I was planning on posting about another research tidbit from writing December this morning, and talk about serendipitous timing--Susan from Let the Words Flow posted some great thoughts about criticism that correlate very well with this little footnote.
The research: One character in December is a recently discharged pilot from the Army Air Corps (which later becomes the Air Force of its own accord--there, we already learned something). So, I dug into a few books detailing the history of the Air Force and the experiences of the men who served in it. My favorite was Masters of the Air, mainly because it focused almost exclusively on the memories and experiences of those who served. The texture and richness of the study of history and memory fascinates me, and the stories (so much like sitting next to a few vets swapping yarns) provided a hundred sparks of inspiration.
One story detailed the first American mission to bomb a German city--and the responses to bombing an essentially civilian target. The varied reactions were fascinating--some men protesting the decision, others more than willing to strike at the heart of Germany. The city in question was Munster (yes, it makes me think of the cheese, too).
How it wove into the story: In one flashback, the character recalls this particular mission:
“Lieutenant Bennett.” His navigator, Wilson, snapped from a leaning position to greet him.
“Wilson.” Nate began to rifle through the equipment piled in the back of the Army truck. It wasn’t his job, exactly, as the pilot of his Flying Fortress to account for all their gear, but he liked to have a quick look.
“Look, I gotta talk to you about this raid.”
“There’s not much to talk about, Wilson. You have the coordinates for Munster, right?” He pulled a pair of gloves from their box. “Hey, Jonesie! What the hell is a pair of gloves with holes in the goddamned fingers doing in my gear?” He tossed the gloves to Jones, one of his buddies in the ground support personnel, with a laugh. “So you’re clear on the coordinates, right?” he repeated to Wilson.
“Yeah, I got them. I’m clear, but Lieutenant—I don’t think I can fly today. I just—it don’t sit right, bombing a city. You know as well as I do that there ain’t a single military target on our coordinates. And it’s Sunday.”
“What does Sunday have to do with it?”
“Well, people will all be in church and…look, Hanowitz can take my spot, I just don’t think I can fly today, alright?”
Nate gripped the rails of the truck, then turned and grabbed Wilson’s arm. He pulled him behind the truck, out of view of the others. He spoke low, ensuring that the rest of the crew wouldn’t hear. “No, it’s not fucking alright, Wilson. You fly today, and that’s an order. You don’t want to follow it, I’ll send you up for court martial.” He released his navigator’s arm. “You don’t have to like it, ok? But somebody else makes those decisions, not you or me. So you’re going to do what I say, and I’m going to do what Command says, and that’s how it’s going to go. Clear?”
Wilson nodded, biting his lip. “Clear.”
Critiquer's Response: The extended version of this section was actually a favorite for most people who read it. However, it struck the wrong chord with one individual, for a really interesting reason. She was British, and took serious issue with Americans having a problem with this order. English people, she said, had been through the Blitz, and what right did Americans have to waltz over and say "Oh, that's awful, we shouldn't bomb German civilians."
I got her point. And maybe it's a point that means if I were ever published, the rights aren't getting snapped up in England. But--this happened. The conversation I wrote was developped from several actual accounts, and I decided I wasn't going to budge on this one. I wasn't going to smooth out a wrinkle that made the history more complex to avoid offense.
I was very grateful for this particular critique--it reminded me that everyone, each and every reader, brings their own particular predispositions and preferences. No reader has a clean slate, and what provokes one reader one way will provoke something entirely different in someone else. Criticism is how we improve--but we do have to keep ourselves at the helm of our own work, lest the direction be guided not by our own voices but by a mashup of others.