Forbidden Secrets of Novel-Writing (and Sorcery)

It’s been a very good week, all in all. My first two pieces for Mental Floss went up (unusual riots and repurposed mental hospitals!), I just found out a good friend got his dream job and I cleaned my kitchen in a major and necessary way, thanks to inhaling the available-on-Netflix season of The Great British Bake Off. The coming few days will include long-overdue quality time with the friend who got me into Studs Terkel, and therefore journalism; a trip to my favorite hair salon for some touch-ups and pampering; and more than a few excellent holiday parties.

What I’m thinking about, though, in my off-hours, is fiction. I did wind up completing that 50,000-word novel during the month of November, although I’m learning the truth of Terry Pratchett’s dictum now more than ever: The first draft is just you telling yourself the story. What I churned out during NaNoWriMo has a few nuggets and flashes that feel like the right direction, but the more I wrote, the more I realized it was maybe 18% of the thing I ultimately want this story to be.

I say story and not novel, even though novels are what I’m most comfortable with, as a medium, because I have such strong visuals for this story, and I’m really wondering if it should be a comic or a script. But again, written fiction is what I know how to do, so it’s how I can get the story down soonest. This is the first of many things about which I’m getting way, way ahead of myself. (Not a new struggle for me, either.)

But I’m trying to figure out the best way to tease out or work toward the rest. My elevator pitch for this story is “Three young witches join the USO during World War II.” So: What’s the system of magic? What are the communities of magic? What are the rules about participating in non-magic conflicts? How much backstory should I include, on the individual protagonists and on their mutual history? How am I going to research what USO entertainers could reasonably expect on the foxhole circuit, during their day-to-day? Where should they live? How late in the war were U-boats blowing up Allied ships? How do I even write the middle of this book, which I pretty much skipped entirely?

This is in addition to the complexities I want to explore in my three heroines, one of whom is furious that they’re not using their gifts to put an end to the Reich. How exactly do you confront the Holocaust as it’s happening without either trivializing it or letting it dominate the novel? Is that even right? (For instance, I can’t wrap my head around The Book Thief, in which the Holocaust was virtually incidental, save for some plot points that enlightened or ennobled the gentile protagonists. On the other hand, my beloved Captain America sidesteps it entirely, which is no better a solution.) There are also questions of religion meeting atheism meeting magic, and how that upends your world, and how you keep this story from turning into yet another earth-shattering epic, not to mention the accidental triangle of sexual tension that’s emerged with a ghost. Whoops?

There is an answer to all this, and that’s talk to people and do the work. Worrying about how you’re going to organize that conversation is a good way of convincing yourself that you’re doing something when you’re actually just spinning your wheels. (See also: perfectionism.) Anyway, one of my favorite working comics artists is doing an online course starting next month. Why worry when you can just learn?

(Good pep talk, self! Hope you enjoyed that too, reader. What are your best methods for just getting the novel done?)

We few, we happy few: Rewatching Band of Brothers

PBS starts airing The Hollow Crown in the United States this week, which of course will culminate with Henry V, source of the above and many other inspirational quotes. I have a lot of feelings about these productions, and if I can get my act together, I’ll post them as each episode airs. I’ll have a few other balls in the air by then, though: not only does my final quarter at Medill start a week from today, but I also plan on revisiting one of my great storytelling loves of all time, HBO’s Band of Brothers.

In some ways, I’m in journalism school because of this show. I owe my interest in oral histories to a friend who, knowing I liked this miniseries, shoved Studs Terkel’s “The Good War” into my hands and told me I had to read it. During my newsroom quarter, I focused on reporting on veterans and military families, which is, I’ve discovered, a beat for which I maintain a passion. If I’m honest, my interest in the paratroopers of the 1940s pushed me to seek out the stories of today’s service members, to whom I’m very grateful for their trust.

Michael Cudlitz (Bull Randleman) and I can do it!
Michael Cudlitz (Bull Randleman) and I can do it!

For about a year and a half, I was one of those people who watched Band of Brothers on loop. I’ve read all the books (Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends by Babe Heffron and Bill Guarnere remains my favorite), I’ve visited museums, I’ve noticed dates that otherwise would have passed me by. And I’ve remained captivated by the process of building and assembling and creating a work like that. When history is so messy, and the way we remember even messier, how do you still tell a good story? How do you, as a writer or actor or producer, balance such profound and delicate responsibilities? Everything about Band of Brothers fascinates me, bottom to top. (The actors still hang out and call each other by their character names, did you know that? More than a decade later, they’re that close.)

I’m looking forward to coming back with a fresh set of eyes. I don’t think I’ve seen an episode for at least a year and a half, and it’s probably been two or three years since I last saw the whole series. But I’ll admit to some hesitation about diving back in. Caring about Band of Brothers means you also care about the surviving men of Easy Company. You hear about it when their health fails or they pass away, and even if you knew an actor’s portrayal instead of the man himself, your heart still aches a little. Many of the websites and forums that used to post notices seem to have gone quiet in the intervening years; I almost don’t want to know who we’ve lost since I last checked in.

Actors filming Episode 5, "Crossroads"
Actors filming Episode 5, “Crossroads”

I also wonder about the place of Band of Brothers in U.S. American society itself. No matter how harrowing the art, war and art are always going to be different. It’s the art that tends to become part of our mythology, though, and I have a lot of questions about that.

There’s a lot of art in Band of Brothers, and sometimes it demands that history steps aside. Not all of this is instigated by the producers: the men of Easy Company had decades to shape their own stories before Stephen Ambrose interviewed a one of them. At a certain point, the viewer has to accept that this story is going to be a collage rather than a photograph. Surely some postmodern philosopher-critic can come up with a pithy quote about truth and experience and record and the act of telling a story. (Suggestions welcome; comment away!)

I have the language to talk about Band of Brothers as a work of art; I will attempt to address some of the other attending issues, but I will probably mess up and miss the mark, so please, feel free to engage me in the comments when that happens. (Feel free to do so even if you don’t disagree with me! Even if it’s just “Oh my heart, that scene!” or “My favorite character!”)

I kept extensive (though not always useful) notes about my earlier rewatches. This is one of the useful bits:

Each episode has a focal character, a foil character and a clear theme. “Day of Days” is Winters, Guarnere and seeing the elephant. “Carentan” is Blithe, Harry Welsh and coping with fear. “Replacements” is Bull, Garcia/Hashey/Babe and taking care of each other, and so on. We have the first and last episodes that are really about everybody, and serve an explicitly narrative purpose — establishment (“Currahee”) and denouement (“Points”) — though even those had their themes, first among which I would say is unity. Other series themes include politicking and power dynamics (“The Last Patrol”), disillusionment and sudden truths (“Why We Fight”), and leadership and transitions (“Crossroads”).

Each episode has a very distinct cinematic and directorial flavor: “Crossroads” has Tom Hanks and his typewriters and the differing visual styles between frame story and flashback; “Bastogne” is a largely silent fairy tale; “The Breaking Point” has all those quick asides and intimate conversations; “Why We Fight” has the broken elegance of gentile Germany paired with the horror movie of finding the camp.

This is some of what I hope to focus on during this rewatch.

The real Doc Roe, Liebgott and Christenson at Eindhoven, September 1944
The real Doc Roe, Liebgott and Christenson at Eindhoven, September 1944

Before I close out, here are two links I unearthed that interest me, and may inform some of my thinking going forward:

Any further recommendations, links or articles or books or documentaries, would be most welcome. I also hope to reread Susan Sontag’s On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others, and, if I do the timing right, at least a few of the biographies, autobiographies and oral histories from the veterans themselves.