Setting a historical fiction novel in World War II Soviet Union might just be crazy.
When I set out to write my novel, I wanted to develop a story that was as historically accurate as possible while still offering myself creative license. This proved to be an overwhelming task given the vast history of those years, and the many different conflicting accounts of what happened.
There were times when I wanted to give up altogether.
Other times, I wondered if I should just make it Science Fiction. Hitler could be a Vampire, and all his cronies would be various forms of the undead.
It would’ve been a hot seller, but the premise sounded dumb, so I pressed on.
When it came to writing the Ukrainian characters, the stories flowed (almost) easily. I knew their stories, and so fictionalizing the tale didn’t feel like a chore. But writing the story of Frederick Herrmann, a young Nazi soldier hell-bent on carrying out the mission and task that his country and set before him left me almost paralyzed at times.
I am a bit of an idealist. The actions of the Nazi soldiers was something I couldn’t quite comprehend. How could so many young people follow so blindly the ideology of a clear tyrant and psychopath? How could they kill so robotically? And how did they live with themselves later?
I needed a reason, and so I set out to find one, but the research often led me to images that were so horrific, I had to step away. There were days when I hated Frederick and all that he stood for. I didn’t want to write of such atrocities, because I didn’t want to believe that people could really be that evil.
Frederick is the only purely fictional character in my book. While all of the other characters are based on the stories of men and women I met in Ukraine, Frederick came a little more reluctantly from my imagination.
I fought for Frederick. I wanted to redeem him somehow. I wanted there to be a reason for his wickedness, and in the end I think there was some redemption for his character, though it wasn’t what I expected when I began writing.
I won’t spoil the story for you, but I will tell you that Frederick eventually became one of my favorite characters to write. By the end of the story, I no longer hated him. I pitied him, and I pitied all the boys like him – the real ones who believed that they were right and justified in their mission.
I have to believe that there were lasting effects. I have to believe that for many, though I suspect not all, of those young men, the images that they saw, that were caused by their own calloused hands, haunted them for the rest of their lives.
How could they not?
Frederick Herrmann was a young man swallowed by the ideals of his country, and by a desperate need to please his father. His story may have been fictional, but many of his surroundings and experiences were not. The names of his commanders are the names of actual German leaders in Kiev in those years.
I set out to write a historical fiction story that stuck as close to fact as possible. Though Frederick is fictional, his story is not so unlike many of the young men from those desperate days.
In the end, Frederick became as real to me as any of the other characters.
I know some of you have read the book – what did you think? What are your thoughts on Frederick (without giving spoilers, please!)?
There’s a certain flaw in my personality. I know this comes as a shock to you, but it’s true. I am not perfect.
This certain flaw of mine resides firmly inside my stubbornness. I hate being told I have to do something.
Maybe you can relate?
Image Credit: Claudia Otte/Shutterstock.com
My first reaction to someone telling me I have to do something is to dig my heels in and say, “Nope. Not gonna happen. Thanks for asking, though.”
Now that I’m a grown up girl, of course, I’ve gotten better at controlling this impulse. I’m better at listening and receiving advice, and much more willing to concede the wisdom of others than perhaps I once was.
But I still don’t like being told I have to do something.
Writing books is a funny business. You think the book writing part is the hard part, and to a degree it is. As a writer once famously said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.” (This quote is most often attributed to Earnest Hemingway, but as it turns out, he wasn’t the one who said this. Thanks, internet, for ruining my morning.)
Once you get past the draining nature of bleeding onto paper (screen…whatever), you then get to enjoy the process of finding someone to validate your work. I thought that was the hard part, until I finally got set up with the agent and the publisher, and got back the first, second, and third round of edits.
Surely that was the hard part, right?
It turns out I was wrong about all of it. The hardest part of writing is the marketing and the launching and getting the word out there about all that bleeding you did on paper (screen…whatever).
THIS IS THE HARD PART!
When I’m not nursing sick babies (hello strep throat! You’re no longer welcome), homeschooling, shuttling from baseball to soccer to flag football to youth group to gymnastics, and trying to fit in conversations with my husband, I’m working on the launch plan for the books I’m releasing this year.
I’m not complaining about this – not in the slightest. It’s terribly exciting, and the process is invigorating, of only slightly overwhelming. But there’s one problem:
This process of launching books can take over your life.
Every spare moment I have – every quiet, free second when the kids are playing, or the baby is sleeping – I am working on my plan to launch these books. And the more that I feel pressured to do to make this a “successful” launch, the more I want to dig in my heels, shake my head, and say, “Nope. Not gonna happen. Thanks for asking, though.”
Here’s the thing: I see the wisdom in all these things. If I were to do everything that was recommended to successfully launch and market my books, I can quite easily see how it would work.
But I can also see how it can control a person.
It will be summertime when I launch my novel – the time of year when all my children are home all day every day. Those are short months we’re given each year in which we get to make memories – to enjoy one another as a family without all the pressures of life.
I refuse to be controlled by book launches. I refuse to sacrifice my summer, and my children’s summer, with marketing. So, what does that mean?
It means I have to be strategic. It means I’m listening to the advice of my launch manager who is helping me control my strategy so that it doesn’t control me.
I’m working ahead of schedule as much as possible so that when summertime rolls around I’ve got a bulk of the work pre-done.
I’m listening to the words of wisdom, and I’m sifting through it, tailoring it to fit my life – the life of a mother with four young children who don’t necessarily need me to be a bestselling author.
They need me to be their mom.
Image Credit: jakkapan/Shutterstock.com
Do I want to see these books thrive?
Would I love to hit a bestseller list?
Am I will to put in the work to make that happen?
Yes…but not at the sacrifice of the people closest to me.
So I’m navigating these waters cautiously. I may not be doing as much as I should be. I’m dropping balls left and right (some of them here at home, and some of them in marketing).
But I refuse to be consumed completely.
[Tweet “Dreams are meant to be chased, but not at the expense of the ones I love most.”]
Turns out that stubbornness of mine comes in handy now and again.
I’m currently sitting in a coffee shop, Christmas carols warbling through the speaker behind my head, and my chai tea offering a relaxing scent to what feels like a very holiday heavy morning. The Florida sky is grey today, the temperature a brisk 60 degrees.
It’s about as Christmasy as our sandy state can muster.
I’ve been staring at a blank screen for thirty minutes, willing brilliance to tap it’s way out of my fingertips. I want to start a new novel. I want to tell a new story.
I’ve never really had to look for a story before. My first novel came to me. It was practically gift wrapped and placed in my hands. And with the release date coming up in just six short months, it’s time to start in on the second story. Only, I feel like I’m shooting blanks.
There’s a sense of pressure hanging over me now that wasn’t there before. It was easy to say I was writing a novel the first time around because there was a sense of impending excitement surrounding it. There wasn’t a publisher, so anything was possible. But now? Well, to be honest I’m terrified of becoming a one hit wonder.
All of that assuming that my book will be a hit, of course. (And I am believing big, folks!)
So I type out story ideas, brief synopses of potential books, and I stare at them with a million questions. Are these too cliche? Are they interesting enough? Will people want to read a story about this subject? Will this fit into my brand as a writer?
What is my brand as a writer?!
The business side of writing can be paralyzing, and almost mind numbing. You’ve got to think of marketing and platform building. You have to keep your name on the forefront so potential readers know who you are. You need to stay engaged in the writing community, and most importantly – you must be predictable.
Any mother knows that the idea of predictability is a laughable concept. I cannot predict my days any more than the weatherman can accurately predict the weather. Which means I generally have a basic idea of how a day will go, but a surprise storm could well up and change a predicted sunny day into a deluge at any moment, leaving me completely surprised at the turns of events.
Maintaining predictability in my online interactions is only one part of the challenge, though. Because I also need to establish myself as a predictable brand. And what does that mean?
It means when people go to the book store to buy my books, they should have a basic idea of what they’re going to get.
I’m working to figure out what exactly this means for me, and how to operate within these parameters. Thankfully, I have smart people on my side who are willing to help me figure this out. I’m grateful for these smart people, because otherwise I think I’d stumble around in the dark until I finally threw my hands up in exasperation and decided to call it quits.
I don’t want to call it quits. I want to write. I want to tell stories. I want to ride this wave of creativity that keeps my soul afloat, even in the midst of all the unpredictability.
And so I will keep returning to the blank screen, tapping out ideas, many of which will probably be erased. I’ll keep scratching at the surface, waiting for inspiration to coming calling again. And I will keep my eyes open for the next story that needs to be told, because it’s waiting out there. I can feel it.
The muse is starting to whisper my name.
What are you up to these days, dear readers? What projects are you working on, and how are you maintain predictability in the midst of this unpredictable life?
“Hey, Mom. In the new story I’m working on, is it okay if I use a cuss word?”
He asked the question casually, as though he were simply speaking to me about the weather. He didn’t look me in the eye, but rather squinted upward, focused on some invisible speck floating above his head.
“Why do you need to use a cuss word?” I asked.
“It just…feels like it will make the story more effective,” he said, the hint of a smile turning up the corners of his mouth. He’s in 6th grade now, and four letter words fly around him at school every single day. He finds them fascinating, and deeply tempting.
“Well, I’m going to encourage you to try hard not to use any cuss words in your new story.” He opened his mouth in protest, and I held up my hand, shushing him with my best mom-look.
“There are always other words you can use. Sometimes a four letter word is appropriate in writing, but you should try to first come up with other words, because if you can’t think of a way to communicate without using a cuss words, then you’re just not trying hard enough.”
And also, you’re my baby, and you kiss my cheek with that mouth, and you’re supposed to stay sweet and innocent forever and ever…and ever.
I left that last part out.
I’m headed to the middle school today to talk to the kids about the art of writing. It is the Great American Teach In, and many a professional will come in and give these kids a glimpse into their working lives.
Since my working life consists of caffeine, yoga pants, chocolate, and much time staring at a blank screen, I’m having to come up with something more creative. Because to stand up there and tell them that working as a career writer means rejection, emotional exertion, and overall feelings of inadequacy feels a bit like a downer.
Instead, we’re going to talk about the power of the written word, and how with that power comes great responsibility. So basically I’ll be Spiderman in there, only without the skin tight red suit, because my child would disown me.
My sister-in-law recently wrote the most beautiful post about writing. It’s been rolling around in my head since I read it, particularly the last couple of paragraphs.
Before parchment and paper, words meant to last were always cut in with some sort of incision. The Word was cut in with nail pierced incisions.
If our words are to make a difference today, then how should writers go about the craft? Sometimes, I throw my hands up in anguish and tell Him that I don’t have enough words to describe Him. When I try to get Him on paper, I wonder if I’m like a child that’s been locked inside a closet her whole life and yet she is asked to describe the sky. He is so much more. There aren’t enough words to contain Him.
But, if I can offer a piece of my story, then others might get a glimpse of who this beautiful God is. If I can make an incision into my own heart and let all of the joys and sorrows intermingle out into one grace swirled and bloody mess, then just maybe readers will get a taste of this Good-Good Father who loves deeply.
If we are going to write well, then we must cut into ourselves and bleed out.
We’re all, writers and non-writers alike, impacted by words, and this is perhaps the message I most long to convey to these young kids.
This generation is growing up in a world full of words. Their entire lives play out in pithy little soundbites, and they’re constantly bombarded with poorly thought through ideas.
[Tweet “It seems we’ve forgotten as a society the weight of the written word.”]
We fling words around like they don’t mean anything, constantly stringing together rants and epithets without any thought for the impact those combined letters leave on lives.
But words matter.
The entirety of our history lives on through writing. Everything we know about the early civilizations is because of storytelling and writing. If mankind hadn’t developed the written language, history would have died long ago, or it would be terribly warped.
Imagine if man had simply decided to preserve history by orally telling the generations behind. It would be like a bad game of telephone in which we all ended up believing that we descended from monkeys or something ridiculous like that.
The point is this: A great deal of power resides in the written word, and anyone who chooses to chase words and pen them, whether that be in a book, a blog post, an email, or a status update, should respect that power.
Because words matter.
Words ignite imagination. They initiate conversation, reveal new ideas, new ways of thinking, inventions beyond comprehension. Words were written in the beginning, and they tell us of the many great things this world has to offer.
Words are power, and we would do well to respect that power.
I sat up tall in the chair, elbows resting on the desk as I soaked in every word. I leaned in close, hoping to maybe catch the magic of each phrase and bottle it up for later.
“You each have a story to tell,” the professor said. He wasn’t flashy, like some of my other professors. He didn’t bring in a clunky keyboard, like my Latin professor, and make up quirky songs about the Greek gods.
He didn’t come to class dressed as Chaucer and recite The Canterbury Tales for twenty minutes like my Lit professor.
No, this man was different. He was a writer, and he had the aura of one. He was cool and laid back, with a sharp wit and a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He leaned on the podium and looked at us, one at a time.
“You have a story to tell,” he said again. “And that story is only yours.”
That was a long time ago. A loooooong time ago.
It took me thirteen years, and several drafts to write my story – my first story. Because as soon as one story ends, another begins. In between all that storytelling, you see, is a whole lot of living, and life breeds story.
When I finished my novel, I wondered if I would ever find another story to tell. For several months, I thought I’d used up all my words. It was about this time that my blog began to die, and swirling inside all of that was a healing heart after a terminated adoption.
I had to fall into the heartache for a bit so the wound could scab over. Did it heal? Yes, I believe it did.
But there’s still a mark.
Scars are stories, though, aren’t they? I have scars on my knee that tell of a young girl who could swing the parallel bars…until she landed wrong and tore her ACL. It’s a story, and it’s all mine.
It’s been two years since I finished my novel, and in that time I’ve also written a non-fiction book, a couple of short stories, and lots of online words. But I wanted a new story to tell. And I was getting impatient.
In the last month, I’ve felt the tickling sensation of an idea formulating. It likes to prick at me late at night, usually when I’m tired, and I want nothing more than to crawl up in bed with a cup of hot tea and Netflix. At first I tried ignoring it, but then I remembered this is what I was waiting for.
So I recorded it.
Chicken scratches on a scrap piece of paper next to my bed may very well hold the key to my next story. It’s relieving to know there’s more to come. I’m not finished typing words just yet.
But life is hectic. There are so many small people running around my house, it makes my head spin. Half the time little people who don’t even belong to me are here! So I’m fitting the storytelling into the cracks of my day, and in the larger chunks of time I’m choosing to live.
Because life – with all its hectic hilarity, all its pain and confusion, all its joy and laughter, all this smashed up living inside four walls – breeds story.
[Tweet “So first I’ll live the story, and then I’ll tell it, because a story cannot be forced.”]
You have a story to tell, too.
Maybe you don’t desire to write a book. That’s okay. I don’t blame you. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have a story worth telling.
All of mankind, every bit of the history that tells us who we are, and from where we came, is built on story. Consider this my podium moment as I lean in close and look you in the eye.
You have a story to tell, and that story is only yours. You live your story every day, and it holds weight in this world.
So live your story, and then tell it.
Write it in a journal, on a blog, or on the walls of your home. Tell it with the lens of your camera, or with a video camera strapped to your wrist.
Life is happening right now, all around you. Everywhere you turn, life is waiting to be observed and recorded, and you have a perspective that no one else shares.
Tell your story. I promise, the world needs to hear it.