Caption: Spanish Civil War Tour Led by Alan Warren

I was recently tagged by Rhiann Wynn-Nolet to participate in The Writing Process Blog Tour to give you a glimpse behind my method, or process, as well as a bit of my madness.

I met Rhiann at the Writer Unboxed Facebook community and she’s is also a member of the group I co-moderate. We became fast friends and discuss all things that writers prattle on and on, but we also share a love of dogs. She has two Jack Russell terriers—Buster and Daisy. They’re adorable and I have the feeling a lot nicer than the cantankerous Mr. Alvah Bessie, who more often than not makes a pest of himself.

So before I get onto one of my tangents about dogs and whatever that may lead to let’s get this tour on the road. . .

What am I currently working on?

Maybe the right verb would be what am I struggling with. For readers of this blog you all know it’s the never-ending Julius. I’m beginning to think I’ve taken a page from Seinfeld that it’s really about nothing, but I’ve had to make sumpin’ out nuttin’. Actually it was all inspired by my fascination with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Flashback to 2003 (be warned there’s a flashback within a flashback)…it’s the 50th anniversary of the execution and I remember when I first saw Sing-Sing and learned about the Rosenbergs. I was ten and my father and I were returning from god knows where. What I clearly recall is making the observation that Ossining was a pretty town. My father’s comment, “If you like prison towns.” So that pretty much ruined Ossining for me. You’ll never find me living in a prison town. Bedford Hills is another place with a correctional facility. Very pretty, but I won’t live there. Also Fishkill. Not quite as nice as Bedford Hills. And…I digress. Back to the 50th anniversary…

At the time I was working for a boutique PR agency, and I was beginning to feel the pangs of career dissatisfaction. I wanted to do something creative that would allow me to write and explore my passion:  leftist politics. What I wanted was to launch my own magazine, modeled after the New Masses (although at the time, I didn’t realize that). So one day, I was telling a former boyfriend about it, and he said jokingly, “And you can name it Julius.” And the reason he said this was because the whole Rosenberg thing was truly an obsession.

The spirits of the Rosenbergs seemed to follow me: from that innocuous comment my father made when I was ten to later actually meeting people who knew them (“Julius was a lovely person. David Greenglass was a lout.” According to a friend’s aunt who knew both the Rosenbergs and Greenglasses). To actually living in the same Lower East Side neighborhood, and  more. For instance, a woman I met on the subway went to high school with Robbie and Michael Meeropol. I later  learned that the boys were in an orphanage in Pleasantville, NY. The town where I grew up! You can see why I was obsessed. There’s a crazy link. And that takes me directly to Julius. My father’s observation and my friend’s teasing sparked the idea of what if there was this third-generation red diaper baby who has this life-long dream to resuscitate the New Masses and names it Julius. It all takes place at a time in our history that—although the Evil Empire is dead—there’s still quite a bit of paranoia about anything that’s a little left of center or left of left.

Originally, I had this taking place at the height of the Bush boom years, but I realized that the latter part of 2008 and 2009 made more sense because that’s when so much of the nonsense paranoia about a “Socialist” president started, but also the birth of the nonsense tea party (I know that will get me in trouble). So I wanted Corinne, the MC and protagonist, to feel that paranoia, but also be ridiculed and dismissed by her neo-liberal associates for being a throwback and having this 1930s Communist mindset.

At the same time, I also wanted her to get a taste of what it was like for her grandparents to be persecuted, blacklisted and ultimately exiled, so I threw in the following:

  • An ancient, and paranoid Congressman who in some ways is similar to Javert, and is convinced that poor Corinne is up to something nefarious with a former professor who has a very left-wing agenda.
  • a couple of FBI investigators, who are moonlighting for the Congressman and are tailing both Corinne and the lefty prof.
  • a Spanish Civil War historian who wants to dig up a number of International Brigade unmarked graves with the hope to find the MIA Robert Merriman
  • A love-sick ex-suitor who is obsessed with Corinne and decides to get back at her by launching a blog that becomes a popular destination of the tea party.
  • A Marxist Hungarian film director who is planning to film the story behind the dig of unmarked graves.
  • Oh, and let’s not forget the other worldly elements: the ghost of a blacklisted screenwriter: the irascible Alvah Bessie who offer unsolicited advice about the magazine, politics and fashion, and has his own agenda.
  • Last but not least, there’s a mystery a la Dorian Grey of the slighty changing image of a miner in a Spanish Civil War poster.

And now looking over this list, I actually have sumpin’.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Good question. There’s a bit of a cross-over in genres. We have some historical fiction, a touch of espionage, and the paranormal element. I personally don’t like to categorize fiction into different genres, although I understand the marketing purpose behind it. But there’s a little sumpin’ for everyone. For instance:

  • On the historical front there’s the Spanish Civil War, the blacklist in academia and in the arts (primarily Hollywood); the Rosenberg execution, and some current history with the tea party.
  • On the literary and philosphical front there’s Marx, Russell Kirk, The New Masses, Zola’s Germinal, and Alvah’s Bessie’s Men in Battle, and Republican Spanish Civil War propaganda art.
  • There’s also the running theme of obsession. Corinne’s fascination with her grandparents’ leftist legacy. The congressman’s 50 year obsession with her family tied with the lefty prof’s personal history; the love-sick and vindictive suitor who stalks Corinne; and Alvah Bessie’s personal agenda (I can’t divulge that’s part of the denouement).
  • The human element: these include the relationships that evolve and disintegrate because of personal philosophies and politics.
  • Ghosts. What does Alvah bring to the table? Perhaps a history lesson, and in spite of “nevermore” we always seem to stumble in that same pile of manure.

Why do I write what I write?

This will be a short response. What can I say? I’m fascinated by certain periods in history, especially leftist history. I’ve tried to combine aspects that fascinate me.

How does my individual writing process work?

It usually starts with a vague idea, but then I begin to plug in elements and realize  I have to conduct a fair amount of research. That’s when the madness can become all-consuming. For example, in the very first draft, Alvah Bessie is mentioned once. He’s a dog—a beagle—to be precise. Named after the screenwriter and Abraham Lincoln Brigade veteran. That’s it. Nada. But by the third chapter, I realized that Alvah had a much larger role. Soon he appeared in dreams offering unsolicted advice to Corinne. One early beta reader thought he was a ghost. After some careful consideration, I made Alvah step out of Corinne’s head and appear to her. Secondly, his book Men in Battle is an important plot tool. It’s one of the threads that connects both profs with Corinne.

Although the initial idea dealt with the Rosenbergs and the notion of this leftist publication, I noticed how all of the progressive history was linked together. If you researched one sub-topic, you couldn’t help but find a footnote that led you down another path. It’s a story where history—both macro (US history) and micro (personal history) is the main character.

So…we have a vague idea for a story, which is backed up with a lot of research and soon the story begins to take shape. I’ve based some of the characters on people I know and from players during the blacklist and current events. Corinne’s grandparents are exaggerated progressive versions of my parents; Corinne’s lover is a compilation of several men I’ve known; the Congressman is a version of Roy Cohn, J. Parnell Thomas, and Representative Peter King. The ex-suitor another compilation of men I’ve known. The historian is based on the Spanish Civil War historian Paul Preston, and the lefty professor an idealized version of a prof I had a crush on.

 From there I write, revise, rewrite, edit, write a lot of notes to myself and think about the story, about craft, what’s overkill and what it lacks.  It’s been an obsessive labour of love. One that has left me flummoxed at times when I’ve doubted whether I could pull something this ambitious. It’s also been an education. I have learned more about a time in American history when idealism was deemed criminal; how the Spanish Civil War is still a hot-button topic among liberals and conservatives both here in the US and in Spain; and the sad truth of Julius Rosenberg’s activities.

November will mark seven years when I first started this mess and I think I finally have all the pieces to complete version 1,037 by November and be done with it.

This turned out a lot longer than I anticipated, so now it’s time to tag a friend. I persuaded Marilyn Watson to write about her own process. Take it away, Marilyn!