My current novel in progress has a section set during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. This epic military campaign began in the foreboding Ardennes Forest December 16, 1944 and was not concluded until January 1945. The Germans had amassed a large army hidden in the forests along the ridges and deep ravines of the Ardennes mountains of eastern Belgium and France. The Germans' objective was to take the city of Bastogne and the port of Antwerp. Unsuspecting American soldiers from the 110th Infantry were recuperating from the brutal battle in the Hürtgen Forest in the town of Clervaux. And when the Germans began their offensive, the Army was taken by surprise. Although the Germans would eventually be defeated, it was an epic battle. Infantrymen recount the eerie presence of German soldiers camouflaged in white outer-coats to match the snow, moving like wraiths in and out of the cover of fir trees on the battlefield. By the time it was over, 75,000 American and 80,000 German soldiers perished in the Ardennes.
While looking for primary sources I landed on a book titled: I'll Be Home for Christmas. It's a compilation of soldiers' letters and essays from the U.S. Library of Congress focused on the period of time soldiers' memories of home were most precious. The chapters include passages where they describe the movement of the infantry through the dark fir forests of the Ardennes, trudging through snow up to their thighs, hiding in fox holes, reminiscing about the holiday. More than once, the gravity of the moment was interspersed with small wonders and gestures of humanity. As one of the survivors, who was holed up in a cellar on Christmas Eve recalled: "At the stroke of midnight, without an order or request, dark figured emerged from the cellars. In the frosty gloom voices were raised in the old familiar Christmas carols. The infantry....could hear voices two hundred yards away in the dark, in German,...singing Silent Night."
They decorated random trees with tin ration cans. They made the best of a situation while pining to be home. Some of the men who were separated from their units ended up in cabins of the locals who gave them refuge and food on Christmas Eve. A medic was given a wooden carving from a piece of packing crate with the word Weihnachten 1944 (Christmas in German) from one of the German prisoners of war he treated.
A Belgium schoolteacher, returning to his classroom after the battle found this written on the blackboard by a German officer:
May the world never live through such a Christmas night. Nothing is more horrible than meetings one's fate, far from mother, wife, and children..... Life was bequeathed us in order that we might love and be considerate to one another. From the ruins, out of blood and death shall come forth a brotherly world.
One of the more poignant stories comes from bomber pilot Philip Ardery who knew all too well that fate might never give him another Christmas. He was reminded of this everyday while flying over Europe during the month of December of 1943. Growing up, he never opened any presents before Christmas Day. By late November family members of the pilots were sending packages to the headquarters where he was stationed. Many sat unopened, a 'Return to Sender' stamped on them when a soldier failed to return from a flight. Yet when Ardery was sent out on a mission in the inky dark of a bracing cold dawn, he had to decide: should I open one of my gifts just in case I don't make it back?
His family and friends made sure he had plenty to open. Each night he considered them from the perch of his bunk; the packages, sitting there waiting for him to rip open and discover what was inside.
Making it even more difficult was the fact that the weather was horrendous. Heavy fog and cold, damp air was hindering the pilots' efforts. Because they had not received their pathfinder equipment on time, they were flying without the instruments needed to guide the bombing. As a result, there were many mid-air collisions. In addition, lack of adequate gear meant men returned from their mission with frostbitten hands and many had to be hospitalized.
As the casualties mounted, each day, Ardery asked himself: should I open my presents just in case I don't make it back alive? Indecision plagued him through the month of December.
He didn't. He said the gifts were magical because of who sent them, those he held dearest. Maybe it was the taboo of opening anything before Christmas. Maybe it was hope. Hope that he would make it through his mission to eventually return home to those people he held dear. Hope may have been the greatest gift he received that year, that along with his life. He eventually opened his gifts on Christmas Day. One of the lucky ones to return home to family.
About five years ago I was on a trip in the Orcas Islands when I learned about the men in the Civilian Conservation Corps who worked for a measly $5.00/week during the Great Depression, building infrastructure and planting over 1 billion trees in our nation's parks. Of course I'd heard of these men but never knew much about their work or their history. But after reading about the Corps, the multitude of men who hearkened from diverse geographic backgrounds, many of them first and second generation immigrants, I felt compelled to tell their story.
I hadn't realized it at the time, but this book project titled The Truth of Who You Are, would become an emotional journey for me that had me doubting myself time and time again. Was it worth it? I kept asking. Let me list the tribulations to see this novel through to a publishing deal.
1) Research - since the novel is historical, I had to do research, which meant traveling to some of the sites where these men worked. Being self-funded, I launched an online crowdfunding campaign. I made a video, which took hours, and I almost made my goals. But the campaign failed and I wrote about it here. So I scaled back my travel plans to something doable - research in the Smoky Mountains, near where my parents lived in South Carolina. There was a lot of history to work with and hey, it's a tax write off, right?
2) Contests - I am a sucker for them. After winning one literary contest in 2017 for my novel The Night is Done, I figured I might be in a roll, so why not enter my work in progress to some contests , see how it goes? I entered The Truth of Who You Are in five writing contests. It gained semi-finalist status in one, and lost in two others. One is still pending. But the most heartbreaking loss was a national, prestigious contest that required I not pitch the book to anyone, no agents or publishers, until they told me it was out of the running. Five months later and two weeks before they were going to announce the winner, I still hadn't heard anything. My novel was still in the running. I couldn't believe it. The prize was $25,000 and a publishing contract. Could it be that The Truth of Who You Are had won? Everyday that I opened my email and there was no rejection I got my hopes up. My anxiety level was through the roof. I told only a few select friends and family about my anticipation. And then....rejection.
3) Publishers and Agents- I've attended numerous conferences over the past few years, pitching this novel to agents and editors at publishing houses. One editor wrote back to me with constructive feedback as well as encouraging words. "The Conservation Corps sections are terrific, I think. They really conjure time and place and show the impact of the programs on the people who participated in them and on the communities they served. And the burgeoning romance is nicely done as well." Yay! I revised and resubmitted. It was rejected. That was one of many to come from other agents and publishers, after they requested to read the whole manuscript.
4) Revise, revise, revise - the next step in the process is always to self-reflect, reexamine the manuscript and revise. At some point though one has to decide. What is the issue here? Is this novel not marketable? What do people want? Many revisions later, I adjusted the concept, and started all over again with the pitching.
5) Publishing Contract - I sent the novel to a small publisher who offed me a contract. Yay! Then I read the contract. That and a few other things led me to believe I'd be no better off than if I published it myself, so I declined. I can't even begin to tell you what a gut wrenching decision that was.
6) Giving up - I firmly believe in this novel. I know what it feels like to not believe something is worth pursuing. I have a novel I wrote about smuggling along the US/Canadian border sitting on my laptop which will never see print. But this novel, The Truth of Who You Are, is different. I've had positive feedback from several readers, people who I've only met in online writing circles. And my critique partner, who is brutally honest, told me it is my best writing so far.
Recently a publisher asked me for the full manuscript and I’m waiting for their response. Their contract is posted on their website and seems more favorable. So we'll see. Like I said, this book won't quit.
But I imagine, neither did these guys from the Conservation Corps.
Myers (Imaginary Brightness) satisfyingly concludes her historical trilogy set in the Gilded Age by presenting the detailed downfall of ruthless real estate mogul William West Durant; his exasperated wife, Janet; and his estranged sister, Ella. In 1931, the penniless Durant recounts his tragic life. After inheriting his father’s vast wealth and interest in the Adirondack Railroad, William immediately begins to make bad investments. He squanders money on yachts, panders to princes, and builds mansions he can’t afford to run, all while hiding assets from Ella. She sues him for her rightful inheritance and tries to overcome discrimination to become a novelist. Meanwhile, Janet, verbally abused and infantilized by William, begins an affair with her doctor. After getting proof of William’s own infidelities with an actress, Janet sues for divorce.....Myers expertly depicts a precarious era soaked in vicious gossip, stained reputations, and ostentatiousness. Readers will enjoy the historical details that bring this Gilded Age soap opera to life. (BookLife)
One of the pleasures of being an author is meeting with people at unique places to talk about books. This summer I met with teachers who were participating in the State University of New York Cortland Forever Wild in the Adirondacks. Teachers from various disciplines came from all over the country to stay in and learn about the Adirondack Great Camps built during the Gilded Age. History Professors Randi Storch and Kevin Sheets organized the event with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The week's itinerary included lectures on the history of land use in the region, and how it impacted the people who lived there. There were discussions on urbanization and industrialization, the respite wilderness offered for those living and working in the cities, and the romantic view people had about 'roughing it'. I spoke about the Durant family, who once owned over 1/5 million acres of land in the Adirondack Wilderness, and their plans to exploit it by developing a transportation system into the interior.
The teachers stayed at a Great Camp built by William West Durant and now owned by SUNY Cortland. Camp Huntinginton. They were even treated to an aerial view of the property with sea plane rides.
Activities included visits to other Great Camps built by Durant, (pictured below are the teachers from week 2 in front of Great Camp Sagamore), camp fire discussions about the readings, kayaking and paddle boarding on Raquette Lake. I was able to participate for one of the days and enjoyed a glorious sunset at the end. I was so grateful to be a part of the program and to meet so many dedicated teachers.
It's almost the fourth of July and the mayflies have hatched in the Finger Lakes region - always a good sign. Mayflies have adapted to every aquatic situation except foul water - that is according to Anne Haven Morgan - aka Mayfly Morgan, known for her study of aquatic life in the early 1900s. I have a first edition copy of her book, titled Field Book of Ponds and Streams, published by Putnam in 1930. It contains over 250 illustrations and plates done by Morgan who was a Professor of Zoology at Mount Holyoke College. So popular was her little field guide it was used by students of Biology at Cornell University back in the day (personal communication from John Weeks, a naturalist from the area who attended Cornell in the 1930s).
Mayflies hatch in the early summer after spending most of their life as nymphs under water, breathing through gills found on their abdomen. When they reach adulthood, they climb up a stem or reed and molt (depending on the species it could take hours or days). They have no mouth parts but they have wings for flight. They don't eat at this stage; their only job is to procreate. The fishermen call them duns or spinners because of their mating flight that begins at twilight.
They swing up and down in the air like the seeds of a cottonwood tree, flinging upwards of thirty feet. Hundreds of them will perform this dance over the water. Once done, the females dip their tails ever so delicately on the lake to lay their eggs. It looks like soft raindrops pattering on the surface. After the act is completed, the females die, forming mats on the surface, becoming food for ducks and fish. The males also have a short lifespan as adults. They mate and alight on the nearest tree where they spend for their final hours. Hence the Latin name given to the insects - Ephemeroptera - meaning ephemeral- short lived. Like our summers in the Finger Lakes.
According to Morgan's field guide, Dr. F.H. Krecker observed so many dead mayflies after a hatch on the shores of Cedar Point, Lake Erie, that there were piles of them, six-eight inches deep under the street lights. The local amusement park had to haul their lacey bodies in carts each morning. Those must have been the days before industrial pollution and harmful algae blooms started choking the waters of the lake.
You can see how delicate these creatures are in the plate illustration from Morgan's field guide. At the very bottom, on a log to the right, is the nymph looking like a skeleton. The larger insect to the left is a dragonfly nymph (yes dragonflies spend their nymph stage under water as well and breath through gills inside their abdomen).
I fell in love with mayflies when I first started studying aquatic science and collected them as part of stream studies. I even went so far as to include their life history in my novel set in the Finger Lakes after their Latin name - Ephemeral Summer.
Their short life span is beautifully tragic, yet purposeful. Which in the scheme of things could be said about most living creatures.
May 10th, 2019 marked the 150th anniversary of the meeting of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad lines in what was called the Transcontinental Railroad. This scene from the t.v. show Hell on Wheels recaps the end of the venture. Doc Durant delivers a compelling argument that the railroad could not have been built without the iron will and deceit of men like himself.
Are "truths delivered by lies no less true"? And are "dreams made reality by falsehoods no less real"? In this scene Doc Durant chastises the men in Congress who are now investigating him for his unsavory business tactics. He had a right to be indignant since the men investigating him were well aware he used bribery to get bills passed that favored and subsidized the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, lining the pockets of men like Durant and Collis P. Huntington of the Central Pacific Line.
I was writing the Durant Family Saga when someone told me about Hell on Wheels. Colm Meaney does a great job reanacting Doc's blustery personality (although he looks nothing like the real Doc Durant). My saga begins where Hell on Wheels ends. The Durant Family Saga is a reunion of Doc Durant's family in the United States, after he had sent them to live abroad while he built the transcontinental. During the 1860s Durant had acquired over 1/2 million acres of wilderness in the Adirondacks and expected his son, William West, to help him develop a new transportation line that would cut through the forests and reach Canada. Along the way Doc expected he would make another fortune selling off and developing land for vacation homes and resorts.
What Doc hadn't planned on was the financial panic of 1873 or the public, his business partners and stock owners turning against him. By the time his family appears on the scene in 1874, leaving behind their friends and family in England, Doc is financially bankrupt and his reputation in tatters. He had to contend with numerous lawsuits against him, a family that was not used to taking orders, and a son who had spent most of his life spending money rather than investing it.
Beyond the business dealings, the Durant family life offered enough drama for me to write a trilogy. But the legacy of the Transcontinental never ends. Congress instructed special committees to investigate the business dealings of the two railroad empires and Durant and Huntington were hounded by the press. Durant died in 1885, never having to own up to his wrong-doings. Huntington's company however was fined by the government and he spent his last years constantly defending his reputation.
He got his revenge though. Because soon after Doc Durant dies, Huntington takes Durant's son, William under his wing. This relationship proves unfortunate for the Durant family fortune. Huntington calculated revenge against his old rival and William was too naive to see this. William's hope to fulfill his father's ambition to develop the wilderness was financed with money borrowed from Huntington. In the end, Doc Durant was right, his dreams, made reality, were based on falsehoods.
While visiting my aging parents recently I attended a social gathering of their friends and neighbors. A man I was conversing with told me about his work at Eastman Kodak before its slow dissolution. When I mentioned I was an author of historical fiction and thought the history of the Kodak Company might make a good non-fiction book, he proceeded to tell me that more importantly, he wanted someone to write about the Hungarian revolt against the Soviet Union in 1956. He was part of the revolt as a teen. But he had to flee along with 200,000 other refugees, when the revolt was violently crushed by the Soviets after only 12 days. The ghost writer he had hired to write his memoir died and the idea that his story would never be written nor published was weighing on him.
This man had a best friend-a fellow comrade aged 16 who was captured by the Soviets. The Soviet's had a law that made it illegal to put someone under 18 to death, so they held his friend in prison until he turned 18 and then executed him.
My mother told me that as she ages she has been having flashbacks-vivid memories of her childhood that she had long forgotten. If this is so for most people as they age (and I have no idea if it is) then I suppose for this man, his visions of the tumultuous 12 days and loss of his best friend must be haunting him. He spent the better part of an hour discussing it with me. He told me not many people know about this time in history (it was only 12 days but had greater ramifications for the U.S./Soviet relationship.) He told me the citizens of Hungary were the only ones that revolted against the Soviets although so many in the Union despised the oppression. He eyes were filled with loathing.
I've met numerous writers at conferences who are there to learn how to publish a memoir. I wish my life was that interesting. Although I've used vignettes from my personal experience or people I've known for my fiction (specifically in Ephemeral Summer I wrote a scene where the main characters are tracking moose in Algonquin Provincial Forest for scientific research, something I did in graduate school), my fiction is mainly about other people's lives.
Just recently I picked up a book titled: Ithaca Diaries, written by Anita Harris about her days as a college student at Cornell University in the late 1960s early 1970s. How brave to write about coming of age during the race and anti-Vietnam War riots taking place on campus. Personally, I'd rather write a fictionalized version of someone else's past. But I have a high regard for writers who feel they have an important story to tell: their own.
I'm a mother, wife, educator. I'm a writer. Although I try to remain in the present, I find my mind wandering to the depths of my imagination, attempting to tease out the next scene in my novel, a character flaw, joy, despair. I am stretched to capacity to create. Between lesson plans on critical thinking, what to make for dinner, how I'm going to kill off one the characters in my novels, my mind has limited time to stay in the moment.
Even in the car, while driving to and from different campus sites I listen to podcasts, gleaning inspiration on writing, marketing, thinking. Oprahs's Super Soul Conversation reminds me what I should be doing: "Time to be more fully present.....starts right now."
I'm soooo sorry Oprah - I listen to your podcast once a week, gaze at the rural landscape streaking past my window, warm earth interspersed with golden corn stubble from last year's harvest, a flock of white geese taking flight, sparkling like dust motes in the March sun. And oh, what did Amy Purdy just say about resilience? I was framing the moment for a scene in my next novel.
I can't be the only one with a creative mindset trapped in the mundane day-to-day responsibilities that keep the family going, the heater operating as winter clings; I learned from a New York Times article, it's true. Many famous artists and writers maintained separate, working lives. Does it mean they produced better art? I know I feel a pressure to create whenever there is a moment: an hour on a Saturday, winter break, spring break, summer. I develop timelines around my school schedule, can I get to 50k words by May? How many weekends and breaks do I have? How much grading to do? Will one of my daughters be in town for the weekend?
If I had more time, if my life weren't segmented into pieces of me, I'm not sure I'd be any better at my craft. As someone close to me once said, 'you work better under pressure, with deadlines'. I don't meander once I sit down to write, the words come to me, have been building over time, while driving, in my journals, in my dreams. My characters speak to me. And I don't let them down.
A friend--photographer--told me he didn't like to take pictures of raibows, they were too ephemeral he said, not meant to be photographed.
I happened to catch this one over the point by Silver Beach on Raquette Lake while sitting on the porch of a cabin I rented. It's faint, but we all know what it feels like to see a rainbow in the sky. Even though it's fleeting, we just sit and stare until it goes away, hoping to hang onto that magical feeling it brings for as long as we can.
Maybe that's why photographers chase rainbows, sunsets, full moons, shadows in the woods. Why artists paint capture scenes and authors write about them. These moments are why people create; to make something last, a feeling, an experience, a moment in time.
There's a poem called This Too Shall Pass Away, written by Ella Wheeler Wilcox 1900 which refers to a story about an ancient King who asks his sages to find words of wisdom that would guide him. One of them brought back a ring with the saying 'this too shall pass' inscribed inside (or so various versions of the story go).
The meaning, that all things are temporary, much like the rainbow, is hard to swallow. How can this moment of joy be taken away? Yet, the same goes for those times of sorrow. It is only temporary. If only we could remember this when things seem so bleak.
As I work on my novel about the Durant family I realize this may be what they were striving for, to leave a legacy, even if it wasn't in the form of wealth. The Durant's were creators. William built Great Camps in the Adirondacks, that would withstand the elements of the Northern Woods. Ella Durant published her poetry. Their father, Dr. T.C. Durant built railroads across the country.
I see how all of it, the hard work, the drive to perfection, to discover more about how to turn a vision into reality - all of it - is an attempt to fight that adage that this too shall pass. Maybe, what drives the creator of such works, is an attempt, like Ozymandias, to leave a behind a legacy that fights back at time. Maybe that's why I write.
This is an ode to those public historians who went out of their way to write and publish local history that would otherwise have been forgotten. Whether it was about their own past experience, or the history of a place, these books are gems for those of us writing historical fiction. They are accounts of the ordinary people, ones who may not have been famous, but whose lives are the fabric of the past. I've found my share of these treasures while researching my novels.
Sheila Myers is an award winning author and Professor at a small college in Upstate NY. She enjoys writing, swimming in lakes, and walking in nature. Not always in that order.