It's 1942, and Harry Flynn journeys into a world of tigers, elephants, and Himalayan Mountains. He is sent to the China-Burma-India Theater to build a supply road from India to China. With the help of Merrill's Marauders and the Mars Task Force, they must stop the Axis Powers from controlling all the land between the European Front and the Pacific Ocean. In an exotic world with Naga headhunters, opium-smoking Kachin tribesmen, and marauders who scorn both life and death, Harry forges unlikely friendships. It's a time when boys are forced to come of age on the battlefield and Harry has to find what makes life worth living or die. The lessons learned in World War II apply to all wars, where young soldiers walk away carrying unspeakable memories about the lives that could have been. Behind the Forgotten Front shows us that history is about facts driven by passions and sometimes mistakes made by real people.
And not just any kind of cat—he can fly. In Sci-Fi, a writer has so much freedom to invent and go into the world of make-believe. In my novel DISPLACED, Sphinx was adopted by Fortuna when the Feline Squad, which he was biologically engineered to fight with, decided to put him down. He had the same iron-strong talons and razor-sharp fangs as other members in the feline squad, but he was a runt. And he loved to cuddle—not a good trait for a terrorist. What’s fun about using animals in a novel is creating a personality the reader can love. Yes, they can be stubborn, too, but that allows the writer to drive the story into a new direction. Animals are there to confide in, to comfort, and sometimes to save, if not from physical danger from emotional trauma. In my book Behind the Forgotten Front, a historical fiction novel, I had elephants, tigers, deer, animals you would find in the wild. The kind of animal found in a story should fit the scene. Have fun with them, soar with them. And then relax and cuddle with them.
The year I was born, London’s coal fog brought the city to its knees in five days. It was a cold winter, so more fuel was burned. Then a cloud inversion trapped the sulphuric acid in the air and killed 12,000 people. Vladimir Putin was also born. At first glance, it didn’t appear to be such a good year. Every generation can brag about their contributions to history. The space age. The computer era. First Black president. But those contributions can be shared with other generations. What’s unique about mine, was through dumb luck—the Peace and Love movement. But we’ve grown up, and now we need to work hard to keep that optimism in our hearts. What makes each generation great, is not what occurs while we’re alive but the dreams we pass along.
And worlds, and planets, and languages, and… Are there rules on how to name planets or construct languages? As far as I know, no. I use my own logic. For planets, I look for names that relate to chemistry or physics. And for languages, I use phonetic spellings, something the reader will catch onto easily. In other words, although there are no rules, it’s good to make a plan. That way, the reader has something on which to ground your creativity. Consistency for a reader is also a must; otherwise, if it takes too much time to figure the word out, the reader may lose interest. And once the reader gets up for some ice cream and they lose that bookmark, they’re gone—forever. In writing the book Behind the Forgotten Front, I became fascinated with the battle plans. Several are shown in the front of the book. I’m sure they had a naming convention, just like they did for code names they used on people, places, and missions. The one I liked best was IN THE RING when they took over the Myitkyina airport and stopped the Axis Powers from becoming one continuous landmass. If IN THE RING failed, it would’ve changed history.
But try walking in someone’s shoes that you don’t like and then tell me how you feel. Writing has taught me to take a step back and try to have compassion for those who take a different approach to life from me. It forces me to ask questions and hypothesize what happened and why. It’s natural to sympathize with those I agree with, or I like. Trying to do the same for others who are polar opposites from me is hard, but rewarding. It opens the door to another way of thinking, and as a writer, how wonderful that is. “It is in giving we receive. In pardoning that we are pardoned. And…”
I’m reading a book by Alex Matthews about how the unconscious mind directs our actions. We live in the conscious world, but it’s the unconscious mind that frees us or holds us back. So how do we control our unconscious thoughts? Dreams. Many times, I’ve gone to sleep with catastrophes filling my head. Guess what I dreamed about? The next day I’d say my dream solved the problem. Then I’d laugh. I wonder if that was true. Now I go to sleep visualizing a thought I’d like to make happen. I’ve seen the vision in my dreams. But I need to hold onto the unconscious messages to get answers to questions like, How will I help shape the New Normal.
Many words try to outshine one simple one; equal rights, social justice, stomp out intimidation. But it all goes back to kindergarten when we were taught right from wrong. Why can’t we remember what we learned then? Or maybe it’s a matter of continually re-learning when life throws a curveball at us, and we feel insecure. That’s when we need to give rather than take. We need to remind ourselves how lucky we are and be filled with gratitude instead of hate; otherwise, we become insensitive to everyone around us. As a writer, I always include an element of social justice, because that’s what life is all about, trying to understand our complex universe.
I hope the new normal will mean less people on the road, less pollution like we’re seeing now, and brighter flowers, taller plants, greener canopies. I hope to see all the families on the street in the new normal, saying hello, explaining ideas instead of ignoring their children with gazes locked behind cell phones. In the future, I see neighborhoods coming alive, back yards noisier and front yards with more waving hands. But will this mean more segregation for those without? Will the great divide become a bigger chasm of haves and have nots? I have a computer with access to knowledge of the world but you don’t so we see life through different lenses. I love the Zoom seminars, virtual tours, chats with friends. But I miss the spontaneous laughter and fighting to get the last word in because the audio gets garbled in the electronic message. I look forward to life after Corona. It will bring good things and as all change, there will be problems- but I'm sure we shall overcome.
‘Imagine all the people living life in peace.’ That’s what I saw on Friday night. At one house there was a trio, a family with a daughter on the violin, father on the cello and mother playing a viola. Down the street, a man with a bluesy felt fedora hat wailed on a clarinet. And when I rounded the corner for home, three little boys rang out an Asian tune on twangy instruments that looked like long-neck banjos and wide-bellied violins. What a pleasant surprise on my Friday night walk. In one sense, as John Lennon put it, the corona virus has made 'the world be as one.'
Three piles of books and a Kindle with unread digital novels are sprawled on my nightstand. I can’t go to sleep without reading first and love adventure thrillers. (So unlike my regular life.) I gobble them up in a couple of readings. But the other books, like draconian sci-fi, nonfiction, and some young adult novels require me to beef up the pillows behind my back so I don’t fall asleep. My style of sci-fi writing is so unlike most of what’s out there. I’m not into space battles and don’t want to make the reader frightened of the future. Quite the contrary. I’m looking forward to the future. So, I try to make the people in my novel like my readers—that way, they can experience the journey with me. Nonfiction is my second favorite genre. I need to be sure my gadgets from the future make sense. But technical nonfiction can be dense, so I take it slow to make sure I understand what I read rather than just skim it. Lastly, I’m reading YA novels, to get a grip on what kids want and to see romance through the eyes of a sixteen-year-old. Do I read each one until I’m done? No. Like life, I need diversity to keep me attentive—except for thrillers. I hate being bored.
My creative mind comes alive when I’m walking, letting my mind rest from my story, and open to whatever hits me. It’s like a ball of string you have to have the patience to unwind. When it’s free, it can take any shape. But I have to keep myself focused on the story once it hits me, otherwise my mind will wander to what I’m going to make for dinner or why my daughter didn’t call last night. Dare to let go.
Right now, I’m writing a science fiction novel. The most gripping parts of the story are those that mimic real-life—like a virus mutating 30, 100, a million times, running amuck, and out of control. That’s when the fighting begins. Some start pushing ‘their way’ to conquer the problem, others merely put their heads in the sand. Sounds familiar? Like a science fiction novel, we’re learning bits and pieces at a time about the coronavirus. First, it was a joke, some boycotted the Corona beer as a solution. Others tragically compared it to the flu or a bad cold, when in reality, it’s more serious, and like malaria, it kills. Yes, it’s mutated more times than we can count, but how many have been significant changes? Or have most been like modifications in eye color, one is brown the other hazel? So, while we’re waiting for a vaccine, what should we do? This attack on our daily lives almost seems like Nature’s war on humanity—telling us to stop. Look around. Ask ourselves what we’re doing wrong? What’s right? How can we get through this—together? Because sometimes the only way to get past something is to push through it. And the only way to survive is through change.
1.Went to a restaurant called “The Kitchen”. You have to gather the ingredients and make you own meal. No clue how this place stays in business. 2.Put liquor bottles in every room. Tonight I am going bar hopping. 3.Struck up a conversation with a spider today. He’s a web designer. 4.Home-schooling students suspended for fighting. Teacher fired for drinking on the job. 5.Isolation is hard. Swear my fridge just asked “What do you want now?” 6.Just realized why dogs get excited about something moving outside. I think I just barked at a squirrel. 7.Used to spin that toilet paper like I was on Wheel of Fortune. Now I turn it like I'm cracking a safe. 8.Didn't expect when we changed the clocks we'd go from Standard Time to the Twilight Zone. 9.One of these Home-schooling monsters called in a bomb threat. 10.Saw a neighbor talking to her cat as if it understood her. Went home and told my dog..... we laughed a lot. 11.My body has absorbed so much disinfectant that when I pee it cleans the toilet. 12.One of these Home-schooling monsters called in a bomb threat. 13.Hope the weather is good for my trip to ‘’Puerto Backyarda’’. Getting tired of ‘’Los Livingroom’’. 14.Classified Ad: Single man with toilet paper seeks woman with hand sanitizer for good clean fun.
Lately, their house has been dark, and the cars are gone every time I walk by with my dog. She’s a physician, and he’s a nurse at the children’s hospital—where they treat the terminally ill. Once, when my daughter was young, I brought her there after her primary doctor couldn’t find a cure. At the time, I would have given my life to save her if I could make a pact with God. Such a deal was not needed, she’s alive, and still suffering, but alive. I think of all the parents with children who’s lives are like threads thrown out from a tenuous spider web, looking for a way out. And then this coronavirus thing throws a bucket of water on everything they’ve tried to do and wrecks all the safety nets they’ve patiently created. I feel for them and praise the doctors and nurses who silently swore an oath when none of use was looking, that they would gladly share their knowledge. Although the Hippocratic oath is not legally binding, to many in the medical field, especially the brave fighting on Corona’s front line, it is an ethical promise. Much stronger than any law.
It’s six am and pouring outside. I have twenty miles of rugged hills to walk today along the Camino Santiago. It would be nice to stay at this hostel another night, but it’s closing down for the season. I have to go. There’s nowhere to go but forward. I layer up: long underwear, wool sweater, down vest, hiking pants, rain gear, heave-on my backpack, then close the door behind me. No one’s outside. I’m alone. Throwing my hiking poles into a rhythmic swing, I slosh through the muddy puddles—the sound of rain splats on my Goretex jacket and rivulets of cold water stream down my face. In the low brush, wrens chitter frantically. Then a clap of thunder makes me look up. Bulbous black clouds dishearten me. Coffee, I think, that will keep me going. Only a week left, and I’ll reach my destination. But then what? I stop and think about who I’ve been—who I am—who I’m going to be. It’s scary because right now everything I have is on my back: dirty underwear, smelly socks, and scraps of paper with the names of people I’ve met on this journey, who’ve shared their lives with me along the way. That’s all I need. I know I can make it because silently, we’re cheering each other on.
I have friends all around the world and I’m worried. So what do I do? I use Whatsapp. It’s a wifi phone system. I can reach my friends as often as I like. Let me tell you about four of them and what they’re doing. Jaione lives in Spain. We met when she brought a group of Basque students to the US. In February 2020, her son Nicolas was born. They’re under lock down and they’re scared. Still, Nicolas keeps his parent’s spirits up. Yesterday I got a text photo of him after his first bath: so uncertain but trusting. Jeldau lives in northern Italy. She was my neighbor in Botswana. I adore her two boys, Borre (6) and Faas (4). They aren’t supposed to go outside, but how do you entertain two young boys in a small European flat? Visit the communal garden in their complex? Kathy lives in South Africa. She has ultimate trust in God. She writes of corruption in the government, and that faith will see us through whatever comes. Rogers, a bush guide, is from Botswana. Last year, a horrendous drought not only stopped the flow of safari tourists, but killed their crops and animals. I have not heard from Rogers lately. I’m worried. I tell them all, stay safe and sheltered.
I got both hips replaced last year and had to learn how to walk again. Taking the dogs out gave me a great excuse to practice doing it right—one foot IN FRONT of the other, NOT one foot along side the other. Simple advice, yes? No. Old habits kept getting in the way. My right foot had a mind of its own and soon I was limping. Back to the drawing board. Ears over shoulders, over hips, over knees, over ankles. All of a sudden, it was like I was two inches taller and it felt great. Like relearning how to walk, living in a world with covid-19 has made me adjust my life to the new normal. I depend upon my writer’s group to get feedback. That meant downloading new software and getting the hang of it. Not only for me but for the others too, which was painful to watch. Like my right foot, their old habits made change hard to accept. But some change is good. On my walks, it’s like the world has gone on vacation. Flowers are blooming, the sky is brilliant blue and everyone is smiling. It’s eerie. Like the calm before the storm, and I can’t help but think about how things were pre-WWII, and how life will change. #wfh
The city where I live is on lockdown. Yet life goes on. How? Zoom. Have you used it? I’d never heard of it until a week ago. It’s a software app that allows a group of individuals to go online and have a virtual meeting—with live video and audio. Now I’m meeting up with all my groups in the cloud on Zoom. Which brings to mind 9-11 and why Meetup.com began. It was a social media connection created during the 9-11 crisis to help emergency responders. But it didn’t go away after the US got back on its feet. It evolved into a platform of sharing common interests: cooking, writing, hiking, you name it, with strangers that you’d never have met otherwise. In other words, in our changing culture, there had to be a way to reach out to new people—we can’t live without each other. Even though we’re not supposed to gather in groups, our dogs still need to do their daily biological duty. So, we’re allowed to take them on walks. And what a jubilant spirit is out there. Whole families are going on walks, whereas, without the lockdown, they’d be at home in front of their computer or some sports event. And everyone greets you—from a safe social distance—with hope in their eyes.
I can’t count the number of times in my life that a crisis has sent me in a better direction. I cried. I struggled. Then I gave up control and let fate, God, whatever you call it, lead me onto an unexpected path. It wasn’t a smooth journey. But the bumpy road opened my eyes to people and places I’d never have known. I feel the hand of Covid-19 pushing me in that direction right now. I was to spend three months in the Middle East and Europe, but already one of the countries I was to visit has put a two-week quarantine on anyone entering the country. Instead of fretting about it, I’m playing it by ear, considering some other options, and realizing I don’t have it as bad as others. But what will be will be. In my book, Behind the Forgotten Front, on Easter Sunday, after the battle on ‘Maggot Hill,’ Father Stuart urged the soldiers to open their eyes to the beauty that refuses to surrender. Yes, life is hard, but it can be good, too, if you let yourself see.
It tasted terrible, and as soon as you got it, you knew you’d better find a bathroom. That was when I lived in Latin America, and my body didn’t belong to me—it was controlled by microorganisms I’d never heard of before—some were deadly. But how do you protect yourself against what life throws at you without going into hibernation? Take calculated risks. In Botswana, a country with one of the highest HIV and sexually transmitted disease rates, I didn’t run around looking for sex. In India, I didn’t eat with my hands just because everyone else did. I’m always up to date on my vaccines—even though I know the serum itself could trigger something. And I live in an area where earthquakes are a given, so I keep a reserve of dried food, water, and make sure I have some propane for my portable stove. But I don’t want to stop living. I remember the first time I saw a dead child wrapped in a white sheet. Whatever she had was contagious, but I knew her when she was alive and had to pay my last respects. Why her and not me? I’ve asked that question a million times. Fate? And like my character in Behind the Forgotten Front, taking a few precautions.
I’m an engineer. Unlike most writers I meet, I haven’t been pining away to be an author or practicing the craft my whole life. And after being trained to use only dense words, heavily loaded with technical meaning, writing fiction has been a mountain for me to climb. But I believe in myself and the story I’m trying to tell. Right now, I’m writing a young adult science fiction novel, and members of my writer’s group often look at me with dazed eyes, as if I’m trying to explain Newton’s laws of physics. It hurts when I don’t get the applause heaped upon others, but I would rather receive constructive criticism than false praise. How else am I going to improve? So, I put in the extra effort: I write longer hours, more days, take classes, and I’m open to saying “yes” to anything. Yes, you’re right—my pacing is off. Yes, I understand—I need to reorder the sequence of events, so it isn’t as difficult to read. Yes, my characters are flat—I need to walk in their shoes. And if I’m nothing else, I’m persistent. Unlike my protagonist in Behind the Forgotten Front, who’s drafted because of his writing skills, I need to struggle to reach the top. Then someday I’ll be a great writer.
No one else would swagger into the meeting like that without looking self-conscious. Then he flashed an innocent smile that went up to his eyes like a ten-year-old boy who just got out of trouble. He didn’t introduce himself but sat down across the table from me. I wasn’t sure it was him at first. What was he doing here? Who invited him? Well, it was a public meeting, after all. Anyone could attend. But wasn’t he afraid someone would find out who he was then he’d never be able to leave? It was his long straight black hair just clipped above the shoulders and his trade-mark black suit jacket that gave him away. No one wears jackets like that around here—maybe LA, but not here. What surprised me was how he listened, let everyone else do all the talking, and acted like he was enjoying himself. Maybe because no one else around the table seemed to recognize he was Keanu Reeves—Or was he just another guy off the street? In my book Behind the Forgotten Front, Lord Mountbatten, the Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia and of British royal blood, wasn’t just another guy off the street. But General Stilwell, Vinegar Joe, thought “Supremo” acted like one. Being famous can’t be easy.
Okay, I’m like any other writer—I HATE MARKETING. But, as a no-name Indie author, how do you get anyone to notice you? It takes a little work. I put information on my web page that my readers would be interested in—adventure travel. And then I pushed my book. For example, I didn’t just say how wonderful it was to go down the Chindwin River, a remote location in Myanmar, where they hadn’t seen a Caucasian person for months. Instead of flowery adjectives describing my journey, I gave them the cost for the guest houses, transport on the river, and food. So, anyone crazy enough to make the trip, like me, would know what to expect. Many readers came from Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet. I also take photos of where I go, and pull readers in with captions, like ‘Cockroaches and Thai Cooking.’ Then I show them a picture of my hand holding a cockroach in the market. Fortunately, I also have many Signal Corps photos from my father’s time in Burma and have prepared a traveling photography show for coffee houses and libraries. In my book, Behind the Forgotten Front, Harry was thinking outside the box. But his misled intentions backfired on him. Moral of the story: Think it through before you start.
Love. The other day, when I left the house and thought I forgot to turn off the burner on my stove, my only thought was: THE DOGS! I didn’t care if the house burnt down. When we were abroad and my daughter didn’t come back on time the night before we were to return to the states my only thought was: IS SHE OKAY? Not that I’d probably miss my flight and be stuck with a ton of expenses. And when I write, the readers want to see love. Because love is what makes life worth living. In my book, Behind the Forgotten Front, Harry needs to learn what makes life worth living or die. The answer has always been there in front of him: Ruthie.
I remember sitting on a train in northern Spain, talking with a white-haired woman about Megan Markel. In Morocco, I was amazed to learn how much they loved Obama. In Botswana, my safari guide was the nephew of a tribal leader who helped get Seretse Khama voted president. Remember him—he was the chief who married a British white woman when South Africa was enforcing apartheid? In Turkey, I learned the name Osim is pronounced awesome in English. And in Russia, they told me it was the Germans, not the Americans they worried about during the Cold War. Unfortunately, the USA government is frowned upon by much of the world, but not its people. When I tell them I’m from the United States, they instantly ask me to join them then want to know more about Hollywood. It’s as if there’s a bridge between the people of the world, even if our governments are at odds. In my book, Behind the Forgotten Front, the Allies could never have won the war without the help of the Kachin guerrillas. They wanted both the Allies and Axis powers out of their country. But it was people helping people, not as nations that got the job done. Hopefully, we will soon learn how to communicate as a one-world country.
I must admit, I was leery about going to eastern Russia and renting a room from a large Tartar family. How do you communicate when you only speak English? But I was encouraged by the AirBnB sales pitch. “Everyone who visits, loves Grandma’s soup.” My Kazan taxi driver thought otherwise. He told me it was a rip-off and that he’d drive me back to a real hotel. Yet when this Russian family of four-generations welcomed me into their two-bedroom home and sat me down to eat before I could unpack my bags, I knew I’d made the right decision. Until Grandma stood up, wiped her hands on her apron, waddled over to me, then opened my mouth and inspected my teeth to see if they were real. When she was convinced they were, she gave me a big toothless smile and shuffled back to her seat. After that, we bonded. Through my phone app she told me how her family held covert Muslim worship services in their home during the cold war and how she taught other Tartans how to speak Russian so they could get jobs, otherwise they’d starve. And when I left, she gifted me with a small bar of fresh scented soap—from a Russian with love. You never know when you'll make a new friend.
I’m lucky. I get to walk my dogs along the San Francisco Bay every day. And I love watching the shoreline during the winter rains when everything is at its extreme best and worst. No one is out—and it’s quiet—except for the squawking seagulls and flighty shorebirds. I particularly like following the tide's ebb and flow at dawn and dusk, when the sky is thick with low hanging clouds. While my dogs sniff the scrubby vegetation along the rocky shore or roll in the mud, my imagination takes flight to the past and sometimes the future. In my mind, I re-live those days when the water was so high that it seeped over the rock outcrops and flooded into the streets. And I think about the times when the full moon pulled the tide out so far that the mudflats were thick with tiptoeing migrating birds. I look up and see planes coming in for a landing at the nearby airport from somewhere else, and wonder whether they will soon be shuttles from outer space. Or will we be underwater with global warming? Some readers of my book, Behind the Forgotten Front, have said that weather is one of the characters that moves the story along—isn't that what it does in real life.
Sometimes the most challenging part of a journey is letting go—not knowing where you’ll be next—discovering something about yourself that you’d never have seen had you fixed your path. Don’t be afraid. But don’t be stupid, either. I’m an international traveler, often going abroad to write. And although I’ve reserved a room in Jordan with seven other ex-pats I’ve never met before for this spring, I still have goals I set for what I want to accomplish while I’m there. It’s the people and the land that open my eyes and my heart. One such story is from Russia, the region where Rudolf Nureyev was born. I had a room in a Muslim family’s home. I couldn’t speak Russian. They couldn’t speak English. But I got along marvelously with the eighty-year-old grandmother. She even had me open my mouth to show her that all my teeth were real. Then she shared her story about holding clandestine religious services in her home during the Stalin era. In most cases, you get to choose your journey. But there are times where you must follow the path placed in front of you, be it an illness, a loss of friendship, or a war. Those detours in life sometimes bring the greatest reward and most growth.
Do you ever wonder what if—I fell in love with someone who was no good for me—I met a serial killer—I lost everything that made me who I am? I ask these kinds of questions whenever I write. They’re uncomfortable; they make us think twice, they’re the reason we read books that take us out of our day to day lives and into another world—a safe place, where we can explore what others would do. Be it Science Fiction or Historical Fiction; my stories always have a social justice theme, where I ask: What if things were different? How would they be? I don’t plan on changing anyone, but I hope to prompt my readers to—see life through a different lens—try on a new perspective—reflect on who they are versus who they want to be. I write because I question life, and I want my readers to do the same. In my novel, Behind the Forgotten Front, Harry Flynn wanted to be a soldier—a fighting soldier. He got his wish, but did he become who he really wanted to be? As we begin a new decade, I challenge you to ask yourself: Who have I become? What do I want out of my journey in life? #Happy New Year
Fruitcake is a tradition in my house. But, I’m the only one eating it. It kicks off the #holidays with good smells and lots of jokes. That is when I’m home. One year I spent Christmas in India. I was on the island of Majuli, a sand bar in the middle of the Brahmaputra River. It's famous for the clay masks they use as props in an exotic dance with dissonant music. Most of the inhabitants are Buddhist monks. You see red flowing robes everywhere. That night, in the sky, a bright star brought back memories of Christmases past, and like others who couldn't be home for the holidays, it reminded me of what I treasured most--#happyholidays to you.
...or you'll give up on life. Every year I sign my Christmas cards, 'Here's hoping your year is filled with happiness and good health.' Recently, I learned the meaning of good health. Always one to hike 300 miles, climb the tallest mountain, swim the deepest ocean, this year, I was dealt my payback card. Within three months of each other, I had both hips replaced and eye surgery. I guess it was all that hard living that caught up with me. Instead of traveling around the world, I was stuck at home—finishing my new SciFi novel. Life was going to go on regardless of being laid up, so I used the time to improve my writing skills. I had been in a rut, writing more and more of the same thing without forcing myself into the back seat to see where I was going wrong. “What do you mean there isn’t enough …? By not giving up, and making my novel three times longer than it should be, I’ve seen what works. Now I’m trying to cut out what doesn’t. In my book, Behind the Forgotten Front, life goes on even during a war on Christmas Day. It’s a time to be grateful and hold on to happiness, or you’ll give up on life.
Each year I travel to a different country. So, every 365 days, I learn how to say thank you in a new way. There are English speakers in most places, but I want to reach out and acknowledge everyone who is kind to me. In my book, Behind the Forgotten Front, success in reaching Myitkyina—a turning point in the war—is placed on the shoulders of a single Kachin guide, Nau. He helps the Allies, but he also points out that we’re strangers in his land, and we need to respect him if he is to help us. “How can I see light in man who doesn’t honor light in me?” We have become a worldwide community, no longer limited to partnering with just people from our own country. The editor for my WWII book is from Australia. I received fact-finding help from a guide in Myanmar. And my writers' group has members from Israel, Puerto Rico, and China. With Cyber Monday coming up, it reminds us how dependent we are on technology and how our way of communicating is changing. As we move into a new dialect of abbreviations, let us not forget how to say a few simple words, like Thank you. #BlackFriday #BlackFriday19 #BlackFriday2019
What better way to get someone's attention than to whisper? Some words I can't do without. Whisper is one of my favorites because it makes the reader listen harder. I have my characters whispering a hairs breath away or in the dark of the night. It's hard to find other words or describe the gentle sound of someone imparting such intimate information. Periodically, I search my document to make sure I'm not using one word too often. As hard as I try to mix it up, whisper is usually a keeper. I just try to paint a clearer picture of the character passing along the sensitive news.
Writing a book is like preparing a battle plan. There are a lot of skirmishes that keep the story going. These mini-challenges are expected as part of more significant strategic operations or stages in the character arc. Winning the battle in war or character growth is the primary goal of the plan. My book battle plan looks a lot like short-term and long-term goals in an outline format. Just like regular goals, it’s hard to have it all filled in at once. I’m continually updating and adding to my storyline battle plan to make sure I don’t miss anything. I try to set timelines for each of my drafts (1) first draft – or what I call my vomit version (2) second draft is when I plant the development seeds and background information (3) third draft is to make sure there’s a clear voice and character arc and (4) fourth draft should be the polished version. Unfortunately, I never stick to my deadlines, but I do try to reach my goals. Maybe a little late with a 2a and 3d draft inserted along the way. In the front of my book, Behind the Forgotten Front, I have several maps with real battle plans. Maps like these were used in Operation Longcloth to win the war.
Night scenes create automatic suspense. But writing about what happens in the dark means adding light cues. Where do they come from? What do they highlight? And how to make them seem real, not forced. The moon, candles, and bright windows are ways to set the mood. Shadows and what they show, yet hide, are fun, too. And in the dark, the senses other than sight are stronger. So, I use darkness to set the scene. But you have to feel the night, to take your reader there. Otherwise, it comes across flat. Having worked with a man from India, I knew many people went out in the evening to take advantage of the relief from the day's heat. In my book Behind the Forgotten Front, I brought the protagonist to a night market to show a different side of India. “The smell of incense draws me towards a thin line of smoke that dissolves without a trace in the night.” But, as you know, the evening is also a time of sexual intrigue. “I strain my eyes, adjusting to the shadows in the night until I see Reginald’s toothy grin. ‘I know where to find young, juicy meat to satisfy every aching part of a man’s body.’” My advice, use the night to heat up your story.
So many times, I’ve put myself on a path of no return then asked whether it was the right thing to do. Like hitchhiking around the United States by myself when I was 18. Walking 300 miles alone on the Camino Santiago last year. And logging-in years behind a computer writing a book. I can tell you some pretty chilling stories about my cross-country travel—being stuck in the boondocks with a driver zoned out on drugs and a rifle in his back seat. Or leaving my backpack in a hostel that closed down for the season with no way to get in and 200 more miles to go across Spain. The scariest was whether I’d give up on my novel after I’d given so much of myself to it. But I’d always think back to what a friend once said. “It’s not what I do that I regret, it’s what I don’t do.” In my book, Behind the Forgotten Front, my protagonist is a young, arrogant man ready to find adventure by going to war. Once he volunteers, and sees the consequences, he wonders if he’s a coward because he wants to live. We need to stretch ourselves, and sometimes that means facing fear. But always keep a way out in your back pocket.
My mind was busy making up inventions and going to other worlds. What if there was an 8th day of the week between Sunday and Monday? Where was it, and how could I get there? Or wouldn’t it be nice if my mind had a box in it that would save everything I read rather than half of it going out the other ear? This was before computers and virtual reality. Right now, I’m writing a young adult science fiction novel where I can apply my engineering and biological science background. I get so caught-up using in my futuristic gadgets in my stories, that I expect to find them on my kitchen countertop when I get up for coffee. I was also a big comic fan, digging under my brother’s beds for all the super-hero magazines. Someday soon, we’ll be visiting planets like Krypton if they aren’t destroyed in intergalactic battles. In my book, Behind the Forgotten Front, my protagonist carried a portable walkie-talkie. With the battery pack, it weighed 40 pounds. The long-distance radios they used back then, needed generators. Today, cell phones weigh less than a pound and go around the world. We have come so far since WWII, and I know we will go even farther in the next 75 years.
While writing Behind the Forgotten Front, I read about Joe Doyer in a number of historical accounts of the war. But it wasn’t until my sister sent my father’s diary to me, and Doyer’s name popped out from those pages did Joe become a real person in my mind. He was someone my dad knew—someone my dad respected—someone who was a surrogate father to our boys fighting far from home. With so much travel to faraway lands, I know I should be writing a diary. I’ve lived through civil war in Guatemala, escaped a political uprising in Thailand, and watched American bombers fly overhead in Turkey en route to Syria. Always one step ahead of disaster, I returned safely to the comfort of home. Sometimes I think I leave so I can relive that sense of homecoming: more knowledgeable about the world and relieved to be back. Although Doyer never returned home, I know he lived on in the hearts of the soldiers who did make it back, like my dad.
Yes, I'm one of those. Have you ever missed a connection because your flight was late? I do my international travel with a carry-on and day pack. This means I have to be very judicious about what I pack, especially since, as a writer I travel with a laptop—but no sleeping bags. Consequently, being a ‘one to three-star’ traveler, I have ended up with pneumonia. Like the time in Myanmar when the first-class boat I was on, which was basically a metal 8x8 foot box shared with three other people, got grounded on a sand bar, and we were stranded there all night. Then on the connecting train, the other passengers couldn’t shut the cabin’s windows. It wasn’t until they were gone with the weather below freezing that I woke to find myself alone and frost outside. Where were the antibiotics when I needed them? In my book Behind the Forgotten Front, General Joseph ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell, was like any good military politician. He wanted to get the press to the front so they could sell his story. But in Myitkyina, he had the writers and photographers flown in before the battle was over. No one was prepared—or happy.
I just finished writing my young adult SciFi book: that is the first draft. But it’s not time to break out the champagne, even though I’m ready to celebrate. It means I have a good plot. Now I have to go back and scrub it to make sure I’ve planted the right clues, and the cadence is in sync. It’s like winning a crucial battle but not the war. There were many turning points in my book Behind the Forgotten front. One critical battle was infiltrating the airfield at Myitkyina, where the Axis airplanes departed from to shoot down our boys flying the Hump: the Himalayas. I loved writing the scene. It brought into play so many code names, like In the Ring, Merchant of Venice, and End Run. Unfortunately, the war didn’t stop there, but it was a decisive moment for the China-Burma-India Theater. In 2014, I traveled to Myitkyina to see the airfield. It’s under Myanmar military control, now. They’re fighting a different battle there today—one where the government wants to take over the land squatted upon in the Kachin and Shan states. This is the terrain where Merrill’s Marauders, Mars Task Force, the African-American battalion building the ‘road to nowhere’ and Chinese X Force passed through in WWII. Today they’re fighting over jade, rubies, and opium.
I’ve written historical fiction, SciFi, travelogues, and somehow, social justice can’t keep its nose out of my plots. I don’t like to be preachy, but I seem to gravitate towards characters who haven’t been given a fair break in life. Maybe it’s because I grew up on the other side of the railroad tracks, but there’s always an element of hope at the end. I started writing Behind the Forgotten Front, a story about World War II in the China-Burma-India theater, after my father died. He left a diary of his time in the war, but could never write the book himself. War in itself is a social justice statement, but once I got into the characters, I saw what it did to the men who lived. Back then, if you said someone had post traumatic stress disorder, they'd ask, “Say what?” PTSD is an illness that never goes away. But it can get better. Unfortunately, the men from WWII promised not to speak about what happened in the war for fifty years, except with each other. I remember Pfeifer coming to visit my dad at Christmas. It was a healing time for both of them. I guess writing BTFF was a salve for me too. It showed me a lot about my dad and made me more forgiving.
The one where the aisles were wide enough for you to squeeze by—sideways. Where the smell of moldy paper and a cold draft added to the quest of finding the perfect story hidden somewhere inside. And at the cash register, the owner sat with feet propped on a stool, blanket wrapped around shoulders, book in hand, lost in some imaginary tale. Back then, I wasn’t a customer; I was another character wandering through this imaginary world. Like most writers, my house is filled with books, paperbacks, and hard copies, that snatch me away from the mundane routines of life. I love it when friends come to visit, and I find them dragging a well-read novel over to the couch, forgetting why they really stopped by. Like the skill of selling books and the way we read them, the art of writing letters is changing too. In my story Behind the Forgotten Front, Earl asks Harry to write a letter to Lester’s family. He says “It just doesn’t seem right getting a telegram saying, ‘Sorry your son’s dead. Thanks for raising him, loving him, then sending him to help Uncle Sam. But he’s dead, and we got to move on.’” Many things in life have to move on. Sometimes it’s for the better, and sometimes ….
I stepped on a clear squishy blob, that turned out to be something from another world. This thought made me wonder whether there's any truth to Steven Hawking’s supposition that an advanced alien civilization could invade and destroy humanity. Hawking said we don’t know what aliens are like, but we do know humans have a history of massacring other cultures. Why would a more intelligent organism not do the same to us? In my book, Behind the Forgotten Front, there’s a scene with a young prostitute, where the protagonist, sickened by the thought of this girl with the red third eye living off her beauty, grabs her by both shoulders as if he can shake the little girl back into her. But she says she’s happy with her life. “Work as pretty girl or no work. You think it better I sit in street and beg?” Then she tells him, “Our bad luck make our character.” What if her parents hadn’t been poor and sold her? Whatever I stepped on, it looked alive, with red and blue streaks. And like the girl with the red third eye asked: “Why you not feel guilty ‘bout ripping my country apart?” I wondered whether an alien would think us nothing more than a bacteria colony to be wiped out.
This may sound cruel, but when I saw the ravaged remains from Dorian, I thought, this too shall pass. This is not the first time Mother Nature has ripped a page out of our lives and blown us in a new direction. I grew up where weather was the first order of conversation. It came with the coffee. In the winter, temperatures dropped down to -50 degrees Fahrenheit and in the summer, you could almost peel a layer of humidity off your skin. You learned not only to live with it, but in it. One winter, a group of us bared the biting wind and took a walk on the Mississippi River. Yes, I said walk ON the river. It gets that cold. But not cold enough to completely freeze the nine-foot-deep channel. Of course, one of us fell in. We whisked him out and stripped him down within seconds, each donating a layer for him to wear—not doing so would have been deadly. Weather is like that; it changes your life. So, writing about weather in my book, Behind the Forgotten Front, was as a natural. Not only did I talk about the mud slides, earthquakes, and floods in Burma, but the great dust bowls of the Depression in the USA. Like I said, weather changes your life.
Writing is a labor of love. Sometimes I'm so into it, that my characters seem more real than my dog sitting at my feet. Other times, I take my dog for a walk. For me, there are several stages in writing a novel. First, it's the "vomit" stage, where I let everything out before I lose it. Then in the second, or “clean-up” phase I add all the transitions, sensory details, and emotional revelations. Third stage is making sure I'm carrying my protagonist or plot through the “growth arc.” Last is the “polishing” stage—which I love too much. It's too easy to get caught-up in word-smithing. But I have to admit, when I finished Behind the Forgotten Front, it was as if someone else had written it for me. Just as Mrs. Muir had never been a ship's captain, I had never been to India or Burma nor taken part in a battle. So how could we have written scenes as if we were there? The people and places came to me like a ghost leading my hand over the keyboard, helping me tell THEIR story. Now that my book is finished, I'm still not sure whether someone’s ghost wrote it or if in those moments of throwing myself into it, I was actually there in my mind.
When I was in Myanmar (formerly Burma) there was either monstrous flooding with monsoon downpours or the rivers dried up so much that boats (the only form of transportation in some regions) got stuck in the middle of the channel. One night, while traveling down the Chindwin River, we hit a sandbar. ALL the men rolled up their longyi (traditional wrap), then got into the water and tried to push it back into the flow. But they had no luck. So we stayed stuck until morning. I was lucky, I was in a first class cabin, which was an 8x8x4 foot high tin box I shared with three other people. Between the cold water chilling the metal, the wind whistling through the 'impossible to close' sliding door," babies crying and people farting, I couldn't sleep. Putting that inconvenience aside, each year these people face losing their homes to mudslides and crops to the insufferably hot droughts. It's a never ending cycle they have learned to accept. In my book, Behind the Forgotten Front, I tried to show that in addition to fighting the enemy, sometimes the soldiers had to fight Mother Nature. And you can imagine who always won.
I have never fought in a war but having visited six continents and seen how the the rest of the world lives, I treasure my freedom. And I thank those who have protected it for me. In my travels, I've skirted civil wars in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Turkey, and Myanmar. There, I met ordinary men and women who died fighting for their rights. In my book Behind the Forgotten Front, I try to show that a war is not made up of battles every day. Sometimes it's running from a rouge baby elephant or listening to an opera in Darwin from a long range radio in the jungle. It's the simple things in life that we don't notice, but treasure them when we don't have them--like Peace.
My siblings and I grew up in the same house as my nephew, father and grandmother. Four generations listening to the same ghosts haunting the third-floor attic and climbing the same rickety back steps of our civil-war era home. It was one of those melting pot neighborhoods that surrounded a local park with the Irish in one corner, Italians in another, Germans in the third, and all the new immigrants in the last. Lots of different accents in the park and on the playground at school--the same elementary school my father and mother attended. But being brought up Catholic, when we reached high school age, we were segregated into all-boys or all-girls schools. Here's where my story diverges into my novel, Behind the Forgotten Front. In high school, my father cultivated a group of friends. And when I say group, I mean about forty guys, who stayed buddies their entire lives. They would get together every summer and Christmas with their families, and the children would either run relay races or we'd form a line to whisper in Santa's ear the gifts we wanted. I developed the character Bob, in Behind the Forgotten Front, off one of the fellas in my dad's group. Although my novel is fiction, many of the characters really lived.
In Behind the Forgotten Front, there is no character more unforgettable than General Joseph 'Vinegar Joe' Stilwell. On May 1, 1942, General Stilwell marched 114 American, British, Chinese and Burmese men and women 14 miles per day, 105 steps per minute, through the jungles of Burma to the safety of India. With the Japanese on their tails, they crossed the Chindwin River at Homalin on May 12. The Japanese arrived a day later and were never able to catch up to them while they crossed the mountains into India. In 2014, to fact check my book, I took a boat down the Chindwin to Homalin. That region of Burma (now Myanmar) is still so remote, that one of the other passengers asked me if I was a missionary. They said there hadn't been a westerner in those parts for months. In 1942 the British abandoned their teak plantations, never to return. It was a different time, when racism was still strong. Little has changed today. Please take a look at my blog to get a glimpse of the people Stilwell and the 114 others saw along their journey to safety http://barbarahawkins-writer.com/2014/06/Stilwells-1942-retreat-from-Burma
Although Behind the Forgotten Front is fiction, many of the people in the book are not, like Ed Pfeifer. Growing up, I remember Ed visiting my family every Christmas on his way back from his teaching job in Arizona to his home in Michigan. He and my dad would sit in the living room, cigar in my dad's hand and pipe in Pfeifer's, and reminisce about the War. All us kids (there were seven of us) huddled around the corner, giggling and sneaking peeks, trying to catch bits and pieces of their conversation. But my mom would always find us and shoo us away. Many of you may know, but I didn't until I wrote the book, that the government had made the soldiers swear to fifty-years of secrecy. Imagine keeping all those life-wrenching memories bottled up inside for fifty years. I'm glad my dad had Pfeifer and Pfeifer had my dad to work out some of those scars. I only wish I had been able to hear more.
In the Burmese jungles of WWII, Merrill's Marauders penetrated the enemy line, without backup. For months at a time they would scout out an area before giving the green light to the infantry. Food would be dropped to them by parachute and those injured or too weak to continue were left along the side of the road for when the full battalion passed by. They were the misfits back home but given the name Galahad on the front, because they went where others refused to go.
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