It is not my usual practice to share work in progress, but I wanted to post this to illustrate how research will often do far more than create believable filler for a story. My character, Hawser, finds himself back in his hometown of Tucson. He is back at the boarding house where he spent his high school years and has just finished a chess game with his old mentor Dr. Tartov. Dr. Tartov was mentioned in Hawser, as were my protagonist’s early years. I try here to expand on earlier material without repeating too much of it.
This is a trick I learned from Patrick O’Brian and John D. MacDonald, two of most successful creators of serial characters (their books masquerade as genre fiction, but really they are about characters. Robert Parker and James Lee Burke are also excellent at this). You give bits and pieces of information about your heroes throughout the various books. It’s a sop to loyal readers, a special reward for the True Fan. My personal experience is that this technique has led to a richer understanding of the characters. They become far more real to me, and because of this I feel invested in what happens to them. Plot almost becomes secondary, though my favorites of any series also have strong individual stories.
The research for this particular piece more or less fell out of the sky. It tells a truth far stranger than fiction. It also brought me in mind of a piece I read by my former neighbor Jen Percy about a female Afghani warlord.
Whether this propels the story forward is anyone’s guess, but I like it. I hope that it’s details such as this that will make Fifty Cent Soul a more enriching experience than your everyday LA noir detective novel.
All this stuff below this: Copyright 2015 by J Hardy Carroll and Grapnel Books, shared by permission.
“Did I ever speak of my own military service? No? I thought not.” He took a slim cigar from his vest pocket, snipped the end off with a tiny gold clipper he kept on the end of his watch chain. Of all Miss Deeds’ boarders, he alone had had the privilege of smoking in the house. Man that old deserves to do what he likes at home, she had told the others. You live that long maybe I’ll let you smoke too.
He took his time with the match, rotating the cigar in the flame to light it evenly. When it was going well, he leaned back and gave me a faint smile. “You are surprised I was a soldier, yes? I came by it honestly. My father had been general in command at the Battle of Mukden in 1905. 340,000 Imperial soldiers were defeated by a force two-thirds its size. Various factors, of course, were blamed, but I came to see the cause was chiefly my father’s ineptitude. His Manchurian troops had little respect for him. My father was an ineffectual, dandified man who had achieved his position largely by political flattery and compromise. Indeed, I had little respect for him myself. I had completed my medical studies and considered myself above him. Yet when war came, he asked me to serve the Czar. So I did.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because, young Hamlet, he was my father. A man must first do his duty to his country, then to his family and lastly to himself. Or so I believed.”
“Do you still believe that?”
He smiled, gray teeth jagged in the downy white beard ringed with nicotine. “Now? No. Illusions of duty and even family will not survive war. Perhaps you have already found this to be true.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Ah, of course. I forgot you came unto this house as an orphan. Fleeing the Church, if I do not mistake?”
“You do not mistake.”
“Yes, the Bolsheviks at least got that part right. Down with the Church and all its certainty! There is nothing as dangerous as a certainty, especially the certainty of being rewarded in the next world for your actions in this one. But I tell of my own service. When hostilities were declared—finally, and after much deliberation, on the side of the Entente Powers—my father arranged for me to be in command of a battalion. I entered with a major’s commission. My battalion was called the First Battalion of Death. It was supposed to be an insult.”
“Because it was comprised exclusively of women.”
“Not a combat battalion, then?”
“On the contrary, the battalion was an elite fighting force led by a highly decorated woman sergeant. Many decorations for valor and patriotism were earned. More, in fact, than any other regiment of its size in the entire army. Perhaps this was because the women felt that they must always prove themselves, but I believe it was more the love of adventure, the need to bury sorrow, pure patriotism and love of country. That was the case with their leader Maria Bochkareva, in any case.”
“I thought you were the leader.”
He smoked, thoughtful. “In name only. Women have always been allowed to serve in the Czar’s forces, though it was not officially condoned. Maria Bochkareva had petitioned the Czar himself, and when he allowed her to serve openly she proved to be among his most daring soldiers. When the Czar abdicated in March of 1917, the Bolsheviks continued to fight against the Central Powers. There was much desertion in the lines. Maria Bochkareva suggested that a battalion of women be created to serve alongside the men. She told the Ministry this would shame the men into fighting.”
He drew on his cigar and laughed. “But Maria Bochkareva surprised everyone! She created the finest military force in the war, truly capable of anything. Time and again, her battalion performed impossible feats. The great general Aleksei Alekseevich Brusilov took notice. He himself was an innovative tactician, fearless and intelligent. The Nazi General Rommel adopted many of his tactics in his desert fighting, I have heard. He petitioned Minister Kerensky to create fifteen such battalions. The minister agreed, but only on condition certain appointments be made. Minister Kerensky detested my father, and so appointed me to command the First Battalion. And so with no training whatsoever I found myself on the battlefield with three hundred women under my personal command.
“My duties were non-existent. I sat on a horse from time to time, but usually I was in a tent playing chess with my adjutant, Vanya. The summer weather was glorious and he was a pleasant companion. On July 7th, 1917, my battalion defeated a thousand German soldiers at Smorgon. When the German commander found he had suffered such humiliation at the hands of mere women, he tried to shoot himself! We had to take his sidearm! I allowed him to take consolation that they had actually been under my leadership. That made it easier for him to accept.”
He stared down at the board, his eyes far away. “I spent the battle drunk, myself. You see, that morning Vanya and I were playing chess beneath a tree. He sat just as you do now. It had been a heated game, but he had just carried off a most risky gambit. I was going to have the devil to pay to fox my way out of it! His gray eyes, laughing with triumph at his surprising tactic. His mouth smiled with a remark he was forming in his mind. This moment is, for me, forever frozen, trapped in the ice of what came next.”
He was silent for a long time. I mused on some of my own moments. I had seen so much death during the war it was hard to remember when such sensations were fresh enough to register. There were some visions, though, indelible as though they had been carved on my eyes. They often returned in dreams, vivid and gruesome, to rip me from sleep, raw-throated and panicked.
“His head simply disappeared. In its place was a fragment like a ceramic mask, covered by the barest tatter of bloody flesh that flapped from the neck of his tunic. A great jet of blood spurted from the torn throat like a broken water hose. He tumbled toward me, spraying me in the face with his blood. It was very hot in the cool morning air, and his body seemed to fall over the board with elaborate slowness. He tumbled into the trench the men had dug for us beside the tent. I remember his arms flailed about as he lay there, the white knight held tight in his fingers. Even in death he did not let go. Perhaps I screamed, but it may have been the first whistle of cannon shells falling around me as the Germans began their barrage. It was eternal, the earth shaking, trees above shattered to matchwood. I curled in that trench with my knees about my face and closed my eyes. The world was ruined around me. When the barrage passed over me and continued down the line, I opened my eyes to see the white knight in a fist. I crawled into the tent and drank an entire bottle of kvass in one long swallow. I was insensible during the battle, which was won by the Captain Bochkareva. As her superior, I received a decoration. Then came the orders to attack the Czar’s winter palace. Captain Bochkareva refused the order, since they came from the Reds. She was herself a white. She was arrested. I was indifferent to politics—and everything else—but I was arrested as well. After some unpleasantness we were allowed to leave the country.”
“So you fled to the States?”
He smiled. “It was so much more than flight, my Hamlet, And so much less. Suffice to say that the young officer died in the trench that day. The man who stepped onto the quay in New York was quite different, though only a year and some months had passed. It was as though the other had never existed. The notions held by the young man had vanished along with him. Duty, country.” His eyes twinkled. “Even love.”