Looking Forward with the Past

As readers of my previous post on this blog know, Boxcar Red Leader is now available on Kindle as an ebook and via KENP. It’s also available via CreateSpace as a paperback. Sales are not in the NYTBS range…yet! Many thanks to those of you who purchased and read the book, and the other two in the series so far. Please, tell all your friends, and if you feel so inclined write a review of the books on Amazon. You have no idea how much it helps!

So that’s one piece of news, and the other is about the two subsequent books in the series:  Thanks for the Memories and The New Boys. Not going to give anything away, but the survivors of the first three books will continue in those two volumes.

So, a little historical context:

Thanks for the Memories takes place in the summer and fall of 1942 in New Guinea. The Japanese, having been turned back at the Battle of the Coral Sea, and having suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Midway, are still nowhere close to being defeated. Allied forces in the South and Southwest Pacific theaters still operate on the slimmest of shoestrings. Yet with the resources at their disposal they must find a way not only to hold their ground but begin rolling back the might of the Japanese Empire.

In some ways that sounds like alternate history, doesn’t it? “The might of the Japanese Empire.” But any student of history will assure you, there was nothing “alternate” about the Japanese Army and Navy — particularly their Navy! — in 1942. Allied victory at Midway turned on the slimmest of margins; in five minutes, Dauntless dive bombers turned three Japanese carriers into blazing wrecks and salvaged victory from what was shaping up as a major defeat. Those five minutes in many ways overshadowed the valor of American airmen, mostly Navy but also Air Corps, who gave their lives and their blood in attacks foiled by flak and Zeros.

Torpedo Squadron Eight, for example, was nearly wiped out at Midway. Their commanding officer, John Waldron, was one of the first to go. Despite the death of their commanding officer, VT-8 pressed home their attack against odds that were literally, obviously, suicidal. Only a single man, Ensign George Gay, survived. His survival and rescue were flukes of pure luck.

The Japanese who witnessed the attack said that Torpedo Eight came on like samurai.

This type of courage was seen again and again in the Pacific.

That’s the war of Everything We Had, A Snowball’s Chance, Boxcar Red Leader, and Thanks for the Memories. Well, OK, so it’s a land war a long way to the south of Midway. The spirit was, is, the same.

But with The New Boys we’ll start looking across the Atlantic, to the war in Europe. That, of course, will be new ground entirely. Other books are in the research and planning stages.

While I get busy writing those two, everyone enjoy Boxcar Red Leader! Don’t feel shy about dropping me a line here to tell me what you think.

Thanks again!

— Tom Burkhalter

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Boxcar Red Leader

On November 1, 2010, I sat down in happy anticipation to begin the first draft of a novel. I was a contestant on NaNoWriMo, aka National Novel Writers Month. I had this pesky idea about an Grail novel set in the far future, and I’d written bits and pieces and really loved the idea, and really loved those little pieces, and I thought, I can do this, I can bull on through and at the end of the month I’ll have a first draft!

Yeah!

Yeah, ah, no.

Three days in and I’m doing pretty well. I was ahead of the 1700-words-per-day schedule I set myself. I was happy.

Day four. I sat down. I put my fingers on the keyboard.

Nothing.

Crickets.

OK, that happens. But when it kept happening and Day Six rolled around I knew I was in trouble. Not bad trouble. The space-fantasy novel was still doable. IF…

If I could figure out where the mental block was coming from.

So I opened that gaping hole in the back of my head and looked down into the yawning pit, and I yelled, “W?T?F?”

Echoes.

OK, I yelled. OK! So you don’t want to do the sci-fi-fantasy novel about one of your favorite things of all time! What DO you want to do?

The next thing I knew I was in the New Guinea jungle, on a godforsaken airstrip with a bunch of half-trained kids trying to stay alive flying a piece-of-junk airplane, the Bell P-39, against the Emperor’s Finest in the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero, at the time — mid-1942 — one of the premier fighter planes in the world, flown by some of the best pilots in the world.

When the month was over I had a first draft. Back then I called it The Sluggers and the Palookas, because I had to call it something, and that was the working title my subconscious came up with. Hey, I’m just the fingers on the keyboard around here. Someone else is calling the shots.

And that’s true, because, over the next two years as I developed the story, I realized that Sluggers, that by then was called I Wanted Wings, had not one but two prequels. For NaNo 2011 I started the novel that eventually became Everything We Had. Only, well, the first sixteen thousand words were set in Manila in 1938, while Charlie was still a cadet at West Point and Jack had yet to take his first flying lesson.

So that took a little while to sort out, but eventually Jack Davis sailed into Manila Bay with the 21st Pursuit Squadron and Charlie Davis shanghaied Al Stern to be his navigator, and set out in his B-17D to cross the Pacific alone.

So there used to be this thing called Script Frenzy, which was like NaNoWriMo except with a movie script, and I wrote a screenplay called “The Bronco Busters,” and that was a major part of A Snowball’s Chance.

And all this time those boys in New Guinea slept in my hard drive. Not with any real degree of patience, I might add. Rowdy bunch, those Air Corps pilots.

But now six and a half years of work have borne their fruit, and Boxcar Red Leader is on the market.

That seems so strange a thing to write.

I mean, it isn’t like I’m done with those guys, the ones that made it through alive. They have plenty of trials and tribulations ahead of them.

Only…

One phase ends. Another phase begins. And, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not this week, but soon, within a couple of weeks, more likely than not, I’ll be back there in New Guinea.

And soon after that Jack will be in the States, facing new challenges.

I don’t exactly know how all that will play out. But as soon as I know I’ll share.

In the meantime, Boxcar Red Leader is available on Kindle. Enjoy!

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Airplanes in My Novels: the Much-Maligned Bell P-39

Bell_P-39_Airacobra_in_flight_firing_all_weapons_at_night

Bell P-39 night-firing. Note engine exhausts and air scoop behind the cockpit. Wing guns are .30-cal., the two guns firing through the propeller are .50-cal., and the 37-mm cannon is firing through the prop spinner.

Before I started writing Boxcar Red Leader, I knew there was an airplane called the P-39, that it was built by Bell Aircraft, and was fairly unique among fighter designs of the era in having tricycle landing gear and the engine mounted in the fuselage behind the pilot, to leave room in the nose of the airplane for a 37-mm cannon. The propeller driveshaft passed from the engine behind the cockpit, under the pilot’s seat, and connected to a gearbox that drove the propeller. The P-39 was a contemporary of the far-better-known Curtiss P-40. I also knew the airplane was called the “Iron Dog” and there seemed to be a sizable contingent of former P-39 pilots who actively disliked the airplane. There’s even a verse about it, in the old Air Corps folk song “Give Me Operations:”

Oh, don’t give me a P-39
The engine is mounted behind
She’ll stall and she’ll spin
And she’ll auger you in
Don’t give me a P-39!

Evidently the center of gravity and the center of lift in the P-39 were in a very sensitive relationship, far more so than in other, more conventional airplanes. This resulted in an airplane very sensitive to pitch inputs, such that only very small increments of elevator control were needed to effect pitch change. This goes directly to the “she’ll stall and she’ll spin” verse above. When pulling gee in a tight turn one pulls back on the stick; if not done with skill, the turn will tighten to the point where the g-load exceeds the lift generated by the wings, causing what is known as an “accelerated stall.” Entering a stall from a turn will lead to a spin, and evidently the P-39 had interesting spin characteristics, to the point where many pilots were convinced the airplane would actually tumble end over end.

On the other hand, there were pilots who absolutely loved the Airacobra. Chuck Yeager flew the airplane in training, loved it, and relates in his autobiography a conversation he once had with a Russian pilot who flew the P-39 – successfully! – against the Luftwaffe. Edwards Park flew the P-39 in New Guinea, and his account of that time is written in his book, Nanette: Her Pilot’s Love Story, a narrative I recommend as one of the best books about flying I’ve ever read.

My perception is that much of the dislike directed at the P-39 resulted from the pilots who were thrown into the airplane straight out of flight school and then expected to fly the P-39 against the experienced Zero pilots of the Imperial Japanese Navy in the skies over New Guinea. Most of these pilots had never flown an airplane more powerful or faster than an AT-6 trainer. Later in the war pilots like this would be sent to an OTU, or Operational Training Unit, to encounter the P-39 or P-40 under the relatively benign conditions of a stateside training base. In the Pacific, in 1942, kids fresh out of flying school were put in P-39s and P-40s and sent out against the Japanese. The loss rate, from accidents and combat, was horrendous.

The P-39, like the P-40, was equipped with the Allison V-1710 engine. The V-1710 was a fairly good engine, but in the P-39 and the P-40 it had only a single-stage supercharger, and, as a result, the performance of both airplanes fell off sharply above 17,000 feet. If what you have to defend Port Moresby and Seven-Mile Drome from Jap bombers flying at 23,000 feet is a P-39, you face a difficult tactical problem, one not helped by the fact that the defenders of Seven-Mile rarely had enough warning to climb high enough to intercept Japanese bombers with any hope of success.

Between the high loss rate and the poor performance, compared to the A6M2 Zero fighter the P-39 found itself matched against, it’s no wonder the pilots disliked the airplane.

Still, I kind of like the P-39. I’ll never have a chance to fly one, to see for myself just how sensitive and well-balanced those controls are, or if she really will tumble, but there’s something about the way the airplane looks.

Over and above any of that, the P-39 was one of the two pursuit airplanes the Army Air Forces had at the beginning of World War Two available in significant numbers. It didn’t matter, from that perspective, how the pilots felt about the airplanes. It was what they had.

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One-Week Promotional Deal

Beginning tomorrow, April 17, 2017, Everything We Had and A Snowball’s Chance will be available at Amazon Kindle at discount pricing for one week! Sales for both books start at $0.99 US, so it doesn’t get much cheaper than that. Buy early, because the longer you wait, the more the price rises until at the end of the week I’ll be back to sales at the original cost.

Enjoy the books!

Note: Boxcar Red Leader is in final draft review form. I won’t say when it will be available, but it won’t be long. Read the first two books now so you’ll be ready when it comes out!

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J’ai un ami en France

I have a friend in France, and I don’t know their name. If they should happen to read this, I want to say, merci, merci beaucoups mon cher ami!

This person is my friend because last year they bought my first book, Everything We Had, and some time this last week, they bought my second book, A Snowball’s Chance.

It is wonderful to me that I have even a handful of people willing to follow my work. Now I see there is also someone in Italy who bought Everything We Had, and a few people in England who are repeat customers.

Thank you, all of you! And remember, there’s a third novel, Boxcar Red Leader, coming this spring. Two other novels, Thanks for the Memories and The New Boys, are in preparation.

I hope you’ll enjoy them!

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Finally – A Snowball’s Chance

Yesterday, January 16, 2017, I finally sent A Snowball’s Chance to Kindle as an ebook. My very first sale of the book followed — to some wonderfully perspicacious reader in the United Kingdom! Say, partner, stay tuned, ’cause the Davis boys are coming to England soon, courtesy of the 8th Air Force!

Today I noticed five copies of Snowball sold. It’s a good start. Further, I finished formatting and reviewing the paperback version of Snowball, which will be available from CreateSpace and Kindle within the next two weeks.

So, now, I’m dusting off Boxcar Red Leader, which needs a few tweaks and revisions, and prepping that one for sale as well. The spoiler-free teaser for Boxcar is that it portrays the pilots flying P-39 Airacobras against the Japanese during May and June, 1942. Charlie Davis and his crew will make an appearance, and so will the 22nd Bomb Group, at that time flying B-26 Marauders.

Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!

 

 

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Slogging on with A Snowball’s Chance

Folks, under the “no kidding” category, I’ve missed my own deadline (last summer!) for publishing the second novel in the series. I’m working hard on A Snowball’s Chance, but it has proven to be far more of a challenge than I anticipated.

To cap it all off, before I realized that Snowball would be so tough to write, I agreed to help a friend during NaNoWriMo this year, and that’s coming up in two days. Truth is that I’m looking forward to doing something completely different for a month during November. I’ve been fighting World War II in my mind since November of 2010, when I wrote the first draft of Boxcar Red Leader (I called it The Sluggers and the Palookas back then, and if you ask nicely, I’ll explain why!) and kicked off this whole adventure.

Some of you know this story, but for those of you who don’t, Boxcar Red Leader was originally written for NaNoWriMo 2010. It was not, however, the story I began writing that year. My original idea was to write a story I still (someday!) want to finish, a sci-fi-fantasy novel set in the far future titled The Once and Future Grail. I wrote 7000 words or so in the first three days…and something sort of unprecedented for me happened.

The words dried up. Whatever pipeline I had into that story, it was gone, and when it didn’t come back by that weekend, I was worried. To be a NaNo finalist, you have to write 1667 words per day, and I usually shoot for 1700. So by that Saturday I was six days into the contest with 7000 words written when I should have been over 10,000.

Not insoluble, but worrisome, definitely. So I asked my subconscious, what’s going on? I know you don’t want to write the Grail story, so what DO you want to write?

Turns out what I really wanted to write was the story of our pilots in the SW Pacific in early World War Two. Never mind that I hadn’t done a tenth of the research I thought necessary, never mind that I didn’t have a clear idea in my head of the plot or the characters, evidently on some level I made the decision to just start the damn story already!

So I did. By then I had 24 days instead of 30 to write 50,000 words on a story I had neither plan nor intention of writing. That, my friends, is perhaps the epitome of “pantsing.” I finished by November 30 — a day or two before, actually, with over 50,000 words — and after going through several revisions, changed the title twice (from The Sluggers and the Palookas to I Wanted Wings and finally to Boxcar Red Leader) and finally came up with what I think of as a finished product.

However, somewhere during that process I realized that, in Boxcar, Jack Davis alludes to previous service in the Philippines and Java.

Meaning there were two books existing prior to Boxcar.

They just weren’t written yet. Oh, dear.

And, as the members of my writers’ group pointed out with a certain sadistic glee, since I’m not George Lucas I can’t release books out of order.

So Boxcar Red Leader has languished on the shelf while I wrote Everything We Had (finally!) and finished A Snowball’s Chance.

The good news is that Boxcar Red Leader will only require relatively minor tweaks and updates to reflect the narrative in the two preceding novels.

But I won’t sacrifice quality just to get something out there. These novels, at least in part, are in homage to the people who were there and lived through it.

I owe them, and you, gentle reader, my best effort, and that is what you shall have.

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