July 28 hasn’t been a date I’ve associated with positive things since this day in 2003, when my only sibling, my brother, died at the age of 44. This year, instead of taking this date and marking it as the anniversary of something sad, I’ve decided to reclaim it.
As of today, July 28 will be the anniversary of the launch of the book which, among the four others published, I’m most proud.
The Better Spy is a novel in stories dealing with the aftermath of a single spy mission by U.N. covert operative Mai Fisher. It opens in more or less present day (2013) when a dying British soldier needs to get something off his chest before he gets to the great beyond. It’s a secret that changes everything about Mai’s life since that mission in the 1980s when she was under cover in the IRA.
I’m particularly proud of its experimental form. It begins in 2013 and works backwards to a often-mentioned event in the series of stories, the bombing of an IRA stronghold in 1986.
The Better Spy is available from Amazon as either a paperback or for your Kindle. You can search by the title, or click here to go to my Amazon Author Page, which lists all my works.
Also, check out a new interview with me at the Flash! Friday Microfiction page by clicking here. I talk a bit about The Better Spy, what inspires me, how I got into historical thrillers, and more. Comment on that page and you’ll be entered to win a free copy of The Better Spy and my recent novella, My Noble Enemy.
I’ll always think of my brother today, but from now on it’ll be a happy thought. He would approve.
Readers of my blog will recall I participated in this contest in 2014. I made it through all three rounds but was not a finalist. However, I received great feedback on the three stories I submitted. That made the experience more than worthwhile. The 2015 challenge is well underway, and I made it from Round 1 to Round 2. That was a great boost in a writing year, which, thus far, has been a challenge in and of itself. (I’ll write later about my critique group walk-out.)
I won’t go into detail about the challenge because I’ve described it before, but if you want a refresher, check out the website here. The Flash Fiction Challenge will be starting later in the year, and I encourage writers of all levels to try it out.
My assignment in Round 1 was to write an original story of no more than 2,500 words in the Historical Fiction genre, with the subject of “a walk in a forest,” and the character of a general. The assignment came in the midst of my epic bout with the flu, so I used several beta readers before I submitted it. Sure enough, one of them made suggestions which improved the story–and that story ended up in the top five of my heat. That placement moves me on to Round 2, and on March 12, I’ll learn my next assignment. This time the story will be no more than 2,000 words, and I’ll have three days to submit the story.
So, here’s my Round 1, Top Five story:
Being the “GI’s General” was a blessing and a curse—a blessing in that his men followed him with an enthusiasm few combat commanders had seen; a curse in that he eschewed many of the perks of his rank to maintain that image. Truth be told, Omar Bradley felt just as disgruntled right now as any of his soldiers, given his recent dispute with Ike and the fact his fourth star wasn’t forthcoming. He took some solace that Georgie Patton wasn’t going to get his either. Still, the sting of having had his command placed under Sir Bernard Montgomery was as strong as it had been back in December when Ike broke the news.
“The Brits are our allies, Brad,” Ike had said. “We’ve got to give them this.”
He knew his outburst, so unusual for him, had taken Ike by surprise. “By God, Ike, Montgomery’s not accountable to the American people. I am. You do this, and I resign.”
“You’re forgetting something, Brad. The only person accountable to the American people is me, as Supreme Allied Commander. Now, Montgomery will have command of your 1st and 9th Armies, and we’re at war, Brad. You don’t get to resign.”
“My men won’t like taking orders from that popinjay.”
“Brad, are you trying to out-Patton Georgie? I know he detests Monty, but I thought you—”
“Ike, I won’t stand for it.”
Ike’s face had flushed, an expression any soldier would understand, and Bradley knew he’d gone too far. “Brad, those are my orders,” was all Ike had said.
That had been enough to silence him. Orders were orders.
His shoulders hunched in his great coat against the cold, Bradley plodded the length of the encampment to his tent, apart from the others. His aide trotted ahead of him and held the flap open for him. Inside was almost pitch dark, given the no-lights, no-fires order—his orders—but Major Benson flicked his lighter to life.
Two camp stools, a camp table, and two sleeping bags with extra blankets—just as it had been for the past several nights—made the tent feel crowded. Bradley shivered, rubbing his gloved hands together in a futile attempt to bring warmth to them. In the center of the tent between the two sleeping bags was a dead campfire, tinder and small logs ready to be lit. Benson flicked the lighter off, and Bradley stood in the tent, still hunched, still shivering.
“Major,” Bradley said.
“Orders be damned. Light a fire to warm the sleeping bags.”
“With pleasure, sir.”
Again using his lighter to illuminate the interior of the tent, the Major opened the flap at the top to let the smoke escape, then knelt on the frozen ground to get the tinder burning. Bradley settled on his camp stool and draped one of the olive drab blankets over his head and shoulders.
Benson soon had a good fire going, the smoke spiraling toward the opening in the top of the tent. Bradley let the heat warm his face and felt almost comfortable. Benson also took a blanket and settled on his camp stool, holding the blanket over his head and shoulders. After a few moments, both men scooted their stools closer to the small fire, stretching out their blankets in an effort to channel the heat.
Just a few more nights of this, Bradley thought, and we’ll be on the move again. Just a few more nights.
“You know, Sarge, this ain’t fair, us doing perimeter patrols like we’re ground-pounders,” said Corporal Jenks.
“Even tankers are ground-pounders to the flyboys, Jenks, so quit pissing and moaning. Orders are orders,” Sergeant Duncan replied, as the two men crept through the forest surrounding the encampment.
The Battle of the Bulge wasn’t that far behind them, and everyone was in wait-and-see status: waiting for the generals to figure out what would happen next and seeing nothing but the same scenery for days now.
The winter of 1944-1945 had been tough, the coldest some said in centuries, and it hadn’t eased. Though they hadn’t seen snowfall in a few weeks, the temperatures hadn’t risen much. Tonight, then, Duncan was grateful for the exercise of a foot patrol. It kept his blood moving, kept his toes from getting frost-bit. Better than shivering in his tank or, worse, in a tent with no fire, which a new general order had forbidden.
The crisp air, the crunch of the snow beneath his boots, the evergreen branches drooping under the weight of the snow all reminded him of home. With a rifle in his hands, this was more like hiking in the woods when he went jacklighting for deer with his brothers.
Except back home, a stray German wasn’t likely to jump up and start shooting at him.
And his brothers, older than he, were scattered in the Army from here to North Africa. All of them safe he assumed, though how he’d find out different, he didn’t know.
“How much longer you figure we’ll be here, Sarge?” Jenks asked.
Duncan brushed aside a low-hanging bough and murmured, “Jenks, be quiet. If there are Jerries out there, you might as well take ‘em by the goddamned hand and lead ‘em here.”
Jenks lowered his voice. “Shit, Sarge, we kicked their asses so hard, they’ll think twice about bothering us again.”
Duncan recognized Jenks’ bravura. Everyone in the 4th Armored Division had felt it after they’d broken the siege at Bastogne and freed the 101st Airborne. Duncan was a new sergeant, a “buck sergeant,” but a quick learner. Discretion and thinking things through, not glory, saved men’s lives and won skirmishes.
“Jenks, keep your eyes open and your mouth shut. That’s an order.”
Duncan scanned his surroundings, looking for anything out of the ordinary, anything other than a sea of GI tents. He gave a glance at the sky, again reminded of nights at home where the dark was deep and the stars were familiar beacons, interrupted by the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He let himself feel some wonder that halfway across the world from his home, he could find Orion the Hunter and the Dog Star.
Not for the first time, this country made him homesick. His tank had surged across many a farm field, achingly reminiscent of what he’d left behind to do his duty, and he’d sent silent apologies to the farmers whose fields he’d wrecked.
When Duncan lowered his eyes, he stopped, holding up a fist for Jenks to stop, too. Duncan went to one knee, M1 at his shoulder, eyes squinting in the dark. Through the trees and brush, he saw a faint orange glow against the snow.
“Son of a bitch,” he murmured.
“Is that a fire?” Jenks whispered.
“Yeah, it is, and I’m gonna bust whoever lit it down to buck private,” Duncan said.
Duncan strode toward the tent, Jenks almost jogging to keep up with him. As he neared the tent, he could see the silhouettes of two soldiers inside. Just outside the flap, Duncan paused and called out in his best sergeant’s bellow, “You, there, in the tent! Identify yourselves!”
One of the men stirred, and Duncan kept his rifle in a position to bring it up quickly. A head covered in a blanket poked through the opening.
“Stand down, soldier,” came the command.
“I’ll decide who stands down,” Duncan said. “My corporal and I are on patrol, and you have a fire in violation of standing orders. Put it out. Now!”
“Who are you, soldier?”
“Sergeant Duncan, 25th Mechanized Recon.”
A murmur came from inside the tent, and the man poking his head out looked back inside. He turned to Duncan again. “Step inside, Sergeant, and we’ll clear this up.”
“There’s nothing to clear up, soldier,” Duncan said. “The fire needs to be put out now.”
The man stepped back and held the tent flap open.
“Jenks, you stay here,” Duncan said, then ducked inside the tent.
The second man remained seated, only his eyes visible through a small opening in the blanket he clutched around him. “What’s the problem, Sergeant?” he asked.
“The problem, dogface, is that we have a general order for no lights, no fires, and what do I see before my eyes? Why, I believe it’s a fire, soldier, a fire you are not supposed to have.”
“Sergeant—” the other soldier said.
“Quiet,” Duncan ordered. “I’m talking to this soldier. Now, soldier, just why it is you think you have the right to a fire, when the rest of us are freezing our asses off? Or do you want the Jerries to see us and blow us all to hell?”
“Sergeant,” the other man said, “you need to stand down. Now.”
Duncan ignored that and continued to address the seated man. “You need to put this fire out now. No questions. No excuses. Put it out. Piss on it if you have to, but put it out. Now!”
“Sergeant! Do you have any idea who you’re talking to?” the other man asked.
“Two pieces of shit who are getting put on report for having a fire against orders.”
The seated man stood, letting his blanket slide to the ground. Duncan took in the three stars on the great coat and the helmet. He blinked and looked at the other soldier, whose helmet he could now see bore a gold oak leaf; then, he looked again at the man standing across the fire from him.
“Oh, shit,” Duncan muttered and drew himself to attention. “Sir, I—”
“Sergeant Duncan, was it?” said General Omar Bradley.
Duncan swallowed hard in a tight throat. “Yes, sir.”
Bradley looked him over, taking in his unit patches. “You’re one of Georgie’s boys,” he said.
“Yes, sir. My apologies, sir. I didn’t realize it was you, sir. Might I ask, sir, if we could just, maybe, pretend this didn’t happen. Sir.”
“No, sergeant, we can’t.”
Well, hell, Duncan thought, there goes my Army career. “I apologize again, sir.” He turned to the major. “And to you, too, sir.”
“Sergeant, at ease,” Bradley said, and Duncan barely shifted from his rigid stance. “Sergeant, we can’t leave this be because you’re absolutely right. I am in violation of those standing orders, and you are well within your rights to put me on report.”
“Sir?” said Duncan and the major at once.
“Tell me, sergeant, what would you have done if some other soldier had a fire against orders?” Bradley asked.
“Well, sir, I’d order him to put it out, take down his name and serial number, and report him to my lieutenant.”
“And give him a good chewing out?” Bradley asked, a smile twitching his mouth.
“Uh, yes, sir.”
“You did a good job of that, Sergeant. Best I’ve heard in a long time. You have a notepad and pencil on you?”
“Very well, sergeant, take out that notepad and pencil.”
Before he realized it, Duncan had done just that.
“My name is Omar Nelson Bradley, U.S. Army, Commander, 1st Army. Rank, Lieutenant General. Sergeant, you should be writing this down.”
“You need to write all that down to put me on report,” Bradley said. He repeated his information, adding his serial number, and Duncan wrote it down.
“Who’s your lieutenant?” Bradley asked when Duncan finished.
“Very well. I’ll be checking with Lt. Westmoreland to make certain you put in that report. Am I clear, sergeant?”
“Sir, yes, sir!”
“Major Benson, put the fire out. Sergeant, you’re dismissed.”
The cold air almost froze the sweat on Duncan’s body when he left the tent. Jenks stood there, eyes wide as baseballs.
“Jesus, Sarge, that was—”
“And are you—”
“Westmoreland’s going to shit a brick.”
And probably throw it at me, Duncan thought.
Before he walked away, he looked back over his shoulder. The fire in Gen. Omar Bradley’s tent was out.
Even though he knew why Lt. Westmoreland had summoned him to his tent, Sgt. Duncan spent his time on the way there going over whatever he might say to keep the lieutenant from taking a stripe from him, but he wasn’t optimistic about the outcome.
Duncan stepped through the tent opening and came to attention. “Sgt. Duncan, reporting as ordered, sir,” he said.
Westmoreland didn’t look up from the papers on his camp table. “And yet again, Sgt. Duncan, your name shows up in my daily dispatches, and for the damnedest thing.” The glare Westmoreland fixed on him was as cold as the weather. “You put a lieutenant-general on report.”
“Well, sir, he ordered me to,” Duncan said.
“Oh, I know that. He sent me a personal note, explaining the whole thing. Once again, Sergeant Duncan, I don’t know whether to bust you or promote you,” Westmoreland said. “You’re damned lucky it was Bradley and not Blood and Guts himself.”
“Yes, sir. Uh, sir, do you want me to withdraw my report?” Duncan asked.
“No. Bradley told me I’d be a second looey again if I made you do that. The report stands, the only blemish on a command officer’s otherwise spotless military record. I thought you should know that. I’d like to read you something—a note Bradley sent to Patton, who passed it on to me.”
Westmoreland picked up a sheet of paper and began to read, “Sergeant Duncan is a fine example of a dedicated military man. His concept of duty and responsibility is something other soldiers should model. I consider you a lucky man, Georgie, to have him under your command. I did a stupid, bush-league thing, and Sgt. Duncan spared no words in reminding me of that. I am glad he was on guard duty to keep me from a mistake which could have cost lives.”
“General Patton added a personal note,” Westmoreland continued. He folded the sheet of paper in thirds and held it up. “Would you like to have this as a memento?”
“Uh, sure, sir. Yes, sir.”
Westmoreland nodded to him, and Duncan walked up to the desk and took the paper from his lieutenant.
“You’re dismissed, sergeant.”
Duncan tucked the paper inside his jacket, saluted, then about-faced and spared no time heading for the exit.
Duncan stopped and turned around. “Sir?”
“Is it true you told Bradley to piss on his fire to put it out?”
Duncan cleared his throat. “Yes, sir.”
Westmoreland burst into laughter and waved at Duncan to leave. As Duncan walked back toward his tank, a spring in his step and a grin on his face, he could still hear Westmoreland laughing.
© 2015 by Phyllis A. Duncan; reprint with permission only.
If you’re my age or older, even a little younger, you will remember exactly where you were on this day fifty years ago, what you were doing, what went through your mind when the news flash came from Dallas, Texas. I won’t go into detail about my feelings and reactions here because I’ve done that on my political blog, and you can read that by clicking here.
What I will say was this was an act we young babyboomers in some way never got over. It snatched our innocence and optimism away. If hope for the future could be taken from us so quickly, so easily, then what did the future hold? It was a despairing time, and I can still remember it with obscene clarity.
Whether she intended it or not, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields, who manages all of us Friday Fictioneers flash fiction writers every week (an admirable job because organizing writers is like herding cats), picked a photo with the briefest of echoes from that day. After you read my story, “A Conversation at the Site of Jennifer Juniors,” you may think it’s a stretch, even a long reach, but I just call it dramatic license. As usual, if you don’t see the link on the story title above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, and select the story from the drop-down list.
By the way, I was thrilled my story in the upcoming anthology “1 Photo, 50 Authors, 100 Words” was voted by the other contributors the best along with Rochelle’s story–we tied. It’s an honor to be in her company not only in the anthology but as a top story as well.
We’re already nearly two weeks into the scary month of October, and, just as I promised, I have another spooky tale for Friday Fictioneers. I also did a little genre mash-up. If the historical fiction part of it isn’t so obvious–I was raised Catholic and never heard of this particular saint–Google St. Blandine and/or “Amphitheatre des Trois Gauls.” St. Blandine has a direct connection to today’s photo prompt, which is a wonderful photo of the Amphitheatre of the Three Gauls in Lyon, France, taken by Friday Fictioneer Sandra Crook.
My story is called “Martyr,” for reasons I hope are clear. As usual, if you don’t see the link on the story title in the line above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list.
Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres to read and to write. I have a degree in history and have maintained my love of history throughout my life. I write what the great Alan Furst calls the “historical thriller,” and I just finished reading a three-book series (with more to come) about a woman who becomes a spy for MI-5 in Britain during World War II. (It’s the Maggie Hope series by Susan Elia McNeal, and I highly recommend it for a glimpse into Britain during the Blitz and before the U.S. enters the war. Lots of accurate historical references and historical figures abound, behaving in ways you’d expect them to. McNeal has done her homework well.)
I have a couple of sticking points, though, with historical fiction. The history has to be accurate. You can take some dramatic license, yes, but it has to fit into the overall context of the history and the era. And the fiction within that context has to be believable. Am I a fan of the alternate history genre? Not particularly, though I have read some which have made the fictional version of history believable; otherwise, just call it fantasy and be done with it. Do I have a problem with the Steampunk genre? No. When it’s done well, the author takes the technology of a particular time period and creates perfectly believable machines, which may not appear in reality for another century. Is Steampunk truly historical fiction? Yes, in that the Steampunk author has to be well-grounded in the real history of the era to make his or her work believable.
So, accuracy and believability, and I’ve closed books and put them aside permanently when I’ve spotted an obvious historical gaffe. (And don’t get me started on aviation inaccuracies!)
Today’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt put me right smack in the middle of a rush of nostalgia. I worked not too far from Union Station in Washington, DC, for many years, and I always loved going into that building. Architecturally, it is a marvel, and it had seen so much history. By the 1970’s it was almost a ruin, just a giant pigeon roost, and it took an act of Congress, literally, to get it back on its pinnings. Today it’s a classy shopping mall with several great restaurants and still an operating train station. If you’re ever in DC, make sure it’s a tourist destination for you. DC’s Metro Subway system has a stop there, making it easy to get to.
Union Station has seen so much history, it was hard to pick something specific to write about, even harder to confine it to 100 words, but I focused on the Serviceman’s Canteen. Open between 1941 and 1946, twenty-four hours a day the Canteen offered coffee and good food mainly to servicemen passing through Union Station but also to any passenger or even people off the streets of DC. It averaged three million customers a year. I can remember my father and several uncles commenting about stopping there for a five-cent meal. It closed permanently in May of 1946 mainly because its typical customer–a G.I. on his way to be shipped out–no longer trooped through the station in large numbers.
The Canteen attracted even high-society women in DC, who wanted to do something for the war effort, and my story, “Good Service,” acknowledges one of them. Did this happen? Not that I know of, but in the context of this woman’s history, it’s completely believable she could have done something like this. I know this woman had left DC in 1945, but for something important to her, I could see her returning. What is historically accurate is that this woman did indeed sell food to servicemen from the Serviceman’s Canteen.
As usual, if you don’t see the link on the story title in the paragraph above, go to the top of the page and click on the Friday Fictioneers tab. Then, you can select the story from the drop-down menu.
Whoever said revising is the hardest part of writing, give him or her a cigar. The odd thing is, I don’t know why that 1) surprises me and/or 2) annoys me. After all, I’ve been writing/revising something for close to forty years. Not a single one of my government reports or magazine articles made it to print without multiple revisions. I suppose in that case because the revisions were engendered by third parties rather than being self-induced, I just accepted it and moved on to the next one.
Every writer–no, don’t deny this because it’s every writer–grumbles when it comes to polishing that rough draft. Some people erroneously decide that first cut is good enough and rush to Smashwords or Kindle Direct Publishing and bestow on us a rough draft full of plot holes, inconsistencies, typos, grammatical goofs, putrid punctuation, and sloppy style. They are usually the first ones to wail that self-publishers get no respect. Well, duh, accept some responsibility for that. And I’ve self-published three collections of genre short stories. I agonized over every word, used the services of a proofreader, and some typos still got past us. I felt as if I’d betrayed the reader in that case. The advantage of direct publishing, though, is that I can upload a corrected version and only lose maybe one day of availability.
When my workshop instructor at Tinker Mountain praised my novel excerpt, he made a point of declaring how polished it was–and then suggested some line edits, ones that were necessary. He didn’t ask me for a copy of the entire MS as is. He told me to go home and revise it then get back in touch. I didn’t and don’t resent that feedback. This is a person whose opinion I respect, and he’s right. It’s a decent rough draft, which needs a lot of work to be a final product.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped me from grumbling as I go about Revision Round One.
What, you ask, you’re going to revise it more than once? Yes. I have a lot to digest about it: the instructor’s critique but my fellow workshoppers’ critiques as well. As I reviewed their comments, I saw they, with their fresh-eyed attention to the MS, made some good points which I have to factor into a revision. That means at least two revisions, perhaps more because I always hand off a “finished” MS to someone who will look at it from an editor’s perspective.
Why am I grumbling, then? Well, this novel is very different from what I usually write, which are historical thrillers. This novel is a combination of literary fiction and historical fiction (because it has a present-day and a past timeline interwoven), with a strand of mystery added, and the revision is taking me away from my characters, Mai and Alexei, who are like friends. Go on, admit it. Your characters become larger than life to you, too; otherwise, you’d write them with one dimension.
In this novel I’m also exploring a subject I never thought I’d address–race relations, historically and in the present day, and that’s by no means easy. Not that I’m tiptoeing around anything. I’m working very hard to be honest, and it’s difficult. My usual characters are just as bleeding-heart liberal as I am, so to be inside the head of a woman from the 1940’s to whom white supremacy is a given is very, very challenging. I’m trying not to make her a caricature and to show her as a human being, but that’s a trial as well. It’s too easy to just make her evil and not explain why she is the way she is.
However, doing something different from what you usually write expands you as a writer. It opens you to other possibilities, makes you look at your writing differently and more critically. A few years ago, I would have told you I could never have written a story of fewer than 500 words, much less 100 words, but I do it, twice, every week. I never disdained literary fiction–I read a lot of it–but I never thought I’d write a novel-length literary fiction work. But I have, and I’m very proud of it. Better yet, I’m excited about it, and I’ll be even more excited about it when it comes through the other side of the revision process.
Where revising your work is concerned, resistance is futile. You’ll be a better writer through revision.
Off and on for the past fifteen years I’ve been working on my magnum opus–a multiple book series on an actual event of domestic terrorism. Fifteen years may seem like a long time, but for twelve of those years I had a full-time and demanding job plus an actual social life. That, and the research was not only extensive but sometimes mentally taxing.
I composited real people into fictional characters but stuck to the history as it’s known in public records. I changed the names to protect the innocent–and to disguise the guilty. I filled holes in the historical record with fiction, but fiction extrapolated from the research. In all that time, the only thing I didn’t change was the location of the event of domestic terrorism.
I’ll digress a bit to again recommend that writers participate in critique groups. Not only do you get an honest appraisal of your craft, but you get the reactions of readers–both needed before you think about publication. Locate a critique group and join one. You’ll find it useful beyond measure.
Book one of this series is going through my critique group, and the comments and suggestions have been just what this series needed. And a key comment was about keeping the location historically accurate. When the critique group members started making suggestions about plot, I kept having to respond, “But the reality is this or that.” My critique group quite rightly pointed out that by sticking to the actual location, I was boxing myself in.
At first, the thought of changing all the references to the actual location was daunting. Book one isn’t an issue; it doesn’t even come up in that. It’s book two and three where the first veiled hints get dropped, and in book four that particular setting is critical. So, I debated long and hard with myself about whether or not to change it and came to the only logical conclusion.
I changed the location, moving it one state north then one state east. Sounds simple, right? Not. There are hundreds if not thousands of allusions to this location, including physical descriptions of buildings, locations of streets and landmarks, and dialogue. Doing a global search-and-replace won’t cut it. It means yet another methodical and thorough edit.
And maybe that was the point all along.
All fine and good, but when you’re planning to publish the series so that book four appears in the month of the twentieth anniversary of said event, it’s not so convenient. Convenience, however, isn’t a consideration. The art and the craft of writing are the major considerations, so I’ll do it. I’ll grumble a bit–well, a lot–but I’ll get it done, in the knowledge it was the right decision for the story I want to tell.