Showing posts with label Battle of the Bulge. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Battle of the Bulge. Show all posts

23 February 2022

The Chicken or The Egg

I just finished a novella, set during the Battle of the Bulge.  I’ve been working on it for a while.  I realized that I can’t pin down my original impulse, that glimpse of something, the orphan intuition that tugs at your sleeve or plays hide and seek in your peripheral vision.  

Sometimes you know right away when you’ve got a workable idea, and once in a while not just workable, but inspired, and the fuse is lit.  We’re all familiar with getting in the zone, and the feverish clamor of momentum, but genuine inspiration comes from applying your ass to the chair.  You have to be there for lightning to strike.

Now, in the case of “The Lion of the Chama,” another long and time-shifting story, I can tell you exactly where it sprang from.  I read an article in the Santa Fe New Mexican about a local criminal lawyer who was retiring after forty years, and the interviewer asked him which was his most memorable case.  The guy said, I defended Reies Lopez Tijerina after the siege of the Tierra Amarilla courthouse. My mental ears pricked right up.  What siege was that?

Which is actually pretty widely-known history hereabouts, but I was only a wash-ashore in those days - as former Santa Fe mayor Debbie Jaramillo used to say, “You just got off the bus.”  I began to dig into it, and as research made the narrative more concrete, it also began to veer off in unexpected directions.  This itself is not unexpected.  But the more I learned, the less wiggle room I had.  In a way, it mirrors the writing process.  You begin with an empty canvas, but as you fill it in, your avenues of choice close off.  The narrative funnels down.

The expression is: Don’t spoil a good story for lack of the facts.  I stopped researching the facts of the courthouse siege, because they got in the way of the story I wanted to tell.

Now, coming back to my WWII novella, The Kingdom of Wolves, we have almost the opposite dynamic.  I knew I wanted the wider backdrop to be authentic, so I tried to stick to the chronology and movements of the fight, and who was actually where on the big map.  Patton and Bradley, for example, have cameos.  So does my Uncle Charlie, breaking down the ENIGMA traffic, back at Bletchley Park.  (My primary source was Antony Beevor’s terrific book, Ardennes 1944.)  On the other hand, I wanted my own story to slip between the cracks.  I had to make room for it, without playing the historical record false.  What happened in this case, is that I didn’t have a story of my own until I’d straightened out the facts.  That background determined the story.

So, here’s the question.  Or, at least, a framework for discussion.  Sometimes you have a situation, and you work from that; sometimes you start with a character.  But almost always, you have a difficulty to surmount.  The ring goes back to the fires of Mount Doom, where it was forged.  Not every story is a hero’s quest, of course, but is the narrative engine the hero or the journey?  Clearly the two influence each other.  I guess what’s interesting, and probably unanswerable, in this context, is whether we start with Frodo, or the Ring? 

It also probably doesn’t matter.  What counts is that we got to the finish line.  Still and all, I often wonder why and how.  The sudden and exact detail that shows up in high relief, and we say to ourselves, Now there’s a story!

10 February 2016

Ardennes 1944

It can't be late-breaking news that I read a lot of history, anything from the Peloponnesian War to building the Brooklyn Bridge, and I read out of curiosity, for background, and more or less to please myself. It doesn't always have a specific aim or application, but lately it's been WWII.

I'd read Antony Beevor's FALL OF BERLIN, and Max Hastings' ARMAGEDDON, about the last year of the European war, and it
was natural to pick up ARDENNES 1944, Beevor's new book about the Bulge, and then Hastings' INFERNO. I topped it off with Paul Carell's SCORCHED EARTH, which covers the German-Russian campaigns, 1943-44. You could pretty well say I was played out by this time, enough already. Fatigue sets in. You hit a wall. Your sympathies flag.

Then an odd thing happened. I began to see a storyline. Not just a theme, or a situation to hang a plot on, but the whole thing, soup to nuts. This is unusual, and I figure other people have much the same experience. Something catches your attention, maybe in your peripheral vision, and you tell yourself, Oh, that's a hook, or an interesting set-up, a landscape, or a springboard. Very rarely do you get handed the spine of a complete narrative: three full acts, ready to go. What caught my eye was what came to be known as the Malmedy massacre, a group of American POW's murdered in cold blood by an SS unit, Kampfgruppe Peiper, a spearhead of the Adolf Hitler division.

If you look at the Order of Battle in the Ardennes, and the German dispositions, although von Rundstedt was nominally in command, the main assault components weren't regular Army, the Wehrmachtbut SS armor. (There was also a black op led by commando legend Otto Skorzeny, with Germans masquerading as American GI's - more bark than bite, even if it created suspicion behind American lines.) The point here is both in France, in 1942, and on the Eastern Front, in '43 and '44, SS were shadowed by Einsatzgruppenthe death squads assigned to kill Jews and Gypsies, and Soviet political officers. This was no accident. SS officers and men later tried to establish the fiction that they were Soldaten wie andere auchor soldiers like any other, but their actions in every theater of war were criminal. 1st SS Panzer in western Ukraine, over two days in December 1943, killed two thousand Russians, and in that time, took all of three prisoners.

We notice a pattern. Yes, the Red Army killed German soldiers after they'd surrendered (so did the Americans and the British and the French, for that matter), but the Germans made it one with their policy of reprisals, the execution of civilians as well as combatants. This is different - I think in a qualitative way - from the industrialized Nazi effort to eradicate the Jews, which actually hemorrhaged men and materiel that could have gone to the war effort. It's something else, even though take no prisoners is counterproductive. Men on the losing side fight harder. Surrender isn't going to save them. There's a bitter dynamic at work here.

So where, you're asking, is the story I was talking about? I'm not ready to put out on the first date. Still, the bare bones are there without my giving it away, you take care to read between the lines, The story's about payback. And it's not morally ambiguous, either. It has a simple satisfaction, the elemental working of Fate, weighed in the scales.

The curious part, as I said, is that it just presented itself, in one piece. I even wonder if it's too obvious, too shapely, too finished, but there could be surprises in store. We'll have to see what happens in the telling. I've got a title for it, too, which is usually a good thing. We writers can be a superstitious lot.

One other thing. If you choose to base a story on actual events, you have to be careful not to play them false. There were real consequences. Real people died. Other bore witness. A war was won, or lost. History was in the balance. 'You don't spoil a good story for lack of the facts' - an expression I've used before, but in this instance, the story's not invented. Where invention comes in, is in reinhabiting something that really happened. You owe history, and the dead, that much responsibility.