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 #20: What do Plattsburgh, NY, Claude Debussy and Norfolk Jackets have in Common?

November 18, 2013

A Spot of History: As we all know -- without thinking too hard about it -- our individual lives do not happen in a bubble. Our thoughts, feelings, actions and reactions are predicated not on a specific moment in time. They are, in fact, founded in and created by a vast array of events,  experiences and information we have collected prior to the present moment.

What does this have to do with a book about the CRB and WWI?

It's all about context, of course. Take an obvious example -- the excellent book, 1776 by the great historian/writer David McCullough. To do the excellent job he did, McCullough had to fully research and understand not only the year 1776 but the decades before and what had previously influenced and impacted the characters in his book.

Pretty obvious stuff, I'll grant you. But how far does an author go in seeking out this contextual knowledge? The pursuit of such information can suck the topic right out from under an author's feet, like a giant sinkhole. That's because these historical sinkholes draw in their victims with  fascinating bits and pieces of information that many times lead further and further away from the original topic.

I continually have to scramble out of one historical sinkhole, only to find myself being swallowed up by another.

Small cases in point: What do 1. Plattsburgh, NY; 2. Claude Debussy; and 3. Norfolk jackets have in common?  

Answer: They're all topics that I've followed down a sinkhole while reading various CRB-related books, correspondence, journals and documents. Here's how I got sucked in:

1. Perrin Galpin, a CRB delegate, mentioned in an oral history given at Columbia University in 1956 that after leaving the CRB he returned to Yale and went "to Plattsburgh because, like a lot of other people, I felt that we were going to get into the war and I might as well do what I could to prepare for it. I went to Plattsburgh in 1916."
It turns out that Plattsburgh is a town in New York that became famous as the start of  "Plattsburgh camps." They were the physical manifestation of the Preparedness Movement, which had been launched by  a group of  influential Americans who were sure the nation would one day join the Allies in their fight against the Germans. These prominent men wanted to give individuals a chance to voluntarily participate in a pre-enlistment training program, so they established camps to do just that during the summers of 1915 and 1916. Plattsburgh was the largest and best known. In the end, approximately 40,000 men attended these camps.

Plattsburgh's Preparedness Camp, courtesy
So, who were these influential men? Who ran the camps? Who attended? What was taught? Did it cost anything?

Oh, no! Is that the ground moving beneath my feet again?

2. Madame Saint-Rene Taillandier in her book, The Soul of the CRB (published in 1919), referred to a composition by Claude Debussy entitled "Christmas of the Belgian Children." After a little research, I found out that it was an anti-German Christmas protest song written and composed in 1915. It's usually referred to as a Christmas carol for homeless children and online websites say that it's about little French children. No matter what nationality, the children are actually asking Jesus not to bring Christmas to German children because of the horrors the German fathers have brought down upon them and their families. As one online blog site ( says: It's "possibly the saddest Christmas song ever, depicting the revengeful thoughts of those miserable orphans in war."

You can hear it performed at this YouTube Video.

So, was the song ever performed in 1915? Where and by whom? What was the reaction from audiences and critics? What did Debussy think of it years later?
Oh no! I feel myself sliding downward again.

3. Fred Eckstein (later Exton), a CRB delegate, writes to his mother on June 28, 1916 and mentions another delegate William H. Sperry. (Source: Hoover Institution, Stanford.) "He is a curious character. He comes from Calif. and talks like a back woodsman and his French is like his English. I have heard extraordinary language in my day but none as picturesque as his. He looks and acts like an Indian. Then he gets himself all dolled up with a cowboy hat, Norfolk jacket, white spats and loud tan shoes. They don't understand him here. But outside of all this, he's a corker but rude polish he has acquired makes him a scream."

I've come to love Bill Sperry -- who wouldn't? -- but after such a vivid description from Fred, how could I NOT want to know what a Norfolk jacket is? Well, as Wikipedia states, it's a "loose, belted, single-breasted jacket with box pleats on the back and front, with a belt or half-belt." See the photo that was also provided on the website.
So who developed the Norfolk jacket and when? For how long was it in fashion? How much did one cost?

Damn! Sucked into another historical sinkhole!
See what I mean? These are small examples of what I face every day. While it certainly makes life interesting, it also fills my little brain with an incredible amount of useless bits of information. As an author -- with limited brain storage capacity -- I have to keep reminding myself of the old adage that the hardest part about writing a book is not what to put in but what to leave out.  

My Post: Well, it's been a long time since I put up a post (July, in fact). I do have some good excuses:

1. Two trips to a sick sister in Portland, OR -- one in September and one in November. The last one was an unexpected emergency in which we thought she wasn't going to make it. While she did make it through that crisis, I wonder how many more she'll be able to survive after three years of fighting a brain tumor and spinal tumor. She has fought a heroic fight, but she's pretty tired now...

2. An incredible two-and-a-half-week October celebration of the fact that my wife, Susan, has put up with me for 30 years, and that we're both 60 years old this year. We did a cruise on a small ship (the Windstar) through the Greek isles and Turkey, then three days in Istanbul, followed by four days in Lisbon. We couldn't have asked for anything better, more relaxing and fun.

3. After arriving home from that glorious trip at 10 p.m., I was in the ER at 10:30 and ended up for two nights in ICU and another night in a regular hospital room with a rare throat condition that could have killed me on the plane home! It took more than a week at home before I was relatively normal again.

4. The CRB Work -- In between the above events, I have been so focused on work, reading/assimilating/indexing, that I've barely found the time to eat, sleep and be nice to Susan.

So there you have it, some pretty good excuses for not posting more frequently.

To end this entry on a more positive note, here are some stats about the four foundations that will build my book:

1. Index cards. More than 2,000 now. I'm estimating there will be 3,000 or so when I'm done researching.

2. Cast of Characters -- more than half of the 180 people in my Xcel spreadsheet have at least some kind of information attached.

3. Monthly Narrative -- In this other Xcel spreadsheet, nearly every month between August 1914 and April 1917 has multiple stories that will ultimately show me the ebb and flow of my book.

4. Great Quotes -- this Word document currently contains 50 categories, 286 pages and more than 167,000 words, all of which I've typed.

Lastly, I want to point out that as my deadline box in the upper right says, I was hoping to start writing December 1st. Putting the first real words to paper on such a big project is always a tremendous psychological hurdle, one that I was looking forward to overcoming -- albeit anxiously, I must admit.

Then something magical happened.

Back on Thursday, November 7, I began the day as usual with a half-an-hour work out on my faithful Nordic Track in my basement. While doing so, I had a great inspiration and went flying up stairs to my office. Slamming the door and screaming to my wife that I didn't want to be disturbed, I began working. About three hours later I came out with the book's first 547 words.

Now I'm realistic enough to know that these words will probably not survive the thousand rounds of edits I'll do on them. But I also know that this was a gigantic symbolic and psychological hurdle that I overcame. The book is now can't be unstarted. It can be redirected, reorganized, redone, but in my book, it can't be unstarted. Now, no matter how long it takes to complete the book -- six months, a year? -- it's begun its long journey.

As you can imagine, the relief and excitement are overwhelming. But I took no time to celebrate as I headed right back into my still unread research and left my 547 words to cool. Keep your fingers crossed that I still like those words when I read them again!

Thanks for taking the time to read my post.

End of Post.

1 comment:

  1. Great to see you're 'back in the saddle' both with this blog and with writing.
    I know that historical sinkholes are real [and real dangerous!] as I have slipped into several in my endeavors. One benefit is that you come out knowing more than you knew when you went in.