Category Archives: Aviation

Airplanes In My Novels: the Curtiss P-40

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Curtiss P-40E pursuits peel off after a target below. USAF photo in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Jack Davis flies the Curtiss P-40E in both Everything We Had and the second novel in the series, A Snowball’s Chance, under production as I write this post.

The Curtiss P-40 was America’s front-line pursuit airplane in 1941. It wasn’t as fast or glamorous as the RAF’s Supermarine Spitfire or the Luftwaffe’s Bf-109E. Development of those two airplanes kept them operationally viable through 1945, but the P-40’s performance remained more or less the same from the P-40B through the P-40N. Even changing the Allison V-1710 engine for the Rolls-Royce Merlin in the P-40F didn’t improve that performance. A nearly complete redesign of the P-40, the P-40Q, resulted in an airplane with a top speed of 400 mph, but by then the war was nearly over and the other pursuit types in USAAF service – the P-38, P-47 and P-51, not to mention the first generation of jet fighters like the Lockheed P-80A Shooting Star – were superior in almost every way.

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Curtiss P-40B pursuits of the 20th Pursuit Squadron at Nichols Field in the Philippines before the beginning of the war. USAF photo in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The P-40 had two major virtues for a pursuit airplane in 1941 and 1942: first, it was competitive with the Japanese Zero, and second, maybe more important, it was what we had in quantity to equip our own pursuit groups and send overseas to our Allies. In North Africa, the P-40 was used extensively and successfully as a fighter-bomber. In China, the record of the American Volunteer Group (better known as the Flying Tigers) was compiled using a handful of obsolescent P-40B models, the same airplane that equipped the 20th Pursuit Squadron in the Philippines.

The P-40E equipped most of the USAAF pursuit squadrons sent to the Southwest Pacific in 1941 and 1942. For fighting Zeros it was adequate, being as fast as the Zero in level flight and able to break off combat with the Zero by diving away. The Zero wasn’t known for being sturdy, and would come apart under punishment that the P-40, or any other American combat airplane, would simply shrug off.

At the time of Everything We Had, the P-38 was only beginning to become available, and was still overcoming problems associated with compressibility issues at high speeds. The P-38 was the first airplane to encounter Mach buffet, a phenomenon poorly understood in 1941 or for some years afterward. The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt was in development but wouldn’t be available in any numbers until 1943. The P-51 Mustang was originally designed for the RAF as a substitute for the P-40, and was also still in development.

So the P-40 was the only pursuit, other than the Bell P-39 Airacobra, available in any numbers to equip the USAAF. As for the P-39, stay tuned. I’ll talk about that airplane sometime before Christmas, when Boxcar Red Leader, the third book in the series, comes out.

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Filed under Aviation, aviation fiction, characterization, Uncategorized

East to the Dawn — A Review

Usually I don’t read biographies. I made an exception for Susan Butler’s East to the Dawn – the Life of Amelia Earhart because of, well, Amelia Earhart.

Amelia has always been a favorite of mine. I remember reading her chapter in a book by Robert S. Owen, They Flew to Fame, when I was nine or ten years old. It was the chapter just after Lindbergh’s which, in retrospect, seems fitting.

I confess I found the story of Amelia’s early life a little slow. That’s not Ms. Butler’s fault; a person’s life moves at its own pace, and even Amelia’s was no exception. There were still interesting things to be found in the first half of the book; I knew Amelia had been a social worker, but I had no idea at ten what a “social worker” was (except for the reference in a song from “West Side Story”) or the fact that in the mid-20s it was considered a cutting-edge career for women. I also didn’t know about the misfortunes of Amelia’s early family life, which I won’t go in to — read the book yourself.

I’m also not quite sure at what point I became enthralled with the book. It was probably when Ms. Butler pointed out that once Amelia made a success of herself as a social worker at the Denison House she could have had a brilliant career in that field, possibly living to a respected and accomplished old age. I simply hadn’t thought of that, and that point, the idea that an historical figure actually had choices, is not something that one sees brought out in biographies very often, because they are nearly always about people who are famous for doing something we already know about. For that reason choices made often seem the only ones possible; set in stone, or predestined, if you will. Ms. Butler avoids that, and her work is all the better for it.

From that point on the biography, already well done, became in my opinion inspired, and I began to consider what Ms. Butler had to put in to the writing.

I asked myself what caused the author to undertake the task of this book? Writing a fresh biography of a figure like Amelia Earhart, famous and well-known in her own time, the subject of many other biographies, is surely a daunting undertaking. Ms. Butler seems to have approached the task with a will. The level of effort employed is to be appreciated only by looking at the extensive notes and bibliography.

That level of effort involved many interviews with people still living who knew Amelia; a search through previously unpublished contemporary records, such as diaries, journals and letters, the mere ferreting out of which in itself had to be a monumental task; searching through records official and unofficial. Merely compiling the data alone is a task involving years of focus, discipline and purpose.

One might say such an effort has elements of obsession, but I see obsession as a negative quality, and there is nothing of the negative in the quality of Ms. Butler’s work. It is rather a work of love, undertaken in the spirit of a duty one sometimes finds oneself selected to bear, the duty of bringing witness to greatness.

No one can write words that put us inside the skin of another, and if they could that still might not be the greatest artistry. The great writer, in whatever form, through words creates a platform of the imagination which strikes in the mind and soul of the reader sparks of sympathy, empathy and compassion, a light in that darkness surrounding our souls that permits us a glimpse, a trembling glimpse across an awful void, to where the soul of another may be discerned.

So it is with this biography.

Quite aside from anything else, as an aviation enthusiast I found Ms. Butler’s anecdotes of the aviation community of the 1920s and 1930s to be fascinating and informative. Her account of Amelia’s last flight, particularly the last legs from Java and New Guinea to remote Howland Island, was poignant, the last line of that chapter heart-wrenching for anyone who has ever flown.

Need I add that I thoroughly recommend this work?

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Women: Tough as Hell

Recently the writers group I belong to discussed the issue of creating strong female characters in atypical female roles.  I have a character, a female police officer, that’s been giving me fits for years.  She just feels like cardboard to me, and I know I’m missing something in the way I write about her.  And of course that night our female members were not in attendance.  Alas.  Men talking about women can be a one-dimensional experience.

As a coincidence, though, this last week I came across a blog by Carey Lohrenz.  Ms. Lohrenz was the second female naval aviator “accepted” into the F-14 fighter community.  Here’s a chance to look into the issue, I thought, and for those of you who are interested, here’s the URL for the blog:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carey-d-lohrenz/military-women-pilots-veterans_b_1516021.html#es_share_ended.

Thinking about Lt. Lohrenz’s career problems made me remember another excellent female pilot community, the WASPs of World War II.  The RAF had a similar outfit that did the same job: ferrying aircraft from the factory to embarkation points or airbases, maintenance test flights, all the aviation drudge work that would free up male pilots for the “stress of combat” that supposedly women just can’t handle.  Women, in both the US and England, were forbidden to go into combat; it was simply too tough for them, and they’d never stand up to it.  In fact, in the US, male civilian pilots lobbied successfully to have the WASPs disbanded even before the end of World War II.  Too much (successful) competition, I guess.

Mm.  Wonder what a pioneer wife in the Arizona territory, say about 1870 during an Apache raid, would have said to women not being tough?

Thinking about the WASPs called up another memory.  General Charles “Chuck” Yeager was a fighter pilot in World War II and had twelve kills.  There were not that many male pilots who flew fighters that achieved even a single kill, much less the coveted five kills that made you an ace in the USAAF or the RAF.  (The Luftwaffe required ten kills.)  The tradition of five kills making an ace goes back to World War I, but that’s another story.

There was another pilot in World War II with twelve kills who deserves mention: Senior Lieutenant Lilya Litvyak of the V-VS, the Soviet Air Force.  Litvyak was first a member of the all-female 73rd Guards Fighter Regiment and was later transferred to a male unit.  She was wounded three times in the service of her country.  She received numerous awards for valor, including the Order of the Red Banner.  I’m no expert on Soviet military awards, but Wikipedia says it was the “highest award given by…the Soviet Union.”  That makes it at least the equivalent of the Distinguished Service Cross in this country; our Medal of Honor seems more the equivalent of the accolade “Hero of the Soviet Union,” which Litvyak received posthumously, like so many of our own Medal of Honor winners.  In Litvyak’s final fight, jumped by eight ME-109s, she was finally shot down and killed.

Litvyak’s best friend, Katya Budanova, was also an ace, with eleven kills, and like Litvyak was killed in action.

The Soviets had a number of female combat pilots.  One, Olga Yamshchikova, was credited with 17 kills.  Others flew the famed Il-2 Sturmovik attack aircraft.  The Sturmovik was essentially a piston-engined A-10 and flew the same sort of incredibly dangerous mission, low-level ground support.  One Soviet female pilot, Anna Yegorova, flew these missions in the Sturmovik throughout the war and was decorated three times for valor.

In World War II, the USAAF and the RAF decided that the effectiveness of aircrew decreased if they were required to simply keep going until the war ended or they were killed.  That was the reason for limiting the number of missions or combat hours a pilot was required to fly.  It was based on lessons learned by both air forces in World War One.  In the US Eighth Air Force, when losses were heavy at the beginning of the war, crews were required to fly 25 missions, and the survivors were often in bad shape.  Later, as the effective opposition of the Luftwaffe decreased, that mission total was increased to 35.  I’ve spoken with some of the survivors of these missions.  In their 80s, that experience is just as vivid and emotionally wrenching as it was in their 20s for many of them.

In the Soviet Air Force there wasn’t any such thing as a tour of duty.  You were there for the duration.  Surviving pilots, male and female, could have as many as 1000 missions in their logbooks.  There were plenty of women in the Soviet Air Force who could claim that distinction.  Those ladies must have been tough as hell.

What was it like, then, for those that were required to just keep flying?  What kept them going?  Because it would seem that we aren’t talking about male or female qualities here, but simply human qualities.  Why, then, should it be so important to deny that women have those qualities?

Nothing here should be construed as saying that the Russians are tougher than the Americans, or that women are necessarily tougher than men, but it amazes me that easily available history like this is ignored.  Facts, it would seem, are far less important than ideology.  Lt. Lohrenz’s career came to an end due to political chicanery by those whose agenda required women to be “kept in their place.”

The point is that we have no cultural referents that aid us, as writers, when we depict strong female characters in non-traditional roles.  Women who try to create such roles in real life and are too visible, like Lt. Lohrenz, become targets in no-holds-barred political dominance games.

History shows that our cultural stereotypes have nothing to do with truth or facts.  This being said, why do those stereotypes continue to exist?

Are men actually afraid of women?  That might be a question for all of us, male and female alike, to ponder.

As the title of this essay suggests, I believe women, potentially and often in fact, really are tough as hell.  That’s the first thing to remember, but darned if I can figure out what the second thing should be, or the third, to come up with a better idea for female characters.

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Filed under Aviation, aviation fiction, characterization, fiction, human rights

The Aviation Story in Fiction and Nonfiction

The Aviation Story in Fiction and Nonfiction.

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Filed under Aviation, aviation fiction, Writing, Writing as Business

The Aviation Story in Fiction and Nonfiction

I started writing this post about a week ago.  I was pretty sure I knew what I wanted to say but as I wrote I realized the old symptoms – my ideas were evolving as I wrote.  Something about writing, actually putting words on a page (digital or print, either way I see them appear, letter by letter, in front of me), catalyzes my thought processes.

Maybe it’s that additional sense of reality seeing words on a page gives to thoughts.

At any rate I realized my post had now become two separate ideas, and this post is one of them.

Some years ago I read an anthology by Richard Bach consisting of articles he’d written for Flying magazine, among others.  I don’t remember the title of the anthology now, and a quick search of my bookshelves didn’t turn it up, either.  There was, however, one article in there that brought me endless hours of pleasure.  The article was titled “The Pleasure of Their Company.”

Without Bach’s article I never would have read some of the best prose ever written about aviation, nor been introduced to several of my favorite writers.  Hemingway once wrote that a writer, early in his career, should read “all the great books.”  He didn’t specify any titles under that heading, and as writers and as readers the subject is one that might be debated endlessly, passionately and without satisfactory resolution.  Regardless of that, many of the books Bach recommended became my “great books.”

In passing I would reiterate that Bach’s article did not appear in a literary journal or any other venue more likely to be dedicated to an appreciation of literature.  For those who don’t know, except for the odd article like Bach’s, Flying is generally dedicated to technical and how-to types of articles: new devices for instrument flying or radio communication, new air traffic control procedures, weather flying, descriptions of airports or fly-ins, etc.  There used to be a great column in back titled “I Learned About Flying From That” wherein people would describe something that happened to them in an airplane that taught them about that territory wherein angels fear to tread, much less mortal pilots with physical wings.

But Flying is definitely not a literary journal, however well-written and interesting its content.

I read Bach’s article in 1977, not long after I graduated from college, and in the next two years I managed to track down and read every book on his list with one or two exceptions, like Sir Frances Chichester’s A Rabbit In the Air, and those exceptions were simply because I couldn’t find them, either at the local chain bookstore or in the various used bookstores I haunted in those days.  The books I did read included Ernest K. Gann’s Fate Is the Hunter; Nevil Shute’s Round the Bend, The Rainbow and the Rose, and Pastoral ; Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Wind, Sand and Stars and The Little Prince; and Cecil Lewis’ Sagittarius Rising.  There were others but those come most readily to mind.

If you haven’t read them you won’t know that, with the exception of the three books by Nevil Shute (better known for his excellent if depressing On the Beach), those books are all non-fiction.  In fact, out of the shelves and shelves of books I own on aviation and aviation-related subjects, a quick glance assures me that non-fiction is disproportionately represented in that field.  Whether or not this is more generally true in that world beyond my bookshelves I can’t answer.

It would be easy, and possibly even true, to say that there’s no need to invent stories about aviation when non-fiction is just as plentiful and besides, well, factual.  Pilots, especially the various professional pilots (military, airline, charter, etc.) as a class would rather read technical manuals or factual accounts that might be of some use to them than fiction.  Most pilots, in addition, are hypercritical of mistakes made in fiction by fiction writers.  There’s probably a good reason for that: professional pilots who make mistakes end up killing themselves and their passengers.  Most pilots, therefore, tend to approach information from a skeptical point of view.  Think of it like this:  Oh yeah?  Well, tell me this: is that guy going to be in the cockpit with me when I’ve got to do what he recommends, or is he going to be sitting somewhere nice and safe, with his feet propped up, thinking about lunch?

Other than Nevil Shute I can only think of five authors who wrote respected fiction about flying:  Richard Newhafer, James Salter, Stephen Coonts, Mark Berent and Tom Wilson.

Newhafer is an interesting writer.  He was a Navy pilot who flew Hellcats during World War II, and wrote one of my favorite novels about Navy flying during that war, titled The Last Tallyho.  Newhafer was an ace and participated in some of the battles he writes about.  When he got out of the Navy in the 1950s he not only wrote novels but got into screenwriting.  If you can track down any of his books they’re worth a read.

James Salter wrote maybe one of the best novels about combat flying I’ve ever read, titled The Hunters.   It’s set in the Korean war, where the protagonist, Cleve Connell, flies F-86 Sabres against the Communist MiG-15s.  To me, the interesting thing about this story is the climactic dogfight scene where Connell shoots down “Casey Jones,” the MiG pilot who has claimed many of Cleve’s squadron mates.  The Hunters was made into a film starring Robert Mitchum which, despite some really good aerial scenes, almost universally elicits groans from pilots because of a scene that was tacked on by Hollywood.  Connell (played by Mitchum), after shooting down Casey Jones, ejects to save his wingman who’s just been shot down himself.  Why?  Because Connell’s in love – platonically – with the guy’s wife.  I imagine the thought process in the mind of most fighter pilots, in rejecting this scene, might go something like this: Let me be sure I’ve got this straight.  Connell, a good stick who’s just waxed some Commie badass, loses his wingman because the dumb bastard can’t be bothered to watch his tail.  Big surprise, the loser gets his ass shot off, whereupon he punches out and has to make a run for it through the boonies.  Too damned bad but that’s Darwin in action at 25,000 feet and Mach 0.9.  Connell then does what?  He punches out, ejects from a perfectly good airplane, in a day where you were lucky if the ejection didn’t kill you?  To save his loser wingman?  Just because Connell wants to get in the guy’s wife’s drawers?  And THIS is the story you want me to believe?  Jesus H. Christ, only in Hollywood, pal.  That’s why they call it the Land of Dreams.

If you’ve heard of Stephen Coonts it’s probably because of his book, Flight of the Intruder.  Most of the Navy pilots I’ve talked to will actually grant that book the ultimate accolade, a grudging admission that, yeah, that’s pretty much the way it was.  Not too surprising, since Coonts was an A-6A Intruder pilot during the Vietnam war.

Mark Berent and Tom Wilson both flew in Vietnam, in the USAF.  Berent begins with a book titled Rolling Thunder, where his protagonist flies F-100 Super Sabres on ground-support missions.  Throughout the series Berent writes with the same characters, introduced for the most part in Rolling Thunder.  Berent’s  focus is a little broader than just the air war, since one of the main characters, Wolf  Lochert, is a Special Forces officer, while the rest of the characters, including the protagonist, Court Bannister, are Air Force.  Tom Wilson, in a trilogy beginning with Termite Hill, writes largely about the war of the F-105s flying out of bases in Thailand against targets in North Vietnam.  OK, Wilson is kind of a favorite of mine, partly because I think the F-105 is one of the absolutely coolest-looking airplanes ever built, and some of the ballsiest pilots who ever lived flew those missions against North Vietnam in F-105s.  Wilson also writes about the pilots and EWOs – aka “Bears” – who flew the F-105G “Wild Weasel” against North Vietnamese SAM sites.  There’s an old adage among fighter pilots that you never duel with the antiaircraft types on the ground, but the Weasels did just that, and took corresponding losses.

So there’s all sorts of good aviation fiction, but with the exception of Coonts, I don’t recall that any of these writers are either well-known or even remembered.

What makes for a good aviation story?

First, something that’s hard for outsiders to grasp, is that aviation, for pilots, is more like a love affair than anything else.  Less charitable writers might with reason liken the love of flying to addiction, obsession or disease; indeed, aviation shares with malaria the trait that while it might go into remission, once you’ve got it, it never really leaves you.  Maybe this is why grafted-on love stories in movies, like the one in the film version of The Hunters, seldom if ever ring true.  Bob Stevens once did a great cartoon of how different people see an airplane; the wife’s view of the husband-pilot’s airplane was of a sexy, curvaceous mistress.  No writer who doesn’t understand this can understand the aviation story.

Second, the usual source of conflict, “good guy vs. bad guy,” is almost never present, even in stories about military aviation.  The enemy isn’t necessarily a bad or evil person just because he wants to kill you.  In Duncan Grinnell-Milne’s Wind In the Wires, written about flying in World War I, Grinnell-Milne is forced down behind German lines by engine trouble and captured.  He is taken to a German aerodrome where the pilots go out to look at the wreck of his machine and commiserate with him on his bad luck.  Indeed, Nevil Shute, perhaps one of the best writers I know of, doesn’t  rely on this sort of conflict; man against nature, or against some relatively insoluble problem, is his theme.  Read any of his books, not just those about aviation.   Even in Newhafer’s The Last Tallyho, the Japanese ace the protagonist fights at the climax of the novel isn’t presented as an evil man, simply as a patriot serving his country to the best of his ability.

Third, there is that interaction between man and the machine that takes him into an otherwise inaccessible environment that, oddly and perhaps even paradoxically, sparks something deeply spiritual inside the pilot.  Edwards Park flew with the 35th FG in New Guinea in World War II, and wrote of this in Nanette: Her Pilot’s Love Story, his account of flying at that time and place:

“…I had, momentarily, become part of Nanette – one and indivisible – and the two of us, in our ecstasy, had come very close to dying. … No plane is a person; no person a plane.  No person is anything but a person – a single entity, in charge of his own mind and body and to some extent his destiny.  But there are times when the interplay between [the] two is so intense and absorbing that they do indeed seem fused into one.  And I think one of the two can be a machine. … I knew, flying onto the strip that marvelous day, that I had touched something strange and secret.  And I also knew that somehow it all had to end now for us.  I was – we were – exploring something incredibly dangerous.”

In almost every flying school or aviation museum or pilot’s study or den you will find, prominently displayed or tucked away in a corner, the poem “High Flight.”  The poem was written by John G. Magee, Jr., a young American in the Royal Canadian Air Force, who was killed in training at the age of 19 – but not before he wrote the most famous and revered poem about flying yet penned.  I remember hearing that poem when I was very young and allowed to stay up late, until the TV stations shut down for the night, and the poem was read over the air as an F-104 Starfighter performed aerobatics on screen.

So in the end perhaps the aviation story is about something deeply and personally spiritual, something that most pilots, who generally see themselves as the morst material of people, will usually deny.  Charles Lindbergh himself wondered whether or not flying was too “godlike” and whether that might be behind some of the airplane crashes he knew of.

Nowadays flying has become mundane and prosaic.  There’s even talk, which will probably come true, that pilots will be replaced by computers.  I think that’s beyond sad, and I can tell you why.

I’m the merest neophyte as a pilot; if I cobbled all of my logbooks together and was generous with rounding the minutes I could probably boast 50 hours of total flying time.  But about twenty of that is in sailplanes, and the last flight I took in a sailplane – over thirty years ago – found me cast off from the tow plane at 3000 feet above the ground, between two clouds that were catching the rays of the setting sun at just the right angle to produce a subtle change of luminosity and reflection as I turned slowly between them, completely unaware of flying the aircraft, and so flying without effort.  Then I turned west into the setting sun, and heard something over the sighing of the wind over the wings and the canopy.  I can only describe it as a choir, singing a single sustained note.  I held the sailplane there, just above stall speed, with my eyes on the red ball of the sun and my ears alive to that faint summons; and I believe I could have flown on like that forever, if I hadn’t chanced to look at my altimeter, which told me I barely had the altitude to trade for the airspeed with which to get back to my airfield.

But even so I turned for home with that song in my heart, where it sings still.

Perhaps someday I can write a story worthy of it.  I just don’t believe a computer ever will.

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I Can’t Follow the “Rules of Writing”

Kristen Lamb wrote a blog on the difference between aspiring and authentic writers, and off and on I’ve been thinking about it all afternoon.  I’ve always considered myself an aspiring writer because I haven’t been paid for what I write, at least not in money.  But Kristen made an interesting point: aspiring writers think about the book they’ll write, someday, when they get around to it.  Authentic writers pick up the pen and write, regardless of the struggle it involves.

And that led me to think about the nature of my own struggle with writing, why I’m not as successful as I want to be (yet, at least), and, perhaps, some of the reasons behind that.

Partly, it’s because I can’t follow all those agreed-upon rules of writing.  I really wish I could follow rules.  But I can’t even follow what I freely acknowledge to be good and sensible suggestions, even though I’ve tried.  For years I’ve wondered why and I think I finally hit upon an answer.  Not “the” answer, mind you.  Just, an answer.

Let’s start by looking at some of the rules I should be following, like outlining.  I can sort of do that, if I’m writing non-fiction, as in when I used to write legal briefs (another life and a long story) but that was different.  Constructing a legal argument for an appellate brief is, or can be, or should be, dammit, a very formalistic process.  Given that I can outline.  I know what I want to prove, I know the facts I have to work with, and I have the precedents to draw from and the counterarguments to deal with.

Note, however, the phrase “formalistic process.”  Crafting an argument of this sort is like constructing a proof in mathematics in some ways, i.e., it’s formalistic.  The meanings of words and the structure within which they are presented is tightly restricted.  Sgt. Joe Friday’s words are particularly apt in this connection: “Just the facts, ma’am.”

For me that’s relatively simple, but writing fiction was terribly, terribly hard for me.  I could start things and go along like blazes for 4-5000 words and then suddenly realize I had no idea where to take things.  And STOP IT, I know what you’re saying “If you had outlined you’d know where to go and what to do and yadayadayada.”  Well, no, I wouldn’t, because, to me, writing fiction is not a formalistic process.  It has its own logic, yes, absolutely.  But fiction isn’t an argument and the structure is not mathematical.

Therefore outlining does not help me.

Let’s continue with “character development.”  I confess, when I think up my characters most of the time I only have the vaguest idea of who they are and what they’re going to do.  And sometimes the characters that started out as minor players end up assuming a major role in what I’m writing.  “If you had properly developed your characters you wouldn’t have this problem,” I’ve been told.  Yeah, and I guess there’s a lot of truth to that.

But I don’t know who the hell these people are until I see the words on the page.  I can’t see them in my mind, really; I only have the vaguest notion, as I said, of who they are.  I have to put them on the page and let them do something more or less significant to the story.  Then, as I write, I get a feel for them.

So “character development” does not help me.

Plot development?  Look, for fifteen years I developed plot and backstory for a science fiction series I want to write.  The truth is that I just went around in circles with it.  I don’t even know how many spiral notebooks, college-ruled, 100 pages per, I filled up that way.  I knew the plot, developed generations of characters (at least by name, planet, ships commanded), I tried all that stuff, and when I said to myself, OK, enough development, let’s write the story.  That worked for about ten or twenty pages, then pffft.  Ten or twenty pages of fairly good, fairly engaging prose that ultimately led nowhere.  I told myself as I did this that I was writing, but really, to me, it felt like I was just aspiring.  Too much “thinking” and “someday” and not enough struggle, or maybe too much.

Something wasn’t coming together for me.  Something wasn’t right.

Writing out a story arc?  Tried it.  Major character likes and dislikes?  My mind goes blank.  All those tricks and rules and things of that sort, all those attempts to impose a formal structure on the fiction writing process that the mathematician in me said ought to work – did not.

And the frustrating thing was that, by observation, it so obviously does work for quite a large number of writers.

So it went until 2004, when a friend told me about National Novel Writer’s Month.  Fifty thousand words in 30 days?  So, what, about 1700 words a day for a month?  How many pages is that?  Gee, I dunno, I thought, seems like kind of a lot.  But then, nothing else was working so I gave it a try.

I was a finalist in 2004 and in every November since.  More to the point, each year I finished a first draft of a story that had a beginning, a middle and an end.  The characters had some sort of problem they solved, so the story “went somewhere and did something.”  Were the stories any good?  Well, they were first drafts, and relative merit isn’t the point.  They were, within the limits of being a first draft, complete stories.

The best part, for me, is that 50,000 words in 30 days bit.  You don’t really have time to think or judge or be critical, it’s all full throttle and maximum warp.  Just write!

All well and good but until my 2010 story, which had the working title The Sluggers and the Palookas, I never got beyond a first draft.

But here’s the backstory on that.  I decided, in October of 2010, that I would write a story I’d had in mind for at least a decade, working title The Once and Future Grail, science fiction set in the far, far future.  That’s exactly what I started to do that November 1st.  By Day 3 I was at 7000 words, well ahead of schedule, very happy with what I’d written, and something happened that had never happened on any previous NaNoWriMo.

I dried up.  I’m not just talking the words were coming at a rate of one every ten minutes, I’m talking nothing, brick wall, sterility, vacuum, blank slate.

OK, so that happens, told myself not to worry, relax, tomorrow will be better.  You know the drill, you can do this, you’re still ahead on word count and you can always catch up on the weekend.  That was the first day.  By the third day of hanging fire like that – which was seven of the thirty days the contest lasts — I was worried.  Worried bad, because I didn’t understand what was going on, it just wasn’t like me to just go blank like that, I mean, what the hell?

My identity as a writer was at stake!

On the seventh day, as I stared at that blank screen on my laptop, a question just popped into my mind.  Pretty simple question, you know the kind, “why didn’t I ask that to begin with”:  well, if you don’t want to write that story, what do you want to write?

The miraculous is also the discontinuous and the funny thing is when it happens all inside one brain, your own.  One split second you are one person; the next you are another.  No wonder people think writers are a little crazy.

But that one miraculous question was all I needed to break down whatever it was holding me back, and quite spontaneously I realized, I want to write that fighter pilot novel, you know, the one no one’s ever written about the guys flying out of Port Moresby early in 1942.  The one I labeled “someday” and made a note here and a note there about characters and possible plots and hadn’t done anything with in maybe ten years.

What I didn’t do next was almost as important as what I did do.  What I did was, well, wait, I’ve got a great opening scene for this story, right?  There’s this transport with a bunch of kid pilots aboard being flown up to the war zone.  So I sat right down and started with that.

What I didn’t do, though, was think, hey, this is a historical novel!  You don’t know all that much about the campaign, you don’t know that much about the units involved or the actual people, where’s all that stuff I collected?  In other words what I didn’t do was try to limit myself with what I didn’t know.

I just told the story about a kid fighter pilot and how he went to war at Seven-Mile Drome in May of 1942.  In twenty-one days and about 51,000 words I finished the contest as a finalist.  But much more important, far, far more important, I had a first draft of a real live novel in my hands.

A year and a half later I’m finishing the third draft of that novel, now retitled as Boxcar Red Leader.

The important question is, what finally worked?  After all those years of trying, struggling, what finally worked?

Two things, I think: “critical mass” and “passion.”  If you write enough stories from beginning to end they may not be great stories, but at least they’re stories.  I was doing what I actually wanted to do, tell stories!  Now that’s authentic!  I wasn’t worrying about what I was going to write, or what I wanted to write, I just wrote and told stories.  The term “critical mass” implies that certain preconditions – neutron flux, number of words written lifetime, whatever – have been met.  Or maybe just enough experience of authentic writing to achieve confidence in my own ability.  And passion?

Ah, passion.  I didn’t know how badly I wanted to write this story, how much this story was mine, how much I wanted to figure out who the protagonists are and what they went through, until I wrote it.  That desire has only increased as the story went through Draft 2 and it’s still there as I write Draft 3.  That passion has even carried me through all the ups and downs of editing and revision.

So maybe now I can follow the rules – but I don’t think so.  The only real rule is, find whatever works for you.  It editing and revision takes a little longer, that’s fine with me.  So why can’t I follow the “rules of writing”?  Maybe because that doesn’t feel like writing to me, and that’s just exactly the point.  If it does to you, great!

But don’t wait up for me.  I’m due back with my squadron on Seven-Mile Drome.  Lots of work still to do!

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Just Listen

I do volunteer work at the Hickory Aviation Museum.  There’s a couple of simple reasons I enjoy it.  One reason is that I’m an airport bum.  Ever since I was a kid watching airplanes take off and land is a source of never-ending pleasure for me.  But the other reason is something I came to by stages.  It keeps me coming back.  It’s the people.

We have a pretty unique bunch of people at the Museum, including a number of old guys who took part in World War II.  Most of them are aviators because that’s our focus, but we’ve got all types, and all have a story to tell if you just learn to listen.

But being around those guys has taught me a lot.  I’ll share some of it with you.

For me, the hardest thing in the world was learning to just listen.  I’m a terrible know-it-all, so why listen?  It took me years to learn the trick of it and I’m still learning, every time I have the chance.  You never learn it all.  Usually you’re taken by surprise.  It starts with just a few words someone says.  The first thing to learn is to understand why those words catch your attention, when it’s just a few words, or a chance to watch a man’s face as he speaks.

My father’s friend Lloyd White was one of those who taught me.  Lloyd flew P-47 Thunderbolts with the 9th Air Force in World War II.  He told me about flying ground support missions during the Battle of the Ardennes.  Lloyd was just a little guy with a soft Southern accent.  Maybe it was the contrast, that soft accent, because somehow you could hear the sound of the guns beyond the words.  The very young man that was Lloyd White took fearful chances because, “well, those boys up there with the rifles needed our help.”  Lloyd passed away in 2009.

I saw Robert S. Johnson, one of the great 8th Air Force Thunderbolt aces, watch another gentleman, a former B-17 pilot, tell the story of losing most of his squadron to Luftwaffe fighters.  Bob Johnson slowly, calmly lit a cigarette while he listened.  He never took his eyes from the other man’s face.  The look on Bob Johnson’s face taught me something about listening.  Bob went west in 1998.

There was an older gentleman who worked at the same FBO I did, thirty years ago, who told me about his last mission flying a B-17 in the Pacific.  The airplane was badly damaged by Japanese fighters and antiaircraft.  He and everyone else on his crew were wounded.  The last thing he remembered was lining up on final.  What outfit was he with?  What airfield was he landing on?  What was the target, the date?  Who were his other crew members?  I’ll never know that now.  Just, “somewhere in the Pacific, back during the war.”

And simply to list names of World War II vets means nothing.  One ended up flying cargo all his life and stopped logging flight time after 35,000 hours.  Another flew 40 missions with the 8th Air Force as a navigator.  Others flew B-26 Marauders over Europe, or B-24s with the 15th Air Force out of Italy.  Art Sulteen, who is no longer with us, flew P-47 Thunderbolts with the 8th Air Force.  They all have or had war stories.

It took me a long time to understand that “war stories” are jewels beyond price.  But by the time I learned to listen, to be quiet and really listen, and to know enough about history and aviation to fill in the blanks and ask the right questions, there weren’t so many war stories around.  Not the first-hand stories told by the guys who were there, who did that, where you can look in their faces and their eyes when they talk about how it was over Berlin or Tokyo or Schweinfurt or Rabaul or over the Hump.  If you know what to look for you can see the young man still there, below and among the wrinkles of age, because memory brings that young man back for just a little while.  The old geezers themselves know this.  They never feel as young as when they are among themselves, swapping stories about life the way it was.

Something else you must learn.  Those old geezers feel no one understands them, and that no one believes their stories.  Mostly that’s why they stopped telling stories, except among themselves, when they don’t have to justify something as true or not because the other person knows enough to judge for themselves.

So you must learn to understand what it is that you see and hear, what is being offered to you for free, because the price was paid long ago and not by you, sitting there safe and warm and well fed, doing nothing but listening.  Even then listening isn’t always a comfortable place, not if you listen with the proper frame of mind.  Not if you can put yourself in their place, just for an instant, even in the smallest way, and just listen.

Take the opportunity if you can and while you can.  And remember, if you’re ever around an airport with a bunch of old geezers swapping what they might call lies and/or war stories, that there are ghosts standing among them — the ghosts of the ones who didn’t grow old.  The ones who didn’t come back.

They too have a story to tell.  It’s in the silence between the words of the war stories.

Just listen.

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Filed under Aviation, Oral History, Writing