Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Manila: 27 February 1945.

B/W photo courtesy of John T. Pilot.

Grandpa, what did K-rations taste like?

Well grandson, they tasted like Spam and crackers for the most part. Sometimes there was a hard slice of fruitcake. Chocolate bites. Chewing gum. Instant coffee, instant bouillon soup and fruit flavored drink powder. And they always came with 4 Chesterfield cigarettes and a pack of matches... maybe to take the taste away.

In the 1940s, K-rations were the portable foods that the American soldiers carried with them into combat. They weren't designed to be delicious, or even particularly healthy. The Army was more concerned with giving its soldiers the energy to keep fighting. And it had to be light enough to carry up mountains or hiking through jungles. The K-rations came in 3 different servings: breakfast, lunch (supper) and dinner. But most soldiers couldn't tell the difference.

K-rations were produced by the Cracker Jacks Company and used a waxed paper box about the same size as their popcorn product. It was small enough to fit in a soldier's uniform pockets. The American soldiers quickly grew tired (even physically sick) of these ready-to-eat meals; whenever they liberated a town, (be it Paris or Manila) it was usually the first thing that they gave away to the malnourished natives.

And when you're starving, K-rations are the best tasting meals on earth.

Click on photos to see K-rations in all their glory.

Friday, October 26, 2012

On Writing Your First Novel: Part 2

So how did I write The Yellow Bar?

Just like everybody else– I sat down and stared anxiously at a blank screen for a few hours. Had a beer. Put it off until the next day. The next week. The next few years...

Until I had a great opening line: “I was sitting naked on my carabao.” That got me started.

I think the hardest thing for any would-be author is the commitment you have to make. After a few hours of writing, you realize that your novel isn’t going to write itself and you are not Lois Lane. It takes a lot of brain power, a lot of hours, and a lot of false starts.

I outlined the plot with pencil and paper. This was mentioned in part one. Although I didn’t know exactly where I was going in the writing process, I had a general idea of the beginning, the middle and the end.

Get into the mood. Writing a novel involves a lot of day dreaming. If the idea for your book is strong, the dreaming will come naturally. I started to envision my characters as real people. (What would Pinky do?) However, I must warn you that if you day dream in public, and stare into space like I do, people will think you’re on drugs or about to go postal.

I made a place and a schedule to write in. I work hard as a teacher. Sometimes those kids knock the stuffings out of me. I would use this as a excuse not to write. What I did was put it into my daily activity. Instead of going directly home from work, I would stop at an obscure, quiet coffee shop next to a supermarket. Something clicked, because page after page started to flow for that magic hour or two of caffeine bliss. It became something to look forward to at the end of my day.

I made myself comfortable. The Yellow Bar started on my desktop. It felt like an office assignment. My laptop was long gone. All I had was an iPad, so that’s what I used for most of the original writing in the book. I can’t recommend this to perfectionists (or touch typists) because the virtual keys can be a bitch sometimes. However, it flowed for me. What I learned to ignore all the typos and type, type, type away. It was an easy matter to transfer to my desktop and correct later.

I didn't read any popular novels during this time. I was afraid of being intimidated, or worse– copying someone else's technique. I DID read Mark Twain stories. His stuff seemed safe enough since it's 150 years old.

The book I referred to the most: The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. I'm an English teacher and even I get confused with grammar rules at times. It is the author's Bible and best friend. I highly recommend all first time authors keep this small book at hand, at all times.

Music helps. I found an obscure radio channel on-line that specializes in 1940s swing tunes. ( Big Band Cantina) It gave me a great feel for the era that I was writing in. I also listened to just about everything: from Classical Mozart to Eminem hip hop. Again, music helps you get into the mood.

Be prepared to be lonely. I cannot write with other people interrupting or looking over my shoulder. Hence the coffee shop. I also occasionally lied to friends about not joining them on the weekends, so I could keep on writing. Most of them have forgiven me by now.

Ignore your deadline. I originally thought I’d have The Yellow Bar done in six months. Ha! It took me a year and a half. Again, schedule your writing times, not your ending.

Enjoy it, and ignore your page count. I started The Yellow Bar as a scared, trembling, little flower. At about page 50, I knew I had something. By page 100 I was so excited that page 200 flew by without me knowing it. Let the story come out the way it should; don’t force it, don’t time it, don’t count it. It’ll work.

NEXT: In Part 3 You will learn about all the stupid mistakes I made PLUS the long and strange road called the editing process.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Another Yellow Bar Review

Excuse me for tooting my own horn, but I got another review of The Yellow Bar from a nice lady named Cindy. Thank you, kind stranger!

The Yellow Bar/John Falch A+. Finding out about this book was a fluke. I was perusing Facebook and saw a post from Tim Hallinan urging readers to read about a new author he found and I was hooked. The book was a $2.99 find for the kindle and worth every penny and more. It's a saga-like story set at the brink of World War II in a small village of Culi-Culi near Manila in the Philippines. The story is told from three points of view, mostly that of little Pepot Reynoldo, the youngest boy in the family; an American 'lavender' (gay) hotel manager, Eric Lawson and little orphan girl name Imang who was rounded up by the Japanese military once the war had started to work in a sweat shop in Manila. Most of the story is about the far reaching Reynaldo family which includes Pinky Del Rosario, a torch singer and her husband Romeo. They live and work in Manila, where her sister's family is on the farm in Culi-Culi. The story is about the creativity, bravery, resourcefulness, family love and respect that get them through the hard times ahead until the island of Luzon is liberated by the Americans.
Most likely this will be one of my top ten reads of the year.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Sites in the Book: Intramuros, the Walled City

The Spanish capital of Manila was born in 1571, by decree of Miguel López de Legazpi. By the 1590s, the first walls of Intramuros (Latin for inner city) began to go up and work continued sporadically until the late 1800s. With walls up to 40 feet thick, on 160 acres on the shores of Manila Bay, the walled city reflected Spain's glory days of exploration and power. Other similar structures from that era can be found in St. Augustine, Florida and San Juan, Puerto Rico, but I think none matched the scale and sublime beauty of Intramuros. As stone-walled forts became impractical (and useless) when military artillery became more powerful, the city began its second life as the cultural cradle of Spain: palaces, government offices and elite homes were built. Schools, universities, and grand baroque churches, including the Manila Cathedral, stood there.

When the Americans took over in 1898, things changed quickly. Land reclamation projects on the bay land-locked the old city, and its surrounding mosquito filled moats were filled in the create a golf course, giving it a park-like appearance. (The picture on the top left gives you a bird's eye view of what it looked like in the 1930s.) As you can see, the Americans went on to create a new Manila– one that looked a bit like Washington, DC.

Enter World War Two and one of the most horrific events of the war. As the month-long Battle of Manila drew to a close, the Japanese holed up behind the walls of Intramuros and refused to surrender. They began slaughtering the native residents of Intramuros: civilian men, women, children, priests and nuns. At 7:30 AM on 23 February 1945, the American Army let loose with everything they had, bombarding Intramuros for exactly an hour, blasting 350 years of art, history and culture into rubble. (Including the Filipinos trapped inside.) Not much was left after it was over. Intramuros looked like a smashed sand castle.

It sat there for years, avoided, neglected and feared for its ghosts. Once again it was First Lady Imelda Marcos who spear-headed a restoration effort who got the blasted walls rebuilt. The work continues oh-so-slowly up to today.

I lived in Manila in the late 1980s, and one of my favorite things to do was walk around in the remains of Intramuros when I was in that part of town. These lonely walks, where I first became aware of what actually happened in World War Two, would later give me the inspiration to write The Yellow Bar.
The Manila Cathedral had been rebuilt, but that was about all. (With the exception of a tall. ugly 1960s newspaper tower, destroying the sense of scale and history.) In the 80s, it was only safe to go there in the daylight hours, because the ruin of Intramuros was where the homeless and destitute lived. Stray dogs, beggars, burning garbage and weeds owned the site. It was spooky. It still is.

The two color photos are from 2007. Even now, (though a bit cleaner) most of the old walled city is still in ruin and neglect. The main reasons for this is political infighting and budget constraints. However, more and more Filipinos are starting to realize what a neglected treasure it is. Hopefully, this movement will provide the political will to restore the grand dame Intramuros. Or at least give back some of its dignity.

Click on any picture to see a larger image.
B/W photos courtesy of John T. Pilot.