Once More Into the Breach

 

Anastasia

Dear Readers,

It’s been several years since my retirement from the Fire Service, but I’m still not used to being off on holidays. For many, many years, holidays were just another work day. My Thanksgiving Break started yesterday (Tuesday) afternoon. I’m not much of a turkey eater, so I have no plans to stuff myself on Thursday. Indeed, my only real Thanksgiving tradition is watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And even then I must avert my eyes whenever they show the clowns. No, Reader Mine, this Thanksgiving I will be tackling yet another round of revisions as I prepare to send my manuscript out for the copy edit. This will be my last substantive edit. The remaining ones will focus on grammar, word usage, etc.

This has made me look back and consider all the editing rounds I’ve done to see how many drafts I’ve gone through and which changes were made to each. I save each draft as a separate file, so I can actually track my own progress across the drafts. So here is what I’ve done so far (and this has stretched over many months).

Draft One: Took about a year to write. Afterwards, I put it aside for several months before giving it a full read through and marked changes, mostly to character, story, plot, etc.

Draft Two: Incorporated those changes, plus the changes my wife suggested after reading the first draft. After completing Draft Two, I again put it aside for a couple of months before giving it a fresh read to prepare a third draft, which is what would go to my content editor.

Draft Three: Most of the changes here were to language, dialogue, and cleaning up “Americanisms” as my characters are not American. In between Draft Two and Three, I also chased down some lingering research issues and incorporated that into this book. And then came the content edit!

Draft Four: This is the first draft to incorporate editorial feedback from someone other than myself or my wife. I received excellent feedback from my editor and during my first pass through the draft, I added in the suggested big picture changes which were easier to include. Then I set the book aside for a few weeks while I made copious notes based on the more detailed feedback.

Draft Five: This was probably the most substantive of all the drafts. Whole chunks were slashed or re-written. I delved deeper into the psychology of the characters, based on suggestions from the editor. This helped bring them into sharper focus, I think. Or rather, I hope. I tweaked the timeline of the book as well. I also printed out a full copy so that the next reading could be a physical one. I then let another six weeks pass before having another go.

Draft Six: My wife read Draft Five, her first reading since the original draft, and made notes on the pages. Once she was done, I gave it a read through and made my own notes. Most of the changes going into Draft Six involve fixing typos, removing redundant words or unclear/awkward phrasing. I’m trying to clean up as much as I can so to maximize the benefit of the copy edit.

So how many more drafts will there be? Two. Draft Seven will be the first round of the copy edit and Draft Eight will be the second round. By mid January, it should be submission ready. I’ve identified seven presses which accept historical fiction submissions without needing an agent. If I strike out there, I will self publish the book. But that’s still quite a ways down the road.

I’ll get there eventually. Sooner, in fact, than it appears.

L.H.

An UnCivil War

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My “trick” for multiple viewpoint novels is to make a storyboard. This one is part one of my novel.

Dear Readers,

As my World War Two novel goes through the final edits and I decide whether to publish traditionally or not, I have been working on the background for my next novel. The research for it was done years ago, so I’m lucky in that regard. So Others May Live did not start out as a National Novel Writing Month project, but I did finish it during November of 2017. Going into NaNoWriMo 2018, I thought it might be nice to start a novel and we’ll see where it leads. I have my character sketches and I have made my storyboards for the novel. I gained enough confidence in writing So Others May Live to attempt another multi-viewpoint novel. It is set in Canada and New York in the summer and fall of 1864. The outline is done. The first chapter written. Character sketches drawn up. And I have my music playlist to go along with my writing, so I’m about as ready as one can be.

I’ll not say too much else about the plot at the moment, but I will say that it is a Civil War novel that does not take place on the battlefield, or at least not on the traditional battlefields. You’ll find no tales of battlefields and brigades, but rather of men and women torn by conflicting ideals, shifting loyalties, and uncertain futures. There are no bands, bugles, and bags of glory. Instead, you get a glimpse of the “dirty war”; a war fought in the shadows by men of questionable repute pursued by lawmen who in another time might have been criminals themselves. You’ll find no Gettysburgs or Shilohs within its pages.

I’m a HUGE fan of the writer John Jakes. He is the Godfather of historical fiction. His North and South trilogy is masterful as is his American Bicentennial series. Not only can he craft a good story, but you can learn quite a bit of history from him too. In the Author’s Note at the end of Love and War, the second book of the North and South trilogy, he said that he kept a sign over his writing desk whilst working on it which said “Not Gettysburg Again!” Though his characters are, of course, involved in the war, the book focuses on little known or little written about aspects of it like the Confederate Torpedo Bureau. I took this to heart myself and strove to do the same.

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This is how I organize the research.

The Civil War is my first love, it was only later that I developed my affinity for redheads. I’ve always known that I would write a Civil War novel. It’s as inevitable as sunrise tomorrow. My love of the Civil War comes from one of my great-grandmothers. She was born in 1898, a mere thirty-three years after the end of the War. Incidentally, I was born in 1978, thirty-three years after the end of World War Two. Just as I spent my childhood around World War Two veterans like my grandfathers, she spent hers surrounded by Civil War veterans. Both of her grandfathers, their brothers, and her grandmothers’ brothers all fought in the War. She was very interested in it as a child and they told her their stories, which she then passed on to me. As a teenager, she danced with elderly veterans at reunions. Hearing about the Civil War from a person who talked to veterans herself is an experience I’ll never forget. When you think about it, the 1860s weren’t really all that long ago. We are only a few generations removed from it.

The Civil War was the American Iliad. Perhaps that is why it still captivates so many people. I studied the War in college and graduate school. I spent 16 years as a Civil War reenactor. I even helped edit a published volume of correspondence from Jefferson Davis. I could, if I desired, call myself a Civil War expert. But I do not like terms like “expert” because, though my Civil War knowledge could fill many volumes, there is always more for me to learn. And there is always more for me to write.

As a child, I looked on the Civil War as a time of glory and great feats of heroism. Sure, the war did create many a hero. But there is no glory in seeing a friend decapitated by a cannonball, or listening to the screams of wounded comrades. There is no glory in dying from dysentery or undergoing an amputation. To write or talk about the war, we must tell it as it was, not as we wish it was. That is the obligation of both the historian and the novelist.

So until next time, Dear Readers, double canister and give them hell!

L.H.

 

Florian’s Own: A Night Under the Bombs

 

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In war torn Berlin, the city relies on a mix of grizzled veterans of hundreds of fires and inexperienced kids fresh from training. This is the story of a single station on a single night as bombs fall and fires burn. 

As darkness descended upon the city, I made my way towards the fire station. It was an imposing three story stone building a few blocks west of the Tiergarten. Had it not been for three massive red doors, it could have been an apartment or office building. Rows of windows on the second and third floors faced the street. They glowed slightly in the fading light of the sun. I stood for a moment and took in the building before I knocked on the middle door.

It took a few minutes and three knocks, but eventually the door began to raise with a creaking noise. I found myself staring at the cab of a green Mercedes fire engine. Footsteps echoed on the concrete floor and a firefighter appeared from behind the engine.

“You must be the journalist,” he said, making the word journalist sound a touch profane. I replied in the affirmative and he said, “Name’s Frei. I drive the ladder truck.”

My eyes followed the direction of the thumb he used to point towards a shiny green truck with a turntable ladder.

Oberwachtmeister Weber is upstairs,” Frei said, “Follow me.”

We walked across the apparatus floor. The station smelled of smoke, mold, sweat, and diesel exhaust. Four brass poles along the far wall ascend upwards and disappeared into the floor above. The stairway in the back of the station rose so steeply that, for a moment, I felt as if I were climbing the Swiss Alps. The second floor consisted mainly of one large room with iron cots along both walls. A few sparse decorations hung on the walls, mostly pin-up girls and a few official posters. One was of a grinning skeleton hurling a bomb earthward. Large block letters proclaimed “The enemy sees your light! Blackout!” The cots were all made up in regulation military fashion with the sheets and blankets folded with precision. A large picture of Saint Florian, the patron saint of firefighters the world over hung next to the fire poles.

“The washroom’s over there,” Frei said as he indicated a hallway. “So’s the kitchen. Or what passes for one. Our water pressure isn’t great these days.”

We found Obermachtmeister Karl Weber sitting behind a cluttered desk in a small office just off the main room. The stirring sound of a military march drifted from a radio atop a metal file cabinet in the corner. He stood to shake my hand, insisting I call him Karl as he motioned me to sit.

“So,” he said as he lit a cigarette, “You are writing a story about the fire brigade. Why?”

I gave him my rehearsed response about wanting to showcase the heroism of those who labor under the bombs, attempting to save lives. Karl silenced me with a wave of the hand.

“We’re not heroes,” he said as he exhaled a cloud of blue smoke which formed a halo over his head, “We’re firemen.”

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The war weighs heavily on Obermachtmeister Karl Weber, station commander. “We’re not heroes,” he said, “We are firemen.” 

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Karl Weber is a man of medium height and the build of a middleweight boxer a few years past his prime. His brown eyes, with dark bags underneath, managed to look both amused and exhausted at the same time. Permanent creases line the corners of his mouth. A few flecks of gray around the temple made him look older than his thirty-three years. Karl grew up in the Charlottenburg part of Berlin, not too far from the fire station he now runs. From an early age, he found himself drawn to the fire service, more from the excitement and the nice uniform than anything else. In 1929 at the age of 19, he joined the Berlin Fire Brigade as an apprentice fireman.

In 1935, Karl enlisted in the army as a reservist. He has seen action in Poland, Belgium, France, and Russia. It was in the frozen hell of Stalingrad that a few pieces of shrapnel buried themselves deep into his hip, thigh, and knee. Doctors removed most of it, but the remaining shards of metal cause him to walk with a slight limp. After a long, difficult recover, Karl received a discharge from the Army and orders to return to Berlin, where a new war was being waged.

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After a few minutes of small talk, Karl and I walked out to the main room and joined the others around a table. A stack of magazines under one table leg kept it steady. I’d met Frei earlier. The other two, Baumann and Fischer, nodded as Karl made introductions. They eyed me warily as I sat across from them.

Just a few short years ago, in the relative calm before the war, this station had twelve men assigned to it, six per truck. Now they make due during the daytime with only two per vehicle. At night, the professional firefighters are joined by teenage auxiliaries, young men and women eager to do their bit for the war. Hastily trained and working under the guidance of experienced old hands like Karl, these youthful volunteers make up the frontline defenders of the citizens of Berlin.

“We’ve only just got our volunteers,” Karl said. “They haven’t really gone through a big raid yet, at least not as firefighters.”

“What is it like?” I asked. “Putting out fires in the middle of a raid.”

“Oh, it’s not so bad,” Karl replied. “If it’s a big enough fire, you don’t notice the bombs.”

We were interrupted by the sound of footsteps and laughter on the stairs. Four young men in ill fitting uniforms walked into the room. They carried their helmets tucked under their arms and had their gas mask cases slung over their shoulders. Four young women in baggy blue-gray coveralls followed them in. Karl gave them a few curt orders to put their gear on their assigned trucks and to start polishing the engines.

“Just because we are war doesn’t mean we go around looking like some voluntary fire brigade from the countryside,” Karl said. This is Berlin. A well polished engine indicates a well polished crew.”

I asked permission to follow the volunteers downstairs and Karl nodded his approval.

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Monika Schneider is a quiet, serious young woman of 17. She wears her long blonde hair in pig tails and regards the world with bright blue eyes. Her gaze penetrates you as if she is searching your soul, probing from your hidden fears and weaknesses. With increasingly large numbers of young women being drafted into war related occupations, Monika had a choice of either training to operate an 88mm antiaircraft battery or the fire service.

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Young women like Monika Schneider (right) have stepped forward to serve on the front lines of the air way. Their job? Save lives. 

“My older brother Gunter flew a Heinkel,” she explains as she wipes polish off the engine in a circular motion. “He was shot down and killed during a raid on London. I didn’t think  I could bring myself to shoot down some English girl’s brother. So I chose the fire brigade.”

After a two week course in which she and her fellow auxiliaries drilled on donning their gas masks until they could do it in their sleep, navigated obstacle courses to hone their agility, and lectures on the various types of bombs employed by the enemy, the were deemed ready for assignment. Their only experience with an actual fire came when they were allowed to spray water on a burning haystack. But there would be plenty more fires to come.

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In some ways, Fritz Kluge is a poster child for the new Germany. Born into a working class family near the center of the city, Fritz joined the Hitler Youth at age 10. He’s fifteen now, and has also had enough training to qualify him to help the fire brigade and to wear the coveted HJ firefighting patch on the sleeve of his coat. Fritz has a ready grin, which tends to be a bit on the cheeky side. I listen as he trades barbs with some of the other boys. If they were at all nervous about the possibility of a raid that night, they did not show it.

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Two young volunteers from Karl’s station operate at a fire in Charlottenburg. 

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Fliegeralarm!”

A sudden shout which came to us via the hole from which the fire pole descended broke the silence. The youths glanced up from their work, eyes darting back and forth. A minute later Karl came down the stairs and said “Listen up, the formation we’ve been tracking has passed east of Hanover. We are probably the target for tonight. Apparently it is a heavy raid.”

The young people nodded, their expressions serious.

“Gather up flashlights and place some onto the truck and then bring the others into our shelter,” Karl said. He gave orders with the rapidity of a machine gun. “Gather up some buckets of sand from the closet and put them near the station doors. Bring your helmets and masks into the shelter with you. And you need to visit the lavatory. Void your bladder and bowels if you can. Should you get struck with a shell splinter in the guts tonight, it’s best to not have anything inside them that can cause an infection.”

The young people scattered in eight different directions to begin work on their assigned tasks. Karl handed me a metal container with a gas mask inside, identical to the ones carried by the firefighters, and also a steel helmet. The helmet looked similar to a Germany Army helmet, but it had the addition of a leather flap attached to the back of it and a reflective stripe painted around it.

“That flap keeps embers from blowing under your collar,” Karl said. “Hurts like hell when that happens.”

I asked if there was anything I could do to help and he said no.

“You’ll only be in the way. Just wait until it is time to go into the shelter.”

I stood along the back wall and watched the young volunteers as they scurried back and forth carrying out their instructions. The older men moved more slowly. For them, the impending raid did not represent excitement, but rather one more thing for them do; one more challenge to face. Their faces bore the looks of men who have seen so much of the depths of the evil that men do that it no longer registered in their minds. They walked with shoulders slumped forward as if the weight of their job keeping the citizens of a city under aerial siege safe pressed down on them.

The tasks completed, we walked down a dark, narrow hallway until we reached a solid oak door. Karl pushed it open with his shoulder and ushered us inside. It was a small, sparse room. Ten chairs, five along each wall, provided the only place to sit. A telephone and a radio occupied a table in one corner and a large, detailed map of the city filled the wall above it. I took a chair and settled in to wait.

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An air raid is a singularly terrifying experience. You sit in near darkness and listen to the shriek of bombs and the thundering blasts of anti-aircraft guns. The building sways when a bomb lands nearby and dust floats down from the ceiling. As your mind envisions every form of fiery death that could happen, you try to think of something, anything, to keep you sane. You grab onto the first pleasant memory you can conjure up the way a drowning man grasps at a life jacket. Your heart pounds almost audibly in your chest as your breath comes in ragged gasps as if a tight band constricted your chest and kept your lungs from fully expanding. That’s an air raid.

Those around me took the raid in stride. When the flak batteries atop the Zoo Tower a few blocks away opened up, one of the Hitler Youth boys said “I guess they’ll teach the Tommies a thing or two.” Karl leaned his head back until it rested against the wall and closed his eyes. Frei smoked a cigarette. Baumann and Fischer played cards. The auxiliaries sat on the edge of their chairs, ready to spring into action with all the enthusiasm of youth.

“So how do you know if you get an assignment?” I asked.

“The phone rings,” Karl said without opening his eyes, “Or if the phone system goes down, they send a messenger by on a bicycle. He knows where to find us back here.”

The sound of aircraft engines penetrated the brick walls of our shelter. Frei looked up for a minute, a quizzical look on his face. After a moment he said “They aren’t dropping over the city center. Looks like Charlottenburg is going to get it tonight.”

Fischer grunted, “Too bad they didn’t drop it on Wedding. Might bump off a few kozis that way.”

I lost track of how much time we were in the shelter. It could have been thirty minutes, but it seemed like thirty hours. Finally the phone rang. Frei grabbed it and said “Fire station” by way of greeting. He scribbled something on a scrap of paper and hung up.

“Where?” Karl asked, his eyes still closed.

“They said just drive west towards the fires,” Frei said.

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The morning sun revealed a landscape of utter devastation. 

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A few minutes later we pulled out of the station. I sat in the cab, squeezed in between Baumann and Karl. The boys rode the ladder truck and the young women traveled on the engine, but they had to stand onto the tailboard and cling to a metal bar. We operated with no lights, and the going was very slow, though we could see fires burning in the distance. Searchlights stabbed at the sky like accusing fingers. Occasionally, we caught the glimpse of a bomber. But mostly we kept our eyes focused on our destination.

“Are you having fun yet?” Karl yelled over the sound of the planes, bombs, and our own engine.

I thought it best not to answer. I looked over my shoulder and barely made out the faces of the four young women; Monika, Elisabeth, Ingrid, and Lotte. I thought I might see fear, but instead I saw excitement mingled with determination in their young eyes.

“Stay near the truck when we get there,” Karl said, “And be careful, there will probably be a gap of about thirty minutes where it will look like the raids over, then they’ll come back to try and catch us in the open.”

Which is exactly where we will be, I thought. When we reached our assigned sector, the heat slapped at my face like an oven. Baumann stopped the engine and the crew threw themselves into their duties with a vengeance. Monika and Elisabeth grabbed a thick hose and dragged it towards a fire hydrant while Ingrid and Lotte uncoiled another section and stretched it towards an apartment building. Flames showed in the windows of the top two floors.

I heard a grinding noise and turned to see the ladder from Frei’s truck extend upwards towards the roof of the building. Fritz and another young man scrambled up as the ladder moved. I looked around for Karl, but did not see him. A minute later, he emerged from the building, pausing for a moment in the doorway as smoke curled around him. It almost looked as though the smoke were wings and he were an angel.

“They’re dead,” he yelled to Baumann. “Let’s go ahead and see if we can knock this fire down and move up the street a bit.”

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For the next few hours, I was treated to the sight of Karl and his crew of veterans and kids alike tackle one blaze after another. I learned that he was right. I found myself so fixated on the fires that I no longer heard the bombs. While a blessing, it nearly proved fatal. At one point, Karl froze and looked up for a second, then he screamed at us to get down. I hit the pavement as fast as I could manage. The explosion lifted me up and then shoved me back into the ground with enough force to empty my lungs of oxygen. It took a few minutes for my ears to stop ringing and my breath to return. When it did, I looked up and saw Karl smiling down at me.

“Bit more than you bargained for, eh?” he asked.

I stood with as much dignity as I could muster and busied myself by brushing dirt off my clothes. It is difficult to describe everything I witnessed this night, as scene ran into scene. I watched these young men and women perform feats of incredible bravery with the skill of seasoned professionals. Every now and then, one of them would flash me a grin from a soot lined face, or give me a nod of assurance. I had to remind myself that had the world not gone mad, they might playing games in the street, or complaining over their amount of work their teachers had given them that day. But here they were, performing a job usually reserved for grown men. But I can’t help but ask myself, at what cost? What will their lives be like when all this is over? Will they ever be able to forget what they’ve seen?

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A few hours after daylight and seven hours after the phone rang at the fire station, we were permitted to return to the station for a two hour period of rest. We stank of sweat, phosphorus, cordite, and smoke. Our lungs were raw. My skin felt sunburned, owing to the intensity with which the fires burned. When we arrived at the station, no one had the energy to walk upstairs to the bunkroom. We collapsed on the floor or on one of the trucks and let exhaustion carry us away. I felt as if I had just closed my eyes when Karl slapped my shoulder and said “Come on. Back to work.”

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Fritz (right) grabs some rest in between alarms. 

Our new assignment was to check shelters for victims, living or dead. I was allowed to put on my gas mask and accompany them into the buildings as we searched below ground level for any survivors. As we entered one large basement, our flashlight beams caught the faces of people sleeping as they sat on two wooden benches along the wall. I wondered why they didn’t wake up and asked Karl if we should shake them or pat them on the shoulder.

“Look at the faces,” Karl said, “See how they have a bit of red in their cheeks? They are dead. Carbon monoxide poisoning. It happens when the fire burning above them uses up all the available oxygen. They are the lucky ones. They just fall asleep. Far better than burning alive.”

As we walked up the stairs and out the doorway, Karl removed a piece of chalk from his pocket. His hand shook slightly as he scrawled “20 tot” on the brick façade near the door.

“Come on,” he said to me, “We’ve got two more blocks to go.”

This is a work of fiction. I wrote this piece as if a journalist did a feature on the fire station where the characters in my novel work. If a reporter spent a night with them, it might have happened this way.

A Literary Look at the Russian Soul

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Dear Readers,

The other day I came across this post from 2014 by Off The Shelf called “Ten Russian Novels to Read Before You Die”. My first thought was “Reading ten Russian novels will take you sixty years” as Russian literature is not known for its brevity, so yes, you’ll be dead by the time you finish. I minored in Literature/Creative Writing as an undergraduate student and one of my professors opined that you could throw away the first hundred pages of a Russian novel and still be able to follow the story. There is some truth to that, I suppose. I have a BA and an MA in History along with an MS in Criminal Justice, but if I had to get a PhD in something, it would not be history. There are quite a few reasons why that is that need not detain us here. I would, however, love to get a PhD in Russian literature. It will never happen, for a myriad of other reasons, but it is nice to dream about.

If you study Russian history, language, and culture, you often come across references to the “Russian soul” as an expression of Russian identity. The great works of Russian literature all tend to touch on various aspects of this soul. This might come across more in the original language than in the English translations. The Russian language is more nuanced and has more depth than English, making translation tricky. I spent years studying the Russian language and can read it fluently and speak it with some degree of usefulness. I’ve read the works I’ll discuss below in both Russian and English. Sometimes I think when it comes to foreign works of literature, it is best to go to the original language if you can.

I’m not going to give you a list of ten Russian books to read before you die. I’m simply going to tell you about my favorite three and why they are my favorites. You won’t find Pushkin on the list, nor Dostoevsky. Obviously, I’ve read them along with others such as Chekov, Bulgakov, and Grossman. I’m not saying the works below are the greatest works in the pantheon of Russian lit, merely that they are my favorites. What I like or dislike doesn’t always follow the path of critical acclaim or financial success. For example, I thought The Da Vinci Code was the most godawful book I’d ever read, yet look at how many copies it sold. Payback by the German author Gert Ledig is, in my opinion, one of the finest and most haunting novel written about World War Two and it is long out of print. So feel free to take anything and everything I say with a massive grain of salt. Hemingway I ain’t.

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I will say that Mikhail Sholokhov’s masterpiece Тихий Дон (Quiet Flows the Don) and its sequal The Don Flows Home to the Sea make up the finest novel ever written in Russian or any other language, in my opinion. I have said this before and I will proclaim it until I read something better, which I doubt will ever happen. Consider this passage which opens the section which deals with the outbreak of World War One:

“The dry growth of the steppe was afire, and a sickly-smelling haze hung over the Donside slopes. At night, the clouds deepened over the Don, ominous peels of thunder were to be heard; but no rain came to refresh this parched earth, although the lightning tore the sky into jagged, lived fragments. Night after night, an owl screeched from the belfry. The cries surged terrifyingly over the village, and the owl flew from the belfry to the cemetery and groaned over the brown and grass grown mounds of the graves.”

At it’s most basic level, this is a simple story. A man loves two women and loses them both amidst the turmoil of war and revolution. But it is more, so much more than that. Тихий Дон is a sweeping epic of Cossack life following the fortunes of the Don Cossacks from the eve of World War One through the war, the Russian Revolution, and the Civil War which follows. It’s a tragedy which plays out on a giant canvas. Some scenes will leave you breathless, such as when Grishka saves the life of his lover Aksinia’s husband. To me, the most haunting scenes involve the old men in the Cossack villages. Their world is crumbling all around them and they cannot understand why. They try to cling to the old ways as their lives spin out of control.

If you only read one Russian novel, or one foreign novel, (or hell, one novel period), read this one. Just make sure you read both Quiet Flows the Don and The Don Flows Home to the Sea as they are really one story. Now, not only do the Russians write epic novels, they also film massive historical epics. Quiet Flows the Don has been put on a film a few times, including during the Soviet era, but I never much cared for those versions. In 2015, however, they released a 14 part adaptation of the book. You can watch it free here on YouTube, but it isn’t subtitled. If you’ve read the novels, you can still follow the story as it is faithful to the books, and even if you haven’t read the story, the themes are universal and you can still follow the basic plot. Trust me, you won’t be sorry to spend time watching it. If you want a little preview though, here is a music video of a song that appears in the series, Чёрный ворон – друг ты мой залётный (Black Raven: You Are My Friend). You can listen to the song and enjoy the breathtaking landscape and scenes from the series. Seriously, at the very least, give the song a listen and it’ll probably make you want to watch the show. I’ve watched it five times at last count. It’s the only movie or television series I’ve ever scene that has made me cry, more than once during the show, and every time I watch it. (And it takes a lot to move me after all I saw during my career in public safety.)

(Note there are two more books in the Don series; Virgin Soil Upturned and Harvest on the Don, but they are not as good as the first two)

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The Napoleonic Wars played out on a massive stage in Europe. When the Emperor invaded Russia, little did he know that not only would he suffer a major defeat, but his invasion would also give rise to one of the true classics in literature, Война и мир (War and Peace). Tolstoy was a master at his craft. In true Russian fashion, War and Peace takes a little while to build up steam. I know many people who have tried to read it but go so bogged down with the names and glacial slowness of the story for the first hundred pages or so that they gave up. I told them they’d be sorry for putting the book aside, but I don’t know if they are or not. This is one of those books that if you stick with it, you’ll be rewarded.

It is true that all the names and familial ties can be difficult to keep track of whilst you work your way through the book. It might not hurt to print out a handy character tree. Wikipedia has a list of characters and also provides a family tree of sorts which illustrates the various entangling relationships. Tolstoy served in the Russian Army during the Crimean War, and I think his own exposure to the hardships soldiers faced in the 19th Century helped him create such vivid images of Napoleonic warfare. Much of the book takes place away from the battlefield, but his battlefield scenes are some of the best ever written. Like Quiet Flows the Don, this novel has been adapted many times. The Russians had the best adaptation of it filmed in the 1960s. However, in 2016 the BBC released a marvelous version of their own which you can find on Amazon. It’s well worth watching.

Incidentally, Tolstoy had a distant relative named Aleksey Tolstoy who wrote during the Soviet era. His trilogy The Road to Calvary set in St. Petersburg during the Revolution has been made into a series and, to our good fortune, is available on Netflix! With subtitles if you don’t speak Russian. I’m working my way through it now and it is very good.

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Any discussion of Russian literature has to involve Boris Pasternak and his magnum opus, Doctor Zhivago. Like many, I dare say most, of you, my first exposure to it was through the great film from 1965. I watched it with my great-grandmother for the first time when I was around 8 years old (circa 1986) and was immediately captivated by the story. As I would later find out, the movie isn’t entirely faithful to the book, but it is still a cinematic masterpiece of its own. I read the novel for the first time in high school. A few years ago, I read it in the original language. The story of how Pasternak came to write it and how it was published is an epic tale in its own right!

One thing that I’ve found so interesting about this book is that Pasternak manages to make Zhivago a such a sympathetic character. Let’s be honest, he’s screwing around on his wife! Yet the reader still feels for him. I freely admit to having a bit of a literary crush on Larissa. I guess that’s what you call it when you wish you could run off with a character in a book. (If you call it something else, let me know!) In a previous post I compared Doctor Zhivago with Gone With the Wind as they are similar. In Pasternak’s book, a man loves two women and loses them both as war and revolution sweep away the old world and usher in a new one. In Mitchell’s book, a women is in love with two men and loses them both as civil war sweeps away the old world and ushers in a new one. (You know, I can sum up these classics in one sentence, but I can’t seem to write a one sentence description of my own book. Amusing, that.)

To keep on the movie theme, the Russians made a twelve part adaptation of Doctor Zhivago that is a lot more faithful to the actual story than the 1965 film was. It’s available on Amazon here and comes with English subtitles. I’ve watched it a couple of times and it is good. Not Тихий Дон good, but still worthwhile.

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Anastasia “helping” me work on edits to my novel.

So there you have it, Dear Readers. My favorite works of Russian literature. Thank you to all who read through to the end. I know this was a somewhat verbose piece of writing. And speaking of writing, one thing I have had to learn is to stop mentally comparing my own work to these classics. While working on my draft of So Others May Live, I’d get frustrated and almost give up because I’ll never be as good as Sholokov. I’ll never write anything on the scale of Quiet Flows the Don. Or War and Peace. Or Doctor Zhivago. And do you know what? That’s perfectly okay. There’s a reason why out of the bazillion books published in history, only a relatively small number are considered classics. I had to accept the fact that I needed to tell my story my own way, not Sholokov’s way. Which, come to think of it, is probably a good thing for my editor as I’m sure 324 pages of my writing, as rough as it can be, is easier to sort through than 1200 pages of my writing. wouldn’t even read 1200 pages of my own writing!

Until next time, comrades. Happy Reading.

L.H.

As the World Turns….

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Dear Readers,

It’s been a rough semester so far, but not necessarily in a bad way. I’m teaching six courses (five in person and one online). With a two hour roundtrip commute and office hours, meetings, etc, I’m pretty well wiped out when I get home. My evenings are spent laying on ice packs which keeps my back pain somewhat tolerable and watching TV with my cat, Anastasia. She prefers shows with cowboys and horses.

I’m also working on the edits to my novel So Others May Live. I got my content edits back a month or so ago and I’ve been going through them. I’m almost done with my first pass through, then I’ll shelve it for a month. After that, I’ll give it a top to bottom read through and make a few more changes. It goes back to the editor for the copyedit in late November. I’ll spend Christmas making corrections, then send it back for the final round in early January. Hopefully it’ll be ready to submit to a few small presses that I’ve identified which specialize in historical fiction. If I strike out there, then plan B will be to self publish.

The book is getting closer and closer to being a reality. Someday, perhaps sooner than you think, it’ll be ready for perusal. One things I’ve learned is that finishing a book is a marathon, not a sprint. I think by the end of the process it will have gone through seven or eight drafts.

L.H.

“Where Do You Get Your Ideas?”

Dear Readers,

Forgive me for yet another long delay in posting. I’m still recovering from my surgery whilst also trying to teach two five week courses at the college. I rather doubt that is much of an excuse, but it is the only one I have. Anyway, on to today’s topic. I’ve watched a lot of author interviews and been to a few author readings in my day. One question that comes up quite frequently is “Where do you get your ideas?” Whilst I cannot answer for anyone else, I shall endeavor to explain where the idea for So Others May Live sprang from.

The genesis of my novel came from two places. Back in 2003, I interviewed a man who, from 1944-45, had been a Hitler Youth Auxiliary firefighter. He related a story to me of falling through the floor of a building and landing in the basement in a liquified pool of human fat which was all that remained of the occupants who burned alive as liquid phosphorus from an incendiary ran down into the basement. He was 14 years old when this happened and I asked him “How do you get over something like that?” He looked me dead in the eye and said “You don’t.” I never really forgot this story but it wasn’t one I dwelt on either, at least not until one night eighteen months ago.

I awoke with a start from a dream. In my dream, I saw a crippled Lancaster limping towards the airfield. Three crew members dead. The pilot at the controls, and the remaining three crewmen seated in their crash positions. As the plane inched closer to the ground for a belly landing, the crew began to sing “Nearer My God To Thee.” When I awoke, I lay in bed for several minutes pondering the dream, and then I remembered what the German firefighter told me all those years before. The dream and the interview collided in my head.

I got up and jotted down a few brief things in my notebook so I’d remember it the next day. As I went about my business that morning, I continued to think things over. Slowly, the rough ideas of a plot began to come together in my mind. A firefighter trying to save lives for a regime bent on destroying them. A Lancaster pilot on his last mission before he gets to transfer out of an operational squadron. A fiancé trying to plan for a future that may not pan out. And a woman playing a dangerous game with the Gestapo.

I’m neither an plotter (one who writes out a detailed plot outline) or a pantser (one who just starts writing). I guess you could call me a plantser. I sketched out the format of the book and listed out the order in which each chapter would be written by character name. All I had to go on was a one sentence description of what I wanted in each chapter, and the rest came from the seat of my pants. 96,000 words and one year later I had a finished novel. As to what will come from that, well, time will tell.

L.H.

Two Classics Express the Human Condition

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A woman loves two men and loses them both amidst a catastrophic war which sweeps away an entire way of life. A man loves two women and loses them both amidst a war and ensuring revolution which ushers in a world unlike that which existed before. Sound familiar? The first is the basic plot (boiled down for simplicity) of Gone With the Wind while the second is the main plot (also boiled down) of Dr. Zhivago. The films are classics, of course, but the novels are as well. Russian literature in particular has great depth to it. I’ve been able to read Zhivago in the original language, as well as the English translation. And I am proud to own a first edition of Gone With the Wind which belonged to my great-grandmother’s sister.

What interests me about these books when compared to one another is that they explore similar themes, though they were written in different times and places. Gone With the Wind was published first, in 1936, but it is nearly impossible that Pasternak could have read it because it was not published in the Soviet Union until 1982 and the movie was not released there until 1990. The fact that love and loss amidst the backdrop of war serves both books so well speaks to universal human condition and emotion. Just as the Civil War transformed the American South, so too did World War One, the Russian Revolution (really a Civil War of its own), followed by the Red Terror transformed Russia. In both books, you have people trying their best to survive amidst terrible hardships.
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I love epics, be they of screen or page. There’s something about a sweeping story which catches you up and brings you along for the ride which appeals to me. Sadly, not everyone feels this way. When I was a young single man, I invited a girl to my apartment to watch a movie and popped in Dr. Zhivago. That was our third date. She declined a fourth. 😊

If you want to take this one step further, Sholokov’s masterpiece Quiet Flows the Don can be compared to the two as well. It is a magnificent epic of Cossack life starting in 1912 and ending in the early 1920s. It also involves the story of a man in love with two women who loses them both. Forbidden love. War. Revolution. Death. They are all present. Whereas Mitchell probably never read Sholokov before she wrote Gone With the Wind (though it is remotely possible as the first English translation was in 1934), it is highly likely that Pasternak read it at some point. But how much it influenced his own work is anyone’s guess.

Dramatic times make for dramatic fiction which is why I think historical fiction will always appeal to people. Not only is it escapism into the past, but it can flesh out the traditional history that you get in school where you may only be served up a litany of names, dates, and facts but without any life. You can learn as much from a good historical novel (by that I mean well written and researched) as you can from an academic book.

Of course there are differences between the books as well, but the purpose of this was to mention what they had in common. Also, as a final note, in 2015 Russian television filmed a 14 part masterpiece based on Quiet Flows the Don. You can find it free on YouTube here Be warned that it is not subtitled, but you don’t have to be a Russian speaker to enjoy the breathtaking scenery and you can pick up on the basic plot line too.

And there you have my thoughts, Dear Reader.

L.H.