Monthly Archives: October 2013

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That Ghostly Image in the Rearview Mirror May Be Real

In honor of Halloween, I thought I would tell you about a real ghost. Several years ago, when I set out to research my assignment regarding the heritage of some gold, it led me into a fascinating world of very real characters. The gold I sought was once in located in the Philippines. Naturally, my research led immediately to Ferdinand Marcos; however, there was another shadowy character who continually jumped out at me. His name was Santa Romana, and he also lived in the Philippines. At first, my research on Santa Romana turned up little information, almost as if the man didn’t exist.

Determined, I continued to pursue this mysterious man. I discovered that he was a deep CIA operative, working with individuals at the highest level of our government. But another fact jumped out, even more shocking. He had been a Roman Catholic priest and went by the alias Father Antonio Diaz. Before World War II, I have been told Father Diaz had been given the responsibility, by Pope Piux XII, to protect and move gold from Europe to the Philippines, because everyone feared Hitler would take the gold. Father Diaz, a.k.a Santa Romana, I believe supervised this move. This massive quantity of gold not only belonged to the Church, but some of it belonged to many of the wealthy families of Europe. I have even heard that, if successful in protecting the gold, Father Diaz was promised he’d be elevated to the rank of a Bishop. At the beginning of World War II in the Pacific, the Japanese took the islands of the Philippines and thus the gold. So instead of Germany getting the gold, it fell to the Japanese.

Throughout the remainder of Santa Romana’s life, he worked with first with the Army OSS (Office of Strategic Services), then later its successor, the CIA.  He led many lives under many alias. He worked behind the scenes with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos; however, he  always maintained his religious convictions or his priestly persona. Over the next several decades following World War II, Santa Romana’s primary black ops was to recover gold both for his own benefit and for that of those for whom he worked.

It was this research, plus the encouragement of my supporters, that led me to write the historical/political thriller The President’s Gold around living characters, such as Santa Romana. There were things about their lives that you could not make up—things so out there that they felt impossible to believe, though they were very real. Santa Romana was practically a ghost; there is very little official record of his existence or his work.

As an author of fiction, I found it quite a task to figure out how to keep my real characters interacting with my fictional characters, all the while maintaining accuracy with the historical research I’d completed on those real-life characters. Sometimes, such as in the case of Santa Romana, this becomes a difficult task, especially when there is little information available on that historical person. Therefore, I worked to compose a profile similar to how the police or FBI profiles an individual when a crime is committed with miniscule evidence. I sought (and fortunately, found) individuals who knew Santa Romana, which allowed my profile to expand.

What about you? Have you researched a living (or once living) character for your fictional writing? If so, I’d love to hear from you. Share your experience here, so that I, and other fellow writers, can learn more.

How Much Romance is Too Much Romance?

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 Photo by Graur Codrin

Walking the Tightrope in a Political Thriller

 

When I first started writing my novel The President’s Gold, I had a strong idea of what I wanted to cover in the story: the theft of Chinese war loot by the Japanese (referred to as Yamashita’s gold), and how Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos acquired it and kept it hidden—with US President Truman’s help. I wanted to aid in exposing the role the American government played in the scandal and the fraudulent dealings on which our world banking system is built.

What I didn’t want to do is write a romance novel. And yet, in many ways, I did just that.

Some of the best feedback I have received about my novel comes not only about the exposé of what is arguably the greatest state secret of our lifetime, but about the romantic relationship between my protagonist Franklin Young and his adversary-turned-lover Rosalita Laurel. Women, in particular, love this thread in the story, though I’ve had more than one man confess to having the hots for spicy Rosalita and her sometimes-wicked ways.

But how much romance is too much romance between fictional characters in a story that thrives not on only on action, but also on historic political events? The line is a fine one, indeed.

The Romance Writers of America (RWA) state that two basic elements are involved in a romance: a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending. The President’s Gold did not have a love story as its central element, nor did it have an optimistic ending for the couple, though Frank and Rosalita’s story certainly does not end with this novel. However, the subplot of the story, which deals with how a man can find love and maintain his ethical beliefs and personal morals while spying on and being manipulated by his government, certainly underscores the risks one will take for true, romantic—perhaps unconditional—love.

Major motion picture movies, from the classic Casablanca starring Humphrey Bogart to the more recent Mr. and Mrs. Smith starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, have proven the marketability of romance in politics. But is a romantic thread necessary, or even feasible, in a modern-day political thriller? Only if you want to capture a larger share of the market. In 2012, the romance genre raked in nearly $1.5 billion dollars in sales, according to Business of Consumer Book Publishing 2013. What’s not to love about that?

What do you think, readers? Do lovers of historical fiction and political fiction enjoy a scoop of romance atop their thriller? If you’re a romance reader, do you appreciate the suspense and thrill of action—even actual history—that buoys a romantic thread and keeps it moving at a fast pace? Share your opinions here, and let’s examine the tightrope that carries us from the ledge of a thriller to one of romance.

Bruce Willis, 3000 Pairs of Boogie Shoes and Presidential Discotheques

I have to admit . . . I was a more than a little surprised to learn that David Byrne (former front man for the Talking Heads) has a new musical about Imelda Marcos and her disco dancing days. The musical is called “Here Lies Love” (reviewed here) and features actress Ruthie Ann Miles portraying the First Lady of the Philippines shaking her groove thang.

Of course, surprise is one of those emotions that comes often to me as I’m researching scenes for historically accurate writing, which is what led to Imelda’s disco scene in my fictional novel The President’s Gold. For example, I was surprised to learn, while researching the layout of the Marcoses’ Malacanang Presidential Palace, that Imelda had a discotheque built atop the palace.

Sure, I knew about her shoe fetish—who hasn’t heard that she owned over 3,000 pairs of designer shoes? But a custom-built disco hall in which to wear your boogie shoes? I mean, can you imagine what we’d say if Michelle Obama spent taxpayer dollars on a mirrored disco ball and private performances by top rock bands, as Imelda did during her tenure as First Lady of the Philippines?

Too bad Imelda no longer hosts private disco parties, because maybe, just maybe, she could invite Bruce Willis and his friends to entertain her with a Boy Dance Party, as seen this past weekend on NBC’s Saturday Night Live.

Research—and the surprising results to which it often leads writers—is one of the best parts of writing historically accurate scenes. What have you discovered recently when researching facts for your own stories? And while we’re at it, what do you think about a Presidential Palace with a private discotheque? Isn’t it amazing what stolen war gold can buy! 

 

–Don Kesterson

When Fiction Meets History

When fictional characters interact with real people, writers worry about being sued. Since many of the characters in my novels are historical figures, I worried. I worried so much I drove four hours to visit an attorney who specializes in such things. And, thankfully, I learned I’ve got the law on my side.

However, there are things we need to remember when we allow our characters to bump into real people. First, we need to differentiate between public figures and non-public figures. Normal, everyday, non-famous people are afforded more right to privacy than are public figures. Therefore, while it’s fine to mention a public figure in your novel (as long as what you say is either true or non-defamatory), even saying something that is both true and non-defamatory about your neighbor or your third grade teacher can land you in trouble. Why? Because they have a right to privacy. If you really want to use your third grade teacher in your novel, it’s important to change his name and his description, including what grade he taught and where he taught it, so no one could reasonably identify him based upon the things you’ve said.

Public figures do not share in this right to privacy. Because they have typically benefited in one way or another by being a public figure, they have revoked their right to expect privacy. Therefore, it is fine to use a public figure in your fiction as long as what you say about him or her is either true or non-defamatory. For example, you may have your twelve-year-old character bump into Chicago Bear’s Quarterback Jay Cutler. If you portray Jay as a nice guy who autographs a photo for the kid or if you use a perhaps not-so-flattering but factual incident as a guide, you’re fine. But if you make up a story about Mr. Cutler that is both untrue and not very nice—such as saying the kid witnesses Jay shoplifting a candy bar at a convenience store—you’re walking on thin lawsuit ice with suited sharks circling just beneath the surface.

Since much of what I have written about public figures is not just unflattering but downright frightening, I did my homework. I researched. I spoke to people who personally knew these famous individuals. I researched some more. I made sure that if I said General Ver kept as souvenirs the eyeballs of those he killed, it was well-documented that this was something he did. If I portrayed Imelda Marcos as vain and Ferdinand Marcos as narcissistic, well, history bears that out.

Bottom line: Do your homework. If you use common people in your fiction, tread carefully, disguise, and/or gain written permissions. If you use living public figures in your fiction, be sure you do not defame. If you use dead public figures, be true to history, although know it’s legally not possible to defame a dead person. Still, you want to remain as accurate as you can to protect your integrity as a writer. Good luck!

Disclaimer: I am not an attorney and I cannot dispense legal advice. If you are uncertain about your potential liability in presenting a real person in your fiction, please discuss this with an attorney familiar with libel law.

The Flawed Hero or a True Evil Villain?

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Image courtesy of bandrat / FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Can a good guy in a story really be 100% good? Would we love him as much if he were? Each of us has faults and flaws, and in a powerful work of fiction, it’s important that we have characters in whom we see reflected a tiny bit of ourselves—the good and the bad.

Recent popular series such as Showtime’s Dexter, AMC’s The Walking Dead and AMC’s Breaking Bad star protagonists (good guys) who did terribly bad things—murder-and-cooking-crystal-meth-kind-of-bad things. Yet these stories are hugely popular. If you’ve ever taken a fiction-writing class, you’ve likely been told to give every good guy in your story a flaw, and give every bad guy a redeeming quality. It makes them more human, more relatable to the rest of us.

In my recently published political thriller, The President’s Gold (Book One in the forthcoming Gold novel series), I worked to make each of my main characters walk this tightrope between good and evil, and I believe I succeeded—with one exception. General Fabian Ver, who was actually once a living person and the vicious henchman of the Philippine’s President Ferdinand Marcos, is depicted in the novel as I believe he really was in life; as pure evil. No matter how far and wide I looked for wonderful things this man did for humanity, my research revealed only more and more heinous, brutal acts. He tortured, he maimed and he killed, all in the name of finding hidden war loot stolen from the Japanese. I should also tell you that his methods of torture were the kinds that make Jason Vorhees of the Friday the 13th horror franchise seem like a mischievous kid in a Pittsburgh Penguins mask. In other words, Ver was the epitome of wickedness. Hence, I depicted him as such.

Readers and writers, what do you think? Do you favor antiheroes in a story, or do you prefer knights in shining armor who can do no wrong? And do you believe an antagonist—the baddest of the bad—should be portrayed with redeeming qualities? What was your impression of General Fabian Ver in The President’s Gold? Please leave me a note below. I look forward to reading your thoughts!

–Don Kesterson