Writing in the Time of COVID-19

It’s no joke. I hope everyone stays well in spite of the fact that we have lost more than 100k people in the United States and many more worldwide. Many of us have been sickened, and I know those numbers include writers.

Enter COVID-19 forcing me to self-isolate. Being introverted by nature, I have no problem social distancing. As a retired person, I spend most of my time at home in any event; reading and writing. The rough draft of my work in progress proceeded slowly, requiring much time doing research, thinking, planning and putting words on paper. Now I am beyond the rough draft. I am arranging the scenes, which requires a laptop. This is where the real creative work happens. Character development, adding action to dialogue, generating images to make the story come alive in the reader’s mind. 

My current struggle is getting my rough draft into some sort of order. I started with my opening scene–probably not surprisingly. The first page is in constant flux. Should I spend that page in setting the scene, introducing the main character, presenting the problem, or building the conflict? Mystery writers just need to have a body on the first page.

Moving beyond the first page I found the flow of the story moves in fits and starts, jerking from scene to scene like some Frankenstein’s monster learning to walk. For the reader the story must move freely, increasing the tension, challenging the main character to find solutions to problems, and then finding the solutions only complicate the problem. Most readers want relatable characters, conflict beyond World War II itself, a problem to solve, excitement along the way, and a believable and satisfying ending. Not too much to ask, is it?

Keeping the reader entertained and interested is the goal. I love a good dogfight, and the thrust of the battle to retake the Ukraine intrigues me. The Yakovlev fighter aircraft cries out for description. After all, it is one of the secondary characters, as is the Ukrainian Steppes. For some readers that may be enough, but, for those who are not World War II aviation aficionados, it just isn’t. 

And, when I feel I might be boring the reader, I procrastinate. I eat, nap, pet the cat, and watch the birds at my numerous bird feeders. I have hummingbirds, deer, and goslings in my back yard. Amazingly, I find my mind moves on resolving conflicts in the story line, and hearing the characters telling me more about themselves, even when I am apparently not listening.

Currently, I am re-writing the first third of the novel. The bones have arranged themselves. In some ways this part is easier and in other ways it’s more difficult. Fitting the pieces together to make a narrative challenges me. I must move some scenes forward in the manuscript and drop some later while maintaining the flow of the weather and the history of the battles in the correct sequences.

The main character’s love interest disappears in the smoke of battle and her heart breaks. But another two-thirds of the book looms ahead, so he must reappear. Right? And she is wrapped up in the battle herself, flying her fighter in the wild dogfights, and shooting down German aircraft.

For those of you working during this period, or, just as scary, not working during this period, and who can’t disappear into their writing, please know I salute your courage and willingness to carry on.

Characters

Creating memorable characters is not easy. They seldom appear full blown. Just like meeting someone new, it takes a while to get to know them. I’m sure my experience is not unlike that of many other writers. You may think you know a character when you first start to write about it, but, as scene follows scene and the writer puts the character in a number of different situations and makes it jump a number of hurtles, the individual begins to come through.

The main character in my work in progress is Katrina Safronova. As I introduced her I knew she flew Yakovlev fighters and had fought in the air war over Stalingrad in the fall and winter of 1942/43, that she had been wounded in combat, (splinter through the left bicep), and that she had two personal victories and one shared victory. That told me she was one tough cookie, especially since she wanted to go back into combat to drive the Fascist invaders from her homeland.

Success in the air in a fighter at any time in the history of air combat requires the mental agility of a cat, the physical strength of an athlete, the ability to think in three dimensions making mathematical calculations under unthinkable emotional and physical pressure and all in fractions of a second. Katrina has a core of steel and an indomitable spirit. As the saying goes, there are two types of fighter pilots: the hunter, and the one who knows in his heart he is the hunted.

After three months in hospitals, Katrina is ready and eager to go back into combat. At the beginning of my work in progress she is flying a replacement aircraft for a squadron based at Belgorod south of the Kursk salient in the Ukraine. Three other women, also flying replacement aircraft, accompany her as replacements of casualties the squadron suffered during the Battle of the Kursk Salient.

The squadron they join has been all male. The squadron is happy to get the replacement aircraft but not so happy to get women pilots. They consider these women to be sub-standard replacements. As a male, telling this story from a woman’s perspective, I may seem under qualified. It takes a considerable amount of chutzpa to think I can take on this project and make it a success. As a writer, I took it on because I felt it was a story that needed to be told. Women now fly fighters in the Air Force, the Navy, and the Marine Corps, and fly a number of aircraft for the Army of the United States.

I am not a fighter pilot, but I am a life long student of war in the air. As a Naval Flight Officer in the United States Navy I was a navigator and an airborne anti-submarine warfare tactical coordinator. In training I was indoctrinated into formation flying and air combat maneuvers, so I have a platform with some credibility. And I felt a duty to tell this story, before the accomplishments of these women were totally forgotten.

Katrina has, for me, after writing some 95,000 words, become a complex, multi-faceted, 22 year old women tempered in the heat of combat, and unwilling to allow any man, anywhere in the world, to look down on her, in spite of the fact that she is short.

Outliners Vs. Pantsers

Lately, the discussion of the best way to write has come up in writing groups and on-line. The advantages of the two basic methods, outlining or writing by the seat of the pants, hence ‘pantsers,’ are still being argued. Some writers work up extensive outlines, draw maps, work out character arcs, and outline, some to the extreme where the outline word count is nearly as high as that of the final work. Theoretically, outlines provide the structure of the novel and the writer is able to construct the story more quickly.

Other writers throw themselves into the writing without giving thought to outlines. I confess I am a pantser. I start writing my story with only a vague idea where it is going. In this way I learn who my characters are by the way they react to situations. I have a general idea of the scenes I would like to write, but I also revel in situations where the characters do things I didn’t expect causing difficulties for themselves that I didn’t anticipate.

Sometimes I begin at what I believe is the beginning only to realize that might not be where I want or need to start. Other times I find I begin at what becomes the back story, or history of the character that influences their future actions.

I realize I’m not speaking for all ‘pantsers’. My experience shows that writing this way can take me down a rabbit hole. A short story becomes a much longer work. Sometimes the story line leads to a dead end and scenes must be removed. Characters pop up to solve a temporary difficulty which cannot be resolved in any other reasonable way. This forces me to more fully develop the new character, and introduce the character before the character is needed. Of course, this causes additional difficulties.

Editors have told me I need to lose a character, which results in the loss of one-third of the story. I have also been told I need to kill a character. Admittedly, killing the character results in a classic story line, but for me, it eliminates the entire reason for the story.

To my chagrin, I must confess I don’t know my characters well enough when I start writing to know how they will react to their situation as the work progresses. I get to know them by throwing obstacles in their paths. Their reactions tell me what they want. I can then work to frustrate their efforts thereby bringing out the many facets a character needs to be realistic, and to best accomplish their goals.

The best advice I heard recently is, no matter what your writing style, the work requires rewriting regardless of how it was constructed. The rough draft demands revision. The question each writer must answer is what works best for them.

Sources: The Weekend Novelist, Robert J. Ray, Dell Publishing, New York, NY, 1994

The New Writer’s Handbook, 2007, Edited by Philip Martin, Scarletta Press, Minneapolis, MN. 2007

How To Write Your Best Story, Philip Martin, Crickhollow Books, Milwaukee, WI. 2011

The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. 1968