Follow D-Day As It Happened

Dear Readers,

For those of you who are interested, I’ll be posting live updates from June 6, 1944 as they were reported by CBS radio beginning at 0250 CST on Wednesday, June 6, 2018. I’ll be doing it from my Facebook page which you can find here.

They will run for the first twelve hours of so of the invasion, or until the Facebook Nazis put my page in jail for too many posts.

L.H.

What’s In A Name

 

Dear Readers,

I’ve finished with a full set of revisions to my novel. It is presently in the hands of some Beta Readers whom I am waiting to hear back from (hint, hint) which will then spark more revisions. After that, it goes to the editor in mid August. My target date for the ready to submit version is November 1, 2018. At that point, I’m not sure precisely what I’m going to do submission wise as I have a few options. Self publishing is an option, of course, but I’m holding on to that as my backup plan. I could always submit it to agents, secure one, and then try to land a traditional publishing arrangement with one of the big houses. This option doesn’t really appeal to me too much for several reasons. First of all, I know that this book isn’t really something a traditional publisher would like. It doesn’t have bestseller stamped all over it. Second, the process to land an agent first would slow down publication by at least a year, if not more and that’s assuming I could get an agent interested in the first place. So what is my plan? I think I’m going to approach some small independent presses. There are some positives, but there are also some negatives (no marketing budget, etc). But overall I think it is worth giving it a shot.

Today, I thought I’d write a short note and explain how I came by my title. I’ve read some cool stories about how some authors came up with the names of their book. I do not have a cool story, but what I do have is the reason for the novel. To get there, I first have to tell you how I came up with the idea for the book in the first place. I awoke one morning with an image in my head of a Lancaster pilot trying to land a crippled plane while the surviving crew huddled on the floor behind him and sang Nearer My God to Thee. This image merged in my mind with a conversation I had with a man who’d served as a Hitler Youth Auxiliary Firefighter during World War Two. This got me thinking about the strange juxtaposition of an occupation in which your job is to save lives in the midst of a destructive war and on behalf of a regime bent on destroying them. As a retired firefighter myself, I know the demands the job puts on those who do it in peacetime. So imagine doing that same job in the middle of a war.

So Others May Live sums up the reasons why firefighters do the job today, just as it sums up the reasons why they have done the job for hundreds of years. Sometimes, the job requires you sacrifice your life on behalf of the greater good. In wartime or peacetime, firefighters stand ready to answer the call. I hope my title captures this and conveys it to the reader. If it does, then I’ve done my job.

Lee Hutch

Just the Facts, Ma’am….

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Just the facts, ma’am. 

Dear Readers,

I am re-listening to the radio version of Dragnet which ran from 1949-1957. Along with Gunsmoke and Tales of the Texas Rangers, it is my favorite OTR program. I picked up something with this listen that I actually missed the first time I listened to it. In the first season, each episode was dedicated to the memory of a fallen officer. Most of them were killed in 40s with a few from the late 30s. I made a point to look up the names on the Officer Down Memorial Page and found out the circumstances. The dedications were to officers who were feloniously killed in the line of duty (as opposed to accidental deaths) for the most part.

If you look at every decade from the 1920s through the 2010s, the 40s were the second safest (with only the 50s being safer) while the 20s followed by the 30s were the deadliest. This makes sense, if you know your history. With Prohibition and then the Depression, it was open season for organized crime and consequently open season on law enforcement. During World War Two, with so many people away in the military, law enforcement deaths declined, however, they did tick upwards slightly in 1946 and 1947.

In my own career, I personally knew two officers who were shot and killed in the line of duty, but we tend to think of crime as a recent thing, it seems. The idea that law enforcement deaths were double in the 1920s what they are today is shocking to most people. But crime never takes a holiday, nor did it suddenly emerge in the 1970s. (The third deadliest decade, by the way.) As time permits, I plan on sharing some of the stories of officers who were killed during the 40s, particularly those who were murdered during the War years. So stay tuned for further information.

Hutch

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The Learning Curve

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Dear Readers,

Today I finished the first round of edits to my novel. Technically, I think it is the second round since my wife reads each chapter and marks it up as I finish. What I’ve really been doing is going back through it and mixing her suggestions with a few of my own and also putting it together in one file. Normally when I am working on a project, I make a folder with the project name and each chapter gets its own sub folder. When it is complete, I merge them all into one. I’m sending it out to Beta readers now. Some are reading it for subject matter content (ie: any historical anachronisms, etc) while others are reading it for general flow, characterization, and overall story. Once I receive their feedback, I’ll incorporate it into the next draft. I hope to pass it off to the professional editor in August. Then will come more changes and more drafts. Hopefully it will be ready to submit to agents by the first of the year.

After I finished today’s work, I began to ponder what I’d learned in the year that has gone by between the first typed word and the finished draft. This isn’t my first completed novel, but it is the first that I feel somewhat comfortable with though I know it still needs quite a bit of work. I’m not qualified to give writing advice to anyone, but here are the lessons I’ve learned while I devoted myself to this book. Some of it might be of use to you.

1. Your first draft isn’t going to be perfect! And do you know what? That’s perfectly fine. The trick is to get it down on paper. When I took creative writing courses in college, my instructors always said that good books are not written, they are re-written. Your first draft simply provides the bones. Sure, good bones are important, but you can flesh them out when you start working on revisions.

2. Good research is essential for historical fiction, but don’t get bogged down. I love research. I love diving into the archives, reading old newspapers, interviewing people, and watching old films. This book has its genesis in an interview I conducted in graduate school. The elderly man I spoke with had been a teenage firefighter in Germany during World War Two. After he described a horrific experience to me, I asked him how one gets over something like that. He looked me dead in the eye and said “You don’t.” The dozens of interviews and hundreds of books prepared me to write, but I still found things I didn’t know as I was writing. Rather than stop and go back to the books, I just made a note to myself to fact check the items and kept on getting the draft pounded out. If I had stopped each time to do more research, I’d still be researching and would have no completed novel.

3. Immersion helps with historical fiction. What do I mean? My book is set during World War Two. While I worked on it, I only listened to 1940s music, watched movies from the 1940s, and even listened to baseball games from the 40s. I turned my bedroom into what looks like a squadron ready room (I write in the bedroom). Since I wear 1940s clothes anyway, I got inside the time period as best I could. I do know that this would not work for every historical time period, but for the more recent ones, it is a way to get caught up in the world inhabited by your characters.

4. Bounce ideas off of people. The internet is a wonderful place for writers to meet and exchange ideas and support. There are some excellent Facebook groups for writers in general, writers of historical fiction, and even writers of World War Two fiction specifically. What you’ll find is that other writers will be quick to offer help, encouragement, or ideas. The only person who knows what struggles you go through both internally and externally as a writer is another writer! Writing does not have to be a solitary task. Certainly you are the one putting finger to keyboard, but let others cheer you on. I’ve written stories since I was in elementary school and up until a few years ago, only my closest relatives (and by that I pretty much just mean my wife and cats) knew that I liked to write. I don’t think I was ashamed of it, I just didn’t want people thinking I was…..I don’t know…..weird or something. Well, I got over that and now have no problem “coming out” of the writing closet.

5. But Social Media can be a double edged sword. It is nice to make new friends and interact with other writers, but take care lest social media consume your world. I once lived on Facebook. Now I visit a few times a day, but I take time out for other things too. In fact, when I set out to finish the last 40K words of my novel, I did it in November. To aid me in that endeavor, I took a social media vacation wherein I did not post for the month. I did keep up my cat Anastasia’s page (since she has more followers than I do), but I made no personal posts. The withdrawal ended after the first week or so and rather than spending my time reading stuff, I spent it writing stuff. I met my goal of finishing the book in the nick of time, as it turned out.

6. Life happens, so be prepared. Write what you can while you can. The day after I finished my first draft was Thanksgiving. That evening I ended up in the Emergency Room with a bowel obstruction and spent the next six days in the hospital. I got out, only to return on January 15th with the same problem. This next trip, I had an emergency surgery and spent 19 days in a hospital bed. As it turns out, the surgery didn’t work and I was once again in the hospital for a week in early March. I need a second surgery, a much bigger one this time. Right now it is planned for May when my semester ends, but the problem could reoccur at any time and necessitate an immediate surgery. This is why I was pushing so hard to finish my revisions and ship it off to the Beta Readers. Now I don’t have to worry about that while I worry about my surgery. So my advice is to take advantage of good writing days/times whenever you can. They won’t always be there.

7. Take time for yourself too. Even though you are hard at work trying to write a book, you need some “me” time. Don’t become so wrapped up in your project that you forgo food or human companionship. Step away from the keyboard every now and then. Go for a walk. Go to the library. Play with your kids or pets. The exercise will do you good and help clear your head. Since I’m a college professor, my lecture days provide me with an outlet to move around and interact with others. Writing is important, but so is your family. I’m fortunate that my redheaded wife supports my creative endeavors, but that doesn’t mean I can lock myself in my room 24 hours a day. No matter how many words I’d written that day, each evening at around 6pm, we’d sit on the front porch of our 1932 bungalow a few blocks from Galveston Bay and discuss our day. Sometimes we’d discuss my writing, but more often we talked about anything but writing.

8. Try to limit the self doubt. Easier said than done, I know. I’m the world’s worst at laying in bed at night and thinking of all the things I suck at and replaying every negative event in my life. It is tempting when reading a well written to novel to think “I’ll never write as good as this. I should just give it up.” If you have a sliver of talent, you’ll get better every day. Writing, like anything else, takes practice to master. If you read authors who write numerous books, often you can chart their own development across the years. As a writer, all you have to fear is your own mind. Don’t engage in negative self talk and pull yourself down. That doesn’t mean you should travel with an admiring entourage either. Be realistic but be realistic. If you are just starting out, don’t assume that because you don’t write like [insert your favorite author here] that you’ll never amount to anything. I’d be willing to be that your favorite author probably felt the same when they started out.

9. Finishing the book is a success. Am I working towards getting my novel published? Absolutely. Will I cry in my beer if it doesn’t? No, for two reasons. First, I don’t drink alcohol. Second, by finishing the book I’ve already accomplished more than most who start out to write a novel. If it never leaves the binder I place the printed pages in on my bookshelf, I’ve still done something worthwhile. I don’t write for fame, money, or adoring fans. I’m actually a fairly private person. I write because I don’t know how to not write. The urge to write/tell stories comes from deep within my psyche and has been there as long as I can remember. I finished the novel, anything that comes after that is simply a bonus.

10. When you finish one, start a new one! I finished So Others May Live in November and set it aside for several months. I wanted to be able to look at it with fresh eyes for the editing round. That doesn’t meant I twiddled my thumbs. I had already plotted out another novel and so I started on that one. It is also historical fiction, though not WW2 era. When that one ends, I have a mystery novel plotted. I’ll keep writing as long as I have the strength to tap the keys. Someone out there in this big old world is waiting to read your story, so don’t let them down.

So that’s it, Dear Readers. I hope that you might find what I learned to be useful. Good luck and happy writing.

L.H.

 

The Job That Never Ends

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Dear Readers,

Please allow a brief explanation of my lengthy absence. As you may know if you follow the blog regularly, in November I was hospitalized with a bowel obstruction for around 6 days or so. In January, I was set to start my new gig as a temporary full time history professor. I did the new hire orientation and in-service week with no problems, but then the Sunday night before the semester started, my obstruction returned with a vengeance. I had an emergency surgery and spent 19 days in the hospital. I got out and had to get caught up on a missed 2 1/2 weeks of class all while still recovering from my surgery. I have a nice six inch incision in my abdomen (which I will spare you pictures of). I had just started to feel myself again when on March 2nd, my anniversary no less, the obstruction came back again! That day just happened to be my tenth anniversary. My wife and I spent it in the E.R. I need another, much bigger operation now, but the doctor says I can try and wait to have it when the semester ends. Here’s hoping my small intestine cooperates.

Now on to today’s subject. As you know, I finished my novel So Others May Live in November. I set it aside for several months. Now is the time to sally forth to do battle with the written word. I’m going through the revisions process, after which it will go to some beta readers. After I incorporate their feedback, it will be time for a professional editor to take a crack at it. I wouldn’t say it’s a great book, but I do think it is, or at least has the potential to be, a good one. It’s sort of like I say that I am not a historian, I’m just a halfway decent storyteller.

In a previous post, I discussed sources I found particularly useful while doing the research. As part of my revisions, I’m chasing down some information that I need to nail down, things I didn’t stop to look up while I was involved in writing. These are all questions that came up once I began to write. What you see in the above photo is around 1/4 of the print sources I consulted during the research process. It does not include official documents, maps, navigational charts, notes from two dozen interviews, photographs consulted, documentaries watched, and, for fun, period movies and music. I go full on immerse when writing historical fiction. When writing about World War 2, I only watch wartime era movies and listen to wartime era music while working in my bedroom which is decorated something like a squadron ready room (complete with the famous Betty Grable pinup photo).

How much research is too much? I don’t quite know how to answer that. You have to do enough to get it right. I owe it to those who lived through the events I describe to get things as close to accurate as I possibly can, for all its beauty and horror. At my writing station, I have the following excerpt from the Randall Jarrell poem Losses taped to my desk as a reminder of the importance of doing right by those who died.

In our bombers named for girls, we burned the cities we had learned about in school

Till our lives we out and our bodies lay among those we had killed but never seen

When we lasted long enough, they gave us medals. When we died, they said “Our casualties were low.”

After much consideration, I have decided to dedicate my book in the following way:

This book is dedicated to all those who seek humanity in the midst of inhumanity; and to the men and women of the fire services of the world who still give their all So Others May Live.

Lee Hutch

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Houston’s Forgotten Tragedy

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Friends,
Houston and indeed all of the Texas coast and part of Louisiana has seen a great tragedy this week. I do not have the words to adequately describe it. I just can’t. I live in the affected area and though I was spared by the flooding, so many friends and family were not. So I took pen in hand today to talk about another tragedy which struck Houston in the midst of World War Two. A tragedy which has been sadly forgotten by all but a few who live in the area. I was a firefighter and then a fire marshal, the law enforcement arm of the fire service. In that capacity, I enforced fire code regulations and investigated fires. If we ruled a fire arson, we pursued those responsible. (In Texas, arson investigators are fully sworn peace officers with the same authority as any other peace officer, though that may differ in different states.) When I was a young fireman in the late 90s, a grizzled old 35 year veteran of battling the flames mentioned that Houston had experienced one of the deadliest hotel fires in US History. I’d never heard that before and it peaked my curiosity which is how I came to learn about the Gulf Hotel Fire, the subject of today’s sad tale.
Houston during World War Two was a happening place. It was nowhere near as large a city as it is today, with a population of just under 400,000. The city added 100,000 people between 1930 and 1940 and would add another 200,000 by the end of the 40s, partially due to the growth brought about by the War. Americans were lucky in the sense that here in the Continental United States, we did not face bombing raids as did our allies and our enemies. Houston, with its port and oil, played an integral role in the allied war effort. The downtown area was booming with restaurants, movie theaters, and dancing at the Rice Hotel. But there was an underside too. Cheap hotels and boarding houses dotted the landscape filled to the brim with transient workers who traveled to Houston seeking employment. The war gutted the Houston Fire Department with many members enlisting right after Pearl Harbor. The City of Houston created an Auxiliary Fire Department to supplement their missing manpower. This created the perfect storm which broke over the downtown skyline on the night of September 7, 1943.
The Gulf Hotel was located at 615 Preston which was the corner of Preston and Louisiana in the Downtown District. As you can see from the photo, it was probably a nice looking building when not on fire. As was often the case in downtown buildings at the time, the hotel only occupied the second and third floors. The Gulf Hotel would be happy to rent you a bed for forty cents a night. Or if you were down on your luck, you could get a cot for 20 cents! Though the hotel register listed 133 guests that night (all male), in reality there were probably many more than that. The 87 beds were often divided by thin wooden partitions and two men often shared a bed and split the price. Fifty cots were also crammed into the building. Every bed was occupied by at least one person and so were all of the cots. The hotel was located one block from the city’s major bus depot which meant that many of the guests arrived and booked a “room” with little familiarity with the layout of the building or the surrounding area.
While making his rounds in the middle of the night, a clerk noticed a smoldering mattress on the second floor, most likely due to a carelessly discarded cigarette. This was the 1940s and non-smokers were a rarity and you could smoke just about anywhere. The clerk and some guests dumped water on the mattress and thought that the fire was out. Rather than tossing the mattress outside, they stuck it in a closet. Bad idea. A few minutes later, other guests noticed heavy smoke pouring out of the closet and you began to hear shouts of “Fire!” There were only two exits from the building, an interior stairwell which led to the street and another which was a rickety fire escape. The fire quickly moved to cut off most of the guests from the interior stairwell, fueled by the wooden partitions used to separate the rooms. This left the fire escape as the only option, but just days earlier a Fire Department Inspector cited the Gulf Hotel for not installing a red safety light to point the way to the fire escape.
Around 12:50 am, the officers and men at Houston’s Central Fire Station received the alarm. The station was only six blocks away. After the fire, Deputy Chief Grover Cleveland Adams (what a name!) said “As we started out of the station, we could see the reflection of the fire against the sky.” That always signifies a big job. As they pulled up, the sole fire escape was already crowded with men. Some of them were on crutches and making slow progress which backed up the rest of the men trying desperately to get out. Then people started jumping out of the third story windows as that was the only means of escape left. With bodies thudding on the sidewalk, the fire department tried to rescue as many men as possible while the flames continued to light the downtown sky. The body of one victim, unable to escape from the third floor, hung limply out the window for the duration of the fire as a gruesome reminder of a fire’s deadly power.
Houston TX Gulf Hotel Fire 9-7-1943
Victims were transported to the two nearby hospitals, Saint Joseph and the old Jefferson Davis Hospital, many of them by private auto or police car. Doctors arrived and provided what first aid their could on the scene. Two victims died at the scene and another fifteen died after arrival at the hospital. The city was already dealing with a major tragedy. It took two hours for the fire department to battle their way inside and extinguish the fire. What they found was far worse. Thirty-eight bodies were inside the hotel, overcome by smoke and flames as they tried in vain to reach safety. The fifty-five men who died that night were victims of the deadliest fire in Houston history. Indeed, it is one of the five deadliest hotel fires in 20th Century American History. The 40s saw many deadly hotel fires, unfortunately, and this was just one.
Given that this happened during the midst of World War Two, it did not receive much coverage. Fire disasters like this were not unheard of at the time. Indeed, not even a year earlier, the City of Boston experienced the Coconut Grove Nightclub fire which killed 492 people, the second deadliest fire in American History. The post war brought era brought two other mass fatality fires when the Winecoff (Atlanta) and the La Salle (Chicago) hotels burned. Today, few Houstonians know anything about the Gulf Hotel tragedy. Part of this is because so many of the people who live in Houston today are part of the boom in population that happened after the War. Also, the City of Houston is partially to blame. They gleefully bulldoze any building more than thirty years old. The city has totally lost touch with its past, both good and bad. That is a tragedy of a different sort.
Twenty-three of the victims from this fire were never identified. They were buried in a mass grave at Houston’s South Park Cemetery, where they remain just as forgotten today as they were in 1943. The Houston Chronicle summed it up best at the time when it said the following:
“Who were these men? What strange, pathetic, colorful,
or drab histories led to a fate that sent them unrecognized
to this tragic grave?
Histories that shall be forever unwritten, unknown.
Some of them had good jobs, as shipyard workers,
defense plant workers. Some perhaps were newspaper vendors
peddlers, or clerks in hideaway stores.
Or they were beggars and crippled derelicts wandering
in the city streets with nothing to do, no place to go but
their cots in the crowded hotel.
What kind of homes did they come from? Where?
No one will ever know?”
Perhaps the finest words ever written by the Houston Chronicle. Sadly, we still do not know.
My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian.
Source Notes: In my college years I wrote a paper about this tragedy and had the opportunity to speak with a few people who witnessed the fire. (None of them were inside the hotel at the time.) I also collected newspaper articles, etc, and had a pretty nice file on it. I also consulted a publication available at the Houston Fire Museum called Houston Fire Department: 2000 Traditions & Innovations. There is some debate as to the number of remains buried in the mass grave with some sources saying 23, 31, or even 38. Most of the sources say 23 and so that is what I am going with.

Reap the Whirlwind (Pt. 8)

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Friends,

The novel is now around 66% complete. Assuming I am able to keep to my chapter a day writing schedule, it will be finished on Friday, June 30th. This is a good thing because I’m teaching a US History Since 1877 course the second half of the summer, so it is imperative that I have this knocked out before the class starts. For the subject of today’s post, I will discuss the challenges of writing historical characters, but particularly historical characters who hail from countries other than your own.

An Englishwoman. An Irishman. And two Germans. Sounds like a joke, right? But it is actually where my characters come from. Let us consider for a moment the English language. It has a wide variety of accents and dialects. Consider this point as well. Before television, regional accents tended to be a bit more pronounced than they are now. I have no problem understanding Irish accents but I can’t understand a Bostonian to save my life. Writing this into a novel is tough. You want to give the flavor of where the characters are from, but at the same time you don’t want to descend into a such heavy dialect in the speech that the reader can’t understand what they are saying. A bit of this is okay, I suppose, but you don’t want to go overboard. Dialogue is difficult enough to write as it is. But what if your characters aren’t from the same country as you AND they speak a different language?

If you were to read my novel, obviously you will know without me having to tell you that the German characters are really speaking German but I am writing in English. One thing I’ve noticed on this point is that when British authors write German characters, their English sounds British and when Americans do it, their English sounds American. Either is okay, I guess. But remember that when you are talking about historical characters, their speech has to be at least a little reminiscent of the era in which they lived. Don’t put characters using modern slang in a historical novel! Period! Just don’t! If you are in doubt, leave it out!

And what of historical attitudes? This, Dear Reader, is a tough one. Some writers create characters that have such modern attitudes and feelings on issues that they would have never existed historically. Since two of my characters reside in Nazi Germany in 1943, you can see the dilemma. I’ve read tons of World War 2 fiction. I’ve noticed that German characters typically fall into two categories. You have the ardent anti-Nazis and then you have the stereotypical arrogant and evil Nazi villain. Of course both groups existed in Nazi Germany, but what of the others? The people who, while passively complicit in Nazism, simply lived their lives as best they could under the circumstances. One thing I always tell my history students is to never tell me what they would have done if they had lived back then. Everyone is a badass until it is time to be a badass. We have the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment and a the whole weight of history to show us that most people go along in order to survive.

So, where does that leave us? Ursula, my redheaded heroine (patterned on my German wife, I might add) is a member of a resistance cell in Berlin tasked with a dangerous assignment, made more dangerous by an air raid. The Gestapo is trailing her trying to find out more information on who she is working for. She represents Germans who fought back against the Nazis. Karl, the firefighter, is a bit more complicated and I think does a better job representing the average person in Germany at the time. His father was killed in the First World War. Karl joined the Fire Brigade in Berlin at the age of 19 (in 1929). He joined the Party after it was made clear that his failure to do so would bring about his dismissal. As a reservist, he was called to active duty in August of 1939 and spent the next few years fighting in Poland, France, and Russia where he was seriously wounded. After a protracted recovery, he was discharged and resumed his duties with the Fire Brigade.

In Russia, he took part in anti-partisan operations among other things and speaks of executing Russian civilians with a certain measure of regret. He disagrees with the excesses of Nazism but at the same time he states they are the only think standing between Western Europe and the Communists. He is ambivalent about Hitler and the Party hierarchy. Like many residents of Berlin at the time, Karl has quite a bit of cheek and pokes fun (in private) at several Nazi officials. As Karl spent time in the East, he knows better than most what the Nazis are up to. He doesn’t like it, but he considers it a matter entirely outside of his control. There is much to admire in his character; his kindness to children and animals, his devotion to the men he works with, and his dedication to the citizens of Berlin. But at the same time, he has his dark side too. Such a character is, in my opinion, a somewhat accurate depiction of the German Everyman during World War 2. They weren’t all resisters. They weren’t all ardent Nazis. Most fell in the middle.

The problem from the standpoint of a writer is will people be able to care about what happens to such a character? He is neither good nor evil. Just a man trying to survive, though for what he does not know. The book makes no judgement on “good guys” and “bad guys”. In fact, the antagonist that everyone, both in England and Germany, are fighting against is the war itself. Some characters may be more sympathetic than others, but I’ll leave that up to the readers one day. All I can say is that this is a tough book to write, given the subject matter and the amount of research involved. It’s tough, but I’m doing it. Little by little. I’m getting it done.

Hutch