew what had happened, how it had happened, and where the victims were when they were killed.
As I watched the video his personal account stunned me. It brought back the distress I had personally felt when I heard the news about the shootings. At that time, I was living in France. I remember being shocked that students had been killed in cold blood by the National Guard in the US. My mind could not process why it had happened and still cannot. When I returned to the US the following year, protests continued. Sadly, over the next few years, I personally lost friends through suicide because they could not bear the thought of being sent to Vietnam to die.
My narrow understanding of the Vietnam War expanded when I read The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. This novel won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize, as well as several other notable awards. It portrays the incredibly complex story of a young Vietnamese whose life becomes entangled in the political maelstrom of the war in his homeland, the complexity of his resettlement in the US, and his subsequent return to Vietnam. Now that I am writing about those years, my personal reaction supplemented by the historical record provides me with the fuel to bring emotional impact into my fiction. However, when I consider the feat that Nguyen accomplished in his novel, I am humbled.
Post World War I: The Roaring Twenties
Another novel I am working on is situated after World War I which has required me to study the history of the war, the Roaring Twenties, and the Great Depression. When I lived in France a friend whose father was in the military sent her to shop at the nearby US Army base to purchase peanut butter and chocolate ice cream. At the time, I never considered what a US army base in France actually meant. When I started reading about the battles that US soldiers fought in on French soil during the first World War, I was faced with the momentous reality. Units from Colorado fought in one of the deadliest battles near the army base where we bought peanut butter. Having my personal knowledge of France and learning about the battles in which Colorado soldiers fought helped me to add depth to two of my main characters.
Because I was educated in French, I had studied les années folles more than the Roaring Twenties in the US. In France it was an incredibly fertile time for intellectuals, poets, and writers—including Collette, André Breton, Paul Valéry, and Marcel Proust. Paris experienced a proliferation of bookstores which set the foundation for a fascinating intellectual milieu filled with hungry readers. Meanwhile in 1920 in the USA, prohibition was established and lasted until 1933. This change contributed to the subsequent flight of many American writers, dancers, and musicians to Paris. The writers Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and Natalie Barney; Valaida Snow, known as The Queen of the Trumpet; and Josephine Baker, who danced for the Folies Bergère, influenced the Parisian art scene during those years.
Despite the expatriation of many talented Americans, the Roaring Twenties produced exciting creative work in the USA as well. Notably, what is now called “The Harlem Renaissance” resulted from Black writers, singers, and musicians gathering in New York City. Today their names are well known by most Americans: Langston Hughes wrote poetry. Jean Toomer contributed plays and short fiction. Zora Neal Hurston’s novels became part of the American canon. On the musical side, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Louis Armstrong made jazz so popular that it has become a must-have in the repertoire of American musicians. It has been enjoyable to read up on this era and try to determine how I can best integrate its impact into my novel which takes place mostly in Colorado.
Another novel I am working on begins toward the end of the 1920’s and concludes around the time of the United States’ involvement in World War II. It is a family saga set in Colorado. This manuscript has challenged me to learn about local history. It has also forced me to articulate the impact national and world history have on the lives of an American family that lives far from a major city. Because my mother grew up during this period, I have heard many personal stories. I have also reread Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the story of an American family’s loss of their farm in the Midwest during the Dustbowl of the 1930’s, their subsequent move to California, and the relentless suffering they experience as they work as migrants in the fields. It is a depressing book about a miserable time. Steinbeck remarked about his own book, “I’ve done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.” The book I am writing will definitely have sad moments but the most important moment will feature a young woman who goes beyond mere survival to stand up to the system.
Writing Goals for 2020
- Continue to refine my first two novels, working on two chapters of each per month with the goal of submitting them for review:
I reworked two chapters of my first novel this month, but I decided not to submit them to the contest that I had been planning to enter. Instead, I did some reorganizing, clarifying, and checking on historical dates and facts. I also did similar work on two chapters of my second novel.
2. Complete a draft of my third novel by December 30, 2020 by participating in the RMFW NovelRama:
This month I went back to the draft I hammered out during this year’s first NovelRama in March. I filled in accurate historical information about World War I and the 1920s. I also had to do some reading to make my language more accurate about the work the characters do.
3. Document my writing progress through my blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2020:
Today is June 7, 2020, I am posting my sixth blog of 2020. The topics that I discuss in my blog are issues that I am wrestling with in my own fiction. Sadly, this month similar issues have surfaced in our daily lives. The US is alive with protests that have united individuals of all ages and diverse walks of life. The power of words was most spectacularly illustrated when the Mayor of Washington, D.C. renamed the section of 16th Street leading up to the White House “Black Lives Matter Plaza.”
4. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:
Our Boulder Writer’s Alliance group met via Zoom twice in May. Denis Caron presented on using Amazon and Face Book to support one’s independent publishing pursuits. Rick Killian’s talk addressed the various tools he uses as an editor and ghost writer.
Today Gary Alan McBride’s Writers Who Read group discussed John Le Carré, who at the age of 88 published his 26th book, Agents in the Field. In January 2020, Le Carré was awarded the Olof Palme prize which recognizes outstanding achievement in “areas of anti-racism, human rights, international understanding, peace and common security.” The point of view Le Carré chose to drive the plot provides a good model of a narrator who thinks he knows what is happening but misses a few things along the way.
As Vice President for BWA, I helped Jessie Friedman from JLF Colorado advertise their online sessions featuring contemporary US poets and writers. Listening to writers read their own works always touches my heart.