So, It’s All Organized; Now What?

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.

What To Do With All This Amazing Information?

Once I identified all the images I wanted digitized and sent them over to my university’s Newell Canter for Arts Technology, I turned my focus to the memorabilia and letters themselves. I set myself up in an upstairs guest room in my home and started to go through and organize everything I had brought home with me from my mother’s house. At the time, I was a working academic and had a perfectly functional office on campus, but I wanted to keep this new project separate from my teaching and other research endeavors, because for the first time in my life I was working outside my longtime professional discipline in the theatre and on something that felt very personal and private to me.

My dad at basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri (summer 1942) before being sent overseas to Europe

The first thing I needed to do was to sort the letters, most of which Mom had shoved into plastic bags in no particular order. I suspect she used to grab a letter now and then to revisit their contents, perhaps when she was particularly missing my dad, but she definitely had no sense of these materials as any kind of collection. They were just mementos she kept for memory’s sake. In fact, for someone whose temperament suggested she probably should have been a librarian and who regularly volunteered at the local library, my mom was actually quite cavalier about how she treated those letters.

I started by putting them in chronological order based on the postmarks on each envelope. But some of the postmarks were illegible, so then I started looking at the dates on the letters themselves and discovered that some of them had dates that didn’t always seem to match the postmarks on the envelopes. Then I realized I needed to go back and double check that every letter was in the right envelope (or as close as was reasonably possible once it all got sorted out). In this process, I discovered that some letters didn’t have envelopes, some envelopes didn’t have letters, and some letters didn’t have all their pages. I never did find the missing pieces for every orphan letter or envelope. All this took quite a bit of time and happened before I ever started reading and transcribing the letters themselves. In the midst of all this sorting, I found a huge bonus. Someone, probably my aunt, had saved Mom’s letters home from when Dad was in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, so I was able to add another voice to the story of what happened from the time Dad was first called to active duty in early 1942.

Against Army advice, Mom went with Dad to basic training and stayed with him until he was shipped overseas. She wrote about the experience to her family in Oregon.

The next step was to start transcribing the letters onto my computer. This was relatively easy when it came to the letters that were typed, but the handwritten letters were another issue altogether. There are plenty of jokes out there about the terrible handwriting of doctors, but I’m here to report that engineers are just as bad! I remember once when I was first away at college needing several hours to decode my dad’s chicken scratches in his letters to me. I did learn to recognize certain patterns in his handwriting and the unique way he wrote individual letters, but it took a while for me to get back in that groove. And just as I was starting to hit my stride with deciphering his handwriting, I started experiencing terrible headaches. I figured out fairly quickly that some letters had mold and/or mildew on them, and mold was one of the many things I was allergic to, so then I had to invest in protective face masks to wear whenever I was dealing directly with the letters. This also meant that I also had to take more frequent and longer breaks from working with these materials, but I kept plugging away.

As I worked my way through the letters, two things were becoming readily apparent to me. First and foremost, I didn’t yet have a strong grasp of the progress of war in Europe, especially what was happening in North Africa and Italy while Dad was in each of those places. So, I knew that to make sense of any of the contents, I had to do some serious research about the progress of the war. I was already reading about the war in a general sense and had recently found a book series about WWII written by journalist, Rick Atkinson, that focused on North Africa and Italy and was written for a general reader, not for professional historians. Two volumes of this trilogy were among my most influential research sources because they detailed what was happening for the Allies in each of those locations with lots of anecdotes about what life was like for the soldiers involved as well as some information about what was also happening at the same time on the home front. They started me on a path of understanding, but I needed more day to day details in order to see what my dad might be referring to in his letters. Due to strict censorship, his references to things going on had to be couched in language that wouldn’t allow the specifics to be understood easily, except in hindsight. I discovered that there were many highly detailed WWII online chronologies, so I decided to intercut several of these with the letter transcripts, so I could see clearly what was going on around my dad when he was writing his missives home. The second thing that was obvious the more I read was that these letters were intimate love letters from a very private man who rarely showed affection publicly.

When Dad showed this photo to some of his French friends in Algiers, their first thought was “Still waters run deep.”

I was still teaching while I was working on the letter transcripts, so progress was slow, and stints of working on the letters filled my evening and weekend free time as often as the rest of my life would allow. Further, in the middle of the process, my mother died unexpectedly in her sleep, just a few weeks shy of her 91st birthday. My dad had died when I was just 23; he had turned 57 in the hospital three weeks before he died. I never had much of a chance to grieve him back then because I was too busy worrying about my mom who went to pieces and had to be sedated for weeks after his death. It was months before she could live on her own again in some semblance of what they call “the new normal” in widow-speak, so I had to be strong to help her find her feet again. When she died while I was in the middle of reading his remarkable love letters to her, I found I was also grieving my dad all over again. I couldn’t work with the letters at all for several months after her death, so the project went on hiatus while I mourned for both of them.

By the time I wove the letter transcripts and the chronological information together into a single document, I had 250+ single spaced pages of material to work with! Next time I’ll share what happened when I was able to return to the transcripts and more about how I turned those letters into what became Keeping the Lights on for Ike.

All These Amazing Primary Sources

Though I definitely did some secondary research about WWII, most of what I used in Keeping the Lights on for Ike came from primary sources handed down to me directly from my mother. I don’t remember exactly when I realized my mom had kept all the letters my dad wrote to her from overseas during the war, but I suspect it was some time after his death. Sharing them was one of her ways to remember the love of her life. As a widow myself, I now understand the desire to revisit the words of one’s spouse, lost much too soon, and I only wish my husband had occasion to write to me more often when he was alive, though I certainly wouldn’t have wished to experience a world war to make that happen.

Mom told me once that during the 1950s, some of her friends who were also military wives had seriously discussed destroying their letters. She didn’t say exactly why, but as I worked more with the letters in preparing the book, I started to suspect that there could have been a couple of different reasons. Perhaps the letters reminded the women of a terrible time in their lives that they’d rather forget, and they found the memories of wartime depressing. Or perhaps the letters were simply too intimate to be shared with their children and extended families. But Mom did tell me she was glad that she never went through with destroying them, though some of her friends apparently did so. She started sending me an occasional war letter tucked in with her own newsy correspondence when I took a job in northern New York and left the west coast for good in the early 1990s. What she never told me directly, at least not that I remember, was that she had kept so much more than just the letters from those war years.

My father had always been an avid photographer. In fact, many of the images of him in family albums were shots of him taking a photo of a plant of some kind. He loved photographing nature in all its details, both large landscapes and small closeup details of individual plants. My mom was no slouch when it came to photography, either, and the pairs of images (her photo of him bending over to photograph an interesting plant paired with his photo of the plant itself) were always fun to look at. Mom was an amateur mycologist, and among the slides was a remarkable collection of mushroom images that both of them had taken, which I eventually donated to my university’s Biology Department. After Dad’s death at age 57 in 1972, Mom started asking me to join her in looking at slide shows of his photos; they were often family photos of my childhood, but there were lots of other images as well, some of them historically significant. I eventually donated their slides of the Vanport flood of 1948 to the Oregon Historical Society. It was through this activity of looking at random slides with Mom, I also realized that among the hundreds of slides she kept in a large wooden cabinet in the dining room were many images Dad had taken during the war. Because she had kept them out of the light and only viewed them occasionally, when they finally came my way after she had to move out of her house and into assisted living, they were in remarkably good condition for their age; the wartime slides were by then over 60 years old.

The biggest surprise I discovered in packing up the contents of Mom’s house was that she had kept lots of other memorabilia from the war years in addition to the letters and the slides. In fact, I often tell people that Mom scrapbooked the war. Finding those scrapbooks in a drawer in her bedroom when I was cleaning out her house before the place was sold was like finding some kind of treasure trove of history. The scrapbooks were full of newspaper articles, photos that I presume Dad had sent to her from time to time with his letters, postcards, ration books and coupons, matchbook covers, airline tickets, and other fascinating memorabilia from those years.

Perhaps knowing her tendency to save words and images about the war, her younger sister had saved Mom’s letters home from Dad’s basic training and subsequent assignments at Fort Leonard Wood in the spring and summer of 1942, and she had given them to Mom to add to her collection at some point when they were both much older. So, in spite of the fact that Mom’s end of the correspondence when he was overseas didn’t survive, I was able to get a good sense of what she thought about their early Army life before he was shipped off to Europe in the fall of ‘42. In addition to the scrapbooks, that same bureau had another drawer full of Mom’s own writings, mostly from various creative writing classes she had taken at the local senior center when she was in her late 70s and early 80s. She had been an aspiring journalist in her youth, and the urge to write about all kinds of things never left her. Many of those stories were about her own childhood, some about the adventures of her kids (me and/or my brother), but some were also about her thoughts on the war and its impact on the lives of those who lived through it.

After I brought the slides and scrapbooks home with me and realized how many images there were and their value as visual illustrations to go with the letters in some as yet undecided way, I applied for and received generous support from my employer, St. Lawrence University, in the form of a technology grant to digitize the best of the hundreds of slides and to scan images from the scrapbooks, as well as to hire a student worker to clean up the scratches and dings on the digitized images. At this point, I wasn’t sure yet what I might do with these images and was still thinking they might become projections in some kind of theatrical presentation, but I knew for certain I wanted to use them somehow.

Next time, I’ll share the challenges of transcribing over 200 letters and how I figured out what I wanted to do with them once I finished the transcriptions. Look for that entry at the end of March.

New writer identity, new audience, new challenges

When you’re an academic author, the marketing mechanisms are built into your job: you attend regular professional conferences where you talk to colleagues from all over about your work; library journals automatically do reviews which can create book sales to many college libraries; other colleagues will review your books for our professional journals; and you can sometimes use your own books in your classroom to boost sales. But when you’re a commercial author (or should I say, non-academic author, since commercial implies sales, which don’t always come easily), things are very different. My first book (Women Stage Directors Speak: Exploring the Influence of Gender on their Work, McFarland, 1996) practically sold itself, and because no similar studies have been carried out in the nearly 25 years since its initial publication, the book remains in print. During my teaching years, I was often making presentations at national or even international conferences about issues facing women directors in live theatre, and people who had seen my conference presentations often approached me to ask me to write or speak more on the same topic, which fed the book’s sales numbers.

Because marketing the first book had been so effortless on my part, I was very naïve about marketing my second book (Keeping the Lights on for Ike: Daily Life of a Utilities Engineer at AFHQ in Europe During WWII; or, What to Say in Letters Home When You’re Not Allowed to Write about the War, Sunbury Press, 2019). I had been an administrator in the latter years of my academic career, which left me with little time for my own work, and a book so far out of my disciplinary specialty had to wait until my retirement for its completion and publication. This second book had absolutely nothing to do with my professional discipline and everything to do with my family history. But then came the great awakening: the new book wouldn’t get read automatically like my first one had, not without lots of effort on my part in getting the word out. Further, for the first eight months after the book was published, I was up to my eyeballs with volunteer work, most of it at a small professional theatre in my local area, so it wasn’t until I stepped away from that situation and turned my full attention to my own concerns that I became aware of just what a big task marketing a new book was going to be. And marketing is very important because what good is a book if no one is reading it?

My publisher (Sunbury Press, Boiling Springs, PA) is a small company with big ambitions, but they don’t have a huge marketing operation like some of the major publishers do. They send out announcements about their offerings from time to time, and they use targeted marking lists for these announcements to make them effective, but they also rely on their authors to help sell their own books, which is the least we can do, given how well they support us in the final editing and production process of getting the book to print. But it’s all quite new to me. My new book is in the publisher’s and their distributor’s catalog of new works, but there’s no automatic market for the book like there had been the first time around, even though it’s possible this book will eventually appeal to a larger market than the more specialized work did. Further, I discovered when I approached some of the local bookshops in my community asking them to carry my book, that small booksellers were happy to order books if people asked for them by name. However, if I wanted my books on the shelves of these stores, where folks who were simply browsing could come across them serendipitously, I had to provide them myself. This was because there was a significant re-stocking penalty the stores had to pay if the books they ordered didn’t sell and had to be returned to the distributor, so it was hard for independent booksellers to take chances on unproven authors and new titles. Thus began my relationship with consignment bookselling, which required that I purchase copies of my own book (at a discounted author price) and make agreements with each bookstore in turn regarding the financial arrangements when and if the books were sold. Though I had some publicity cards for the book, most small bookstores didn’t have display room for them, even if they were willing to put a couple of copies of my book on their shelves. I was also on my own to arrange author events at various locations in my local area.

I’m a theatre person by training, and as a teacher for many years, public speaking comes easily for me (most of the time), so appearing at the events themselves is not the hardest part of book promotion. The interesting new challenges have been these: 1) making an author’s website (needed lots of help with this one); 2) creating a “fan list” (who knew one would be needed?) for occasional email newsletters; 3) getting organized to book the gigs that will allow me to talk about and get people interested in my book because I can no longer rely on professional conferences for those opportunities; and 4) creating this blog for those same purposes. At the heart of these new challenges is the fact that, as my identity as a writer is changing, so is my audience. I’m going from a specialized audience, one that I knew well, to a much more general audience, one that I’m still getting acquainted with. This blog, and the conversations it generates, will be one piece of that process of getting acquainted.

Next time I post, I’ll start sharing the story of how Keeping the Lights on for Ike came to life over a period of more than a decade since the source materials (letters, slides, scrapbooks, stories, and other memorabilia) came into my possession in the fall of 2006. Look for it in mid-March.