Green Gas, Video Games, and Great Writing on The Great War

by Nancy Means Wright

100 years ago this summer, Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo, setting off (for complex reasons) one of the cruelest wars in history.  Whole generations of young men were lost on all sides, and I, for one, can’t stop reading and writing about them. I wept through the heartbreaking novel All Quiet on the Western Front when a disillusioned German soldier in the last months of the war stands up out of his trench to gaze at the fall foliage–and is killed.  I thought about that young German a fortnight ago as I heard the Stuttgart Boys’ Choir sing (on tour from Germany). Ah, those pure high voices–one sweet-faced pre-teen with blond hair falling to his shoulders–no soldier there! And now I’m rereading Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms in which he recreates his WW1 months in an Italian ambulance unit, the agonies of war, and the role of a deserter.

I think of the poems of British poet Wilfred Owen, who wrote of a soldier in a gas attack “floundering like a man in fire or lime… / Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light / As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.”  The poem ends with the irony of “The old lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.” (It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.”) Tragically, Owen was killed just days before the November Armistice–as were the brother and fiance of British nurse Vera Brittain, who wrote in her classic Testament of Youth of tall Americans marching jauntily along “like young gods” to the killing front.

On a happier note, my father-in-law dropped out of Middlebury College in 1918 to “join up” and fly an observation biplane over enemy territory. Luckily for him it was a short war, and he returned to college a student hero, and began barnstorming at country fairs.  He loved to bellow out euphemistic war songs like “It’s a Long Long Way to Tipperary” and “Over There.”  Then there was old Charlie Willson, our octogenarian family carpenter, who was gassed in that war and for the rest of his life had nightmares of “shrieking shells and cries of the wounded.” While he was working on our roof or barn, he would shout down war stories to anyone who’d listen–as though compelled to tell them.

TV productions like Downton Abbey and Mr. Selfridge  move their characters in and out of The Great War, and we hold our breath, praying our fictional heroes will survive–even if it’s with a missing arm or leg. The characters in my new multi-generational novel, Queens Never Make Bargains, endure the war at home and in the trenches, where in the confusion of shell fire and greenish gas, my protagonist’s soldier-lover stumbles off, his legs taking over his brain–away from the terrible war.

And we all admire Charles and Caroline Todd who write two award-winning mystery series set during and after WW1, featuring the shell-shocked veteran inspector Rutledge (Hunting Shadows); and Bess Crawford, a nurse in France (A Question of Honor). Mother and son make us relive all the passion and panic of the times.

Finally, I was surprised to read about a new, interactive, virtually non-violent French WW1 video game, “Valiant Hearts,” in which a young soldier named Emile must choose  between his officer’s orders to charge to the right, through gas and shells–or run left (to desert)  and onto an officer’s sword. Tough choices! The game depicts four years of war as lived by Emile, by an American volunteer Freddie, a field nurse Anna, and a dog–among others. One discovers the brutality of the trenches but also the human drama. Instead of firing rifles, players dress wounds, dig trenches, duck aircraft fire, and liberate prisoners. They hear the night quiet–or the muttering enemy, and they fear what’s ahead. They run, hide, and solve puzzles, all in real life locations and scenes from the war.

Surely a video I’d want to buy for my grandchildren! To keep the memory alive, yes–although a video game can never wholly emulate the horror of a war the did not, as hoped,  end all wars.


Torch Song for a Trilogy

When I started writing the Jake Samson-Rosie Vicente books I knew I’d be writing a series and thought of it that way. I unrolled their personalities and then let them grow and change through the various stories and settings.

Then the idea for Blackjack came long. I’d always loved dystopian, post-apocalyptic fiction. Anything that took place in the near future (think 1984—hard to believe that date was in the future when I read the book). Rica Marin’s name popped into my head and she became the protagonist—Rica Marin. Rich Marin.  A woman born to the California redwoods, in a country called Redwood, in a world divided into tiny warring states. The U.S. Balkanized. Most of the population gone by way of ecological disaster and germ warfare, and plague.

But also a world struggling to pull itself back together. A heroine working as a spy for anyone who will hire her, while wrestling with her own evolving morality. But more than just a mercenary—a singer of torch songs carrying a torch for a woman who had left her years before. Love, violence, hatred, war, confusion. Healing, too. The planet, the former U.S., and Rica.

I started to write it and found myself constructing an intricate and consistent fictional world that was also an easy extrapolation from the one we live in now. Pages and pages of notes about how people lived. Communications, medicine, weapons, vehicles, social norms. Understanding of their own terrifying history. I worked it all out. That process alone took a couple of years of working on it off and on while I wrote and did other things. Finally, much to my amazement, I considered it finished. Sold it. Saw it in hardcover. Saw some wonderful reviews.

But finishing that one book, then titled Blackjack, I knew the story was not over. This book came to its conclusions, but my outlines and notes didn’t. I worked out a story for a second book and a third. Rica and her friends and enemies just weren’t finished telling their story. I began a second book, but I still had other things to write.

When I moved Blackjack from one e-book publisher to another, it was time to go back to Rica. Blackjack, with some wonderful editing by Julie Smith at BooksBNimble, became Torch Song, first in the Blackjack Trilogy, and I finally began to focus on all of this story, from spy job to diplomacy to war, from alliance to attraction to love. From chaos to some kind of order that might actually work.

It’s such a big challenge, it scares me. But I’m loving it. One book done and out there, two to go.

Summer Reads

I seem to blog a lot about what I’m reading.  Sorry.  Can’t help it.

It used to annoy me when someone published a list of books to read on summer vacation, books either more relaxing or more mindless than the average tome.  Since I retired and no longer have to have a summer vacation (it’s all vacation, right?), I have noticed that summer does shunt me off onto a different reading track than other seasons.  I have no idea why, but I seem to read more non-fiction in summer.  It’s not usually self-help stuff but history or pre-history or popular science.  I read a lot of fiction too, but that is beginning to feel like a work assignment–here are the latest mysteries, read them.  So let it go without illustration, I’m reading mysteries.  Here are two non-mysteries I found suitable for summer.

Joanna Trollope writes good, leisurely studies of relationships–fiction in the grand style of her family.  The Soldier’s Wife is a lively portrait of a modern woman caught in the archaic role of British officer’s wife, not to mention the more usual soccer mum role.  Trollope even brings off a fairly happy (and fairly fair) ending, all without murdering anybody.

K.J. Parker does heavy fantasy–pre-steam steampunk.  I just finished The Folding Knife, a good study of a very anti hero.  It begins with a murder about which there is no mystery, and it ends down, down, down, but the detail of life in the “Vesani Republic” (a riff on the Venetian Republic) is rich and evocative.  It is refreshing to find fantasy that doesn’t wallow in patterns of bucolic life from the English Middle Ages.

Moving on to non-fiction, a dose of American history.  My history degree was definitely European.  I don’t believe I ever took an American history course at the college level, so my understanding of U.S. history is patchy.  Filling in blanks can be a real pleasure.

Doris Kearns Goodwin has a deft touch with massive arrays of fact that might turn to sludge in a lesser writer’s hands.  I finally got around to reading her 1994 Pulitzer Prize winner, No Ordinary Time.  It deals with the last four years of Franklin Roosevelt’s life–they happen to be the first four years of my life–and Goodwin gives sympathetic portraits of both Eleanor and the President without air-brushing their faults.  My parents and grandparents worshiped Eleanor Roosevelt.  In No Ordinary Time I found out why.  Eleanor’s achievements make the First Ladies who succeeded her fade to nothing, with the possible exception of Bess Truman for very different reasons.

Among Eleanor’s projects was day-care for the children of women working in the factories that were building tanks, ships, and airplanes.  No Ordinary Time describes the superb day-care center the Kaiser shipyard was induced to build in Portland OR (and another in Vancouver WA where I now live).  My father was a naval officer during the war.  His ship, a baby aircraft carrier, was built here on the banks of the Columbia, in part by women whose children spent the day–and in some cases the night–at the Kaiser day-care center.  Hooray for Eleanor.

The other U.S. history work I rambled through was Stephen E. Ambrose’s account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Undaunted Courage (1996).  I live on the Columbia River now, but I was born in Montana near the great falls of the Missouri.  When I was growing up in eastern Oregon, we could still see ruts carved by the wheels of wagons on the Oregon trail.  Needless to say, I’ll read anything about Lewis and Clark.

Ambrose keeps his focus on the tragic figure of Meriwether Lewis.  I have no quarrel with that.  The biographical slant gives ominous urgency to the narrative, and Ambrose makes a convincing case for Lewis’s death as the straightforward suicide of a man whose family had a bipolar history.  Lewis was under a lot of pressure to finish editing his journals.  Right now I’m 90% through writing a mystery and whamming my head against the wall trying to force myself to finish it.  I think poor old Meriwether’s suicide is perfectly understandable.

So–what are the rest of you reading out there on your beach blankets?

Truth, Lies, and Academia

I write a mystery series set in academia and now and then fans ask me, is it really that bad?  Are professors that selfish, backbiting, and ungenerous?  Well, obviously not all of them are, but academic culture from school to school has quirks and even idiocies that make great material for satire.  Sometimes the behavior is egregious, sometimes it’s just ridiculous. Either way, it’s fodder for fiction.

And because I’ve been invited to speak at dozens of colleges and universities over the years about other books of mine (often because they’re being taught there), I get offered story after story.  At some point during my visit–in a car, at a dinner, walking up a staircase–somebody takes me aside and tells me a wild tale of academic pettiness or worse.  Committee infighting, tenure sabotage, rival speakers, snarky faculty emails, you name it.  If all that sounds like bald men arguing over a comb, in the words of Borges, it is.  Academia demonstrates the vanity of professional sports;  the cruelty of big business; and the hypocrisy of politics.

But for all the stories I’ve been told while on the road, I’m usually just a witness, not a participant.  That changed recently.

I was invited to a small private college to read from one of my most successful books, My Germany, a memoir about growing up in the shadow of Germany because my parents were Holocaust survivors.  I wasn’t brought in by English or Creative Writing faculty, however, but by another department that I won’t name.

I love readings.  I have a theater background, years of experience on radio, and I’ve done hundreds of readings on three continents. I’ve also taught workshops for writers on how to do readings, which require practice and art and thought.

Only four people turned up for this particular campus reading, an all-time low for my campus readings.  Part of the low turnout was the ill-chosen time: noon. But the chagrined coordinator told me that the real problem was this: whenever she brought in a speaker who creative writing students would naturally be interested in, English Department professors consistently cold-shouldered the event.  Why?  Territoriality.  Apparently they feel they’re only ones who should be inviting authors to campus.

It made me laugh, because it seemed so very typical of academic pettiness.  But it also made me sad because the writing students could have learned a lot and enjoyed themselves.

I never obsess about numbers when I do a reading: 4 or 400,  the audience deserves my best, and that’s what I gave them at this college.  Too bad the small-minded English Department and its writing professors don’t do the same, don’t really care enough about their own students to point them towards opportunities right there on their own little campus.  It makes you wonder how else they may be giving students less than they deserve as they jealously defend what think is their turf and nobody else’s.

A Question for Mystery Writers

All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.‘ Ernest Hemingway

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.’ Mark Twain

I dare say that we’ve all heard Mark Twain’s quote above. And probably a good many of us have heard what Hemingway had to say. I’m struck by the dichotomy posed by these two statements. As writers, if we are to write the truest sentence that we know, how are we to either accept or pay attention to Twain’s warning? Though Hemingway once said that all American literature begins with Twain, the two thoughts seem to cancel each other out. Don’t they? Or am I taking them out of context? And as mystery writers, is all of this beside the point? I mean, our aim is to write a thumping good tale and let the chips fall where they may, isn’t it? Twain is right in part. I have, as have you all probably, seen situations that nobody would believe if you put them into a book. But does that mean we aren’t servants of truth?

For my part, I always fall on the side of telling the story and not worrying about deeper meaning. It seems like every time that I have ever concerned myself with deeper themes, with finding “truth,” I end up being ham-fisted in my attempt. In graduate school, I studied under the late Dr. Joanne Cockelreas, a graduate, in the early 60s, of the Iowa MFA program. She told me once that I should focus on good, old-fashioned storytelling. “Look at the anthologies,” she said. “You’ll find one or two or three experimental pieces. But, the vast majority are just excellent, straightforward stories.” While she wasn’t speaking directly to Hemingway’s assertion, I think there is an application to be made.

Having said all of this, I’d like to hear what other mystery writers have to say. So, chime in. Let’s talk about truth and fiction for a few minutes.

Polishing ….

Lea Wait, here, posting this blog from “Writers’ Jail.” That’s what my friend and fellow author Barbara Ross calls it when your manuscript deadline is fast approaching, and you’re behind schedule.  Their schedule, your schedule … it doesn’t matter how you figure it. You know it when it happens. The only sane response is to lock yourself away, cancel all social engagements, hand your spouse the shopping list, and close your study door. (Oh — and when you’re in there? Turn off the internet and write. Don’t forget that part.)

So … I’m in writers’ jail, with a manuscript due September 1 .. which sounds like oodles of time left … except for the marketing appearances I’ve agreed to do (and won’t cancel) and the two grandchildren who will be visiting for 3 weeks. And the 100 pages, more or less, I still have to write on my first draft. Not to speak of editing.

But what was I doing this morning? Polishing brass. (An admission:  I have a lot of brass and copper in my house, and quite a bit of silver, too.  I like it, I inherited some, I was given some , I brought some home from Calcutta … you can guess the rest. )

One brass lamp I polish - it's made from a shell one of my great-uncles brought back from WW I.

One brass lamp I polish – it’s made from a shell one of my great-uncles brought back from WW I.

Despite those who speak of “patina” as a justification to ignore dirt, grime, and tarnish, I firmly believe copper, brass and silver needs to be polished at least every six months. Brass and copper can go twelve months if it’s a really rough year, but silver needs loving care or … bad things will happen. And silver is not only a joy, but an investment.

So, because I am guilty of setting quarterly goals, I include polishing on my “to do” list every other quarter. This year that was to be first quarter.  But .,.. life … and an earlier manuscript deadline … and publicity for my April book … meant that although I polished most of the silver, I only got to a few pieces of brass and copper. (I generally move from room to room. The living room with the brass fireplace set, including fire dogs, tools, screen and fender tends to be the last room on my list. )

Now, when I’m at this panicked point in a manuscript I usually aim at writing at least ten pages a day. Sometimes I can do more. Sometimes less. But ten pages is a heavy writing day.

Even when I’m in the depths of those pages, though, I need to take breaks. Eye breaks (look out the window! Don’t you wish you were there, outside?) Stretching breaks (even ergonomic keyboards don’t help with ten pages. Not to speak of when you have a kitten on your lap.) Tea breaks. (Self-explanatory.) Sometimes, in desperation, chocolate breaks.

And polishing breaks.

Polishing a brass bowl or light fixture or 18th century saucepan feels good. Unlike that unending manuscript, I can see what I’ve accomplished. The house looks cleaner and brighter, which makes me feel as though I’m still a person. The physical polishing is a different motion from that of keyboarding, and (especially if done for only 15-25 minutes) can, if not totally relieve stress, at least get different back and neck muscles involved.

And, perhaps best of all … polishing doesn’t require a lot of thinking. So when a plot is dead-ended or a character is becoming boring or finding a new twist seems impossible … polishing a little brass or copper or silver can let me focus on those issues from a distance. Plus, for the part of me that my husband calls “the Puritan Lea,” I’m not wasting time. See? I just polished three cloisonné bowls.

And when it’s time to go back to my study, I’ll be ready: this time, to polish my manuscript. Let it shine!



What’s So Funny?

In May I went to see a thought-provoking drama written and performed by Brian Copeland, a Bay Area writer and comedian.

Copeland is the author of the critically-acclaimed one-man show titled Not a Genuine Black Man. It’s the story of his experiences growing up black in San Leandro in the 1970s, at the time when that East Bay community was considered one of the most segregated towns in the United States.

The May performance was a new play by Copeland, The Scion, which opened in San Francisco earlier this year. This particular evening was a benefit for the San Leandro Historical Society.

The Scion, like Copeland’s earlier work, is based on fact – in this case what came to be known as the sausage factory murders.

On June 21, 2000, Stuart Alexander, self-proclaimed “Sausage King” and owner of San Leandro’s Santos Linguisa factory, shot and killed three meat inspectors.

Two of the victims, Jean Hillery and Thomas Quadros, were from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The third victim was U.S. Food and Drug Administration Inspector William Shaline. With them on this particular day was California State Inspector Earl Willis, who escaped.

After Alexander shot Hillery, Quadros, and Shaline, he chased Willis down the street, firing a gun at him. Willis found refuge in a bank. Alexander then returned to the factory and shot Hillery, Quadros, and Shaline again – each one in the head, at close range.

The inspectors’ visit to the sausage factory that day was prompted by ongoing and unresolved issues between the federal government and Alexander regarding federal food safety regulations. You know, rules like cooking the sausage at the proper temperature, in order to prevent food-borne illness like e.coli. The feds also had concerns about the factory’s cleanliness and outdated equipment. They’d already shut down the factory twice, and Alexander had gotten it reopened.

Alexander viewed these regulations, and the inspectors’ visits, as interference and harassment. As far as he was concerned, the inspectors were trespassers. When the inspectors showed up that day, he led them back to his office, where he kept a number of loaded guns. He started shooting. Everything was caught on the video surveillance tape, which was used by the prosecution at Alexander’s trial.

Alexander pleaded not guilty but was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in February 2005. However, he died in prison in December 2005.

Fast forward to The Scion. Okay, I thought. How in the world is Copeland, with his reputation for humor, going to make a play out of this triple homicide?

He succeeded admirably. Taking the stage, he began by saying, “Rules are rules, for everybody.”

Unless they aren’t for everyone, as he demonstrated during the course of his performance. Copeland talked about his own experiences growing up in San Leandro, racially profiled for walking while black, driving while black, riding in a car with a white woman.

Then he contrasted this with Alexander’s upbringing as the privileged scion of a well-known San Leandro businessman. Evidently Alexander did whatever he liked without being called into account for his actions, whether it was speeding a motor scooter the wrong way down a busy local street, constructing a downtown building without getting any permits, or beating the crap out of an elderly neighbor.

Alexander was frequently described as “having a short fuse” or “combative,” a man who “didn’t like the idea of people telling him what to do,” even if it was a group of USDA meat inspectors whose job it was to make sure people who ate that sausage wouldn’t get sick.

Copeland’s theme, as I see it, is that Stuart Alexander went through life feeling entitled to do exactly what he wanted, even if that meant killing three people. Indeed, Copeland said during the play, up until he was sentenced Alexander apparently thought he was going to get away with murder.

So why the title of this blog post? What’s so funny?

On several occasions, as I was describing the play I’d seen, the person I was talking with laughed. Why? What was so amusing?

There were times during the performance of the play that I laughed, too, as Copeland intended for the audience to do. But then he described how he’d watched the surveillance tape, which shows the efforts of mortally-wounded Jean Hillery to reach her cell phone.

That’s not funny. That’s deadly serious, horrific even.

So what it is that made people laugh when I was telling them about the play, and the murders? Was it the term “sausage factory murders”? Was it the way I described it?

I’ve been pondering that, and I’m not sure I have an answer. I just know that I’ve been turning it around in my head for a couple of months.

After all, I’m a mystery writer. I construct fictional tales that revolve around murder. And within the broader mystery genre there are humorous mysteries. So in a way, we mystery writers do laugh at murder. Though fiction is somehow more palatable than real murder.

Brian Copeland will be performing The Scion at the Marsh Theatre in San Francisco from July 19 through August 23.

Go see it.


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