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 #15: An Imp of a Man and Chiseling Away at an Unformed Block

April 14, 2013

A Spot of History: When Germany invaded Belgium on August 4, 1914, Hugh Gibson was  
Hugh Gibson, Library of Congress
Secretary of the U.S. Legation in Belgium and soon to celebrate his 31st birthday (Aug. 16).

In those critical first months of the war, Hugh -- as a diplomat from a neutral country -- was a tireless worker. He crisscrossed the little Low Country as an American observer, traveled back and forth to England to help establish food relief, and aided in developing the working relationship between the CRB, the CN (Comite Nationale), and the German occupying government.

That's all in the official records.

Unofficially, there was a lot more to Hugh.

He was renowned as a practical joker with a dry, biting sense of humor. Many photos of him during this time seem to bear this out as they show an imp of a man with a secretive smile and lively face.

One of his more complicated practical jokes -- which backfired monumentally -- was known by the moniker, Fort Jako (the name of a Belgian insane asylum). Sadly, for anyone reading this blog, the story is too involved -- and too good -- to retell here, so you'll have to wait and read it in my finished book.

As for Hugh's dry humor: He once described someone as "the man who can strut sitting down." [multiple sources.]

And after a visit to Louvain (the famous university town decimated by the Germans), he told CRBer Prentiss Gray: "I had my Kodak with me and I asked a German officer in one of the streets near the University if I might take a picture. 'Go right ahead,' he said, 'there are some very good ones in that house over there.'" [Source: HHPL, Gibson Collection]

Using his keen observational skills, Hugh documented many of the war's large and small events in his diary, letters and well-written book,  A Journal from our Legation in Belgium (Doubleday, 1917).  

Altogether, Hugh was a guy I would have loved to share a few beers with.

My post: I've just returned from three full days of research at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library (HHPL) in West Branch, Iowa. I must say that Matt Schaefer, Spencer Howard and Craig Wright (the archive staff) were knowledgeable, helpful and friendly. They not only found what I was looking for, but also found what I didn't even know existed (yet needed). Thanks, guys! I wish all my library research trips were as easy, fun and productive.

(On a cuisine note, lovers of oatmeal raisin cookies should take note that one of the best I've ever tasted was at the intimate little Reid's Beans Coffee Shoppe Cafe,, on Main Street, West Branch.)   

Because I'm still in the collection stage of this project (see post #14 for the various stages), I was at HHPL not to read and assimilate information, but to skim and gather possibly relevant material that I'll read later. As such, I was highly successful, making 740 photocopies and taking 270 digital photos of articles, documents, diaries, letters and images. This complements all the material I collected at HHPL during my research visit in 2011 and through my research-via-mail in 1985.

Next week, I go to Princeton for three days of research at the Firestone and Mudd libraries. Two weeks later, I go to the Hoover Institution (HI) on the Stanford campus for four days of the same.

Once those trips are done, I'll have the lion's share of my collection stage completed and it will be time to begin the critical -- and difficult -- read/assimilate/index stage.

I've already been thinking about this stage and how it will reveal what I need to include -- and, more importantly, exclude -- in my finished book.

To me, the conceptualizing of my CRB book is similar to how I approached  my travel articles during my 13 years as a freelance travel writer. Before I left on a trip, I would learn as much as I could about the destination. Most times, I would have a general idea of what my topic/theme/angle might be for the articles I'd write. But in the end, it was only after experiencing the place that I would know for sure what my angle was. Sometimes it would be what I had envisioned pre-trip, but many times, because of my experiences, the angle would have morphed into something completely different.  

Right now, the understanding of  the CRB I gained from my 1980s research has given me a general idea of  what my book's structure should be. But I know it will be only after immersing myself in the newly collected material that I'll "see" the true structure and content of my book.

Then -- like sculptors have explained in the past -- I hope to chisel away all the extra material from the unformed block so the the book I've envisioned is revealed.

I know I'm starting with a GREAT block, it now remains to be seen if my chisel is up to the task.  

End of post.

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