Tell Me A Story

Part of my recent Father’s Day experience was the chance to watch one of my favorite movies from decades ago on the big screen. I’ve had the movie’s theme song as my cellphone ringtone for quite a while and, admittedly, I have seen the film so many times that I can quote much of the dialogue verbatim. My wife particularly enjoyed periodic demonstrations of this skill and knowledge last Sunday. Sure she did.

The film is the 1963 classic, The Great Escape—the sort of true story of an epic attempt at mass escape from a heavily guarded German prison camp during World War II. I was seven years old when it came out, so I never got to see it in all its full screen glory. I was first introduced to the story when one of the networks—this was way back when there were just three—aired the movie over two nights in 1967.

the-great-escape

That was a big event in our house. My parents let me stay up late on two consecutive school nights to watch it. It is actually one of my fondest “warm fuzzy” family memories from my childhood. Mom made popcorn, and Dad did color commentary about what World War II was like. I pointed out that his war was Korea—but he held court nonetheless.

What makes a movie endure and remain popular half a century later? Well, certainly the cast is a factor. I mean, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, David “Ducky” McCallum (how old is that guy?), and the ultimate Mr. “Cool”—Steve McQueen—they surely played a role (pun intended) in the film’s contemporary and legacy success. But there must be more. I once saw a film that had Gregory Peck and Michael Caine in it, and it was a bomb.

It’s got to be the story itself.

The late Don Hewitt, long time producer of CBS’s staple 60 Minutes, was once asked about the secret of the news magazine’s staying power. He replied that the key was as old as the Bible and as simple as four words—“tell me a story.”

It is my experience—as a writer and speaker—that good stories begin with questions—Why? Why not? How? What if?

I am often asked how I came up with the story I tell in Camelot’s Cousin. Well, it began with a question. In September 2011, I was invited to speak about my previous book, The Shooting Salvationist, to a forum at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. In the audience that evening was a writer who won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism in the early 1970s. His area of expertise was intelligence and the CIA.

My host that evening invited this journalist to join us for a late dinner. It turned out to be quite an evening. Having always been fascinated by the world of intrigue during the Cold War, I picked this man’s brain. We talked much about the infamous spy, Kim Philby, who had been abruptly asked to leave the U.S. in 1951, under a cloud of suspicion. During our conversation that night the subject of materials he left behind was discussed. Philby had—according to his own memoir published in 1967—buried them in Virginia.

kim-philby

So, I asked the question—what if someone found what he buried? And what if something Mr. Philby planted beneath the Virginia soil pointed to other nefarious people and things?

That was all it took—I was hooked on a story.

[I wrote this blog for VENTURE GALLERIES, a great site about books and authors. — DRS]

Why Did I Decide to Write Fiction? I Hardly Ever Read It ;)

[This blog written for VENTURE GALLERIES, where I will be posting a couple of times a month as part of their AUTHORS COLLECTION–DRS]

So, I decided to write a novel. This might not sound like that big of a deal for a writer, but it turned out to be a major moment in my life. Really.

You see, not only had I not ever written fiction before—I rarely read it.

Why, then, did I decide to write a novel? It was because I had this idea for a story buzzing around in my head for a few years. But also, I had noticed something while writing my first book, The Shooting Salvationist, a true narrative nonfiction story from the 1920s.

I really enjoyed writing the parts of that book where I had to use my imagination to fill in a few blanks to carry the story forward. I never invented dialogue. Everything in quotes in that work comes directly from a newspaper, archived record, published work, etc. In other words, the book is a true story—David McCullough’s kind of narrative history. But as with the works of McCullough and other narrative nonfiction writers such as Erik Larson or Howard Blum (not to mention the late Truman Capote, who pretty much started the genre), a certain measure of creative color is permissible, within narrow and confining limits.

One day in late 2011, I started to write what became Camelot’s Cousin. I wrote about 5,000 words and then put it aside. A few months later, I revisited it and began to move it forward (eventually it reached 105,000 words). And along the way, I discovered some things.

Walk on a roof edgeFirst, I was amazed at the level of research required. I confess to being a research geek—I simply love it. Few things are more fun to me than digging through archival collections, finding obscure old news items on the Internet, or capturing a factoid from a book. The aforementioned Erik Larson calls this process, “hunting detail.”

But, as a recovering “nonfiction only” addict, I admit to a bias—okay, call it a prejudice. I always thought fiction writers just made stuff up off the top of their heads via a sort of stream of consciousness process. “Real” writers are those who deal in facts and truth, with a passion for accuracy and detail and attribution—or so I thought. But frankly, I found the research elements for Camelot’s Cousin every bit as involved as the process for any nonfiction project I have started or completed.

Of course, my novel is set against the backdrop of actual history, and many of the characters are real, so some historical research was necessary. I actually have a bibliography in the back of the book. But the most demanding research was for the creative/fictional side of things—the things I made up.

For example, several chapters in the book involve the main character spending time in Oxford, England. After I finished the first draft of that section, I ran the pages by a friend in New York—and old editor (he actually discovered Steven King—I mention him in the acknowledgements).  He called me one day and asked, “David, have you actually ever been to Oxford?” I told him that I had been to London, but never Oxford (dumb answer).

“Thought so,” he replied. “Okay, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to rewrite that entire section. But first, I want to acquire every episode of the old BBC series, Inspector Morse, about a fictional detective investigating murders in Oxford.  Don’t write another word until you’ve watched every episode.”

Sounded like a fun assignment. It was certainly better than “wax on, wax off.” I not only watched all the Inspector Morse episodes, but I decided to watch the entire sequel series, Inspector Lewis, for extra credit –Ah grasshopper (pardon the mixed television metaphor).

My wife was annoyed that I wasn’t spending much time at my desk or computer. Instead, I was in a comfortable chair, watching people with funny accents solve mysteries. “It’s research, Honey—I promise. I’m working here. Really.” That was fun.

When I finally rewrote the Oxford section, I had a database of imagery and dialogue to tap. And I must confess—it was more fun than hanging out in the collections section of a university library, having to wear gloves and never being allowed to write in ink or speak above a whisper—just saying.

Oh—one more thing I discovered via writing my first novel is that I have a new view of fiction. I not only respect it more—I actually read more of it. A lot more.

This old dog learned some new tricks.

The Boys Who Saved the World for the Rest of Us

[This is a preview of my column for TOWNHALL.COM. It will appear tomorrow, June 6th — the 69th anniversary of  D-Day — DRS]

It made the papers, but was covered far from sufficiently, when Elisha “Ray” Nance died a few years ago at the age of 94.  You may never have heard of him, but he was well known around Bedford, Virginia, a picturesque town located at the feet of the Blue Ridge Peaks of Otter. He delivered mail in that neck of the woods for many years.  But it was for what he did before becoming a letter carrier that he should be best remembered.

Ray Nance was one of The Bedford Boys

The Bedford Boys
The Bedford Boys

In fact, he was the last surviving member of his town’s contingent in Company A of the 29th Infantry Division’s 116th Infantry – a group that waded ashore on a beach nicknamed Omaha in a far away place called Normandy, 69 years ago. And of the 30 soldiers from Bedford, then with a population of 3,200 (today, about twice that), he was one of only eight from his hometown who lived to tell the story. 

Ray lost 22 Bedford buddies that day, 19 of them in the very first moments of the battle. By the time he made it to the beach in the last of his company’s landing crafts to reach that point, he saw “a pall of dust and smoke.” He could barely see “the church steeple we were supposed to guide on.” He couldn’t see anyone in front, or behind him; only that he “was alone in France.” Mr. Nance was a hero “proved through liberating strife.”

In so many ways, it’s a different world today. But interestingly – even ironically – the challenges of our times are not completely unlike those days when bands of citizen-soldier-brethren from the greatest generation saved the world for those of us who would later be born to abundance and liberty.  

Next to ingratitude, forgetfulness is the most serious indicator of cultural decline; and in truth, the two are intertwined. Thankfulness and remembrance are flip sides of the same precious cultural coin.  

It always bothers me when leaders—those born out of due time—seem to apologize for America and our various endeavors to make this world a better (read: more free) place.

I find myself thinking back to a moment 29 years ago when, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, President Ronald Reagan captured the attention of history and honored some of the other “Boys” who did so much for all of us on June 6, 1944.  He called them “The Boys of Pointe Du Hoc,” and many of them were in his cliff-top audience in Normandy that day—June 6, 1984. 

reagan-d-day

If you wanted to pick a more foreboding, certainly unlikely, place for an important military attack, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a spot more uninviting than the imposing, rugged cliffs overlooking the English Channel four miles west of Omaha Beach. A few years ago, I had the privilege of visiting the Normandy region for a speaking engagement. I stood on the spot where the Great Communicator spoke and tried to wrap my mind around the quite-evident impossibility of what the United States Army Ranger Assault Group accomplished that fateful day. Mr. Reagan honored those men there:

We stand on a lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of France. The air is soft, but 40years ago at this moment, the air was dense with smoke and the cries of men, and the air was dense with smoke and the cries of men, and the air was filled with the crack of rifle fire and the roar of canon. Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there. These are the boys of Pointe Du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs.  These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.

Now, all these years later, we mark another anniversary of D-Day.  But the boys of Bedford are now all gone.  And noble ranks of the boys of Pointe Du Hoc have been thinned out by the course of time, as well.  So, what happens when those who really remember are no longer around to remind us?  What happens when eyewitness memory is no longer vivid and available and we must resort to stories handed down from generations before?

This is where (and why) memorials come in, monuments to important men and moments of a sacred and so-easily-forgotten past. 

It has a dozen years since the national D-Day Memorial opened in June of 2001 in that tiny Virginia town of Bedford, a community that gave so proportionately of its finest young men so many years ago. A while back, my wife and I, along with other family members, visited the D-Day Memorial.  I talked to my grandkids about it all. The man who took us around was Mr. James E. Bryant. He had served as a Glider Infantryman with the 82nd Airborne Division and was part of all of his division’s campaigns from D-Day through to the end of the European war in May of 1945. He wrote a book about it all called, Flying Coffins Over Europe. I purchased a copy in the Memorial’s gift shop and asked him to sign it for me. I was honored and humbled to be in his presence. Really.

So, today I find myself missing the eloquence of Ronald Reagan and remembering how he honored “the Boys.”  I also ponder the Great Communicator’s words from that inspirational speech in Normandy:

Strengthened by their courage, heartened by their valor, and borne by their memory, let uscontinue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died.

Amen!