Telling History

In Bruised Purple Hearts: Ghosts of the USA, author Jerry Blanton illustrates the importance and effect of the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War, and the rise of feminism, equal rights, the Gay Liberation Movement, music and much more. Having personally lived through these times, I’m eager to hear his thoughts on writing history — or as Jerry says, telling history.

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Telling History by Jerry Blanton

My love of history began as the son of an NCO in the United States Air Force. Through my first twelve years, I was raised on or around air bases of the Strategic Air Command. One day I accompanied my father to an airfield where I saw silver jets: fast fighters like the F-86 and massive bombers like the B-29s and the B-36s. I was awed by their power and speed. Airbases often exhibited older fighters: P-38s, P-47s, or P-51s. Dad explained those were planes from World War Two. Then I asked about wars, whom we fought, when and why. He explained what he knew.

By three years old, I read and wrote because my older sister taught me what she had learned at school. I became a storyteller, and I read, devouring classic comic books about King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, Julius Caesar and the conquest of Gaul. I read my family’s large illustrated Bible about Saul, David and Solomon, and the Christ. We lived in Japan, and my questions became broader and deeper: Why are Japanese so different from Americans? Why did we fight them? Why are we no longer enemies? My parents acquired a set of books called A Picturesque Tale of Progress, which revealed history from prehistoric times until the founding of modern democracies. I read all nine books by nine. From libraries, I read history about the United States. In fifth grade, I gave a memorized speech on the Civil War. While most students spoke five to fifteen minutes, I gave an hour-long overview of the Civil War, discoursing on major battles, the generals on each side, the number of troops, how the battles were fought, and the killed and wounded until the other students and the teacher were glaze-eyed.

A bona fide history buff, my favorite readings are histories and biographies. My first attempt at historical fiction in 1980 was a semi-autobiographical novel of a baby boomer from birth through the sixteenth year and titled Boom! (self-published 2010).

In 2009, I began a historical novel told in flashbacks about a former master and former slave who became business partners after the Civil War, and I self-published it (2011). Ex-slave Moses and ex-master Joshua left the South, went west, and wound up creating a ranch in the mountains of New Mexico: The Sunrise Valley Ranch. I researched to set it in the West during conflicts with Native Americans. The book is titled Long Shot, which is a double entendre. Joshua had been a Confederate sharpshooter picking off Union officers from a distance with a powerful rifle; his decision to live and work together with Moses was an idealized attempt to heal the wounds of slavery, another long shot. A main character of the novel is Marshal Buster Kendrick who tries to solve a series of robbery/killings, and whose trail leads him to the Sunrise Valley Ranch.

In 2014, I got a telephone call from a man with an idea for a novel about a German Christian doctor who wound up being a U-boat commander in WW2. He claimed it was based on a true story. I met the caller who showed me his research and a one-page plot outline. He said, “I’m not a writer. Do you think you could write the book?” I said I could, and we signed a contract. I would earn the first $95,000, and we would split whatever the book made after that. I had to research on-line because I had never been to Germany and was not an expert on U-boat operations. After two and a half years, I completed the manuscript, but I found my partner had cardiovascular disease and had been hospitalized and nearly died. I wanted a professional editor to review it, but he hedged, so I said I would pay for the editing. The developmental editor turned the book into a very good novel primarily through deletions (too many footnotes and one inconsistent passage). iUniverse published the book, and I chose the graphics. The book Nightmare Enemy, Dream Friend (2016) has received good reviews and compliments from readers. The narrative is told in the third person about Luther Weitgucker born in 1911 in Dresden. Raised a Christian, he goes to med school and graduates in 1936. By then, Hitler has been in power for three years, so Luther finds he cannot grow a private practice. To feed and shelter his young family, he joins the Kriegsmarine. Luther becomes a very good submarine commander (a nightmare enemy to the British and Americans), but he is not a Nazi and adheres to his Christian values and his medical ethics and tries to save sailors from ships he sinks, including a Welsh captain and fellow Christian, with whom he becomes friends (a dream friend).

Researched and written over two and a half years, my current book concerns the Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement. Since I lived then, my research involved making sure of dates and events and discovering background information. This narrative is told in first person by one twin brother: Matt Conklin. He and his brother Max are intelligent but are not exactly alike. Both doubt the necessity of the war but take different routes. Matt seeks alternative service to fighting while Max joins ROTC and goes to ‘Nam as a military journalist. The story spans from 1963 (the twins are high school seniors) to 1975 (when the war finally ends). Along the way, they encounter racism, feminism, the beginning of LGBTQ rights, antiwar radicals, and psychedelic drugs—all the turmoil of those years. Matt is spiritually sensitive, and ghosts (his killed buddies, some famous people, and deceased lovers) appear to him and ask things of him. The book published in September this year is titled Bruised Purple Hearts: Ghosts of the USA. It has gotten an early good review and, surprisingly, seems to appeal to millennials, grandchildren of the boomers.

Many thanks, Jerry. Your post reminds me how serendipity and personal history play a role in the stories we write. 

Bruised Purple Hearts: Ghosts of the USA by Jerry Blanton ~~ It is the early sixties as Matt Conklin and his twin brother, Max, graduate from high school amid interesting yet chaotic times that include the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War, and the rise of feminism, gay rights, and the use of psychedelic drugs. Matt and Max could not be more different in their views of war, civil rights, and the part physical chemistry plays within relationships.

Matt is a romantic idealist who stands up to civil rights abuses and the atrocities of war. While pursuing his dream of becoming a writer, he crosses paths with bigots, women who want to marry him, antiwar radicals, drug dealers, and gay friends struggling for societal acceptance. After he becomes a teacher to the disadvantaged, Matt craves intellectual stimulation and experiments with drugs. But what no one knows is that the spiritually sensitive Matt is receiving visits from ghosts who ask things of him. As the years pass, will Matt emerge from his struggles determined to live his truth or resigned to live a life he never wanted?

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Shaping story and character with Jean K. Carney

Jean K. Carney is the author of “Blackbird Blues”. She spent eight years as an award-winning reporter and editorial writer at the Milwaukee Journal, covering Children’s Court, City Hall, and Roe v. Wade. She’s also been in full-time private practice as a psychotherapist for thirty years, which certainly provides a rich foundation for understanding character. 

The first character who sprang to life in what was to become my novel “Blackbird Blues” was Benny, a young man who is the son of Maureen Rieger (before she becomes Sister Michaeline) and Lucius Claremont. I was watching a drummer at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago whose furious hand and arm movements threw me back 33 years earlier to the Children’s Home in Milwaukee to a boy who was “making music,” shuffling grit on the floor with his feet and sweeping his hair and hands across the table. A reporter at The Milwaukee JournalI was the only person besides his public defender who attended his court hearing and the only person who ever visited him at the Children’s Home, where he was held for years. After many conversations, I believed him when he said he had no idea why he had killed his teacher.

My character Benny does not kill his teacher and — other than his physical attributes — he is not modeled on the boy I covered as a reporter so long ago. But my work as a reporter had tremendous influence on the creation of the plot and characters of the novel. When I started at The Milwaukee Journal, the first thing my city editor told me was, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” The habit of checking and rechecking stuck with me as a novelist. In every exchange of dialogue, in every turn of the plot, I heard my city editor’s “check it out,” meaning, not only “Is this plausible?” but also “Is this exactly what this character would truly say at this particular moment?” I remember feeling the characters were truly becoming real when one night, while we were washing dishes, I asked my husband what he thought Lucius would think of Donald Trump’s latest tweet.

Looking back on my time since 1970, I feel privileged that literally many hundreds of people have confided their deepest secrets to me, first as a reporter and then as a psychotherapist. As a reporter, I put those secrets in the newspaper long ago. As a psychotherapist, I was bound and am still bound by Illinois law never to disclose them. I have not and will not use these secrets as materials in “Blackbird Blues” or any future novel. However, as a therapist, I had to listen very closely to the people who confided in me, let myself feel whatever I was feeling, and imagine my way into each person’s sensibility and experience. That was an invaluable experience. It greatly expanded my capacity for feeling and imagining. I owe my former patients a great debt of gratitude for that. I don’t think I would have been able to feel my way into the characters in “Blackbird Blues,” or imagine their lives as I was able to do, had I not been tutored, so to speak by my patients.

“Blackbird Blues” is chock full of historical data, including the 1960s Civil Rights movement, some of which I knew from reading newspapers as a child since the late 1950s. It was with great joy that I researched the life of Lucius, the 60-year-old jazz man, Benny’s father, and Sister Michaeline’s former lover. Lucius befriends the other main character, Mary Kaye, an 18-year-old Irish-American who must deal with an unwanted pregnancy just as Sister Michaeline, her mentor and jazz coach, dies.

Lucius was one of the African-American men who served under French military command during World War I because the American military did not mix races. Having killed a man in a boxing match, Lucius shoots over the heads of the Germans. As it happens, his commanding officer sympathizes with him, assigns him to learn cooking, and becomes his mentor in French culture. Lucius returns to Chicago from the war just in time for the 1919 race riot, memorialized in Carl Sandburg’s classic “Chicago Race Riots.”

On the subject of illegal abortion, I relied to some extent on my coverage of Roe v. Wade from my time at The Milwaukee Journal. I also found most helpful the following books: “The Story of Jane: The Legendary Feminist Abortion Service” (which took place in Chicago) by Laura Kaplan; “Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America” by Marvin Olask; and “Back Rooms: Voices from the Illegal Abortion Era” by Ellen Messer and Kathryn E. May.

Two books that were incredibly useful guides to the lives of nuns in Chicago were “He Sent Two: The Story of the Beginning of the School Sisters of Saint Francis” by Sister M. Francis Borgia, O.S.F., and “Good Hearts: Catholic Sisters in Chicago’s Past” by Suellen Hoy.

It was important to me that the characters in the novel would be historically plausible in terms of time and space. And I tried incredibly hard to make sure references to historical events were as accurate as possible. As my city editor’s voice urged, I was constantly checking my memory and my hunch. I wanted “Blackbird Blues”to be a literary novel, but also truly a historical novel.

Many thanks, Jean, for sharing the background to writing Blackbird Blues. I now know who to consult when digging deep to understand character.

Blackbird Blues by Jean K. Carney ~~ With the help of sixty-year-old black jazz man Lucius, Mary Kaye O’Donnell, an eighteen-year-old Irish-American woman and aspiring jazz singer in Chicago, finds her way toward dealing with an unwanted pregnancy and the death of Sister Michaeline, her voice coach, jazz mentor, and only guide through the bedlam of her childhood.

Mary Kaye’s neighbor, Judge Engelmann, introduced her to the work of James Baldwin and the nuns exposed her to the burgeoning civil rights movement, but Lucius is the first black person Mary Kaye comes to really know. They bond over Sister Michaeline’s untimely death. Over time, Lucius helps Mary Kaye launch her career as a singer in his jazz band. He also gives her Sister Michaeline’s diary from her early cloistered years, saying it was the nun’s wish. In reading the diary and in conversations with Lucius and Judge Engelmann, Mary Kaye discovers disillusioning aspects and secrets of her beloved mentor.

This is Mary Kaye’s coming-of-age story as she weighs her options based on the diary, her faith, and her music, set against the background of illegal abortion and child abandonment in the 1963 Chicago world of civil rights and interracial jazz. It is entirely a work of fiction, but in today’s political climate one could imagine something similar becoming real.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.