Necessary Background Info

When I was a teenager, I was close to my maternal grandfather, Milton M. Brown. I was fascinated by the time he spent as a "delegate" in Herbert Hoover's WWI Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB). He was one of only 185 American supervisors who ever worked for the CRB. After he died in 1979, I inherited all his diaries, correspondence and photographs from that period (1916-1917).

From 1986 through 1989, I worked full time researching the time period, WWI, the CRB, and numerous delegates. From those efforts, I wrote an 850-page historical novel, Honor Bound. I had a few nibbles -- agents and publishers who asked for the entire manuscript -- but no one offered a contract. In the late 1990s, I made a half-hearted attempt to rewrite the novel, but it didn't go far.

After my second book, Facing Your Fifties: Every Man's Reference to Mid-life Health came out in 2002 (and was included in Publishers Weekly's Best Books of 2002), my agent looked at Honor Bound. He suggested the topic would do well -- and fit my writing strengths -- if it was a history book written in novel-like style.

At the end of 2012, as I turned 60 years old, I came to the conclusion that it was time to take up this incredible humanitarian story again and see if I could make it work.

After more than a year of researching and writing, and with the help of a talented book team, I published Behind the Lines: WWI's little-known story of German occupation, Belgian resistance, and the band of Yanks who helped save millions from starvation. 1914. It detailed the complex and chaotic beginnings of the CRB and CN during the critical first five months of the war (August to December, 1914). It was released in October 2014 in time for the 100-year anniversary of the start of WWI and the CRB.

Since then, I'm happy to report that Behind the Lines has garnered national recognitions and reviews that include a Kirkus Starred Review (only 750 out of 10,000 books annually reviewed by Kirkus are awarded a Starred Review) and inclusion in Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2014. The last sentence of the review states: "An excellent history that should catapult Miller to the top tier of popular historians." You can read all the reviews at the book's website, which can be reached by clicking here.

Below are my blog posts about re-immersing myself in this important humanitarian topic. The posts start in Dec. 2012 and come up to the present. The posts are laid out with the most recent first. A "List of All My Posts" is on the bottom right of this page. I start each post with a quick snippet of history. I used to call this item "A Spot of History," but now it's titled "Don't-Forget-WWI Project."

My main forcus now is to finish researching and writing WWI Crusaders, which tells the riveting full story of the American CRB delegates from August, 1914 to April, 1917, when America entered the war and the CRB delegates had to leave Belgium and Northern France.

I hope you find something of interest within this blog. For more information about Behind the Lines and/or WWI Crusaders, please go to the books' website by clicking here.

Post #5. How Do I Want to Be Like Bill O'Reilly?

December 25, 2012 – Merry Christmas!

First, A Spot of History: In August 1914, as German soldiers sweep through Belgium on their way to France, they steal much of the wine held in private wine cellars. Some Belgians build false walls to hide their stock, but these are usually discovered.
One quick-witted baron orders his servants to throw all his wine into the ornamental lake in front of his chateau and jokes that besides being safe from the Germans, the wine will stay at the proper temperature.
The next morning, with the Germans nearly at his door, the baron wakes up to find all the wine labels have floated to the top of the lake!
The baron freaks out and orders his servants into the lake. Stripping off their fine embroidered livery, the most junior of the staff dive into the scummy waters and grimly go about gathering up the labels. 
Happily, during the following four years of war, the Germans never find the wine in the lake. After the war, the baron’s parties become famous for their imaginative use of unknown wines.

[Sadly, this story is not all true. See Post #10 to learn the story.]
Now to My Post:  So, how do I want to be like Bill O’Reilly?

Well, as any of my friends and family will tell you, it’s certainly not to emulate his political views!

It’s to follow in his footsteps as a successful nonfiction author.

Yesterday, Christmas Eve, I read a piece by Leslie Kaufman in the New York Times, about how O’Reilly has somehow found the right mix of fact and writing style to create two separate million-seller books: “Killing Lincoln” and “Killing Kennedy” that now sit 1 and 2 on the NYTimes Best Seller list.

Think about it: These are two of the most famous assassinations in U.S. history and have been written about more often than probably any others. When it comes to the sheer volume of articles and books produced from these topics, they have to be the most over done and over covered in historical writings – kind of like Taylor Swift and Paris Hilton in the entertainment world.

And yet, O’Reilly has somehow fashioned two best-selling books that are both history books and fast-paced page-turners.

That’s what I want to do with the CRB.

But how?

In classes that I’ve taught, I’ve said that creative writing courses have been around for only 150 years, and yet great writing has been produced since the dawn of written language.

Why is that?

To me, it’s all about critical reading. Countless want-to-be writers have become good writers by studying why some pieces of writing speak to all of us – making us laugh, cry or think – while others suck big time and are only good for wrapping fish.

Writers – to be good writers – have to understand what makes great writing great and bad writing bad, so they can do more of one and less of the other. Simple and straightforward, and yet surprisingly difficult to execute.

While I promise (threaten? :) to pontificate in other Posts about what makes great writing, for now I’ll just say that I’ve asked Susan (my charming wife of 29 years) for only one present on my 60th Birthday (Dec. 27, 2012) – a copy of O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln.

I intend to read it first for the pure joy of reading. Then I intend to reread it and tear it apart. The only way I’m going to learn how he did what he did is to shred it into little pieces. From that dissection, I hope to gain some insight into how I might be able to create the same Best Seller “Magic” that O’Reilly has achieved.

Of course this isn’t the first time I’ve thought of emulating someone by analyzing his or her book. Over the years, I’ve built up quite a collection of magnificent historical narratives that I would love to copy. I will be re-reading them in coming months to help me create my CRB book.

For anyone’s who interested, here are the books I've found to be truly spectacular history-book reads.
1.      Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand
2.      King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild
3.      Devil in the White City by Eric Larson (although ultimately disappointing in the ending)

I would love to hear any suggestions of other great nonfiction historical narratives that you think I should read.

1 comment:

  1. Well, Jeff, you had to ask! My list is in no particular order and (as one card-carrying historian to another) is certainly incomplete. All are narrative works: some deal with individuals, some with events, some with geography, some with the concept of telling history. Pellegrino's book was pulled by the publisher due to questions about his sources, but it is still a gripping narrative. Limerick's introduction in "Sweet Medicine" is a great essay on interpreting and telling history from a distance and from up close. "Telling the Truth About History" examines American historiographic motives in a narrative, mid-1990s manner.


    "Killing for Coal" Thomas G. Andrews
    "The Contested Plains" Elliott West
    "Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910" Stephen Pyne
    "The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism" Aaron Sachs
    "American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California" James Gregory
    "The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction" Linda Gordon
    "Sweet Medicine: Sites of Indian Massacres, Battlefields, and Treaties" Patricia Nelson Limerick
    "The Last Train from Hiroshima: The Survivors Look Back" Charles Pellegrino (great narrative, but pulled by publisher due to questions regarding some of Pellegrino's sources)
    "Telling the Truth About History" Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, Margaret Jacob