When the bad guys got a free pass

One of the inspirations for my novel Swift Horses Racing was a program after World War II that helped Nazi scientists emigrate to the U.S., while scrubbing their Nazi past.

The full details of this program, called Operation Paperclip, weren’t fully revealed to the American public till the 2000s.

As I mention in Swift Horses, the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union amped up after the war. The USSR moved through Europe snapping up countries along with scientists who’d worked for the Reich.

The United States also began detaining German scientists and their families, eager to get to them before the Soviets did.

They recruited over 2,000 scientists and engineers—in such fields as chemistry, aeronautics, medicine, and biological warfare. The United States also began detaining German scientists and their families, eager to get to them before the Soviets did.

Wernher Von Braun

The fact that many of these scientists were Nazis and had committed crimes against humanity was not as important as the determination that their expertise could not fall into Soviet hands. The scientists were brought to the U.S. and their records were wiped clean of any Nazi involvement.

The program was considered a necessary evil if the U.S. was to win the Cold War.

One big area of U.S. recruitment was the German rocket program. In 1942, the Germans sent an A4 rocket higher than any manmade object had ever gone—outer space. This program would produce the V2 rocket, which would bring destruction in bombing raids on London.

The architect of this rocket program? Werner Von Braun, who emigrated to the US after the war and went on to create the Saturn V rocket that launched the Apollo missions.

As a resident of Silicon Valley and a former tech employee, I find it interesting to think about the technology angle of it—how important is technology? Is there a morality to it? What is its human cost?

Von Braun was a member of the Nazi party and Hitler’s SS. He oversaw the V2 rocket factory Mittelwerk, in the tunnels under the mountain of Kohnstein, where at least 20,000 concentration camp slave workers lost their lives. Because of the fear that the workers would revolt, digging tools were prohibited and workers had to dig the tunnels by hand.

Operation Paperclip is a fascinating moment in U.S. history. As a resident of Silicon Valley and a former tech employee, I find it interesting to think about the technology angle of it—how important is technology? Is there a morality to it? What is its human cost?

If you’re interested in reading more on Operation Paperclip, I recommend Annie Jacobsen’s book, Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America (Little, Brown and Company, 2014). Another book that gives firsthand accounts of the slave conditions in Mittelwerk is Andre Sellier’s History of the Dora Camp: The Untold Story of the Nazi Slave Labor Camp That Secretly Manufactured V-2 Rockets (Ivan R. Dee, 2003).

Ashes, ashes

Maybe it’s the extrovert in me, but I love when people read my book and get back to me with feedback.

My first book, Swift Horses Racing, was released in April, and I waited (not very patiently) for comments and reviews. There’s something satisfying about putting your writing out there and hearing something back from the void.

This week I had someone comment on the last chapter of the book, where aeronautics pioneer Karl Schuler’s ashes are scattered over the Pacific Ocean. A reader commented that he wanted more detail about how that worked.

So I did a little more research. Scattering ashes by plane is a tricky process. You can’t just empty a box of ashes out the window. Because of the speed of the plane and the winds involved, the ashes are likely to come right back at you. Just like The Dude in The Big Lebowski, you’ll end up with ashes on your face–or a plane full of them. One comment I read from a pilot:  You may never fully get that person out of your plane.

Don’t be like The Dude

There are a few different ways to disperse ashes in a way that won’t coat the inside of the plane with them. There are special attachments for the wing that contain and release the ashes. Another homemade method involves rolling the ashes up in a cloth bundle like a sleeping bag. You secure the bundle with rubber bands, then cut a slit in the end so you can grip it. To release, you take the bands off, then unfurl the bundle out the window. The ashes are dispersed far enough away from the plane to not be sucked back in.

The more I found out about this method, the more I decided this process was something that my character Duke Sorenson–tinkerer and lover of aviation–would totally get into.

The more I found out about this method, the more I decided this process was something that my character Duke Sorenson, tinkerer and lover of aviation, would totally get into. It gave him a chance to interact with another character he’d had a bad run-in with—and it was a bonding moment. It wasn’t a huge change, but it enriched the scene. I was even able to include it in the next printing of my book. The last scene is richer and fuller because of that change.* So, reader—thank you for the feedback.

*If you have a previous copy of Swift Horses Racing, leave your email address in the Contact form (see website menu). I’ll send you a copy of the chapter addition.

Bite your lip. Take the trip.

My first mystery novel, Swift Horses Racing, is now out.

Putting yourself out there is scary. I’ve been writing for years—blog posts, songs, short stories and even a novel previous to this one. 

My book, Swift Horses Racing, posing with my pet bonsai, Kubo

It was hard for me to release Swift Horses Racing into the world. I had lots of reasons why I wasn’t ready to do this. Why I needed more time to work on it.

Fear is persuasive—and kind of a bully.

One day I realized that the comfort zone I was keeping myself in was no longer comfortable.

I’ve been writing stories since I was eight years old. I love holing myself up in my room to write. But at some point, you want to “complete the handshake,” as writer Michael Chabon says. Let what you’ve written connect with another person. 

Last month, when I was still having minor panic attacks about putting my book out there, I was driving and a song came on at the end of my Spotify list. It sounded vaguely familiar. It was Curtis Mayfield’s 1970 vintage soul song, “Move on Up.”  

Bite your lip. And take the trip

It was like the voice of God to me, the final word capping the thoughts I’d had the past few months. Even though you’re afraid, do it. Fear is not a sign you shouldn’t do it. You just have to bite your lip and keep going. Take the trip. 

Fear is not a sign you shouldn’t do it. You just have to bite your lip and keep going. Take the trip. 

Now that I made the decision, the fear has backed off—like a bully often does when challenged. I’ve learned so much during this process. I’m excited to hear what people think of the story I’ve put out there. Meanwhile, I’m hard at work on the follow up to this book.

Since I’m a music person, I’ve created a Spotify playlist for the characters in this book—including Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up.” You can find it at:  https://open.spotify.com/playlist/2gsXELvdvHD690yXetvFme?si=to0k3VfnQlyZpn1ImH1GWw

Enjoy the book, and let me know what you think with a commentor better yet, a review on Amazon, Goodreads or the book review site of your choice.

How I got back to writing during quarantine

Today is day 109.

In the first few weeks of quarantine, I was one of those people who couldn’t get anything done.

I did what I had to do for the classes I teach, then I turned on my comfort TV, The Great British Baking Show, and numbed out to polite, adorable British bakers trying to perfect their tarts and puddings.

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[Blue eyes flashing in disapproval]: “So Victoria…why aren’t you writing?”

My other fallback was the news, though obviously not for escapist reasons. I had to know everything that was happening with COVID and quarantine. But after gorging on the news kept me awake at night, I learned to set limits on my consumption.

As I settled into my SIP rhythm, I entered a new quarantine phase:  self examination.

I started to see things about myself that I didn’t like.

It’s one thing to become tired of the people you live with. You can go for a hike, suit up for a daunting trip to the grocery store, or go sit out in the backyard. But when you’re frustrated with yourself, you’re pretty much stuck.

My nagging question was, why aren’t you writing?

If writing is your dream—and it makes you feel good to do it—why is your go-to activity watching people make tarts?

I decided that if writing and publishing were important to me, I couldn’t let SIP keep me from doing them. My goal is to publish a novel. I left my second novel hanging—a completed first draft waiting for revision—and hadn’t gone back to it since before quarantine.

I also felt distanced from that good feeling that comes from writing. My novel hung over my head like a threat. Writing felt like an obligation, not a happy place to go to.

After some thought on how I tend to work and think, I decided to do the following things. So far they seem to be working.

1. I started a short-term project, to experience the fun of writing again.  I started a short story, something I could finish quickly. I wrote a locked room Shelter in Place mystery, with a completely new protagonist: a single-mother private detective. I had a blast writing it.

2. I now set a timer and sit down to write every day, even if it’s a short increment of time. A sneaky trick I play on myself! I set a timer for maybe 30 minutes. But then I get really into what I’m writing and end up going past the timer.

3. I meet with my writers groups. I am privileged to be a member of three awesome writing groups. Many of the writers have been dealing with similar issues. It’s helped to see how they’re handling this time. Even if it’s meeting on Zoom, it’s life-giving to connect with other creative people.

4. I do online write-ins.  Accountability for the win! Whether it’s on Zoom or FaceTime, it helps to sit down with other people who are writing. You’re doing this together and your butts stay in the seats. After the timer beeps, you can check in and get encouragement from each others’ breakthroughs.

5. I faced the big project I was avoiding.  I’ve gone back to the overwhelmingness of my big project—revising my novel. I have my list of big revisions and the research I want to fold in. It will be a big undertaking that will probably continue to be overwhelming, but now I remember what I loved about my novel concept. And how much I love my characters.

I’m back in the game! Still quarantined and not going anywhere.

But feeling renewed and reset.

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Yep. One hundred and nine days.

How this pantser became a plotter

I’ve always been a seat-of-the-pants writer.

Someone who enjoys discovering the book as I write it. A pantser.

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But a few months ago, I wrote myself into a cul-de-sac. I was stuck, so I avoided sitting down to write. And this is a book I love and have invested a lot of time and research in.

Based on feedback from my writers’ groups, I tried something very different. I decided to pick up from right before where I’d gotten stuck and plot the rest of the book in detail.

Cool story:  After plotting the rest of the book, I finished my first draft within a month.

So I guess that makes me…a plantser.

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The plantser: the pantser-plotter hybrid

When I first started writing, I read all I could about the writing process. My favorite mystery and suspense writers had inspired me to write in the first place, so I read everything I could about their writing processes. One of my faves, Elizabeth George, is a committed plotter, so I tried to do the same. I wrote up detailed outlines of each scene and plotted character arcs.

Then once I started writing, I completely disregarded them.

My story started telling itself. My characters came to life and wanted to make their own choices. It was so much fun, I just went with it.

That was my first book. On my second book, things have developed differently. I started with a compelling concept: a saintly old man is killed in a deliberate hit and run, and gradually you find out he was not the model human being he seemed to be (hint: Nazis may or may not be involved).

The last act of the novel then dealt with the consequences of the truth being revealed. This is where I got lost. There were too many directions to go in, and the one I wanted didn’t seem to fit. So I sat down and plotted my path to the final scene and denouement.

I found that when I finished plotting, I could easily pick up where I left off writing the next day. Hence, I didn’t procrastinate about sitting down to write.

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I knew what I had to write each day. And I actually sat down and did it!

I didn’t have to refresh my memory as to where I was in the story. Also, a benefit for my ADD self—I could break the writing up into doable chunks. I assigned myself a chunk for each session. Though as a pantser at heart, I sometimes kept writing because I got into the story and couldn’t stop myself.

Plotting in advance didn’t mean I couldn’t change things up once I got going. The climactic scene changed as I wrote it, and it wasn’t a big deal to go with that in the moment. I could throw in some interesting detours, since I knew where I was going to end up.

Whether you make it up as you go along or you plot your story in detail, it’s not a bad idea to shake things up. A YA writer in my writing group, a very detailed plotter, is now writing a sci fi romance with no plan at all. She’s loving it.

Part of learning the craft of writing is to try new things, to consider yourself a learner. And as someone only on her second book, I am not an expert at this. It’s possible over time I will settle into a completely different routine of sussing out a novel.

Pantser, plotter or plantser. We’ll see which way I go with book #3!

Writer friends, which one of the three Ps are you?

Running: my new writing buddy

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Sit as little as possible. – Friedrich Nietzsche

I started running again recently, after a long stretch of being sedentary.

I’m not saying it was an easy thing. I went through a few weeks of pushing my reluctant body out the door in the early morning, making sure I wasn’t awake enough to resist.

Then it began to feel amazing. 

Four years ago, I tore my meniscus and was hobbling around, at work and at home, my knee swollen and feeling pretty awful. Since I’d torn it running a race, I thought maybe my time was up. I’m too old. My body can’t take the impact any more.

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The infamous 5K in which I injured my knee. The beer was good, though.

I had knee surgery, did the physical therapy to get back on my feet and resigned myself to remaining safe. To prevent it from happening again, I would stick to gym equipment and the occasional hike.

Except that I didn’t do those things.

I sat.

I wrote, sitting or curled up on the couch with my coffee, before my family got up in the morning, or as my husband played video games in the evening. Most of my day, with the exception of going to work and teaching or getting groceries, I sat.

Writing and running are similar in some ways. There is that way-famous quote by Dorothy Parker or George R.R. Martin, whichever you choose:  I hate writing but I love having written.

I love having run.

In return for the energy I’m expending, I get energy back for the rest of the day.

When you start out, running feels like a job. You have to get yourself psyched up—or guilted—to get out there and move. But once you hit your stride, you’re good. It’s like your body thanks you for using muscles that were aching to get back to work.

A few months ago, I got nostalgic for that feeling of motion. For how good it felt in the cool morning to put one foot in front of the other. The rhythm. The flood of endorphins. So I downloaded the Couch to 5K app on my phone and ventured out to find dirt, grass and padded areas to try running again.

I ran in the park behind our house, then I moved to the padded track at the local high school.

And….no problems with my knees.

When I’m running, my thoughts fly giddy and free, like kids on a road trip hanging their heads out the car window. They’re having fun, along for the ride. New ideas pop into my head. Several times after running, I’ve gotten new insights into my characters. Yesterday I thought up a plot twist for a story I’d about given up on.

This is not a new idea. Author Laura Lippman has talked on Twitter about the value of working out before writing. Nathan Bransford wrote a blog post about how exercise helps his creativity:  https://blog.nathanbransford.com/2010/12/importance-of-exercise-for-writers

So I encourage you. If you want to jumpstart your writing creativity or just get more energy, give running or some form of vigorous exercise a try.

To make sure you stick with it, look for a system to keep you accountable, like a running app or a local running club.

If I can do this, you can!

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I use Action’s Couch to 5K app. A little perky for early in the morning, but the interval training works.

 

Sneak attacked by joy

When I was growing up in Iowa, May Day was the best.

You made up little baskets filled with candy and goodies, then sneaked them over to your friends’ houses. You left them on the porch or hung them on the door knob. Back then, in the Midwest, everyone did it. Judging by what I see on Pinterest and parenting blogs, I’m excited to see this tradition is coming back.

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I thought it was the coolest thing in the world: surprising someone with a goodie. I practically giggled to myself as I imagined my friends finding the treats.

I loved the element of stealth. So did my mom.

This holiday was absolutely my mom’s thing. She loved surprising people with something fun, just because it would make them happy. To imagine the look on a friend’s face. One day, before my mom’s dementia got really bad, she was sitting at the kitchen table with a mysterious look on her face. I asked her what she was thinking about. She told me she wanted to sew a toaster cover for Lori, her neighbor, because “she really needed one.”  She was figuring out how she’d make it and how she’d get it to fit without Lori knowing.

Today I celebrate May Day. And my mom, and her love of sneak attacking people with fun little things.

Let’s keep bringing it back.

MargaretSUEVierk

Margaret “Sue” Vierk 
April 8, 1935 – April 22, 2019

What the Faux, Hemingway?

img_20190308_093930.jpgThere is a famous quote about writing:  Write drunk, edit sober.

Though it’s been attributed to Hemingway (whose name lends gravitas to quite a few things), Hemingway never said it. We probably attribute it to him because of his tough, whiskey swilling image. Those who have researched this say that the quote actually came from humorist Peter de Vries.

The career of writing tends to pick up more “image” language than most other profession. Writers are hard drinking and mentally unstable. Out there living life brazenly and defiantly, like Jack Kerouac, drinking, driving and womanizing alongside Neal Cassady.

The fact is, most writers I know are hardworking rather than hard drinking. They work day jobs, persevere through MFA programs and take care of young children. They squeeze their writing into precise, regular pockets of time. While carefully curating their social media platforms in their spare time.

They persist through rejection, sickness and financial pressures like a protagonist fighting her way through the rising action of a novel.

You can’t do this drunk. Let alone edit with a hangover the next day.

Here’s my take on it. This quote lives because there is some truth in it. As writers, we wear many hats. When you write a first draft, you need to ditch the inhibitions. Let the words flow. Follow the dark, twisting paths of your imagination, and don’t stop to censor or rewrite. Then when you do go back to edit, look at what you’ve written as a critic.

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Sometimes great inspiration looks less-than-great the next day. Sometimes chemistry and creative writing don’t mix.

After you’ve had your coffee:  Does that awesome metaphor you wrote about relationships even make sense to you this morning?

In a way, this quote is a metaphor. Write without inhibition. Edit with common sense.

If you want to read the funny story of a writer who took the quote literally for a week:  https://www.bustle.com/articles/88879-i-wrote-drunk-and-edited-sober-for-a-week-and-heres-what-happened-to-my-work

Happy writing (and reading), my friends!

Christmas Eve day, 10 am. Status: Still shopping.

flickr-target-store-shopping-carts-cropChristmas Eve day, 10 a.m.

I have ventured into the mall to get “just one more thing.”

Everyone seems to be here, cycling up and down the aisles in an endless search, Roomba vacuums narrowly avoiding hitting shelves or each other.

I am grouchy. Lines are long. Cars move slowly through the Moebius-strip like parking lot circuit.  I want to tap on the horn to speed them up, but I know it wouldn’t do any good. I wonder about the legal trouble I’d get into if I drove directly over the grass berm to the street.

Why did I come here? I had most of my gifts purchased early and conveniently delivered via Amazon. But last night I had a haunting vision of that one, poor family member, sitting amid the colorful litter of everyone’s unwrapped gifts, lower lip trembling. Does my family even love me?

Target is a sad and desolate place today, its employees tired and its shelves and racks depleted. Except for an odd selection of things:  weirdly abbreviated women’s sweaters, manly flasks, and…..bath bombs. There are lots of bath bombs. If they actually exploded, that would make for an interesting gift. Alas, they do not.

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They don’t actually explode.

I continue searching for something, anything, for a present. My thoughts go toward condemning our country’s consumerism, embedded in us so deeply that we don’t feel good unless we’re buying things. I think of how Jesus himself would see this. Would he, who was born in the poorest of circumstances, approve of this scene? Would he replay the biblical scene in the temple in Jerusalem, by kicking over the Santa and Rudolph plushies, mad that they were an affront to the seriousness of his birth? Would he overthrow the displays of green and red bath bombs?

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I believe God is able to be sad about the need-to-buy desperation, while deeply loving the people caught up in it.

Jesus would be looking at the people pushing the carts. The ones who are here because it’s the first day they could drop their kids off with a relative so they could go buy them gifts. Jesus would be looking at the employees, working one of the three jobs they need to work in order to afford to rent a room in Silicon Valley. Jesus would look at my grouchy heart, sad that I am making unnecessary stress for myself this morning (Finally nailed that gift for Aunt Flo—and it was on sale!) when sitting down and listening to Aunt Flo would be less tangible but a more memorable gift.

When my freshman English class read Fahrenheit 451 this year, we learned that a dystopia starts with a good intention. One that is thoughtful and fair. Then it gets twisted out of proportion. In the Christmas shopping scenario, our desire is to show our family and friends that we value them. We want to see their faces light up when they open a gift. We have family friends who excel at giving joy-inducing gifts to one another, and it’s a beautiful thing. But I don’t feel great when I buy something just to give somebody something to unwrap with my name on it. I want to think differently next year.

As I hang out with my family today, the grouch in me is receding. Rain has started here, just enough to give us some seasonal ambiance here in California. From the kitchen, there’s the smell of freshly baked bread. In the other room, I hear sounds of bumping, crinkling and giggling that accompanies gift wrapping. I am happy. I don’t need much else.

To all of you, your family and friends–best wishes for a Merry Christmas and/or happy holiday!

Back from the UK (with pictures)

The jet lag has worn off, but two weeks ago I got back from a wonderful trip to England.

I walked through London in the footsteps of my favorite writers. I ate lunch at the pub in Oxford where Tolkein and C.S. Lewis met on Tuesdays. I got to see the hangouts and graves of the classic writers who gave me my love for the English language. The weather and the people could not have been more congenial.

London was busy and energetic, full of so many people under 30 that I felt pretty damn ancient. As Harry Potter fans, our first stop in the city had to be Platform 9-3/4 in King’s Cross Station. 

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Hedwig’s missing!

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We saw Westminster Abbey, on a tour led by a bossy, hilarious verger who rolled his eyes at the new, abstract David Hockey stained glass window. I got to see Poets Corner, and the grave of my literary crush, Samuel Johnson. As a Californian, the history awed me. The site has been a religious gathering place since 960 AD.

It was a relief to get away from US politics, but we did catch a brief glimpse of British Brexit drama, when streets were shut down for the Wooferendum, a protest in which dogs and their owners marched against the travel quarantine that their dogs will have to endure when they vacation in the EU after Brexit.

In Oxford we ate at The Eagle and Child, where the Inklings (C.S. Lewis, Tolkein and friends) met. Our friend Ruth then took us over to the Bodleiean Library where we saw an exhibit of Tolkein’s drawings and heard recordings of him speaking the languages he invented for Middle Earth. 

Ruth drove us (very fast, on incredibly narrow, twisting country roads) up to the Cotswolds for a roadside picnic.

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Our picnic spot in the Cotswolds

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The punts at Magdalen College, Oxford. Imagining Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane heading out on the river.

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Lunch at the Inklings’ hangout!

After leaving our gracious hostess, we headed for Stratford-upon-Avon, a tourist town but in a good way. Shakespeare’s birthplace and the associated sites are well kept up and the tour guides are knowledgeable. The town had even more meaning for me since I’ve been teaching Shakespeare and watching the hilarious BBC show, “The Upstart Crow,” a comedic version of Shakespeare’s life as a struggling playwright.

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The Avon part of Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown

We finished off our trip in Bath. I love this city! A beautiful abbey, the Roman Baths, the site where Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, and the Jane Austen Centre. We ate Sally Lunns, Bath Buns and many, many scones with clotted cream. I drank Samuel Johnson’s favorite tea.

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Pulteney Bridge, Bath

 

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The Roman Baths, built around 400 AD. Coincidentally the site on which Mary Shelley wrote one of my favorites, Frankenstein, 1400 years later.

I’m still feeling a pleasant buzz from the scenery, the history, and the friendliness and dry wit of the British people.

As I corral myself into my daily routine for NaNoWriMo, I’m dreaming of my next trip.