(2) Writing historical fiction: What’s in a name?

In book three, with a possible working title “The White Flash Made By Little Boy,” the year is 1942 and the setting is the Philippine jungle on the Bataan Penninsula. The principal character in Chapter 1 is Barbara Kiss. You met her before found HERE. What have I been researching? How does one create a historical climate?


Naturally, books are what I grab first to catch up on general knowledge of events. I picked Pure Grit by Mary Cronk Farrell whose non-fiction account is well researched and an easy read. I didn’t know much about the nurses who were forced to evacuate Sternberg General Hospital, Manila, into the jungle after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese pressed. By the end of December, Hospital No. 1 was forced to retreat into the jungle. The Japanese pressed some more. The Army decided to send bulldozers deeper into the jungle ten miles by the Real River. Hospital No. 2 was created. It resembled an ant farm of interconnecting rooms that served as wards. It was open-aired, and the walls were vines while the roof was trees. Under the Acadia branches, the hospital hid from a Japanese attack from the sky. Initially, it was a convalescent hospital, but became a surgical hospital, too.

World War II sites abound. My buddy and WW2 expert, GP,  was kind enough to relay applicable links for personal testimonies.  The most informative site, thus far, is the WW2 Medical Research Center. I can read unit histories, articles, testimonies, and inspect the database. Check out their site at WW2 US Medical Research. Why would I do that? I’m not a nurse from 1942. I haven’t a clue how they treated the wounded. What did nurses wear in the jungle? Malaria was a huge problem. What were the symptoms and what was it like for the nurses and patients who suffered? Testimonies are vital for the details that help me recreate a time period. For example, monkeys, iguanas, caribou, rats, spiders, snakes, and the omnipresent flies and mosquitos made it extremely difficult to ignore while administering aid or to sleep at night. Now add strafing, half rations, capture, and enduring time in a POW camp. The nurses lost a third of their body weight from starvation before rescue in February 1945. Pictures provide clues for the answers to my questions and allow me to accurately describe the past. 

The Filipino medical staff and civilians 

The Filipinos helped the US Army by providing civilians to build Hospital No. 2. Filipino nurses and doctors worked alongside American nurses and doctors. If I’m attempting to create the past, I need to know something about Filipino culture, including their names. As it happens, I have a high school student whose father is Filipino. Great! I asked her to investigate and create a list of her ancestors who lived in the Philippines during the WW2 era. That was helpful. In short, asking people to share their personal histories is paramount in looking for the similarities soldiers and medical staff experienced. It’s not surprising that veterans worried, cried, laughed, and leaned on each other to get through the catastrophe. The number one reaction of being in a nurse under attack? Most said there was no time to be scared. There were too many patients to take care of.

NARA (National Archives and Records Association, Washington DC)

Here’s where the fun is. It’s detective work. The primary documents tell a story and reveal a truth whereas recollections over the decades can be selective. I found daily reports, rosters and hospital records, 1941-42. https://catalog.archives.gov/id/16837727

The records show me the numbers, the names and rank of personnel–both Filipino and U.S. doctors and nurses. Supply lists show me what they had and what they needed. This helps me “see” the hospital. For example, at its height, Hospital No. 2 had over 2,000 patients. I didn’t conceptualize the jungle hospital was that large and/or crowded. The facts shape my descriptions.

Writing historical fiction is about asking questions and finding clues to the answers. Everything requires research when you describe a setting and create believable characters across the world. For book two, Inside the Gold Plated Pistol, the setting is outside my front door. I live and breathe the history of Clarkdale, Arizona. But the Philipines in 1942? I know very little. It’s more of a challenge, but I enjoy the process of envisioning the past. During this month of Coronavirus, I have been allowed to research and write at home. It’s my silver lining. Do you have any personal stories about nurses or about Bataan? I’d love to hear what you have to say. I will be back at the end of April to share more.

Are You Not Entertained? A trio of good films

If you need a bolt of violence and suspense to combat your ennui, this trio will wake you up. 

Midsommar (2019)  A couple travels to Sweden to visit their friend’s rural hometown for its fabled midsummer festival, but what begins as an idyllic retreat quickly devolves into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult. (Wikipedia) Writer/director Ari Aster (Hereditary), continues his trend for psychological suspense with bits of in-your-face disturbing surprises. Midsommar is like a pot of water set for a slow boil. Perhaps viewers think the pace is too slow? I like the punishing pace. 4/5

The white imagery is not for purity and goodness, this time around. It’s a part of what makes the story chilling.

The storyline of Midsommar is plausible enough in the first third by establishing the motive of visiting the rural community in Sweden. The male anthropologist/historian Ph.D. students fight over the pagan society as they try to claim it as their dissertation topic. Dummies. White guys trying to “own” another culture is a sure sign they’re gonna go down. However, their tagalong, the anxious, fragile female will become the winner. Even though you can predict generally what’s going to happen, there are enough details and twists to make it an arresting film of the senses. Nothing like a beautiful setting to tell a horror story. It’s a contrast I appreciate. 

Once the guests arrive at the enchanting location, the pace picks up and the charming quirkiness of the village turns into run-for-the-hills horror. Three cheers to Florence Pugh for an electrifying performance. She gives sophistication to her complex character much the same way Toni Collette did in Hereditary. Beware of blind tradition; it’s as though author Shirley Jackson (“The Lottery”) whispered beyond the grave into Aster’s ears and he ran with the concept. 

The Nightingale (2018) Clare, a young Irish convict, chases a British officer through the rugged Tasmanian wilderness and is bent on revenge for a terrible act of violence the man committed against her family. On the way, she enlists the services of Aboriginal tracker Billy, who is marked by trauma from his own violence-filled past (Wikipedia). Director Jennifer Kent creates a stunning period film from the perspective of a determined, female protagonist. Actress Aisling Franciosi (Lyanna Stark, GoT) is convincing as Clare Carroll, a singing beauty who is a servant in 1825. She lives a harsh existence but is able to withstand the beasts of the British penal colony which will eventually become Tasmania. Kent holds nothing back as the violence in the story is filmed in a raw fashion as harsh as the Tasmanian setting. 4/5

Jo Jo Rabbit (2019)  Jojo is a lonely German boy who discovers that his single mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their attic. Aided only by his imaginary friend — Adolf Hitler — Jojo must confront his blind nationalism as World War II continues to rage on. (Wikipedia). If you want to read an excellent review regarding what’s wrong with Jo Jo Rabbit, I recommend Owen Gleiberman‘s review in Variety found here:

Film Review: ‘Jojo Rabbit’

Mr. Gleiberman makes a compelling argument. I loved it anyway. I thought it daring, fun and sad like all good coming-of-age stories. Is it Moonrise Kingdom with sass? Okay. I agree with that. Is it “a feel-good movie, but one that uses the fake danger of defanged black comedy to leave us feeling good about the fact that we’re above a feel-good movie,” says the critic? I love feel-good movies without the Hallmark cheese. The acting of the entire cast was entertaining. Roman Griffin Davis (Jo Jo). Thomasin McKenzie (Elsa the hidden Jew). Taika Waititi (Hitler). Rebel Wilson (youth camp assistant) Sam Rockwell (perfect as the youth camp leader). Scarlett Johansson (Rosie, the mom with the cool shoes). In German class, my high schoolers loved it. Maybe that’s why I did, too, for it is pitched to the kid at heart. I’ll be watching this film annually for years to come. 4.5/5 

1 Shot Wednesday: Desert Blossoms

From prickly situations come the blossoms of rebirth and wisdom.

Arizona is made for wandering and hiking. You’ll never know what you’ll find. For instance, the cholla. There are several varieties. Spotting one of these in bloom reminds me there is beauty amongst the prickly parts of life. Find it and hold on.