Friday, August 30, 2013

Musings From a Seaside Hammock

Photo: Karen Williams

Yesterday morning, I spent a pleasant hour lying in a fishnet hammock under the shade of the wide verandah of a beach house on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. A cool breeze blew in off the Atlantic, whipping up little whitecaps on the sea surface, gently nodding the khaki-toned seedpods of the sea oats on the tall dunes. As the hammock slowly swayed, the soothing sensations that flooded my brain brought to mind the words of a poem by Robert A. Heinlein that I read decades ago in his 1951 science fiction classic, The Green Hills of Earth:

Let the sweet, fresh breezes heal me
As they rove around the girth
Of our lovely mother planet
On the cool, green hills of earth. …

We pray for one last landing
On the globe that gave us birth.
Let us rest our eyes
On fleecy skies
And the cool, green hills of earth.

In the hustle and bustle of today’s busy world, how little time we seem to devote to enjoying life’s simple pleasures! We’ve all been told to, “Take time to smell the roses,” but how many of us really do it? I’ll confess that, in my fairly long life, I’ve too seldom just relaxed and enjoyed the everyday pleasures of life. There always seems to be too much to get done and too little time to do it.

Spending several days at Nags Head with my daughter, Karen, and her family reintroduced me to sensations that had almost faded from memory: the warmth of a summer sun upon my bare skin; the feel of salt water covering my feet and then receding, washing the sand from under my toes; the simple pleasure of walking down the beach with the love of my life, Annette, and listening to the breaking surf.

How much of life we miss through careless inattention! Parents age and pass away; children and grandchildren grow up launch their adult lives in the blinking of an eye; contact with old friends gradually fades from memory.  The world moves on whether we are aware of it or not. The assumption that there will always be time later may be invalid!

In our little Methodist church in El Dorado, Arkansas, the ministers always told us that we should, “Live every day as if it were to be our last.”  You don’t have to fear the end of the world to take that message to heart. How much better would we all be if we could live it?

Note: Warren Bell's debut novel, Fall Eagle One, detailing a fictitious but plausible assassination attempt on FDR during World War II, (Semi-Finalist in the Kindle Indie Book Review Best Books of 2012) is available for Kindle or in paperback on His newest novel, Hold Back the Sun, has been released for Kindle in advance of the printed book launch. This new historical-fiction thriller, set in the Pacific, follows the US Asiatic Fleet in their battle with the Japanese in WWII.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Don’t Use Television for Historical Research

Image: By Urban (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ll have to confess that The History Channel, H2, and National Geographic are three of my favorite TV channels. However, I never use anything I’ve seen there in my writing before checking it out thoroughly in dependable literary sources.

Case in point: Last night I was watching an entertaining program called The Americas Before Columbus on the National Geographic Channel. Most of the content corresponded with facts burned into my brain years ago in elementary school. Then they got to the story of the Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto. To quote directly, the narrator said, “De Soto sailed up the Mississippi River to explore the interior…” My jaw dropped.

I learned in elementary school that De Soto started in Florida and travelled across Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and on into Arkansas, where he died of malaria. The passage of his expedition left a trail of devastation that lasted for years as European diseases decimated the native population. After the death of their leader, the Spanish survivors built boats and floated down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, where they were eventually rescued.

How can screenwriters and producers put such egregiously wrong information in what are supposed to be documentaries? I’ll admit that I have no answer to that question, except perhaps, “Everybody does it.” For anyone vaguely familiar with the history of World War II, many of the TV programs on the subject are riddled with inaccuracies. Weapons available late in the war are shown supposedly invading Poland in 1939. Commentary purportedly about one army will overlay film footage of their enemies. Footage of suicide attacks off Okinawa often accompanies text about much earlier battles.  The writers and film editors appear to have no grasp of the history of the war.  I fear that they don’t want to take the trouble to get their facts straight.

“So, what?” you may ask. What bothers me is that many of these programs are used in school history programs. Once people have “learned” information incorrectly, they have to “unlearn” the material before they can understand the real lessons of history. I believe that writers have a responsibility to get their facts straight before calling them history.

A good deal of misinformation about the battles around the Philippines early in the Pacific War has appeared in print and on television. The detractors of General Douglas MacArthur have gone to great lengths to lay on him the responsibility for the loss of most of the U.S. air forces on December 8, 1941. Most imply if not say outright that protective measures were not taken before the Japanese attacks. In my research for my novel, Hold Back the Sun, I discovered that what really happened was far different. First, MacArthur ordered all the B-17s to be relocated to Mindanao, outside the range of Japanese bombers, two weeks before Pearl Harbor. The movement was delayed for reasons never fully explained. On the morning after the Hawaii attack, all U.S. aircraft on Luzon were ordered aloft before dawn to preclude being caught on the ground. The Japanese attack did not come as expected because fog on Formosa prevented them taking off. The American planes landed only when they began to run out of fuel. The planes were parked on the tarmac because the surrounding ground was swampy and would not support their weight. As luck would have it, the enemy aircraft arrived while the B-17s and P-40s were being refueled.

Hold Back the Sun presents the story of the early months of the war in the Western Pacific as accurately as careful research can allow. I believe that every writer of historical fiction owes his/her readers that diligence.

Note: Warren Bell's debut novel, Fall Eagle One, detailing a fictitious but plausible assassination attempt on FDR during World War II, (Semi-Finalist in the Kindle Indie Book Review Best Books of 2012) is available for Kindle or in paperback on His newest novel, Hold Back the Sun, has been released for Kindle in advance of the printed book launch. This new historical-fiction thriller, set in the Pacific, follows the US Asiatic Fleet in their battle with the Japanese in WWII.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Movies Expanded Our Horizons

Rialto Theater, Eldorado Arkansas.
Photo courtesy of Cinema Treasures.
Life in Southwest Arkansas during the 1940s and early 1950s was much more like that of the Nineteenth Century than what we are experiencing today. The majority of the population still lived in the country, even those whose fathers worked in the booming oil industry. Many farmers still plowed behind mules. The roads held a variety of old vehicles, many Ford Model A's and even a few Model T's. Electricity, natural gas, and indoor plumbing were luxuries reserved for those who lived within the limits of cities. Electronic entertainment was usually limited to a single radio powered by a rechargeable battery. I sometimes feel that my grandchildren find my tales of these “days of yore” hard to believe.

Life, however, followed simple rhythms that were centuries old. Daily life centered around hard daily work--but weekends brought a reprieve. Whole families packed into family cars for the weekly shopping trip to the small cities. Even on these outings, a regular routine prevailed. Parents not wanting to corral whiny children had a ready source of childcare—the local movie theater. Saturday offerings included double features, usually “shoot-em-up” westerns, separated by newsreels and serials like “The Perils of Pauline." The films ran continuously. Parents could just drop off their kids with a couple of dimes for admission and candy and leave them there indefinitely. When shopping was finished, the theaters let people go in free to retrieve their offspring. A stop at the local hamburger joint for supper capped the day.

Gradually, long exposure to motion pictures began to change our perception of the world around us. Not all of the movies were westerns. Pictures like Dragon Seed, Pearl S. Buck’s story of harsh Chinese life under Japan’s domination, opened our eyes to other cultures. Tarzan shows and movies like "King Solomon’s Mines" introduced us to Africa. Despite heavy propaganda, newsreels and war movies made us aware of the vast scope of military operations throughout the world. After the war, cinemas shot at exotic locations throughout the world further broadened our horizons. My initial interest in engineering was sparked by a John Wayne movie called "Tycoon," about construction of a railroad in South America.

During my adolescent years, I must have seen nearly every movie that screened in our hometown. For years, I carried an afternoon paper route. The best way to escape the heat of scorching South Arkansas summers was in an air-conditioned movie theater. Frequently viewing images of the world at large fueled a desire to experience a life outside the limits of small town America. By working hard and getting a college education, I was able to live that dream--two degrees in Civil Engineering opened the door, and a long career as an officer in the U.S. Navy took me to many parts of the world, fulfilling childhood dreams.

One of the pictures I saw late in World War II was "The Story of Dr. Wassell,"somewhat fictionalized Cecil B.DeMille epic about a U.S. Navy doctor’s heroism in saving a number of badly wounded sailors from capture by the Japanese. Gary Cooper played the hero. It never occurred to me at the time that, decades later, I would relate the true facts surrounding Dr. Wassell in one of my novels. When I decided to write a novel about the early months of the war in the western Pacific, I was not even thinking about the doctor’s story. I concentrated for months on the savage battles between the vastly outnumbered American and Dutch navies against the modern Imperial Japanese Navy. When I began plotting the final chapters, however, it became apparent that no book about the Dutch East Indies campaign would be complete without including the story of these survivors of U.S.S. Marblehead and U.S.S. Houston. I employed artistic license to place my fictional characters in the midst of this heroic tale. The result is my second novel, recently released for Kindle, Hold Back the Sun.

Just as I could never have anticipated how the technology of the movies would impact my own life so directly, I often wonder, with awe and curiosity, how lives so seemingly-saturated by technology and media today will affect the adult lives of my grandchildren.

Note: Warren Bell's newest novel, Hold Back the Sun, has been released for Kindle in advance of the printed book launch. This new historical-fiction thriller, set in the Pacific, follows the US Asiatic Fleet in their battle with the Japanese.  Warren Bell's debut novel, Fall Eagle One, detailing a fictitious but plausible assassination attempt on FDR during World War II, is available for Kindle or in paperback on

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Never Lose Your Sense of Wonder

By Alan Vernon [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I love to gaze out the bay window in my kitchen while reading the morning newspaper. A few days ago, I watched a Monarch butterfly and a black Swallowtail butterfly perform a delicate ballet as they grazed on the white flowers of a Crepe Myrtle. My pleasure multiplied when a green hummingbird joined in the dance. I sat mesmerized for several minutes as the flying creatures moved about the plant, feeding from nature’s bounty. Then the bird buzzed away, breaking the spell.

Although I’m closer to 100 than 50 years old, I have never lost my child-like sense of wonder. The intricacies of the world around us are still amazing to me. When I go out on a clear night, I am at once reminded of the psalmist’s poem, “When I gaze upon the night sky and consider all the works thy hand has made…what is man that you are mindful of him?” We live in an awe-inspiring universe, the parts of which move according to immutable physical laws that have existed for eons.

The world is filled with beauty—the fragrant blooms of flowers, the towering waterfalls at Yosemite, the fluffy white clouds of a summer afternoon. Human beings can also be beautiful. Two weeks ago, I met a woman who is 93 years old.  Her eyes sparkled with life. She was sharp as a tack and in excellent physical condition. She was still beautiful. Beauty is not exclusively for the young.

I believe that a sense of wonder is an essential element of a fiction writer’s toolbox. Wonder inspires our creative juices, sharpening our ability to write compelling descriptions. One of my favorite reviews of my novel, Fall Eagle One, contained the phrase, “I felt that I was there!” I do not feel that a writer could receive higher praise.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Researching My New Novel Hold Back the Sun

My second novel, newly released for Kindle, Hold Back the Sun is set during the opening months to the Pacific War around the Philippine Islands and the Dutch East Indies. I first became interested in this period of the war when I read John Toland’s 1960s popular history of the campaign, But Not in Shame. Not much else became available on the subject for a number of years.

When I decided to write a novel about the early months of the war, the resources for researching the Japanese conquest of Southeast Asia were mostly limited to old books published during the war or immediately thereafter. After framing the basic story in an outline, pressures of my job required that I put it aside for several years. In the interim, a marvelous tool, the Internet, became available. From a scarcity of sources about my project, I suddenly faced a flood of information.

Almost everything I wanted to know was suddenly at my fingertips. An excellent website on The Netherlands East Indies Campaign provided intimate detail about all the units and battles from both the viewpoints of both the Allies and the Japanese. Wikipedia has articles on every subject imaginable. Google Maps allows one to zoom in on any area in the world in both map and satellite formats. Simply Googling the names of historical characters brought up biographies and photos from several sources.  Historical photos of cities throughout the planet can be found with little effort, a boon when describing settings. Old newspaper articles from the period are readily available. A simple email to an Australian city prompted a reply with the address of the 1942 U.S. Navy headquarters there.

Perhaps the most help provided by the Internet was in tracing the saga of Lieutenant Commander Corydon Wassell, USNR Medical Corps. Dr. Wassell became a legend during the war for his heroic efforts in saving a number of wounded U.S. Navy sailors in Java. Wartime propaganda shrouded the actual facts of his heroism. Cecil B. DeMille’s 1944 movie, The Story of Dr. Wassell, did not let the truth get in the way of telling a compelling adventure. Many Internet sources cleared up these discrepancies. Wartime newspaper stories recorded Dr. Wassell’s own account of events as well as reporting the return of his sailors to their hometowns after the conflict. The websites, U.S.S.Marblehead & Dr. Wassell and its link to The Marby website are rich in detail on the Asiatic Fleet in the Southwest Pacific Campaign.

Not all information I needed was available online. William J. Dunn’s 1988 memoir, Pacific Microphone, proved especially helpful, as did Walter D. Edmond’s Air Corps history, They Fought With What They Had (out of print.)

The Internet remains a priceless tool for researching novels, but old fashioned digging in published books is also essential.

Check my Author’s website at for details about the release of Hold Back the Sun.