Tag Archives: Fiction Writing

Vietnam – Undermining the Geneva Peace Conference

As I wrote in my previous blog on Vietnam and the Geneva Peace Conference, politicians on both sides made agreements at the conference table that neither side planned to follow. The Geneva Peace Conference Accords favored the North, mostly because it was driven by China’s Zhou En-lai and the North Vietnamese Representatives.

The first thing Ho Chi Minh did was kill off political opposition to him within North Vietnam. Next, Ho sent Viet Minh soldiers into South Vietnam to intimidate and kill innocent civilians. Soon their intimidation turned to recruiting people in the South to follow their cause—or die. To say the least, it was an effective campaign.

The United States did not earn any angel wings, either, but remember, neither the United States nor South Vietnam signed the Accords. However, they did say they would comply with those Accords.

But in this blog, I want to focus on two of my favorite real-life people—Edward Lansdale and Lucien Conein. They were true American heroes from a time when we needed men such as these. I love these guys—they’re so full of larger-than-life qualities—both good and bad. Great for writing.

In the summer of 1954, Lansdale, an Air Force Colonel and CIA agent whose specialty was counter-insurgency, led a team of agents that included  CIA agents Conein as his second in command  as well as Theodore Shackley into Vietnam to begin a series of covert operations against North Vietnam. Many of those sabotage missions failed.Their goal was to mount a propaganda campaign to persuade the Vietnamese people in the South not to vote for the Communists in future elections.

Conein’s “cover” going back into Vietnam was to arrange air transport for northerners fleeing the Communist Viet Minh. However, his assignment was to sabotage the victorious Viet Minh takeover of northern Vietnam by creating a stay-behind setup for possible guerrilla resistance. Besides sabotaging the public transportation system detailed above, Conein was to leave behind necessary supplies for a rebellion against the Communist regime. He came up with the novel idea of packing military hardware into coffins and burying them in cemeteries. However, the anti-Communist uprisings never materialized. In October 1954g, in the last days the U.S. personnel were to be in Hanoi, a special CIA-trained team led by Conein contaminated the oil supply for the public transportation. This was done so the motors would fail slowly.

Conein was never short on creativity. When the French were pulling out of Vietnam and very up-set with the Americans, Lansdale requested the new US Ambassador fortify his personal residence. The Ambassador didn’t heed his advice. So, on his way home from dinner, Conein drove by the Ambassador’s residence and tossed a live grenade on his front yard. I can just see the man laughing all the way home.

The next day, the Ambassador accepted Lansdale’s suggestion.

As election time rolled around in South Vietnam, Lansdale’s role broadened to finding a leader who could consolidate power. Both North and South Vietnam had been “governed” by territorial warlords for decades. As mentioned earlier, Ho Chi Minh did what he needed to do to consolidate his power in the North with the help of Red China and to a lesser degree the Soviet Union. In the South, Lansdale selected Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic in a predominately Buddhist country, from a number of warlords to run against Bao Dai, the former emperor and a member of the Vietnamese royal family. Bao Dai had been propped up as a figurehead by the French prior to World War II, but he fled the country when the Japanese invaded. So when election time came in October 1955, the South Vietnamese people were asked to choose between Bao Dai and Diem for the leadership of the country. Lansdale suggested that Diem have the election commission provide two ballots, a red one for those voting for Diem and a green one for those voting for Bao Dai. Lansdale made this suggestion because of the Vietnamese belief that red signified good luck while green indicated bad fortune—just another small way in which he could help influence the result.

During the voting process, Diem supporters dominated the polling places. Some voters claimed they were told to put the red ballots in envelopes and to throw the green ballots away. There was also violence against Bao Dai voters. Basically, the election was held under third-world conditions. Lansdale believed he had to consolidate power quickly because he thought it was only a matter of time before the Communists would resort to open warfare.

With the results never in doubt, Diem told Lansdale and US officials that he’d won 98.2 % of the vote. Lansdale warned him these figures would not be believed and suggested he publish a figure of around 70 %. Diem refused, as the Americans predicted, since he used the higher figures, it was the beginning of mistrust of his administration from the very beginning.

Lansdale’s next assignment was to train the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) in modern fighting methods. In May 1956, the US sent 350 military advisors, which was a direct violation of the Geneva Accords.

The Geneva Peace Conference Accords called for talks to begin between the two Vietnams in July 1956 to set forth plans for elections late the following year to unify the divided country. Diem refused to comply. The US knew Diem was so unpopular that he had no chance of being elected against Ho Chi Minh. As a result, the US had to scramble to come up with a solution to this imminent crisis.

So, long before the US officially joined the Vietnam conflict by sending troops, Lansdale and Conein were there stirring the pot.

Were you aware of this part of world history? Do you think these things still go on today?

Writing about Gold in the Philippines

In 1996, I was asked to appraise and discover the history of a gold certificate. This led me into a ten-year research project mostly centered in the Philippines, but also in Southeast Asia. The research became so fascinating I decided to write a book centered on the subject of gold.

During World War II, the Japanese had a recovery team, the Golden Lily, named for Emperor Hirohito’s favorite poem growing up. The Golden Lily group was composed of a team led by Hirohito’s brother Prince Chichibu, and it included Prince Takeda, Prince Mikasa, Colonel Taisho, Major Nakasone, Rear Admiral Yoshio Kodama and Rear Admiral Ryoichi Sasakawa.

The Golden Lily’s recovery began in China, first taking gold from Manchuria, then NanJing. As the Japanese continued to conquer territories throughout Asia, they removed that country’s gold, taking it to Nagano Bullion Bunker at the Emperor’s palace. Later in World War II, as the United States Navy began to rule the seas of the Pacific, the Japanese changed their tactics and started taking the gold to the Philippines. At the beginning of World War II, the Philippines was a United States territory and was one of the first territories conquered by the Japanese. Hirohito and the Japanese military staff believed that, even if they lost the War to the United States, they could negotiate to keep the territory of the Philippines. However, when Germany surrendered before them in 1945, their plans fell apart. By the time Japan surrendered in September 1945, they had buried extensive amounts of gold throughout the Philippines. The Japanese didn’t just bury the gold; they buried the soldiers and slaves (POWs) who assisted with the burial. Additionally, they booby-trapped the burial sites. The Golden Lily team prepared encrypted maps to document how to recover the gold. Only two sets of maps were made, so that, in theory, only the Japanese could recover that gold.

Japan was forced to unconditionally surrender, thus no Philippines. Almost immediately, the Japanese began to locate and recover gold in the Philippines. Yoshio was the first of the Japanese to return to the Philippines to recover gold. Two years after World War II, President Truman started the CIA, but the United States was experiencing a poor post-war economy, so their budget was very small and incapable of competing with the British MI-6 and the Soviet spy network. The CIA need funds to operate, so they turned to Captain Edward Lansdale, who had run a underground network in the Philippines toward the end of World War II, to use his organization to recover gold in the Philippines. Lansdale turned his recovery operation over to Santa Romana, also known as Father Jose Antonio Diaz, who was in the Philippines at the beginning of World War II as a Catholic priest. Very little information is available on Santa Romana, one of the most critical men in the funding of the CIA. Most people have never heard of this very important individual in the fight against communism, as he operated as far into the background as he possibly could.

Fast forward to the late 1960’s, when President Ferdinand Marcos was elected. Marcos served in the military during World War II, and when the War was over, he got into politics and made connections with many influential diplomats. These connections led Marcos to gold recovery operations never seen in the history of the world. By the mid-1970’s, Ferdinand Marcos was by far the richest man in the world, and his security team was led by the evil Colonel Fabian Ver, who prevented anybody else from recovering gold in the country.Silhouette fedora

This and more was what I uncovered during my ten-year research of the gold certificate. So I wrote a 1000-page history book about Southeast Asia including my findings. My editors were reviewing the history book; they believe the part about Marcos and the gold made a good work of fiction. Thus, I created several fictional characters, dropped them into the Philippines and the history regarding the recovery of gold in the Philippines and called it The President’s Gold. I had so much fun writing that novel that I went back and wrote the prequel to it, Gold of the Spirits, for which I am currently seeking agent representation. I also have planned a sequel to The President’s Gold, picking up where The President’s Gold left off.

 

The Past in the Present

I’m an author of fiction. Political thrillers. Historical fiction. It sometimes strikes me as odd to write a scene set in the 1960s in which one of my characters opens a metal can of Hunt’s Snack Pack Pudding or spoons Sanka Coffee into a percolator coffee pot, only to finish writing my scene and then pop a K-Cup into my Keurig, or warm a pastry in my microwave. This odd juxtaposition of the past and the present may fill my days, but it cannot fill—or even momentarily appear in—my stories.

It’s crucial for a writer of historical fiction to perform due diligence in research. Given that the World Wide Web is a click away, and Internet search engines put facts at our fingertips, there really is no excuse for sloppy errors of misinformation in our work. (Always verify information found on the internet with at least two sources, as inaccuracies abound on the Web). Your local library is a fantastic source for reference books, and most librarians make wonderful research liaisons.

Accurate portrayal of pop culture icons can anchor a scene in a specific year or era, as can the popular slang and the music of a particular decade. You may also want to include references to the social climate of the year in which your story is set. For example, the novel I’m currently writing is set in early 1960s America, and racism was a hot-button issue of the day. I may include in my story references to Martin Luther King, Jr’s powerful speech, or to the racially motivated murder of Medgar Evers. These events are vivid memories in the minds of many readers who lived through them, and it’s crucial that I depict and refer to them accurately.

Take care when adding historical facts to your story that you do not slip into a history lesson. If a reader wants that, she’ll pick up a textbook, not a novel. Allow your characters to make a brief, natural comment in dialogue about a current event during their time, but don’t force it. Reference the history, but don’t slip into it, because doing that removes the reader from the action at hand.

Your story must move forward. Action is crucial. Active voice is critical. However, with attention to detail, accurate portrayal of historical facts, and authentic references to social, economic and cultural happenings, your readers can move forward while traveling through the past.

Do you have any tips on researching historical details for your fiction? Share with us here, and let’s compare notes.

My (First) First Draft

 

I’m currently hard at work revising my third novel and outlining my fourth. Lately, when I’ve told anyone I’m a writer it seems every other person asks me, “Are you participating in NaNoWriMo?”

I have to admit, I feel a bit guilty when I tell them No. I go on to explain that, before I wrote three novels, I wrote a history book that took me several years to write, and each of my novels requires about a year of my time to complete. Some find that remarkable, perhaps because they’re surprised that a geologist by day creates fictional characters at night, or perhaps it’s because I don’t do it in thirty days.

Anyone who completes—or even gives a wholehearted attempt toward writing—the first draft of a book-length manuscript deserves resounding applause. It’s a difficult task to develop important story questions that pique a reader’s interest, create a rounded character, instill voice, set a visual scene and build tension—and that’s just what’s required on the first page of a good story!

As we roll into November, the chatter among writers about the growing phenomenon of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo can put undue pressure on those of us who have a slower first-draft writing process. NaNoWriMo, in case you aren’t familiar with it, is a challenge in which participants strive to complete the first draft of a novel during the thirty days of November. As impressive and lofty as the challenge sounds, it’s something in which you won’t find me participating.

Why?

Let me tell you about my first draft process—specifically, my first first draft—and you’ll understand my reasons.

After I spent considerable time (years) researching material for my history book, the next logical step (in my mind) was to place all that research into a reasonable format: a Microsoft Word document. I sat surrounded by notebooks, computer printouts, articles, and scraps of paper with scribbled (sometimes indiscernible) quotations I’d copied. It hit me then that I would need to cite these resources.  “Where did I read that?” became a familiar wail coming from my office.

As I researched the sources of these quotes and snippets of information, I came across new information, and my mind would springboard to a different idea or topic that required more research. Can you guess where this led me? It led me to more than 1,000 pages of typed information. Single-spaced.

Yes, my first draft—ever—ended up clocking in at over 500,000 words. Five hundred thousand!

My supportive wife—an angel if ever there was one—read every page. She marked typos, pointed out redundancies and offered suggestions. When she returned the tome to me, I was frustrated beyond measure. I’d spent what felt like a lifetime on this project, and now it was covered in red ink!

I needed help. Professional help.

What does a researcher do when they need help? They research a solution, of course, which led me to Inspiration for Writers, Inc., a professional editing service that placed my baby (my first draft) into a caring editor’s arms, and that editor whittled and nurtured and revised my history book into a manageable manuscript that’s currently making the rounds with university presses.

Since then, I’ve branched into fiction, writing a series of political thrillers that make excellent use of all that historical data I spent years collecting. While I still don’t work from an outline, I do work from a focus statement. Writing a focus statement before I begin a novel keeps me centered on the main plot, and keeps my researcher’s brain from straying down a rabbit hole. And yes, I still place each first draft into the arms of my Inspirations For Writers, Inc. team of professional editors.

If you’d told me when I sat down to write that (first) first draft that soon I’d have finished not only a history book worthy of university publication, but that I’d also be the author of a fiction series, I wouldn’t have believed you. But here I am. And it’s only because I did what all writers must do: I sat down, and I wrote.

What is your first-draft process? Do you work from an outline? Do you refer to a focus statement to stay on track? How long does it take you to complete a first draft? And, since it’s November, you know I’m going to ask: are you participating in NaNoWriMo?

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.

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.