Friday, May 30, 2014

Balancing Accuracy and Readability in a Story

My current writing project, Asphalt and Blood, has reached the editing stage. The book follows the adventures of U.S. Navy Seabees during the 1968 Battle For Hue City. For the uninitiated, Seabees is a nickname for the famed Navy Construction Battalions formed during World War II to build advanced bases in the Pacific islands and for the war in Europe. Without the airfields, port facilities, and support facilities they constructed, neither the Pacific island campaigns nor the amphibious invasions in Europe would have been possible. On Iwo Jima, Marines put up a sign that read, “And when we reach the isles of Japan, with our hats at a jaunty tilt, We’ll enter the city of Tokyo, On roads that the Seabees built.” Seabees proved equally as crucial to the war efforts in Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

My wife and primary editor, Annette, is pouring over the work with an eagle eye.  Several chapters in, her most frequent criticism to date is that I have used too much of what she calls, “Seabee-ese.”  In other words, she believes that, in striving for accuracy in conversations between my characters, I have used too many acronyms, technical terms, and slang that only a fellow Seabee can understand. Going back over my text, I can see that she is right.

Here are some examples. In describing earthmovers, I used the standard designations, TD-6 and TS-24, etc. The TD stands for, “tractor-dozer, ” TS for “tractor-scraper.” Every Seabee would recognize this immediately. Likewise, all Seabees would understand the designation of characters by their position in the battalion organization, such as “ALPHA-6” for the company commander of A Company, the horizontal construction force, or “S-3” for the Operations Officer.  While this is actually the way that Seabees talk, use of such terms without explanation or in narrative passages can be very confusing to other readers. 

An author must continually keep the target audience in mind. My target audience for Asphalt and Blood is not only Seabees everywhere and of all ages but also the general military fiction readers of my first two works, Fall Eagle One and Hold Back the Sun.  Sometimes, precise technical accuracy must give way to the ability of general readership to quickly grasp the story.  The key editing question, “Does this move the story forward,” must be kept continually in mind.

In making my first pass through the manuscript with Annette’s comments in hand, “TD-6” is becoming “bulldozer” or “dozer.”  “ALPHA-6” in narrative will be replaced by the character’s name.  Organization positions used in dialog must be carefully but succinctly explained. When I worked in the Pentagon, all documents had to be subjected to what was called, “the idiot test.” The question, “could anyone from the general population be able to understand what the document was trying to convey” had to receive a positive answer. I’m sure that a new name applies now because of “political correctness,” but the gist remains the same. If readers become bogged down with confusion over words, they will likely lose interest and stop reading. The author has failed.

All this brings up another related question, “Can an author be too close to his/her subject?” When the author is closely and emotionally invested in the story, especially when writing about personal experiences, the tendency to make it “just like it actually happened” can be very powerful. When writing fiction, these urges must be subordinated to clearly relating the story. The reader must be stimulated to anticipate every page turn to learn what comes next.

Re-writing and editing takes discipline that every author must learn to become successful. In most cases, the use of a professional editor may be necessary. I know that Fall Eagle One, my debut novel, is immeasurably better because of a professional editor. It’s becoming clear that Asphalt and Blood could benefit from similar treatment. I still have a lot of work to do.

Note: Warren Bell is a historical fiction author with two novels for sale either for Kindle or in paperback from Both are set during WWII, with Fall Eagle One taking place in Europe, and Hold Back the Sun set in the war in the Pacific. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

My Lifelong Fascination With Franklin Roosevelt

My debut World War II novel, Fall Eagle One, is about a fictional German Luftwaffe mission to assassinate President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) with early “smart” bombs. FDR is, of course, a major character in the book. I enjoyed researching his life in 1943-44 as background for my writing. I have been fascinated with Franklin Roosevelt all my life.

I was born in 1936, the fourth year of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency. The United States was well into clawing its way out of the depths of the Great Depression. The best word to describe the attitude of working class Americans like my parents toward FDR during my early childhood is “reverence.” Tales of the hardships and privations undergone during the preceding years came readily to everyone’s lips. While the “reforms” of the New Deal were not making the country instantly prosperous again, FDR’s confident handling of our problems brought hope and promise. He was as close to a Messiah as people could imagine.

The conditions in which most Americans lived in the late 1930s would be considered abject poverty today. Only in cities did one find running water, indoor plumbing, central heating, and electricity.  Cash was a scarce commodity.  Food was often limited to bare staples. The New Deal tried to address all these problems, sometimes with a scalpel, often with a sledgehammer. To the majority of Americans, the important thing was that FDR was doing something.

In today’s technology-rich world, it is hard to imagine the importance we attached to huddling around a battery-powered radio in a wood fire heated house to listen to FDR’s “Fireside Chats.” FDR’s fatherly voice spoke to the American people in direct language that all could understand. He told us that, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He gave us hope. Eventually, the country recovered, but not only as a result of the New Deal. FDR’s farsighted decisions on international affairs had a great deal to do with America regaining prosperity.

Franklin Roosevelt recognized early on that Adolf Hitler was evil incarnate. He concluded, long before the rest of Americans, that preventing a Nazi takeover of the western world would eventually require the intervention of U.S. armed forces. But there was no appetite among the populous for entering another European war. Isolationism was the order of the day. Organizations such as “America First” actively opposed all foreign wars. There was even an active and vocal American Nazi Party that supported Fascism. Most politicians would have bowed to the inevitable and done nothing to alienate so many voters. FDR was made of sterner stuff.

Beginning with his 1938 meeting with King George VI of England, FDR slowly forged a “Special Relationship” with the United Kingdom. When war broke out in 1939, FDR wrangled changes to neutrality laws to allow “cash and carry” sales to belligerents. Given the dominance of Britain’s Royal Navy, the only practical purchasers were the Western Allies. Of course, large purchases of American weapons and equipment helped revive the U.S. manufacturing sector.  When France fell in 1940, many of his advisors argued that there was no way to stop Hitler, that we should come to terms with him. Instead, FDR stuck with support of Britain.

Winston Churchill took the reins in the UK and swore to never surrender. Roosevelt had begun developing a friendship with the new Prime Minister while he was First Lord of the Admiralty. The relationship blossomed into a full if unofficial partnership. When Britain ran out of money, FDR conceived the “Lend Lease” program to keep up the flow of weapons. When U-boats threatened to cut the Brits’ seaborne lifeline, FDR swapped 50 old destroyers for valuable bases in the British Empire. Rommel’s victories in North Africa brought the occupation of Iceland by U.S. Marines to free British troops for the fighting. Extending the American Defense Zone to Iceland allowed the U.S. Navy to escort convoys halfway across the Atlantic, relieving the strain on the Royal Navy.  All the while, American industry expanded to become the “arsenal of democracy.”

In 1941, FDR held a shipboard meeting off Newfoundland and negotiated the Atlantic Charter, the foundation of what later became the United Nations.

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese relieved FDR from having to move behind the scenes to battle the Axis powers.  Unwisely, Hitler declared war on the U.S. a few days later. It remains arguable whether Congress would have declared war on Germany. The fury of the nation was focused on Japan. Before the beginning of the new year, America was embroiled in a world war for which we had no option but to win.

Roosevelt showed great wisdom in managing the war that future presidents would have done well to emulate. Confining himself (and Churchill) to setting broad policy and overall strategy, he left the details of running the war to his generals and admirals. The results speak for themselves. Entering the war with an already mobilized weapons industry, the U.S. out-produced the Axis into extinction. We flooded the battlefields and the skies with numbers far beyond what the enemy could field. Unfortunately, FDR did not live to see final victory.

The U.S. had not experienced such collective grief as it did over FDR’s passing since Lincoln was killed. I’ll admit that children my age at the time were not certain that it was possible to have someone else as president. Fortunately, Roosevelt’s choice of Harry Truman as his successor proved a good fit for the situation.

In the years after WW2, FDR’s crucial achievements were recognized and celebrated. Some later historians have focused on his faults.  Some claimed for a time that FDR knew that Pearl Harbor was to be attacked, that we had been able to read Japanese naval codes and had followed the task force across the Pacific by ship-to-ship radio signals.  Declassification of the 1941 Navy Intelligence files in this century proved that we could NOT read the codes before spring 1942. All Japanese accounts of the Pearl Harbor voyage state that absolute radio silence was maintained throughout. Ship-to-ship communications was limited to signal flags and lights.

Much has been made in recent years of FDR’s purported relationships with various women.  There is no doubt that he had an affair with Lucy Mercer, his wife’s social secretary, in 1918. This was shortly after Eleanor had left his bed to prevent further pregnancies.  Questions remain on whether and/or how many of his female acolytes he enjoyed affairs with. Polio had consigned him to a wheelchair since the 1920s, but it was his legs that were useless. He was not paralyzed.

My answer to all these critics is the old Toastmasters question, “So what?” Most great presidents have had active libidos, beginning with the Founding Fathers. FDR literally “saved the world for democracy.” He bore burdens of leadership that are unimaginable to most of us. The fact that he liked to relax with a cocktail or that he occasionally craved female companionship only proves that he was human. He will always be one of the giants of the 20th Century. We could use some giants today.

Note: Warren Bell is a historical fiction author with two novels for sale either for Kindle or in paperback from Both are set during WWII, with Fall Eagle One taking place in Europe, and Hold Back the Sun set in the war in the Pacific.  

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Last Minute Books

Welcome to 'Last Minute Books' - a blog tour featuring a number of authors who would like to check that you've thought of absolutely everything for your holidays. Suitcase packed? Shoes, sandals, trainers, jeans, shorts, dresses, trousers, blouses, shirts......... sunglasses.... suntan lotion....  best smile? And, of course, forgive us do..... But your holiday reads too? Don't forget your reading device. You might prefer printed books but don't forget to pack that kindle or kobo - if that's what you prefer.

Sit back, rest, relax, enjoy the sunshine and let your mind slip away. It's holiday time. 

Let's see what questions the tour master has for our favourite authors and we'll try and find some book recommendations for you. Indeed, all our author friends have the same questions - But are their books the same? Let's see what Warren Bell has to say about holidays.

Q. Where would you recommend for a holiday, Warren?

A. Of all the holidays I’ve enjoyed, I think that the ten-day tour of Provence that my wife and I took in Southern France was my favorite. The people were warm and friendly. Highlights included everything from Roman amphitheaters built B.C. to museums housing the works of Picasso and Van Gogh.  We climbed mountains with medieval fortresses, toured five-story castles, viewed sweeping fields of Lavender, and toured vineyards and wineries. My favorite thing about Provence was the wonderful food and Rose wine. Every meal became a culinary delight. Happy waiters kept replenishing the fabulous baguettes and wine as long as we sat at the table. Unfortunately, I brought home several more pounds around my waist than I had on the trip over.

Q. What kind of a holiday do you particularly enjoy?

A.  My wife and I like to take organized tours where a skilled planner does all the work of organizing the sites, food, etc., leaving us to just enjoy our time. We especially like tours in Europe. We have been to London, Scotland, Bavaria, Switzerland, and of course Provence.  Trips with a central base hotel with day trips around the country are our favorites.

Q. If you could pack someone special in your suitcase, who would it be and why?

A. I think Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  I believe that he was one of the most indispensable men of the Twentieth Century, and I have many questions I would like to ask him. He also knew how to have a really good time.

Q. How do you relax on holiday, or you one for rushing around seeing the sights?

A. I certainly enjoy seeing the sights. Being an amateur historian, there are many places in the world I want to view first-hand. I also love to relax over a superb meal with fine wines. In my experience, nowhere are these better than in Provence.  

Q. What books would you recommend for this years holiday and why?

  1.  I would recommend anything by either Bernard Cornwell or Wilbur Smith. Of course, I would be pleased if some chose one of my novels, Fall Eagle One and Hold Back the Sun. Details and ordering information are included on my webpage. For myself, I’m currently reading Zoe Saadia’s excellent series on the Rise of the Aztecs in Mesoamerica. I’ll probably take along a couple on my laptop.



Thanks for taking part in this chat. Have a great holiday everyone. Now don't forget your last minute books. But why don't you take a short trip with me through cyber space and visit the following AUTHORS ON TOUR to see what they recommend for a good holiday read.