The cover of Into the Flames, Book Two of my By the Hands of Men series is, like the first book, designed and executed by the ridiculously talented Kia Heavey. No, I’m not exaggerating about her talents. She plays the bagpipes, she’s a wicked graphics artist, and she’s a hell of a writer (I highly recommend her YA novel Underlake).
Kia was the one who recommended looking for an image to represent Robert Fitzgerald. In her opinion, having a central image to tie the cover together would make it more effective. I have to admit, I was hesitant…finding the photo of Nurse Florence Ethel Spalding, a strikingly beautiful woman (who actually worked in a field hospital at Gallopoli in WWI) was such a stroke of luck, I thought it would be a fool’s errand to even try to repeat the process. I was forgetting, however, that coincidence and luck are God’s way of remaining anonymous.
The day job had just recently become “the graveyard shift,” which meant my “days” off, in fact, left me awake in the middle of the night with only the cats for company. So I began to wander through Google images looking for “World War One Veterans.” That was a melancholy search, as it tended to either show historical photos of the devastation of the Great War or the aftermath. I kept at it, though, and was led to “Discovering Anzacs,” a project of the National Archives of Australia.
It’s a wonderful site: over a 1000 images, most of them cotemporary photos of the young men (and some women) who went off to war. Even better (and more worthy of praise), in many cases you can read the digitized service record of the soldier. For any person interested in history, that alone would make it worth trip.
I, however, was just looking for a photograp. A few of the posed, studio photos (the kind typically taken in America while the young recruit is still in boot camp) caught my eye, but they weren’t quite it. Most of the young men were putting on brave, jaunty faces. Having presumably read By the Hands of Men, you know that jaunty is not an attitude that the young lieutenant assumes very often.
But there was another type of image, as well, one that struck me very powerfully. Relatives of these veterans had also submitted photos of their graves. And most of them, from the simplest flat marker on the ground to the most ornate mini-mausoleum, almost every one of them included the notation “…buried with his wife.”
Maybe it was the lateness of the hour, working alone in my attic office in the early fall chill, but I found those photos of marble and cement and brass slabs incredibly moving. After surviving the crucible of the Great War, these men had returned to pick up their lives, get married, create families. And at the end of their life, they would not be parted from those they loved. I had to stop my research for a while.
There were hours of the night yet to fill, so after a time I returned to the Internet, scrolling through page upon page of the “Discovering Anzacs” website.
And then, after viewing more than 900 images, there he was. Alexander Chalmers. A handsome young man, to be sure, but a thoughtful one. He wasn’t grinning at the camera. It’s my guess this photo was taken after he had seen some service, and maybe he realized that war and what it required of you was nothing to take lightly. It was the kind of expression I imagined would rest on the face of a man who’s beheld what Robert Fitzgerald has seen and the journey he’s undergone.
Like Lt. Fitzgerald, Chalmers saw action from 1914 – 1917. Alex was part of the 3rd Light Horse Infantry before he was wounded and removed from active warfare, according to his service records. It gave me a chill when I found that he and my fictional Robert served the same terms of service and were both wounded in the same year.
With some more research, I was even able to locate Mr. Chalmer’s gravesite, but, alas, almost nothing about his life after the service, except for the fact he married a woman named Maud, who died in 1964. Alex Chalmers followed her in death almost exactly five years later.
They are, of course, buried side by side.
Here I am, talking about writing, the magic and power of stories, and the world of my novel, “The Big Bang.”
As you know, the book is available in paperback at Amazon,Barnes & Noble, and other brick n’ mortar sites. You can get the ebook at Amazon, iTunes, Barnes and Noble, and over 20 other sites, and it’s an audio book from Audible! Something about that last part is just pretty damn cool.
Another worthy cause to consider supporting: an organization dedicated to protecting the greater and lesser apes of Africa from being decimated as foodstocks for loggers.
I’m now one chapter from completing Book Two of By the Hands of Men, which has the working title of “To the Colonies and Beyond.” As I really want my historical fiction to feel authentic and, thus, for the reader to feel as if they have lived the story, I have had to do a lot of research on almost every chapter, and the final chapter is no different.
I have a complicated relationship with research. On one hand, I love it. It’s the written/oral equivalent of going up into the attic of your grandparents’ house, the home they’ve owned for decades (if not millennia), where odd bits of everyone in the family’s lives have ended up. Maybe you started to look for a tennis racket, and there, back in the corner, is a banjo. Which leads you to the old steamer truck, which turns out to have some momentos from your uncle’s tour of Korea, and, you discover, his march out of a reservoir called Chosin. Before you know it, your siblings have started and finished the tennis game without you, showered, and gone out to dinner, while you are still uncovering all these treasures, all this life you never knew existed.
Research can be like that for me, since what I tend to be looking for is a sense of time and place, and the people who made it that way. Usually, the time and place help narrow down the sources that I’ll start with, but the more I read, the more side alleys of curiosity lead me from the path of strict righteousness, like the proverbial trenchcoated figure in the shadows whispering, “Hey, want to see something cool?”
Just to pick one tasty fact at random from the stack of books I’m working my way through: in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the jaguar was Royal Game, and was only allowed to be hunted with a permit. Or, from another book that was close at hand: Karen Blixen, who wrote Out of Africa (as Isak Dinesen), was kind of a pain in the ass, who always insisted on being addressed by the noble title into which she married, “Baroness.”
That’s the fun part of research. Discovering the small detail, the every day idiosyncratic behaviors that make these long dead names into real people. The odd facts that (cottage cheese hanging to dry from a muslin bag) put me immediately into those lives.
The part of research I don’t like? That fact that doing it keeps me from the act of creating. But maturity (and experience) reminds me this is necessary prep, salting the creative mine, leavening the novelistic dough so that it can rise to tasty and nourishing heights, rather than lie there like hard-baked road kill, something that possesses everything needed except a mysterious and hard to capture essence of life.
I had knee surgery two weeks ago today. It kind of slowed me down, but I’m back at work on Book Two.
Above is our newest rescue critter, which my good-hearted wife found in the parking lot of a motel. We mobilized the family to bring this scrawny, wormy little critter home. They called her Ava, but I called her “BabyKat.”
Since being with us (and after some assistance from the Vet’s), she’s doubled her size and become a complete part of the family. She’s still a little wary around the Dachshund (aka “The Princess of Darkness”), with good reason, but other than that, is relaxed and affectionate. Her skittish period with new people now seems to last about five minutes, and after that, she’ll jump right up in your lap looking for a chin scratch. She’s even learned to “cat-wrestle” nicely, which means when she grabs your hands she doesn’t drill her claws into your skin as if you’re a weasel with whom she’s in a battle to the death.
We’re also looking at becoming foster parents to one of my wife’s students. Very bright girl who was dealt a crummy hand. Will let you know if that works out.
I’ve written 24 pages in the past two days, working on part four of Book Two.
A publisher whom I had queried requested the entire ms of the novel, which was encouraging and exciting.
Oh, in the photo above, BabyKat is telling me it’s time to make breakfast and get back to work. Looks like Part Four is going to go about 100 pages, so it’s time to get cracking.
“With elements reminiscent of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, in the midst of World War I, a relationship develops between an English lieutenant and a young Russian nurse—a surprising tenderness against the backdrop of war…with likable characters, spending more time in the Old World is an appealing prospect.” – Kirkus Reviews
The full review can be read here.
I was a reader before I was a writer. Apparently I was an imaginative child…but, now that I think of it, most children I’ve been around have had great little imaginations, if one is willing to pay attention to them and engage those tiny adventurers where they are at. But, I digress.
My reading has diminished of late. Part of it is the press of life, in all its expression of work and family require attention, much of which is expressed simply in time. It is not fair to my wife or kids or the critters to not have some positive interaction with me. I mean, of those three, only my wife has volunteered to be around me. Too, I am diminished by not spending a part of my day reminding myself who these people and pets are that I love, and why I love them.
The other impact to my own pleasure reading is, of course, the novel. I can’t help but feel guilty if I’m enjoyably browsing, instead of cracking open any of the many bits of research I have piled on my desk, from diaries to academic treatises heavy enough to be used for ballast.
That being said, today I was musing on the works I keep giving away. For a while, there were three titles that I was forever pressing on innocent acquaintances, telling them, “This is a great book!”
Oddly, for a fiction writer, only one of the three was fiction, while the others were non-fiction.
Watership Down is simply one of the finest novels I have ever read. During my arrogant teen period (which lasted nearly twenty years), I resisted Richard Adams’ splendid act of creation, scoffing that a story about rabbits was asinine. The ass was me, by the way. I’ve re-read the book nearly once a year ever since (one of the very, very few works of fiction I revisit), and the tale of common rabbits and their brilliantly imagined lives and mythology never fails to bring tears to my eyes. I think I like best how the characters display what I call “ordinary heroism,” simply by finding within themselves the courage to do what needs to be done, not for their own glory, but for the sake of their friends and their homes. Real heroes move among us quietly, even now in this clammy age where we know Paris Hilton’s ever gynecological detail.
Shadow Divers and Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea are both non-fiction stories of discovery in the ocean. Divers recounts the accidental discovery of a lost German U-boat off the coast of New Jersey, while Ship tells two parallel tales: the sinking of a paddlewheel ship in a hurricane near South Carolina about a decade before the Civil War, and the inventor who rediscovered the wreck and was able to salvage immense amounts of gold bullion and historical artifacts from the site.
Those bare blurbs don’t really do justice to either book, trust me. The two men who found the submarine were weekend cowboy divers who regularly went to the edge of their physical ability with scuba gear, akin to extreme sports enthusiasts, more interested in bragging rights about their feats than anything else. As time passed, the divers began to see the wreck as something more important than their own egos. They end up expending time, energy, and their own money trying not only to identify the wreck for its historical significance, but even traveling to Germany to bring word to relatives about the fate and final resting place of their loved ones.
Ship of Gold tells a more complex story by giving us not only the discovery of the wreck, but a gripping, emotional retelling of how that wreck got there. The recounting of the loss of the paddle wheeler, the heroic efforts of the passengers to save her, and experiences of the survivors adrift in the ocean and their near miraculous recovery is worthy of a book by itself. At the same time, there is the contemporary tale of a boy inventor, Tommy Thompson, who just liked to make things, and how he drifted into treasure hunting mostly for the sheer challenge of it. Prior to Thompson’s efforts, many treasure salvage operations essentially vacuumed up the sea floor, destroying the historical artifacts in pursuit of whatever gold or jewels could be recovered. Thompson build amazing remote-controlled devices that operated at depths never before possible to reach, with such advanced capabilities they could accurately record the site and recover treasure without destroying or materially affecting the wreck, leaving it essentially intact for further scientific and historical research.
What I like about both books is that they were the stories of people found there was more to their lives than simply what their experiences could do for their own self-aggrandizement. It was brutal, hard, dangerous work (three people died during the course of mapping and surveying the submarine site), but it became about more than them. One could argue that Thompson was well rewarded by his treasure salvage of the wrecked paddle wheeler, but I feel the exacting care he took to preserve the wreck suggests he was as interested in the historical value as he was the monetary.
What books do you keep giving away?
My lovely wife, Alisa, has just published a tweener/teens novel on Kindle called “Gonalls.” It was based on a story she told her children when they were younger. She honed the tale by reading it to her 4th grade students when she taught at an inner city school. They were enthralled, and I think your younger readers will be, also.
While exploring the woods with a friend, 12 year old Ian Roach finds a furry football-sized animal hiding in some underbrush. Neither he, nor his best friend Troy can figure out what type of animal it is – but it’s certainly helpless and seems nice enough. Ian has always wanted a pet, so he brings it home and convinces his mom to let him keep it.
He names his little creature Max, and soon everyone in his small Colorado town gets to meet this unusual and perky animal. It looks like a cross between a rabbit, a dog, and…something else that Ian can’t quite put his finger upon. Max is an easy keeper – he eats weeds and vegetables, and he makes a chirping noise that sounds like he’s saying, “Gonall.”
Max is extremely loyal to his new family. If anyone tries to threaten Ian or his mom, Max puffs up and…roars. Ian had always wanted a dog to protect him from two bullies that tease him mercilessly. Now it appears that Max is willing to be that protector.
Max turns out to be far more than just a sweet, cuddly little animal – and Ian and the people of Quarry, Colorado will have their lives changed in ways they couldn’t imagine.
A number of people have asked me about the image of the woman on the cover for By The Hands of Men.
When I was brainstorming the cover, my friend Kathleen Potter was the one who designed a layout featuring cameo type photos of a man and woman over and above the war imagery below.
As the time came to start working on the cover more intently, I did a Google Image search for women from that time period. On the second or third search page, I ran across the photo.
I knew nothing about the subject of the photo, but something about the young woman was incredibly striking. One fellow-writer had a more specific reaction: “Her eyes burned right through me!”
Burning or not, I fell in love with the photo. I followed it through the web to its home page on the Manly (Australia) Library Local Studies Blog, and they kindly gave me permission to use her image on the cover.
The photograph is of a young woman named Florence Spalding. She was, in fact, a nurse during World War One. Among her tours of duty was a hospital ship during the Gallipoli Landings, which film and history buffs both know was a terrible slaughter of the Allied forces. Sister Spaulding was a remarkable woman, and I encourage you to read more about her at the link above.
I found the synchronicity of locating a photo of an actual nurse a little…eerie is not the right word. In fact, it was almost a little comforting. It was one more small event of many that have transpired over the writing of the novel. Mostly, I’d see those little “coincidences” when it came to research. I’d happen to be at a used book sale, and there, as if waiting for me among the faded Stephen King and Nora Roberts paperbacks, would be an old hardback that just happened to be about one of the themes or events of the upcoming volumes in By The Hands of Men. Like as not, the book I’d discovered would also have been written during that time period and from a first-person witness, the kind of voice that lends authenticity to a story.
An old saying goes, “Coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous.” I once wrote a story in which a character suggested that God doesn’t give us the big miracles anymore, ever since the manna showed up in the desert, and all we did was grumble that it didn’t come with crème brule.
Miracles are all around us, really, if we only have eyes to see. Airliners (these huge collections of metal pieces the size of large buildings) that take off and land with great regularity. The computer I’m writing this is on is such a commonplace miracle of technology that it is invisible to us. Then there is the casual, off-hand statement a friend that happens to contain a tiny nugget of information that, in turn, will be very helpful to one of my kids. Or the red-tailed hawk that soars just twenty feet above me when I’m on my mountain bike, giving me a terrific view of its beauty and power. Small gifts of grace appear in our lives, all the time, every day.
I know that it gives me a quiet kind of peace to see them at work in my own life and the life of those I love. Looking for them refreshes me, and reminds me Who is in charge.