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 #10. Fiction or Nonfiction? Have I Ever Lied To You? Sadly Yes.

January 29, 2013

But first A Spot of History: As mentioned elsewhere in this blog, there were only 170 American men who were ever actively involved in the CRB as administrative volunteers in Belgium and North France, or in the New York, London and Rotterdam offices.

Decades after the war (and after World War Two), many of these CRB delegates gave oral histories to various libraries and historical institutions about their time spent working for Herbert Hoover and the CRB.

One of those delegates was my grandfather, Milton M. Brown (who is also the reason for this blog and my CRB work). Brown was interviewed back in the 1960s or early 1970s. During his oral history, Brown recounted a tale about Hoover at the very start of the relief work.
Hoover during the CRB Days, looking like a
young Robert Redford.

According to Brown, when the first relief shipment was ready to leave England for Rotterdam, Hoover went to the English War Department with clearance papers for the ship to get through the English blockade. The man at the window asked:
"What's in the ship?"
"Flour," Hoover replied.

"Where's it going?"
"To Belgium."
"But Belgium's under German occupation," the man said.
"That's why it's going there."
"Well, that's just why it's not," the clerk stated.

The next day Hoover was back at the same window with the same papers and the same clerk was there.
"What did we tell you yesterday about this flour shipment?"
"There's no use making a fuss about it," Hoover explained. "The ship's now unloading at Rotterdam."

America's "shirt-sleeve diplomacy" had begun.

Modern rendition of America's
"shirt-sleeve diplomacy" :)
[I have not yet confirmed  the historical accuracy of this story. It won't get into my book if I can't confirm it by at least one other primary source.]

My post: I hope my provocative Post Title has drawn the attention of numerous people -- the  more people to hear a confession, the better it is for the soul (no matter how painful to the teller).  

We probably all know about "family stories" -- those usually humorous, many times embarrassing tales of childhood or familyhood -- told so many times that each member can recite them word-for-word. Jeff examples: Mom flinging peas at Dad (in love, of course). Bill Hickey and Jeff tearing off roof shingles and throwing them like freebies (if I were Dad, I would have killed me!). Dad being engaged to three other women when he got engaged to Mom (Mom's response: "Oh, Vernon, don't be ridiculous!").

The one element that all such stories share is that they have a seed of truth to them. Beyond the seed, however, is everything from hype and hyperbole, to lies and damn lies. But all have been added for a good cause -- to make the story more fun and exciting.

What's this got to do with me and the CRB book?

Well, for 25 years, I've been telling one particular WWI story that I read about during my initial research. It's a fascinating, funny tale that I've loved to tell and, from the reactions I've received, others have enjoyed hearing it.

Sadly, much of it is simply not true. And yet I've firmly believed what I've been saying all these years.

How did I come to believe totally in a story that was only partially true? Here's what I think happened.

One of the great things about fiction is that you don't have to be factually accurate -- thus the name fiction! During my research days 25 years ago -- on my way to writing my historical novel -- I stumbled across the original story. It was pretty good. But the creative writer in me must have seen how it could be such a stronger story if only...

So I let my inner storyteller out to play and he easily embellished  the piece into a fine, funny tale. Once the new, improved story was in Honor Bound, my brain simply latched on to it as if it was the truth...the whole truth and nothing but the truth!

How did I discover my 25-year-old error?

Those who have been following this blog already know that I've been reacquainting myself with my 1980s research by typing up nearly 1,000 index cards (already done!) and typing up numerous legal pages filled with my handwritten research notes (deadline is January 31).

During these processes, I've once again come across the original story.  That's when I discovered that half of my story for the last 25 years has simply been the product of my imagination.

What's the story? It's the wine story I tell in Post #5: How Do I Want To Be Like Bill O'Reilly?"  

Quick Summary of My Version: With German soldiers nearly at his door, a rich Belgian takes all his wine and puts it in his ornamental lake. The next morning, just before the Germans arrive, he awakes to find all the labels have floated to the top of the lake. He quickly has all his servants gather up the labels and the Germans never find the wine. After the war, he holds famous dinner parties where no one knows exactly what they're drinking.

Quick Summary of the Real Story: With German soldiers nearly at his door, a rich Belgian takes most of his wine and puts it in his ornamental lake, leaving a few thousand bottles of new wine to hopefully fool the Germans. The Germans show up, aren't fooled by the new wine and start looking for the rest of the stash. That's when they see the labels floating to the top of the lake. They drain the lake and take the wine.

Why am I confessing this in my blog? I need to remind myself that my approach to this new CRB book -- a nonfiction historical narrative -- MUST be completely and totally accurate. I can't let any embellishing aspects of storytelling get in the way of the factual story.

That doesn't mean my book is going to be a dry recitation of facts and figures. Quite the contrary (if my plans are realized). But it will mean that anyone who reads my book can be assured that everything in it actually did happen, the way it happened.  As Bill O'Reilly writes on the dust jacket of his history book The Killing ofLincoln, the book "is history that reads like a thriller."

I learned the importance  of reporting accuracy in my 35 years as a professional journalist and as the author of my first history book, Stapleton International Airport:The First Fifty Years.

Now I've just re-learned it.

I've also decided that I will NOT re-read Honor Bound as part of my reacquainting myself with my 1980s work, simply because it would be impossible for me to discern truth from fiction.

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