War Memories In A Shoebox

I’d had that encouraging “fan email.” Then, yesterday, out of the blue I received yet another interesting email:

….I have been blogging for years, but I am now looking to write a book about my life and experiences in the _____ business. Historically books about the _____ business have done very well. Any points you may have to pass on would be greatly appreciated….

That was the gist of it. He was seeking writing advice.

Specifically mine? He wanted my writing advice?

My writing desk, at home in Wiltshire, England. [Photo by me, 2014.]
My writing desk, at home in Wiltshire, England. [Photo by me, 2014.]

When asked that so overtly, you will think really hard about your answer before humbly offering any….

Most of us aren’t Nelson Mandela. Only a very rare few of us are genuinely important enough and interesting enough figures to the wider world for us to compose a gripping straight fact autobiography/ memoir. Indeed most we see filling “biography” shelves in Barnes and Noble or Waterstones are a result of a brief burst of fame and the celebrity “cashing in” on it, and are unlikely to be much read a few years from now.

So I replied that if one is going to write a fictionalized memoir to try not to venture too far beyond “you” and those immediately around “you.” Write what you know about. I noted as well that I believe to get there, if you want to include history, you need focal points – historical events (even minor, but compelling on some level to a reader) to wrap the tale around.

I concluded by suggesting starting points. Did something happen *to me* for real that was out of the ordinary and which I can build upon and dramatize? Do I have a favorite *real event* I like to share about my working life at, say, a party, and that people genuinely enjoy hearing about?

After I sent that reply, I thought the subject would also make for a decent blog post. I was quite serious in that advice. I aim to do what I wrote to him. One example:

….Marcel opened the wardrobe, disappeared inside, and re-emerged holding a shoebox.

“Souvenirs, we say in French,” Marcel noted.

“In English too,” James added.

Marcel lifted the cover. Inside were yellowing letters back to the 1940s from Anne to him. Even more movingly, were memories of men from his unit in Algeria during the uprising there in the mid-1950s.

“I was their commander.” Marcel pointed at one. “Young Jean was killed. I wrote to his mother. She wrote so kindly thanking me. She said Jean had written of me and she prayed God would protect me. Imagine? Her son is killed and she writes she prays for me!”

Marcel then fixated on another. “Antoine was killed also. Once, he saved my life.”

James glimpsed the second young man in the group black and white photo.

“I could not save his,” Marcel observed bitterly. Tapping the photo, he added, dejectedly, “A waste. A stupid war.”

As happens there to “James” in Passports, that happened to me for real. A French Algerian war veteran and I had that exchange. It had stayed in my mind for two decades afterward, and when I decided to write these books I knew I had to use it.

French soldiers on parade. Bastille Day, Paris, France, July 1995. [Photo by me.]
French soldiers on parade. Bastille Day, Paris, France, July 1995. [Photo by me.]

Formulating a progression of events and interactions, sometimes shared in only a few words, all leading a reader quietly forward while keeping her/him liking/ despising/ identifying with the characters you write and engrossed in the time and place. That is vital in novel writing. If you haven’t held your readers, you haven’t accomplished very much.

While there may be real incidents in our real lives that are worth recalling and sharing, most of our actual real lives are not nearly interesting enough to support a memoir. Thus the story is the key. Craft one not dependant on (the non-Mandela) you the living person and which may be read “forever”.

Hope you’re having a good Wednesday. 🙂

UPDATE: If you’ve not seen this post, and this post, they contain other late 20th century Paris photos that are similar to that Bastille Day one above.

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Author: “Conventions: The Garden At Paris,” “Passports,” “Frontiers,” and “Distances.” British Airways frequent flier. Lover of the Catskill Mountains...and the 1700s. New novel of 1797-1805, "Tomorrow The Grace," due out in 2019.

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