Dig in

Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.
-Nora Ephron

I've been out on the beach and up in the hills of Maui this past week. 

Like the surf I watched rise, break and thunder toward the beach, when I left the hurried work world of meetings and memos and never-enough-time it felt for awhile like my days had pooled into one of those sandy indentations that captures water from a receding wave - suddenly stilled. 

I have been filling the stillness -- fun with breakfasts and lunches with friends, and leaning into writing my book -- but in Maui the calm became really helpful. (If you read my blogpost from a few weeks ago, then you'll know that I've suspended high-octane writing in favor of making sure I have a stronger story foundation.) So, I've been deep-diving into the possible motives behind protagonist Johanna's actions. Her decision to promote Van Gogh's artwork feels so out-of-sync with the expectations that society would have set for her. 

For instance, since my story takes place in the late 19th century, Johanna lives during a time of strict societal rules. Victorians had four rigid social classes: the nobility, middle class, upper working class and lower working class. The nobility was especially obsessed with slotting people into specific, permanent social classes; yet, this also was a time when a rising middle class began to disrupt this social order. Commerce created new ways to get rich, so industrialization drew people away from rural lifestyles. 

These societal cracks mostly helped men. Money opened influential doors that had previously been locked. But even as urbanization provided men new freedom, it narrowed women's spheres, until eventually gender roles became more sharply defined than at any other time in history. As the 19th century progressed and men increasingly commuted to work -- whether to a factory, shop or office -- women were left at home to oversee servants carrying out domestic duties. They became moral guardians. At an earlier time it would have been normal for women and men to work side-by-side whether on a farm or in a shop. The Victorian Age's rapid economic growth changed that partnership. 

I wondered how these societal influences could have shaped Jo. She was born in Holland, some distance from the intensity of London's rigid social-class atmosphere. It's likely she would have been born with the expectation to be highly educated (she was - in music and languages), to obsessively attend teas and balls; to knit and horseback ride; and to learn to run a household by instructing servants in all aspects, from housekeeping to child-rearing. Lots of detailed etiquette rules had to be learned - such as how to eat a piece of fruit (Cut and slice into small bite-size pieces with a knife and fork. Never, ever hold fruit in one's hand!). Her central goal would have been to marry well.

Let's say her husband Theo van Gogh was a good catch. When he died, Jo would have been able to keep his property but there was a lot she couldn't do -- buy or sell it, for example, without her father's permission. However, Theo wasn't wealthy upon his death. For one thing, he'd been financially supporting his artist brother, Vincent, for years and the strain of supporting both the artist and his own family (Jo and their baby also named Vincent) placed a lot of pressure on Theo. 

So, as a young widow, Jo had few choices. The socially acceptable action would have been to move back home with her parents, as they asked her to do. She chose not to despite these liabilities:

  • Inability to afford servants: She'd been trained to oversee the running of a household, which included having servants take care of her infant son. By choosing to go her own way, she would have faced the criticism of placing her son at a disadvantage and not being a good mother. 
  • Inexperience in business:  The only acceptable work for women were professions such as nursing, Men and women were expected to occupy separate spheres and business was definitely a man's world, including art dealers. 
  • Useless knowledge of the classics and language: Jo was smart; she earned the equivalent of a college degree in music and languages; yet, on the surface, it would appear that this education was useless against the practical need to earn a living. 

Each of these liabilities can be assets. The fun thing about this research is that I have to try to suspend my 21st-century judgment in order to try and see the world through a 19th-century lens. Jo made decisions that were out-of-step with her time. The question I'm noodling on is why?

Do you have any ideas?

I'll keep you posted as I dig in.  

How I'm Writing the Book
Story Genius course: We're into Week 2 of the class. Among the exercises to figuring out the "why" is to dig into what has happened before the novel begins. Johanna has a worldview that's been shaped by her life so far, including what she desires and  fears. These are building blocks to who she is and the decisions she will make. 

Books I'm reading: Long plane rides make for great reading. I finished Teri Case's Tiger Drive. Long after I finished reading it, the characters have stayed with me. Each of the four -- gritty and distinct on the outisde -- had in common an internal longing and desperate hope for a new start. Next, I switched it up with Nora Ephron's book of essays, I Feel Bad about My Neck. Really funny and New Yorky and moving. She writes with such candor I wondered what she would have said about today's #metoo Hollywood stories. Finally, I'm getting close to finishing The Whispering Season by Ivan Doig - a captivating story about a widower and three boys in 1910 in homesteading Montana whose lives are upended by a sister-brother duo. Wonderful.

On another front of wonderful - Cristina & Jay have moved their wedding from October 2018 to March 2019 and, as a result, found the perfect Kansas City venue. I have a DRESS for Eric & Angie's June wedding (Next up: shoes - must be able to wear for hours, walk on grass and have heels not too-totteringly high. I'm on it!)  

Let me end this blog with another note from Nora Ephron. The quote comes from a commencement address she gave at Wellesley College in 1996. When I read it, it seemed like the wish I have for Johanna. 

Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady.
I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women. 

On it!


Later, Dude!

If you’re going to achieve excellence in big things,
you develop the habit in little matters.

-Colin Powell

This is a blog about war, but first I need to make a comment about a week of peace.

If you read this right after I publish it on Monday morning, I’ll still be over the Pacific flying home eastward and away from Maui where we’ve spent the last several days. Glorious weather, spectacular blue ocean waters and night after night of delicious dining — a tough week. 

Guess what: I used my newly acquired snorkeling skills along a coral reef. While paddling along, drifting with the water, I heard a voice above me call out, “Sea turtle!” I turned and there it was, swimming just to the right of me. I turned and swam alongside it, keeping about 10 feet away. It would turn its head ocassionaly and give me a questioning look. “What’s up?” “Nothing going on here,” I replied telepathically, “Just out for a swim.” We swam companionably for about 50 yards before I turned back. I kept thinking about the surfer sea turtle character in the movie Finding Nemo. “Later, dude!" 

Now - on to war.

Multitudes of historical novels are written about war. Some recent best sellers Lilac GirlsAll the Lights You Can Not See, and The Nightingale all take place during wartime. This handful only scratches the surface. When I went to the Historical Novel Society's site, the search turned up thousands.  

In my research for my book I've started down the path of becoming familiar with wars in the latter half of the 19th century. I don't know if the book's plot will incorporate any of the information directly, but wars have a history of casting long shadows. For even in peacetime thousands of troops plan and train and drill over and over in preparation for potential war.  When it comes, if it comes on their watch, the goal is to be ready and to win.

Yet, the true test for that preparation comes not on a simulated practice run, but in the moment, when least expected. No time to think; no time to reason, Events hurdle forward with no regard for time - like on this night in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm of the Persian Gulf War.

“What’s that?”

The spotlight that lit up the tail of the fighter jet flashed from the darkness at the edge of his peripheral vision.

“Break right. Mirage left. 8:00 high,” Even as the terse words are uttered with one hand the pilot shoves the stick away from his chest while pushing the throttle back with the other. The fighter jet drops into an instant dive. 

Until those seconds, the sortie had gone as planned. The 24 fighter jets had flown in a scattered formation toward targets deep in Iraq. The F-111s were designed to drop bombs; their job was to take out Iraqi targets. Today was Day 15 of the mission. Fourteen days of precision flying, hitting targets and returning to base like clockwork. 

Until tonight.

“Mirage,” The pilot, "Benski", thought, even as the fighter dove.

Purchased from the French years before, Mirage fighters dominated the Iraqi air force. Prior to tonight's mission, the USAF intelligence briefing had shown satellite images of Iraqi airfields with Mirage and MiG air defense fighters sitting ready in terminals and on airfields. Armed and fueled, they were ready for the scramble order to attack the Americans. On the first day of their mission, three F-111s had been hit by Iraqi missiles, though all three were able to make it back to base. And recently, there had been near-misses for fighters on the tail end of the sorties — the last fighter out traditionally being the most junior fighter pilot. 

For tonight’s mission, they’d switched the order, placing the most senior pilot at the back. As the last fighter in the sortie, Benski had turned the jet, taken a quick look behind them when he and his WSO (Weapon System Officer) “Jimbo” saw the Mirage rounds flash toward them. 

Speed was their best defense. 

Twenty seconds to drop. They hurtle through a cloud and pop out at 10,000 feet. Benski pulls the stick toward him, levels off at 8,000 feet. The F-111 could operate from altitudes above 60,000 feet to as low as tree-top level. Now they are skimming the treeless Middle Eastern desert. In the darkness it stretches out ahead of them and Benski switches on the Terrain Following Radar (TFR) built into the jet. He and Jimbo look around for the Mirage. 

Did they get behind him?

Benski watches the horizon and terrain. The TFR was useful; it allowed the aircraft to fly itself at extremely low altitude by following the terrain -- but the technology hadn’t always been mistake-free. Benski had heard stories about the first flights made with the TFR. As it crossed the shoreline of North Caolina, the TFR started tracking the seabed and plunged the jet right into the ocean. 

Since then, the TFR now allowed the F-111s to fly as low as 200 feet and to make precise adjustments at high speed without crashing — even when flying at night or in bad conditions. The fighter jet's talent for hunting in darkness, nose close to the ground, was what earned it the nickname “Aardvark."

Across Iraq the bombing sorties were pummeling Iraq’s military targets. Later, he’d find out nearly 110,000 sorties occurred over the 43-day war of Desert Storm. An average of 2,555 sorties made each day. His was one of 66 F-111s that dropped almost 80% of the war’s laser-guided bombs, ultimately destroying more than 1,500 Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles. And for each mission the fighter jets flew from airbases 1,300 miles away in Saudi Arabia. Built long before this war, the hangers and barracks and tarmacs were so new that not even a single oil patch marred the Saudi air fields.

Benski himself had flown 4,000 miles to be here. Stationed in Lakenheath AFB (Air Force Base) in the UK, he'd left behind his wife and two young children. On the 7-hour flight from the Saudi airbase to their target, there had been time enough to think about them while under the stars. So far his Air Force career had moved the family four times (from Oklahoma to Idaho to California and now the U.K.) in 12 years. He'd first flown the electronic warfare version, the EF-111, while in Mountain Home AFB flying thousands of miles over canyons and tundra paracticing and re-practicing climbing and diving maneuvers. 

He found he enjoyed an aircraft with a navigator, appreciating having a buddy on board. He loved the speed. The fighter jet could fly so low and fast it could slip across a lake and roar over weekend fishermen who dove out of their boats -- barely an idea of what phantom had crossed over them -- while the jet raced from view. 

For years he had practiced for war. 

Now he was in it.

They are still skimming over desert terrain. “See you later,” thought Benski.

Wordlessly, in a single movement, he yanks the stick, pulling it into his chest, while ramming the throttles forward, throwing the jet into a climb, pushing it to the speed of sound in seconds. Mach Mach, speed of heat, supersonic…like an immense hand the intense pressure from the sudden high level of G-forces instantly pushes down on the men's bodies. The aviators simultaneously squeeze the muscles in their calves, thighs and shoulders while pushing air against a closed threat. Their goal: to resist the G-force's pressure to push blood away from the brain and cause them to lose vision and consciousness.

Ten thousand, 15,000, 20,000 — in seconds they are far above the clouds again. 

They look around. The sky is clear.  

The Mirage gone. 

The entire episode taking a lifetime of two minutes.

This story is from my brother Ben who continued to serve in the USAF until retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel after 22 years of service. His incident is a part of a family legacy of military service. My grandfather (Mac in last week's blog) served in both World Wars. My dad was in the Army during the Korean War, my husband served in Vietnam in the Army's Special Forces, and my brother-in-law Chriss was a Lieutenant Commander on the Navy's Nimitz aircraft carrier. Nephew Doug served as a Marine in Afghanistan; another nephew Jason is currently a Lieutenant in the Navy. Finally, my daughter's boyfriend served three tours as a Navy Special Ops.

Perhaps the day will come when there is no need to fight in wars. Until then, I'm grateful for the preparation. And even more -- that all of our family members came home. 

How I’m Writing the Book
Research: The 19th century is a time when an Old World order is collapsing caused by rebellion and wars of independence. The Napoleonic wars (1815), French Revolution (1848), and both the Italian War of Independence and the Hungarian War of Independence from the Austrian Empire (1849) aided in the growing influence of the British Empire. During this period Britain gradually usurped France’s role as the world’s leading power through military conquests and colonization. I haven’t determined yet how, or if, experience with war will impact my character Johanna or not. The latter half of this century is at relative peace, but there could be soldiers in her life.

Books I’m Reading:  I finished The Lake House by Kate Morton and loved it. The effect of shell shock caused by the First World War plays a major part in this book and is what got me thinking about war in literature. Now I’m onto another historical novel, All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. It’s spell-binding with the interplaying stories of two people — a young French blind girl and a German orphan boy — on either side of the conflict. This is a selection for our W4 (Wild, Wise, Wonderful, Wacky) book club meeting later this month.

One last thought, I picked Colin Powell for the opening quote because he served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Persian Gulf War. Since I gave him the first word, he also gets the last:

It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.

Until next week!