Happy 100th Birthday

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

One hundred years ago today, my father-in-law, Arthur Burke, was born.

I’ve been kicking around the idea of writing historical fiction. Arthur’s life contains a wealth of dramatic raw material on which a novel could be based. My imagination itches to step back in time and write about that era.

Grinding poverty defined Arthur’s childhood. His father, Daniel, was a violent Irish drunkard. Periodically, he would abscond with Arthur and his brother, then leave them in Catholic orphanages in various states. Their mother, Naomi, had to track down and recover her two young sons.

Daniel Burke with his sons and second wife

Naomi

Naomi’s death in 1978 opened up a mystery. Among her papers, my husband and I found three different birth certificates in three different names with three different birth dates. The woman we’d known as “Naomi” had hidden lives.

 

Today, identities are indelibly recorded in databases. Not so in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when adopting a new name was common practice for people who wanted to leave problems behind. Reinventing one’s identity was as simple as providing a handwritten statement signed by a relative or friend. One of Naomi’s birth certificates was a sworn statement by an uncle, dated years after her supposed birth date.

On another certificate, her name was Ida Mae Dalton, listing her father as Frank Dalton, a deputy marshal related to the notorious Dalton Gang. In a sad reflection of that era, Ida Mae’s mother was not even given the respect of a name on that document but was identified only as “an Indian squaw or breed thereof.”

Who was Naomi really? Did she adopt aliases to hide from the abusive Daniel? Questions linger that can never be answered. 

Naomi worked as a waitress to support the family. They were already poor enough that they hardly noticed the Great Depression. For heat, Arthur scavenged bits of coal that fell from train cars. He told about being so hungry, he ate grass.

In 1933, his life took a turn for the better when Naomi married Leonard Bloodsworth, a Navy chief who was the Pacific Fleet heavyweight boxing champion. Daniel no longer represented a threat since Len could knock the brutal father into next week.

But growing up in San Pedro, California during the Depression was still difficult.

Stepfather Len became Arthur’s best role model and champion. He would sneak the hungry boy onto his ship for chow. Thanks to Len, Arthur saw a doctor and dentist for the first time in his life.

The gangly, red-headed, freckle-faced Arthur had a brush with Hollywood when he appeared in the pilot film for a short comedy. He played a character named Alfalfa in the Little Rascals and was paid 50 cents, a fortune to a poor Bowery kid. What a different direction his life might have taken if another boy, Carl Switzer, hadn’t wound up playing the memorable, enduring role.

~~~

In high school, Arthur showed extraordinary inventiveness when he built a radar set for a science project. The FBI confiscated the set because the U.S. would soon be involved in World War II and wanted to keep advanced experimental technology a secret from enemy powers.

Despite Arthur’s genius, college seemed an unattainable dream because of poverty.

Then came a stroke of luck.

Appointments to prestigious military academies like West Point and Annapolis were granted by members of Congress, usually as political favors to wealthy constituents. However, one honest politician opened the opportunity to competitive exam, allowing any young man in his district to apply.  

On a lark, Arthur accompanied a friend to take the exam for the Naval Academy. His friend was accepted and Arthur made the cut as an alternate. When his buddy had to withdraw, Arthur took his slot.

After a cross-country train trip, he reported for duty in Annapolis, Maryland with cardboard liners as soles for his worn-out shoes. His classmates, mostly sons of wealthy, influential families, looked down their patrician noses at the lanky, malnourished kid from the Bowery.

Nevertheless, his scientific brilliance earned him a place in the top 10% of his class.

The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 forced the U.S. into World War II and, only days afterward, led to early graduation for Arthur’s Class of 1942.

Arthur Burke and stepfather Leonard Bloodsworth

During that devastating attack, his stepfather Len was serving aboard the USS Tennessee. Eight battleships, including the Tennessee, were moored together in a group on Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor. Japanese bombs and torpedoes destroyed or disabled the most powerful ships in the U.S. fleet.

Battleship Row

As injured shipmates were pulled from fires below decks, Len threw sailors over the side of the ship into the water to save them from the onboard inferno. When the nearby Arizona exploded, searing powder and shrapnel horribly burned Len’s back. He spent a year in a hospital before returning to duty to finish out the war.

The Pearl Harbor attack left the U.S. badly outnumbered and outgunned. A battered handful of surviving ships, including the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise CV-6, represented the only defense against the advancing Japanese fleet and probable invasion of the U.S. west coast.

Arthur served on the Enterprise which became the most decorated ship of World War II.

Painting of USS Enterprise by Richard DeRosset

Painting of USS Enterprise by Richard DeRosset

He described the feeling of being totally alone, desperate, and vulnerable in the vast Pacific Ocean while being hunted by the enemy. Before radar and other detection systems were commonplace, ships operated under strict blackout rules because the tiniest light could reveal the ship’s position to a patrolling submarine or plane.

One night while on watch, Arthur had a run-in with an admiral who decided to fire up his pipe on the flag bridge, a place of high visibility on the carrier. Arthur was a lowly lieutenant junior grade but he took his responsibility seriously. He told the admiral to put out the light because it was endangering the ship. The admiral refused. Arthur stood his ground and ordered the superior officer to his quarters. Fortunately the enemy didn’t spot the light.

The petty admiral never forgot and the episode dogged the rest of Arthur’s naval career, despite his stellar scientific achievements.

Arthur survived the pivotal battles of Midway and Coral Sea. During one attack, a bomb exploded in his quarters. Because he had traded duty stations with another officer, he was not in his bunk at that time and escaped death.

But, in the confusion, he was mistakenly listed as killed in action and his footlocker was shipped home. Naomi, who supported the war effort as an air raid warden, endured many grief-stricken months before she learned her son was still alive.

Arthur rose quickly through the ranks because of his scientific ability. He developed instrumental new uses for radar that played a major role in Allied victory.

Later, he returned to Annapolis to teach—not a bad achievement for a hungry kid who arrived on the Naval Academy campus with cardboard soles in his shoes.

Will Arthur’s experiences become my first historical novel? Time will tell. 

Meanwhile, Happy 100th Birthday, Pop!

~~~

TKZers: What books based on real-life experiences had a big impact on you?

Have family stories inspired your own writing?

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SATURDAY EVENING POST – 200 Years of American History

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

When I was a tot in the 1950s, my grandmother lived with us. She smoked Raleigh cigarettes and saved the coupons in her top dresser drawer.

Raleigh cigarette coupons could be redeemed for gifts, keeping smokers loyal and addicted.

The scent of tobacco and Yardley’s English Lavender mingled in a rustic perfume that belonged uniquely to her.

Looking back, I realize how much she influenced me to become a writer. In her clipped British accent, she read Mary Poppins and Dr. Doolitle to me, awakening a love of books. She introduced me to the romance of storytelling as she related her own exciting teenage adventures, like the time she stole a boat and sailed from England to Spain

She also subscribed to the Saturday Evening Post, which she used to teach me to read.

Each week when the magazine arrived by mail, we’d sit in her bedroom and giggle over the cartoons. Hazel was my favorite and became the basis for a popular 1960s TV sit-com starring Shirley Booth as the wise-cracking maid who was smarter than her bosses.

Today, the Saturday Evening Post has endured when most print magazines have disappeared.

Recently the Post unveiled their new website that includes every issue all the way back to 1821. The task of scanning and digitizing tens of thousands of pages took nine years.

For $15/year, subscribers receive six current issues plus access to nearly two hundred years of history. I just subscribed as a fond trip down memory lane because of my grandmother.

However, the deeper I delved into the Post’s archives, the more I realized what a valuable resource this could be for writers of historical fiction. Nearly two hundred years of American life are collected in one convenient location. I soon got lost in bygone eras.

Below are a few ideas how the Post archives can enliven your historical fiction:

Language: Reading prose written during your chosen era helps you better capture the particular phrasing, jargon, and speech rhythms of the time.

In an example from 1821, a fanciful story features a talking mirror warning readers about vanity with this snippet of dialogue:

“How many charming creatures have I spoiled, and made beauty the greatest misfortune that could befal [sic] them! . . . Alas, why was I made a Looking glass?”

Contrast that flowery style with the terse dialogue from Alastair MacLean’s 1960 short story, Night Without End:

“From now on, Zagero, you and Levin ride with a gun trained on you!” Mason snapped.

Setting details: Illustrations for architecture, building styles, and period home furnishings add authenticity to your story world.

Creative Commons

 

I was drawn to advertisements for home appliances from the 1950s, recalling brands like Kelvinator and Hotpoint, and refrigerators in a choice of colors like pink and turquoise.

 

 

Employment: In the 1910s and ’20s, many ads featured motor oil, tires, and batteries, reflecting industrialization as society changed from carriages to automobiles. A character living in Ohio then might work at the Timken Roller Bearing Company in Canton or manufacture Grande Cord tires at the Republic Rubber Corporation in Youngstown.

Styles: Fashion illustrations in the Post showcase clothing, shoes, and hairstyles of each era. In 1927, a female character might straighten the seam lines on her Realsilk hosiery while her husband shines his stylish Selz shoes.

1929 Ford 5AT Tri-Motor N9651-Wikimedia Commons

Transportation: In the span of two hundred years, horse-drawn carriages and stagecoaches were replaced by trains and steamships which gave way to airlines like Pan American and Trans World Airways. Automobile ads from the early twentieth century feature now-forgotten brands your characters might drive, like Hupmobile, DeSoto, and LaSalle. Or they might fly on a Ford Tri-Motor.

Health/Medical: In the 1960s, ads for Chesterfield, Pall Mall, and Viceroy played counterpoint to feature articles like “Crash Effort for a Safer Cigarette” from April, 1964. By the 1990s, the Post’s focus had shifted to breakthrough medical developments, with nary a cigarette ad to be found.

Warning: resist the temptation to pack in too many details simply because you don’t want to waste the research. Use only as many as are needed to capture the flavor of the era.

Perspective: By reading Post issues prior to a major historical event, the author can find insights into what precipitated the event.

I found one example in a cautionary article from 1900 by a young member of the British Parliament named Winston Churchill. He warned that a complacent citizenry and a weak, underfunded military could lead to future conflicts. His predictions came true in 1914 with the Great War. By 1940, he became Prime Minister and led the Allies against the Axis in World War II.

Political Issues: Letters to the editor illustrate why people believed and thought the way they did at the time. They voiced opinions based on how certain topics affected them that day, without knowing what was in store in the future. Articles, bios, and op-eds from the Post can lend authenticity to the attitudes of your characters during a given period.

For instance, in early 1960, the Post interviewed then-candidate John F. Kennedy. At the time, Pope John XXIII mandated a total ban on birth control. When JFK, a Catholic, was asked about his position, he stated: “Our government does not advocate any policy concerning birth control here in the United States.”

Letters to the editor expressed concern that JFK’s Catholicism would sway his political direction. In the 1960 election, separation of church and state was considered a critical issue.

By 1962, that concern was overshadowed by the Cuban missile crisis. As Americans stockpiled canned food and built backyard bomb shelters in anticipation of nuclear attack, JFK’s religion faded into a non-issue.

Authors and readers of historical fiction have foreknowledge. We know the North won the Civil War. However, story characters in 1860 can’t know that. Character A may feel optimistic about a certain event while character B views that same event with trepidation. The difference in opinion amplifies conflict between A and B. Plus, the reader feels an added layer of tension, knowing that event will soon lead to the bloody battle between the Union and the Confederacy.

Obviously, I fell way down the vast rabbit hole in the Saturday Evening Post archives. I’ll be back for more visits to the archives that refresh memories of my grandmother as well as tidbits about bygone days.

 

TKZers, what are your favorite historical references? Does reading about history tempt you to write about it?

 

 

 

Please check out my thriller Instrument of the Devil, on sale for $.99 until November 15 on Amazon.

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The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction – ‘A Disloyal Element’ Critique

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Confederate General Robert E Lee

Confederate General Robert E Lee

 

For your reading enjoyment, we have an anonymous first 400 words submission from a daring soul. My feedback will follow. The author would appreciate your constructive criticism in comments. Thank you.

The procession of Yankees moved down Richmond’s High Street, clanking chains muffled by snow. Footsteps left a bloody path. Some wore whatever could be held together with rope to substitute for shoes. Many wore no coat. Some were bound for Chimborazo Hospital, the others Castle Thunder, Belle Isle or Libby Prison. Their faces were etched with apprehension, despair, dread, fear. Some appeared dejected, others stood straight and walked proudly.

The unknown lie ahead for them. Annie stood looking, useless, her hands clenched in her pockets unable to help or comfort them. How many would be dead in a month? Conditions were abysmal at the prisons. She’d heard stories. Prisoners who got too close to the barred windows were shot on sight. There were probably worse atrocities people were afraid to talk about.

Once they went in, they were never seen again. These men had families they longed to see and who longed to have them safe at home. How do you hold onto hope when it seems you’ve been forgotten? The war had gone on for nearly three years now with no end in sight.

The prisoners continued the slow march down the road. One man faltered in his step for a moment and collapsed to his knees. His comrades came to his aid and lifted him up to continue. Most of the citizens ignored them as they passed by, but members of The Butchertown Cats, one of Richmond’s street gangs, called out names not uttered in polite society and used slingshots to hurl stones at the men. These street toughs were little more than boys themselves, many only months away from being conscripted for service in the Army. The bravado they displayed today would be tested by their first taste of battle. A member of the local constabulary broke up the toughs and they ran in different directions. The prisoners they taunted marched on to face whatever fate God had for them.

Annie watched until they turned the corner and were out of sight. A green tartan scarf lay in the snow where the prisoners had just walked. It looked brand new and certain to be missed by its owner. A gift, perhaps, from a loved one. She started for the object in a vain attempt to return it when one of the Butchertown Cats flew past her and scooped up the garment and ran in the opposite direction.

Feedback

I was drawn into this submission by the human suffering and the idea of prisoners of war being paraded through Richmond. The word ‘Yankees’ and Richmond hinted at a Civil War period piece, but I had to look up the hospital name to be sure. The time period is a good one for intriguing stories, so the author had me hooked. But I have the following suggestions for consideration.

1.) Give Context – A tag line at the outset would clarify without a doubt this is a historical work about the Civil War. Something simple like – Richmond, Virginia and the date somewhere between 1861-1865 – would suffice. The reader would be oriented at the beginning.

2.) Make Point of View (POV) Relatable – The start of this offering, and most of the writing, is told in omniscient POV. This submission reminded me of a recent and excellent post by James Scott Bell on “The Perils of Author Voice.” Annie the observer first shows up in the 2nd paragraph and again in the final paragraph, but it’s not clear to me that she actually sees the whole procession and the men trudging toward their fate. It’s as if she sees into the heads of all the men marching (omniscient).

Think how much this beginning would change if Annie is the sole POV and the reader sees everything through her eyes. By orienting the reader inside Annie’s head, we learn more about her and the time period, as well as the story of the men she has empathy for. If you pick one POV per scene, where the reader can only see through that character’s eyes, the story will be more intimidate and emotional. In omniscient POV, the reader is held at a distance to be a neutral observer. This might work for some stories, but I prefer seeing history unfold through the strife of an endearing or compelling character.

Let’s take Annie. What could her story be?

Annie could find someone in the march who reminds her of her younger brother who’s missing in action. She leaps over the backs of tall men, straining for a glimpse of the rabble. When she sees a familiar gait or a pair of blue eyes she’ll never forget , she races after the men. She hides among them, maybe has the guards racing to pull her out. She sees each man’s suffering from the way they smell to the bones under their clothes from starvation. They beg her for water. They bleed on her clothes. The reader would more fully understand the plight of these men while also finding out about Annie.

  • What is Annie’s last name?
  • Why is she there?
  • What are her politics?
  • How is she treated as a woman during this period?
  • Is she looking for someone, is she a spy, or does she disdain the enemy?

3.) Add a Dose of Historical Perspective – The writing has a modern feel to it. There is no attempt to use historical authenticity using terminology from the time period or by inserting some clothing/uniform descriptions. Historical readers are fanatics about getting the history right. The insertion of “dark blue trousers and kepi caps” or the guards carrying “Springfield muskets and sabers” could add something. Depending on her backstory, Annie may not know details of weaponry, but during a time of war, I’m sure she’s seen what men wear and use in battle.

A resource I found on Civil War Terminology might help insert a few key descriptions to make the writing appear more period. Here is a resource for Civil War Uniform description. This is a resource for Civil War Weapons that the Confederate soldiers might be carrying as they take the prisoners down the street. These are quick resources I found online from a simple query. Experienced authors of historical fiction have a vast amount of reliable sites they use.

For Discussion:

What would you add, TKZers?

Would you turn the page?

Do you have good resource links for the Civil War?

 

Croco Designs

Coming November 15 – In The Eyes of The Dead (Omega Team/Amazon Kindle Worlds)

FBI profiler Ryker Townsend and Omega Team’s Athena Madero join forces in a small Texas border town after ritualistic murders of four teens point toward a sinister Santeria priest and his secret believers.

Cover by Frauke Spanuth at Croco Designs

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Recording the Past

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne


I was up at my Mother-in-law’s house this weekend in the historic gold field town of Maldon, and one night we got talking about the importance of recording the stories of many of our, now very elderly, relatives. This conversation was prompted by my husband reading a book about a famous Australian landscape architect by the name of Ellis Stones who had designed his grandmother’s garden in the early 1960s. As we read some excerpts out aloud we realized how little any of us really knew about the details of her life. It turns out the garden she designed with Ellis Stones was considered one of his finest but, apart from photographs, the garden no longer exists (destroyed after redevelopment) -yet another piece of history consigned to the rubbish heap.

Tim’s grandmother is now 97 years old and imagine the stories she must have to tell – about her life in a country town before the second world war when, despite her talents, her father refused to let her go to university; her recollections of a brother who was taken away; her trials during the war as she struggled to bring up two boys alone; and her despair when her husband was declared missing and no news of was received for 2 years (during which, it turns out, he was a Japanese POW). Imagine the insights she would have into the way people lived and worked then – yet no one has chosen to record her story, and, I fear, she is now too frail to be interviewed at any great length about her life.

As a writer of historical fiction, I draw upon the stories of ordinary people to be able to paint an accurate, detailed picture of what it was like to live during a particular era. Thinking about all the lives that go unrecorded has made me realize how much ordinary day-to-day history we may be losing. Hardly anyone writes letters or keeps hard copy records anymore – still fewer probably take the time to ask and listen to people tell their stories of the past. Much of our world is consumed with the here and now or the latest and greatest innovation. Thinking about my husband’s grandmother has made me realize that we all need to become keepers of the stories of the past. Interviewing our relatives and friends may become an important first step in ensuring that these ordinary lives do not get forgotten.

So have you talked to anyone ‘of a certain age’ about their lives lately? How do you think we can preserve these stories so writers like me will be able to read them (perhaps even hear and see them as well) in the future and be able to recreate the past in all its ‘ordinary’ detail?

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