Bullies

1953_Kaiser_Deluxe_fixet_3I see by the New York Times that Donald Trump makes it a regular practice to tweet bullying things about anyone who criticizes him. His six thousand followers jump on, says the Times, and soon the twittersphere is abuzz with vitriol and crude innuendo. As a result, the people who disapprove of him have come to fear him.

But I’m not here to share my opinions about Donald Trump, although I could do so without fear, since words like “vitriol” and “innuendo” are not among the few that Trump and his followers know.  I’m here to tell stories about other bullies.

Not schoolyard bullies, although I ran into my share of those over the years as we moved from town to town. I want to talk about people in authority who bully the helpless. I want to tell you about India Smith.

India Smith was an office functionary at North Plainfield High School, back in the day, some sort of guidance counselor or truant officer.  When I was in junior high the girls in my class walked over to the high school once or twice a week to study home economics, since that was where the kitchen was, and the sewing room. All the girls were taught to cook and sew. That seems so quaint now. A couple of my classmates had experienced run-ins with Miss Smith, somehow, and she was an object of hate.

Everyone knew her car, a maroon 1953 Kaiser-Frazer. Since Miss Smith was an object of hate in the high school generally, her car was frequently attacked, which must have made her sensitive about it. One heard of boys scratching the paint or sticking her tires with ice picks.

One fine spring day as we were returning to the junior high from the high school building we saw Miss Smith’s car parked out front with the windows rolled down. One of the girls had a bologna sandwich that she didn’t want anymore and it amused her to fling it in the window of Miss Smith’s car. I didn’t see this done, but I heard a lot of giggling.

The following day India Smith showed her wolf-like face in our home room.

You know how it went. “There are mustard stains on my car seat. Everyone will sit here until the girls who defaced my car stand up and confess.”  The sense of helplessness and dread. In the end five girls stood up and were led away to the office.

What happened to them there? They were mercilessly bullied. Getting even with all the kids who had ever done anything to her car, India Smith showered her five victims with personal attacks. “Your mother is a drunk,” she said to one of them, among other things. Where she got that idea nobody said, but the shot hit home. The girls came back to class weeping, devastated, all for a dab of mustard.

As an observer of this, I was filled with a sense of injustice. I still think the woman was a terrible person, not unlike my orthodontist, that child-hating wielder of instruments of torture. Curiously, people like them have shaped my politics to this day. Here’s the thing. It’s a bad idea to let bullies get into positions of power. And that’s all I have to say about that.

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Who to Spend Time With

romancecoverThere are 7.349 billion people in the world about now, give or take a few million. Each is as unique as a snowflake. The most prolific fiction writer in the world can’t write about all of them. Which of them do you want to be with for the six months to a year that it takes to write a novel? Or for the two or three days that it takes to read one?

I found myself pondering this question yesterday in the auto dealership while I waited for the service guys to install my new airbag, one that wouldn’t spray shrapnel all over whoever was in the passenger seat when the airbag deployed. They took a couple of hours. It was an old fem-jep spy thriller from the seventies, full of creaky romance novel conventions.

The heroine was kind of aimless about her life and in my opinion too stupid to live. The villainous spy was a sociopath who lived for the thrill of killing people, to hear him talk, which we did for four or five pages as he and the gormless heroine teetered on the edge of a cliff. When she finally got the upper hand, did she kick him over the cliff? Never occurred to her to do so. She ran away and stole his car. Of course it would have been the end of the book if she killed him, and that would have turned it into a novella. But, still.

Do such people exist in nature? Probably. Do I want to read about them? Actually, no, although some thrilling chase scenes followed.

What sort of people do readers want to read about, out of an almost infinite selection of beings? People similar to themselves, I guess, and then antagonists who complement those people in a balanced way, strength for strength. People who are not stupider than the readers are. Witty people, maybe. Courageous people. People like the readers’  friends, but whose sufferings and struggles are greater.

It seems to me sometimes that the whole point of reading is to encounter other souls. Not the appalling souls we see on reality TV, but creatures with actual feelings. This is a glorious and terrifying goal to shoot for in your writing.

Bending the Story

traditional-dining-chairsWriting a historical novel is in some ways like making a piece of furniture. Say, a chair. You have some wood, and an idea. To make the wood conform to your idea, you modify it. You saw it up, steam it and bend it, maybe stain it a different color. When you’ve done your work well you have something that people can sit on, something that highlights and does not disguise the beauty of the wood.

Your historical novel needs to be something that people can read with pleasure, that highlights and does not disguise the spirit of the period. You don’t want to make your book entirely out of fake events, but neither can you simply dump unvarnished history onto the page and call it a novel. If you want to do that, go be a historian. You’re going to have to change some things to get your idea to hang together and make fictional sense.

Anyway this is the conclusion I came to when I was working on FIREBOMB, a story about many real people and events, not only the ones I made up. I began with a strict timeline of what actually happened in New York City in the early days of the First World War. But if I stuck to that, all these characters would have to sit around for a whole year waiting for the climactic event while my readers closed the book and pitched it into a corner. So I compressed the action, and once I got up the nerve to do that, I found that I could move events around, arrange them to produce a sense of gradation and climax.

And then there were the characters: historical figures, people I made up, and historical figures I wanted to heavily fictionalize. Why heavily fictionalize a historical figure? I’m less sure about that now, but it just seems rude to paint somebody as a monstrous villain when his great-grandchildren might be around to take offense. “Grandpa was never like that.” I mean, what could I say?

Martha Held, however, was irresistible. A gift. Nothing is known about the woman except that she was a retired opera singer whom the Germans had bought a house for, a brownstone on Fifteenth Street, so that she and her young ladies could entertain German officers stranded in New York by the war. I was considering saying something more about her when Sheila York and I ran into a woman at a conference last year. This person, by her accent some sort of Middle-European, sat down with us and began to spew the most amazing bilge about the Jews. Sheila was almost fainting with horror, but I was delighted. Martha! Martha! Keep talking. I have such a spot for you in my book. Because a number of Germans were crazy anti-Semites even before Hitler took power, and it was useful to hold one of them up for examination.

Well, the book needs more work, it needs to be longer, but the structure is there. Now I’ll get back to it. A little glue, a little varnish.

 

Making an Accurate Sketch

tree
A Study of an Oak Tree, c. 1638, by Claude Lorrain. Black chalk, pen and brown ink with gray-brown wash on white paper, 13 by 8 7/8 inches. The British Museum, London

In the old days, when cameras were awkward and film development was expensive, young people wanted to learn to draw. Now they have their smartphone cameras, so that they don’t need to observe their surroundings and friends very closely, or remember what they just looked at that was so fascinating. It’s all safely put away, stored in bits and bytes. But we who had no cameras ready to hand tried to learn to draw.

The first thing a serious grown-up draughtsman has to learn to do is to distinguish between the object he is looking at and the stereotypical object in his mind. Children draw stick figures. These are understood to represent people, but visually they bear no relation to the play of light and shadow on a human form. You can get books that tell you how to draw horses, how to draw hands. If you study them carefully you will be able to draw a horse or a hand the way the person who wrote the book saw it.

In grade school I had an art teacher who taught us how to paint trees. first you make a dark-brown trunk and branches, then you stipple leaves all over the branches in three colors of green. Voila, your tree. But the fact is that trees are really hard. There are no short cuts to drawing a tree. You have to study the thing, its habit of growth, the time of year, the time of day, how the light hits it.

So it is with fiction. You write a scene. Are these actual people as you have observed them, or stick figures? Are they drawn from life, or are they borrowed from somebody else’s work, however successful? Are they interacting in a way that you recognize as human, or did you read a book on how to write that told you you have to have conflict all the time?

This is something to think about, if you are a young writer just starting out. I’ve been around the block a couple of times and I’m still working on it.

The Book is Finished

explo

On Saturday I came home from our usual tasty breakfast at Sneddon’s, sat down at the computer, and continued my second pass through the first draft of the new book. Before the day was over I was astonished to see that I had finished it.

So the book is done, the strange spy story that takes place at the outset of World War I. FIREBOMB, it’s called. Now that it’s finished I can describe it briefly: it’s about a sabotage ring that operated out of New York City in the early days of the war, and the seventeen-year-old unemployed movie stunt girl who destroyed their network.

I’m happy to report that I like it, although it isn’t as long as I had hoped to make it. Thrillers should be doorstops, they tell me. This one could probably be read in one sitting, if you’re particularly riveted and are a fast reader. I have to send it around to a few beta readers, make a few changes, find an agent, and then find a publisher, all of which will take some time and probably be boring. So now I’ll stop bending your ear about the book and find something else to blog about. Cooking recipes, maybe, or ladies’ fashions. Anything but politics.

Watch this space.

 

Following the Passions of your Characters

Captain Franz von Rintelen, the German spy upon whom I based the character of Fehrenbach in my thriller-in-progress, FIREBOMB, published two memoirs. Only one of them is at all famous, and that’s THE DARK INVADER, in which he describes his activities as a spymaster in New York City during the summer of 1915. (And leaves out a few, but that’s where the fiction writer gets to play.) If you read this book, you can see that the charming von Rintelen liked women as much as he liked intrigue, although he doesn’t talk about the women very much because gentlemen don’t kiss and tell.

In 1938, a few years after his first memoir came out, Captain von Rintelen published THE RETURN OF THE DARK INVADER. I would never have known that book existed if Franz von Papen hadn’t mentioned it in his own memoirs, petulantly, complaining about the nasty things Rintelen said about him (well-justified, in my opinion). Burning to know this man better, I got hold of a copy of it. THE RETURN told what happened to Rintelen when the war was over, how he went home to Germany and was badly treated by the government, how he and his wife couldn’t make the marriage work anymore after so long a separation and so many hardships, how he emigrated to England. What I found out about him that I hadn’t known before was how he loved automobiles.

So of course I have to fix Fehrenbach up with a flivver.

Studebaker made a roadster in 1913 that looks like just the thing, so that will be Fehrenbach’s car. Brad Wallace bought one a few years ago, fixed it up, and put pictures and YouTube videos of it all over the internet. It’s a beauty, as you can see in the picture above. You have to crank it to start it up, and when it runs it goes putty-putty-putty.  Fehrenbach would have bought it when he was in New York working as a banker. When he returned to Germany to join the navy he would have put it in storage, little knowing that the next time he came back to New York it would be as a spy. Spies need cars, too.

 

 

Write What You Know, or Don’t

This is the week, or the couple of weeks, when I let the manuscript for FIREBOMB sit on a shelf and macerate, like fruit in brandy. While this happens I’m doing other things. First thing I did was to start a new blog here on WordPress, a different platform from Blogger, requiring a bit of a learning curve even though I used to keep a blog here as Irene Fleming. Next thing I did was to upgrade (I think it was an upgrade) my home page, kategallison.com. It’s prettier, or I think so, and I got rid of a whole lot of outdated stuff. Turns out I hadn’t touched the site in three years, partly because I’d forgotten how to code CSS and HTML, but mostly because I’d forgotten how to get onto the host and make changes.

Anyway, I finally managed to do it, more or less successfully. I am woman! Hear me roar! And then I fixed up the Facebook page to reflect the new look and feel, as they say in the industry. Having done all this, I’m moved to philosophize on the nature of writing, itself.

We’ve lived in this town for thirty years now, maybe thirty-two. The veneer of the town is extremely attractive. Lambertville was named one of the prettiest towns in the country awhile back, I think it was by Forbes Magazine. We are a destination for tourists from all over the world, though the locals complain that there is nothing to do here. Life in a small town, in a row house with cardboard walls. Everyone knows each other’s business. I could tell you stories—! And yet I don’t tell those stories, not the stories of toxic marriages, evil fathers, ruined young women, murderous police officers, drowning victims. The vicissitudes of small-town life horrify me. I don’t write horror.

At times, as you’ve probably noticed, twenty-first century life itself can be a horror show. Ever since the attack on the World Trade Center I’ve been in retreat from modern life in my writing. This may be why I wrote my first two historical novels under a false name, although it made no particular sense for my writing career. New York City in the early twentieth century was a place and time to flee to for refuge, where I could be another person. It was a place my grandmother inhabited. A gentle soul, she detested drama as  much as I do, although she, too, knew some stories.

Art requires that we tell the truth without airing the dirty laundry of our relatives and neighbors. I believe that.  Commercial fiction requires that we depict interesting drama. FIREBOMB deals with some extremely dramatic situations. The characters, some historical figures, some made up, are as true as I can make them, using for models the written records of the originals and bits of people I’ve known over the years. It’s a spy thriller. There is violence. There are murders. I’m still having trouble with the sex scene.