One of the worst hist-fic tropes

I recently started working on the final draft of the book formerly known as The Very Next. Now that the book formerly known as The Very First has been published at 90K, the sequel’s 75K length seems a bit imbalanced. I’d like all four books in the prequel series to be of fairly equal size.

Those extra words will come mostly from four new chapters. There were 37 chapters in the radical rewrite of 2015, and that odd number bugged me. I admit I’m superstitious about auspicious and inauspicious numbers and dates.

Now there are thirty chapters in Part I, and ten in Part II. I also deleted a three-page chapter from Part II, “The von Hinderburgs’ Mistake.” And why might that be?

It uses one of the worst tropes of hist-fic, particularly WWII hist-fic! It was also poorly-written even after the rewrite, and badly-incorporated with the entire rest of the remainder of the story.

You’ve probably seen this trope in at least one book and/or film. Someone travels to Poland for a really convenient, paper-thin reason right on the eve of WWII, and of course finds him or herself trapped there, either short-term or long-term. Herman Wouk (may he rest in peace) did this in The Winds of War. It was also done in Masterpiece Theatre’s World on Fire recently.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be Poland in 1939. The trope could also be coming to San Francisco right as the hippie movement starts, being stuck in England during the Blitz, travelling to Russia on the eve of the Revolution, being in France on the eve of their Revolution, going to Iran in 1979, going to visit a friend in East Berlin and overnight finding oneself stuck behind the newly-erected Berlin Wall, conveniently-timed situations like that.

Yes, many great storylines and entire books are built around a character finding oneself in a strange situation one doesn’t really understand, but that can easily be accomplished without getting into whatever setting just as trouble’s about to erupt!

Near the very end of Volume II of Journey Through a Dark Forest, Darya and Oliivia set sail for France for an envisioned year of studying abroad at a Parisian lycée. In Volume III, they find themselves trapped after the invasion and occupation, and eventually become Nazi slaves. More than a few American citizens ended up in the camps, and to this day haven’t been nearly properly acknowledged and compensated.

But in other words, they were already there, for a realistic reason. The von Hinderburgs go to visit their old friend Zalman Radulski in Warsaw and end up stuck there until April 1940. By that time, Herr and Frau von Hinderburg have died of starvation, and their kids and Zalman are smuggled back in potato sacks in a truck with help from a young anti-Nazi Wehrmacht soldier. Their escape was strongly based on one of the border crossings in Maia Wojciechowska’s memoir Till the Break of Day.

There’s zero reason for them to be there now, since the Brandts and von Hinderburgs went straight from Germany to The Netherlands in 1933. I got rid of that pointless year in Poland long ago. Thus, they’d have no Polish friends to visit.

My hot mess of this storyline’s original incarnation also had Herr and Frau von Hinderburg dying in the nascent Warsaw Ghetto, despite the fact that it didn’t exist till autumn 1940. Even in Hungary, where the Shoah was implemented with lightning-quick alacrity, ghettoes weren’t created almost as soon as the Nazis invaded!

In my radical rewrite of the book formerly known as The Very Last, the von Hinderburg kids come home to multiple letters from Mr. Filliard in Atlantic City, desperately pleading them to respond so he can get them visas. Thus, it’s an important plot point that they’re away from home and unable to be reached for a very long time.

It seems much more plausible, if still incredibly foolish, for the von Hinderburgs to return to Hamburg to try to bring the rest of their relatives, and the Brandts’ family, into The Netherlands. Maybe Herr and Frau von Hinderburg could be taken prisoner and never heard from again, while their kids and old family friend Zalman escape back to Amsterdam.

Ask yourself, honestly, why your character would accompany a friend to a wedding in Poland or happen to be on a diplomatic mission there in August 1939. If you already have an ensemble cast, why not just use native Polish characters and have them eventually link up with the other people?

In The Winds of War, it particularly makes no sense for the über-WASPy Henrys to be connected to the Jewish Jastrows, beyond trope and convenience. I don’t understand why Mr. Wouk couldn’t have the two families presented separately. It’s hardly unheard-of in historical sagas to feature families and characters who don’t interact immediately.

Original stories are never built around tropes, and if any tropes are involved, they’re used in a very unique way that rises above cliché, to the point it no longer feels like a trope.

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