So, It’s All Organized; Now What?

(April 30, 2020)

I wrote earlier about how my mother’s death stalled my work on the letter transcripts, both physically and emotionally speaking, but I did get back to them about a year later. However, a return to my full-time teaching job after sabbatical, plus the responsibility of directing a play each year with my students, meant my progress was slow. I managed to finish the transcripts and interlaced them with the research chronology of the war in Europe, especially North Africa and Italy, which took about 18 months, and I was just starting to think about how to present the material in another medium, when another road block slammed me. Hard. My husband died unexpectedly of sudden cardiac arrest, just a few months after being pronounced in excellent shape at his annual medical checkups. This shook my life in ways that I won’t go into here, but it was definitely not conducive to research or writing for several years after that.

Finally, the time came for me to retire from teaching, and following the plan my husband and I had made together long before his death, I moved to western Massachusetts to be nearer to our grandchildren. Once settled there, and with plenty of time on my hands, I was now ready to take on the letters project once again. The first thing I did was to re-read the document I had created that combined the letter transcripts and the wartime chronology. At first, I was looking for ways to create a theatrical event, but after re-reading everything, I realized that there was no true dramatic action to be found. Yes, it was a dramatic time in our country’s history, but there was no conflict in my parents’ relationship, other than the separation created by my father’s wartime assignments overseas. I also came to the realization that the letter contents required too much reading between the lines, so to speak. They were nuanced and delicate, and there was a serious love story involved, one that I knew little about until reading those letters. I started thinking of it a quasi-memoir, and my first working title for the book was The War: A Love Story.

This was a disappointment in some ways but a relief in others. Being free of the theatrical constraints of some measure of realism (for I could not imagine doing the letter texts any other way), I could add a narrator’s voice to the story to explore my mother’s side of the story as well as the many social and political issues my father raised in his musings. So back I went to the source documents, re-reading with an eye to what other kind of organization made most sense. During this phase, I was definitely functioning as an academic, taking copious notes, and organizing what I was reading by various issues that were on my father’s mind or influencing him as he communicated with his wife across a great distance. In addition to the declarations of love and devotion and thoughts about love and marriage, my dad was also concerned with military life and the war in general (including women during wartime), the various technologies of the time that fascinated him (cameras, radios), his local civilian working partners (British, French, Italian), American politics, life on the Homefront, post-war planning, and many other, smaller issues that consumed him regularly. So that’s what I focused on when I first started to write: issues. Since most of the early letters were full of Dad’s anxiety about how bad the mail service was during his first several weeks away from Mom, first in England and then in North Africa, that was the very first chapter I wrote, using plenty of additional research about the wartime postal service for soldiers overseas.

Now that I had a plan and had started writing, I also looked for a writing group. I knew that a group that would offer feedback on my work would be very valuable to me, especially since I didn’t yet have a particularly large peer group in my new community. So I started to put out some feelers. It turned out that a fellow author and sister of a close friend of mine from St. Lawrence was, at that time, keeping lists of various kinds of grant, residency, and workshop opportunities for writers, and she was aware of a few writer’s groups in the region of Massachusetts where we both lived. She gave me the name of someone in my local area who might have recommendations for me, which brought me to a women writers’ group that was just starting a new session and had one opening left. I jumped at the chance. When it was my turn to share my current project, I explained to the group about the materials I had inherited and how the decision to make the project a book instead of a play was very recent, and I shared with them my very first chapter called “Communication Chaos,” which included the history of V-mail and scholarly writings about the importance to the military of communications from home in addition to my dad’s personal frustrations. The astute and supportive feedback was very useful, and as it turned out, spot on. They declared that the chapter was well-written and interesting in an academic sort of way, but they were much more interested in the implied love story, the human angle underneath the research about the military mail service during WWII, and they strongly advised me to consider changing my approach to emphasize the personal story they felt would be much more interesting to a general reading audience. Once I made that adjustment, and just started to tell the story of my parents’ experiences to the best of my ability, words started to flow more easily.

Sixteen mostly-chronological and anecdotal chapters later, I had a good handle on the book’s shape and started in on a second set of revisions based on the feedback the group had given me on the first chapter drafts. Then I brought those revisions back to the group. When everything had been through the critique process twice, which took over a year, it was time to start looking for publishers for my new manuscript. Since I didn’t have an agent, I used my academic connections to start. In fact, when the company that had published my first book on women stage directors heard what I was doing, they had asked for right of first refusal on this new project because they also published military history. But after they read the manuscript, they admitted it was more “human interest” than they were used to (they normally published first-person battle narratives), so they passed on publishing it.

This left me looking for new options, and I started with Oregon-focused university presses, since several of them had published books about individual Oregonians, which both my parents were. However, they, too, felt the book wasn’t academic or combat-oriented enough. Next, I started looking for publishers who published narratives of all kinds about WWII. Luckily there are many of those lists available online, and I started to work my way through them. For several weeks in the summer of 2017, my book proposal got rejected outright or ignored entirely, which can happen sometimes when inquiring about author submissions without an agent. Then I discovered Sunbury Press, a small independent publisher who seemed quite open to accepting my proposal without an agent, and their website was very author-friendly, though they warned me it could take several months for a reply because they had many proposals to consider. That encouragement was good enough for me, so in the early autumn of 2017, I sent them everything they requested as part of the proposal process: table of contents, book summary, questions about illustrations (I had lots of them), etc. Then I waited.

Next time, I’ll write about what I was doing during the waiting time, what happened after I got the book contract, how I worked with editors and book designers, and then how I learned more about self-marketing with a small press. Enjoy.

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