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Ruth: CAMP SUNSHINE is based on the true story of Camp Gordon Johnston, a WWII amphibious training camp on Florida's Gulf coast.
By the end of 1942, U.S. Generals had already committed themselves to invading the coast of France. They commissioned Anthony Higgins in New Orleans to come up with a boat, the “Higgins,” that could transport men and equipment onto shallow beaches. Then they had to train soldiers to use the boats. In three months, they built a training camp, Camp Gordon Johnston, in Carrabelle, Florida—a desolate area of swamps, alligators, biting insects, torrid summers, and tropical storms. A city rose from the jungle.
The story explores the intertwining lives of civilians and soldiers. Here, twenty thousand young recruits test themselves to the limit in love and combat; politicos and tycoons offer aid with one eye to profit; women patrol the coast on horseback, looking for German subs; a postmaster's daughter, the only child on base, inspires thousands with her radio broadcasts; and a determined woman bravely holds together her family and the emotional soul of the camp.
But when Commanding Officer Major Occam Goodwin discovers a murdered black family deep in the forest, he must dance delicately around military politics, and a race war that threatens the entire war effort. Amid tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, the fate of the soldiers and their country hangs perilously in the balance, as each endeavors to find his destiny.
What's the most important thing in writing an historical novel as opposed to other fiction?
Ruth: In a word, research. I did an incredible amount of research for this novel. The vastness of my ignorance when it came to WWII military history was epic, so I had to do epic amounts of reading. I interviewed WWII vets. I visited WWII museums, especially photo archives. I watched WWII Army training films. Camp Gordon Johnston had a newspaper written by the troops, called “The Amphibian,” and I spent a month reading every issue on microfiche.
I love the way research can surprise you and lead you in new directions. I learned of the Double V campaign, which was an African-American civil rights movement intent on integrating the armed services during WWII. Suddenly, I found myself with a subplot, which added depth to the novel. It made the story important.
What is the hardest thing for historical fiction writers?
Ruth: I think one of the most difficult things for any writer is how to incorporate the backstory—the histories of all the characters and places—into your narrative. If you start off giving too much information, you bore the reader, so you attempt to parcel out information as you go along. If you can do it in a way that surprises the reader, that's even better. For instance, having a character's behavior seem irrational, but later you learn why she reacted that way.
For a historical novel, it is even more challenging. After you've done all this research, how do you write an engaging narrative while piling in the information you want to add?
When writing historical fiction, how free can you be with historical fact? It is fiction, after all.
Ruth: Certain things you can't mess with. Big events. You can't have the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1940. If your characters talk about the song “White Christmas” in 1942, you better be sure that it was written by then. Your readers are smarter than you are. They know more history. They make sport of catching oxymorons.
With lesser known events you can use “artistic license,” especially for little known historic characters. For instance, I read that two twelve-year-old girls ran a radio station out of Panama City for WWII pilots in training. So I had my postmaster's daughter do the same thing, although the “real” postmaster's daughter was not a DJ. I changed the names of some of the officers who ran the camp because I wanted to involve them in a crime. You can make an historic character a murderer, but you have to be careful. It has to make sense.
In other words, with minor characters, motivations, thoughts, and feelings—let your imagination run wild. Historic events, details—stick to the facts.
Do you have any “tricks” for historical novel writing?
Ruth: I study photos. I study the clothes and hairstyles. I try to imagine what the people are thinking in the picture, what came before the picture was taken, what came after. When I wrote “The Secret Memoirs of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis,” I wrote almost exclusively from pictures. For instance, the famous picture of Jackie leaving the White House for the inaugural ball—I started with the event, then had her remember all the events that led up to that moment. One picture was an entire chapter.
In this book, I was particularly captured by the photos of WWII training maneuvers, and tried to imagine how an eighteen-year-old boy would react to having bombs explode all around him, waist-high in a swamp, stepping on creepy-crawly creatures. How frightened he must've been. There's a picture of civilian women sewing uniforms for the soldiers, and I get such a sense of dedication and sacrifice—so alien to our culture.
I also read a lot of fiction from the era, which is loads of fun, attentive to jargon, word usage, and attitudes. I listened to a lot of WWII era radio, G.I. Jill, Command Performance, all those great WWII shows. I also studied the pop culture of the era, the songs and dances. You cannot assume people in another era would behave as you might to a situation.
I recall seeing the 1982 film “The Return of Martin Guerre,” set in 16th century France, how tense and wild the people seemed, and it struck me profoundly—if you lived in an environment where you were constantly challenged, constantly on guard for a knife, constantly suspicious, constantly hungry, of course it would make you different. Writers often get caught with their characters having the same values and feelings of contemporary people. But people ARE different. The lines they will not cross. Their values. Their expectations. You have to use all the resources available to put yourself there. Imagine with all five senses, how the air smells and tastes and feels on your skin.
Why did you add a mystery element to an historical novel?
Ruth: The reason I tend to stick to the mystery/thriller genre, even when I'm writing an historical novel, is that I think it really helps to focus storytelling. A mystery demands a certain pacing. It demands parceling out of clues and information. It forces you to reveal character through action. I feel it really helps me as a writer to have a structured genre.
Where did you get the idea for your WWII story? Ruth: When I first drove to the Florida Panhandle from Los Angeles five years ago, I was smitten by the unspoiled beauty of the place. Thousands of Monarch butterflies flitted around my car as I drove down to Alligator Point. The first morning I woke to mullet jumping in the canal and screeching great blue herons. I looked out the window and saw snowy egrets and bald eagles. White squirrels jumping between branches of the pine trees. I had to write about this area.
One day I met a fisherman throwing a cast net into the water and asked him to show me how. We got to talking. When he heard I was a writer, he told me a local story about several dozen soldiers who lost their lives during a WWII training exercise while at Camp Gordon Johnston, how the tragedy was covered up.
So a few weeks later, I visited the WWII museum in Carrabelle. I got completely sucked into the research. Everything fascinated me—especially the newspaper advertisements—from girdles to hair tonic. I started interviewing locals. Everyone had something to add.
I got overloaded with info, and had to step back for a few years. It wasn't until I interviewed Vivian Hess, who had been a little girl on the Army base, that I felt I had a hook. Her stories were enchanting. I had a story. How do you keep a book character driven when you have historical events that have to be covered?
Ruth: You almost have to approach your characters as if you were an actor, imaging how YOU would feel, how YOU would react to historical events.
Despite all the WWII coverage, CAMP SUNSHINE is definitely character driven—told from the voices of an officer, a soldier, a little girl, and the wife of the postmaster. However, there were some factual events—like the drowning of dozens of soldiers in a training incident—that I had to include in the plot. And there were other historical elements I wanted to include, like the Black Regiments, and the Higgins crafts. It was hard, but extremely enjoyable to figure a way to integrate them into the story. How do your characters “come” to you? How closely are they based on real characters or people you know?
Ruth: The character Vivian Thatcher is based on my interviews with Vivian Hess, the real postmaster's daughter. Yet, as I wrote about her, the character separated herself from the real person, becoming increasingly impish and inventive. I wanted Major Goodwin to be a man of absolute integrity, but as I wrote him, he took on depth, becoming a man of great sorrow and great compassion. Vivian's mother was somewhat based on my own mother, but soon she became this incredibly strong woman who'd made great sacrifices, yet still yearned to be adventurous and free.
In my experience, you have a vision for your characters, but then, as the story unfolds, they become their own person. Some take on characteristics of friends and family. The imagination works from what it knows. It is a little odd. Like giving birth to children—you don't really know how they'll turn out. Inevitably, they turn out more interesting than you could possibly imagine.
What do you hope your readers come away with after reading your book?
Ruth: I hope readers will feel as if they’ve time-traveled back to 1943. They'll hear the big band music and blues, and sense the incredible vitality of the whole country pulling together for the war effort. It inspires me how selfless people were. When I started the research, I didn't know that the Civil Rights Movement had its beginnings in WWII with soldiers agitating for an integrated military. I didn't know about jook joints. I didn't know about how the industrial war complex manipulated the war effort, how it all affected race relations in the South. So I hope readers will be as fascinated as I was with the history, as well as being entertained with the antics of the characters.
You have been traditionally published by two big publishers. Why did you decide to publish directly to Kindle?
Ruth: I got started publishing on Kindle several years ago. My publisher turned down my fourth book AMSTERDAM 2012 which was highly controversial. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie and his publishers was still fresh in their minds. So I published to Kindle and sold 1000 books the first weekend. I suddenly realized how quickly the whole publishing industry was changing.
At one time, agents discouraged writers from publishing on Kindle, thinking it would prevent the book from getting sold to a traditional publisher. But that is no longer true (FIFTY SHADES OF GREY case in point). Traditional publishers now routinely offer contracts to people who have published eBooks. I no longer have patience to wait for my agent to sell a book. That can take six months. Then a year to get published once you sign a contract.
I'd encourage all new writers not to wait for an agent. Don’t wait for a publisher. Write the best, most truthful book you can, then publish on Kindle. You can immediately make some money from your writing, which makes you feel like a writer. You get immediate feedback from readers, which is exciting, improves your work, and makes you realize that, yes, you are writing for an audience. You can make changes on your published material. Traditional publishing is on its way out: it is no longer economically sustainable for publishers; it is too slow to respond to the marketplace; and people are more mobile than ever—they don’t want to lug around a library of books every time they move.
Simply put, Kindle writing is the future of writing: exciting, dynamic, and very likely more profitable for writers. It makes literature suddenly relevant to readers in a new way.
Where can we go to buy your book?
Ruth: Amazon Ruth, thanks so much for visiting with us today. You have definitely put a lot of research into writing CAMP SUNSHINE and it shows.
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