Some Historical Friday Fictioneers

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 Lots of accurate historical references and historical figures abound, behaving in ways you’d expect them to.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!)

Friday Fictioneers LogoToday’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.

Thanks, Mom

The project I’m working on for this year’s NaNoWriMo is based on a Friday Fictioneers, 100-word story from several months ago. This was the photo prompt:

And here is the story:


“That wallpaper’s stuck to the wood,” the contractor said. “If you want it gone, you’re gonna have to take the wood down then drywall.”

We’d hoped to save the old walls. They lent such a rustic feel to the place, but the ancient wallpaper wouldn’t budge. Drywall wouldn’t be the same, but what can you do?

To save money we did the demolition ourselves. With pry-bars we had fun, imagining we ripped away annoying people.

It was all great fun until the last corner, when the boards came away and we saw the tiny bones wrapped in a baby blanket.

I had a lot of positive comments on the piece (and, yes, someone did mention I used the word “fun” twice within a couple of lines), and several people suggested I expand it into a longer story or even a novel. I appreciated the confidence in me, but I put it out of mind until I was on a train trip to New York. The story kept coming back to me, and I started jotting notes. It wasn’t long before I had four pages of them, some snippets of dialogue, and a concept for what was obviously a novel.

However, I had a couple of writing/editing/revising projects I was deep into and didn’t want to start anything new back in the spring, but I kept the notes close by, added to them over the months, did a little research (part of the story takes place during World War II), and decided this was perfect for NaNoWriMo. So, I’m off and running–just over 12,000 words in four days.

As an historian, I love researching other times, but this project has another significance for me. Many who know me well know my relationship with my mother was problematic at best, traumatic at worst. She was a teenager to young adult during World War II, worked in a uniform factory, and wrote to a lot of soldiers whose convoys passed through her home town. She would talk about the homefront of World War II as if it were her personal playground, and she often referred to it as the best time of her life. (Yep, Mom wasn’t particularly thoughtful of others; it was always about her.) Her stories, though, have given me a lot of background detail that I can include in this project. So, in a big way she can contribute to my writing other than as a model for a nutcase character.

It’s probably good that she’s gone, though, because she’d be pissed as hell to recognize any of her life stories in anything I wrote. You see, no one was allowed to talk about her except her, but thanks anyway, Mom.

And something a little off-topic here: Tomorrow is Election Day, and it is the civic duty of every eligible voter to vote. Find a way to do it. It’s important to our democracy.

Spy Flash – Week 16

Four months already, and I’m still amazed that I’ve kept up with this. The key thing is that the Rory’s Story Cube Challenge forces me to write something new every week. Hmm, it’s almost as if writer friend Jennie Coughlin knew I needed a kick in the butt when she came up with the challenge. I consider my butt kicked, and thankfully so.

Several regular readers (Squeee! I have regular readers!) of the series have asked if I’m going to compile the Spy Flash stories into a book, and the answer is, indeed I am. I’m going to wait until I have twenty-six stories (half a year) and publish a volume entitled, big surprise, “Spy Flash,” as an e-book for Kindle. And maybe a paperback. We’ll see.

What I saw: l. to r. – break/broken; raising hand/speaking; keyhole; crying/weeping; a die; sadness; romance/hand-in-hand/holding hands; sheep; scales/balance/justice

This week’s roll of the cubes featured a set of scales, which for me means justice. I majored in Russian history, and one of my Spy Flash characters is Russian, so something came to mind almost immediately. I did a little research to confirm my recollection of what I’d studied decades ago, and the result is this week’s story, “Prizraki.” That’s a Russian word, and I’ve defined it in an end note of the story that also provides some additional detail on the history discussed.

If you don’t see the link in the title “Prizraki” above, then hover your cursor over the Spy Flash tab at the top of this page and select the story from the drop-down menu. If you’d like to give the Story Cubes Challenge a try, write a story of any length then post a link to it at Jennie Coughlin’s blog.



Sgt. First Class Frederick W. Duncan

I can’t remember if I ever thanked my father for being one of the people who saved the world from Adolph Hitler. If I didn’t, I should have, even though he was the type of person, when I was a child, who didn’t want the extra attention. Had he lived longer, now he might have enjoyed the World War II memorial, might have liked being called one of The Greatest Generation, and might have told the real stories instead of the funny ones my brother and I heard.

Though he survived World War II, I always think of him on Remembrance Day–yes, in the U.S. it’s Veterans Day, but my grandmother and parents always called it Remembrance Day. Any soldier back through history to the first gives up their everyday life to go fight for concepts that are sometimes nebulous. I believe that wasn’t so in World War II. I think it was very clear that if we hadn’t stopped the Nazis, there would not be a human race today. Or if there were, we would be unrecognizable as human beings.

As I studied World War II in high school and college and learned about the battles my father was in, I thought he would be my personal resource. He continually turned me back to the books instead. When I learned that an Allied victory wasn’t the sure thing the history books made it out to be, I understood how very close I came to not being born. Even then, he would say it was his job, it had to be done.

He returned home with physical wounds that healed and psychological ones that didn’t, just like soldiers today. When he was in the Battle of the Bulge, he was 18 and a half years old, had been a soldier for almost two years, and was one of the youngest sergeants in the U.S. Army at the time. He loved being an NCO (he eventually became a master sergeant) and turned down all offers to go to officer candidate school. He would wink and say, “The sergeants run the Army anyway. Why would I want to be an officer?”

If I didn’t thank him, I do it now, as I thank everyone who served, who protected us and gave us the freedom to be who we are, and who continue to do so–whether I agree with the reasons or not. Veterans, especially wounded veterans deserve everything we can give them. They don’t deserve elected officials like Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) to argue against a veterans employment bill by saying it creates a separate class of individuals, that it’s not egalitarian. Sen. DeMint clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and the rest of us know that we don’t casually call them heroes–because they are.

I’ll close with my favorite poem about the inhumanity of war and what it can do to soldiers, Seamus Heaney’s “Requiem for the Croppies.”

The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley,
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp,
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
A people hardly marching, on the hike,
We found new tactics happening each day:
We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike
And stampede cattle into infantry,
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
Until, on Vinegar Hill, the final conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August the barley grew up out of our grave.