Welcome to the first of what should be a semi-regular feature, an update on a Work in Progress. To kick things off, here’s a first look at THE BLACK RHINOS, my World War II novel-in-progress.
The idea for the BLACK RHINOS can be traced to a specific point in time. Last March, I was a guest on Van Allen Plexico’s White Rocket Podcast to talk about a handful of movies based on Alistair MacLean novels: Ice Station Zebra, The Guns of Navarone, Force 10 from Navarone, and Where Eagles Dare. During the podcast, I decided I wanted to write my own Alistair MacLean movie, and I wanted to write it for 1960s Jim Brown, who hadn’t been fully utilized in Ice Station Zebra.
I knew instantly what I wanted out of my MacLean tribute: an all-star cast of soldiers sent on a suicide mission. There had to be very little back story given, as Van and I had noted how, for the most part, all we knew about the soldiers was what we saw on screen. There are occasional allusions to the past (notably, in Guns), but for the most part, these are stories about soldiers pulled in from different places and shoved together. There had to be a premium on not just action, but action in fantastic locations: Austrian castles, Greek islands, the top of the world.
And, of course, at some point our heroes have to put on a Nazi uniform because Hollywood had a serious Nazi fashion fetish in the 1960s.
With the general idea and my main character in hand, I had to figure out what kind of all-star team I wanted to develop, and whether I wanted this to be a straight military novel, or whether I wanted to introduce supernatural or science-fiction elements into the book.
As I worked on my latest GUNFIGHTER GOTHIC and ADVENTURES OF THE FIVE stories over the course of 2013, those two questions were left twisting in my head, and it was the answer to the first that determined the second. I could have gone in multiple directions, but the direction that I felt most strongly about was the type of all-star cast I wanted, which was to include soldiers from both the Allied and Axis forces. If I was going to have Americans and Brits and Germans and Japanese soldiers fighting together as allies in the middle of a war in which they were enemies, I needed a significant threat, and the most satisfying way to get such a threat was to introduce the non-normal into the equation.
I was still a little unsure of this move because these moves pushed me away from the MacLean movies (and let’s be clear – I became a MacLean fan because of the movies first, so that’s what I want to honor with BLACK RHINOS). The more I thought about these two moves, however, the more comfortable I became with them. I don’t just want to ape MacLean, after all, I want to do a personal tribute to those movies, and the best way to do that, I feel, is to make sure I bring plenty of me to the book. That means a multi-national cast, supernatural and/or sci-fi elements, and a slight tweaking of history for narrative purposes.
BLACK RHINOS is not due out anytime soon. As of right now, the book is roughly 10% done, sitting at 5,500 words, but I wanted to roll out this new Work in Progress feature. When I was writing my dissertation, I learned how to be productive when I wasn’t feeling very productive. Back then, that meant if I didn’t feel like writing, I was putting together my Works Cited list or working on the formatting or other boring stuff that have to get done. To take a break from working on Chapter 2 (set at Bletchley Park), I went stalking across Wikipedia, looking for cover images, then dashed over to Picmonkey to jazz it up.
Up above is what I came up with, and there are three things you need to know:
1) Yes, I know that kind of film printing did not exist when that picture was taken, but it looks cool and it looks old and let’s pretend the military could do that in 1941.
2) That is not necessarily going to be the cover, though today I think it looks pretty awesome. Rolls Royce, y’all.
3) I’m not 100% sold on THE BLACK RHINOS as the name for the book, but it works as a working title, it sounds like something a military unit by call themselves, and it’s a nod to one of the main locations of the novel. I really tried to come up with a title that had “Mongoose” in it, but the plural of “mongoose” is “mongooses” and that’s just a silly word. Though not as silly as “Mongeese.”
I’ll be providing brief updates and excerpts as I work through the process. Last year, I published THE HAUNTING OF KRAKEN MOOR as a web journal before it hit print, and people seemed to dig it. This year, I don’t want to do that, again, but a series of Work in Progress updates will, I think, be good hype for the book and hopefully a help to readers who want to be writers, giving them a brief look behind the curtain.
(Hint: the only thing behind the curtain is you and a typing device.)
Without further yapping, here’s an excerpt from THE BLACK RHINOS. Even before I had the cast and story figured out, I knew this was going to be the opening scene of the novel:
THE BLACK RHINOS
Snow fell gently on London.
The skies were low and gray, but the flakes were wet and white, and the citizens of the great city allowed themselves to succumb, however briefly, to the Christmas Spirit. War raged across Europe and Asia, but the Blitz was over and now Germany had other matters to spread thin their attention – they’d attacked Russia, diverting their forces, and word had spread that the United States had finally entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor two-and-a-half weeks earlier.
There were few presents to be had, and little wrapping paper to cover them. Indulgences like chocolate, sherry, fruit, and gin were non-existent. The few toys available for purchase were priced too high for most, as were simple adult vices like tobacco, yet the city had prayed and wished for one thing for so long, that now that German bombs were no longer falling on their city, no one cared all that much about missing these lesser things. The city’s thoughts were focused far more on what the people had instead of what they did not.
Somewhere in the city, a phonograph spun Vera Lynn’s rendition of “O Christmas Tree,” the Anglicized version of the German Christmas standard, “O Tannenbaum.”
Along with the falling snow and the echoing Miss Lynn, optimism was in the air. An outsiders walking through the city this morning might marvel at a Londoners’ ability to smile despite the presence of such destruction (the Blitz was over, but it would never be forgotten), while the sparse insiders walking the streets might argue they could smile because of it.
They were still here, after all. They’d taken the worst the Luftwaffe could deliver, and they were still here, and Vera Lynn was still singing. “O Christmas Tree” segued into “Silent Night,” another German song that was being claimed by the defiant city.
In a business district, the few citizens that were walking to their Christmas dinners, saw the phonograph that was spinning Miss Lynn’s record. The large, square machine sat atop a small podium in the middle of the street. While the singer assured the city that “all is calm, all is bright,” five soldiers rushed out of a closed storefront to place a square table right beside the phonograph. One high-backed chair was added, as were a bottle of sherry, and a breakfast plate of pancakes and chocolate-covered strawberries were placed on the table’s surface.
The five men existed back the way they came. A crowd began to gather, staring at the food on the table and conjecturing with one another about the purpose of the table.
In under a minute, they had their answer. A tall man in a white military uniform and black boots walked out of the storefront with the confident air of one who is used to standing in the clouds. He walked slowly to the table, ignoring the crowd, and sat down.
“Silent Night” became “Stille Nacht.”
The man ate his breakfast, calmly, peacefully, and pretending to be willfully ignorant of the crowd around him, though secretly loving the ripple his presence caused. He would not deny he had a flair for the dramatic. It was why he wore the uniform intended only for the summer months, when he knew that all it would take was the presence of the Iron Cross on his shirt to send whispers and rumors floating to the right ears. Those ears would listen and not believe, but react all the same, and just as he was finishing his second plate of chocolate-covered strawberries, a Rolls Royce Armored Car scattered the crowd as it screeched to a halt. Four soldiers jumped off the flat hood to surround the man in white. Their STEN submachine guns were all they offered in welcome.
Jumping out of the Rolls’ high turret, a confident British solider in a neat green uniform limped slightly as he passed the machine guns to stand in front of the table. He pulled out his Webley revolver and shot the phonograph three times, bring the German carols to an end.
“Frohe Weihnachten, Major,” the man in white smiled. Holding up his hands to show he had no weapon, he slowly reached inside his coat to hold up a plain manilla, stamped only with the Iron Cross. “I have a message from the Fuhrer,” he said, his smile vanishing. “Mr. Churchill’s eyes only. It is in regards to your missing Australian 10th Infantry Division.”
“The 10th?” Major Koben asked, the hairs on his neck standing up. “Rommel decimated them at Tobruk.”
“You know that is Nazi propaganda, and that all that Rommel did at Tobruk on that day was run away with his schwanz tucked between his legs.”
Koben didn’t like this. The crowd was growing larger and more unruly, and if this Nazi had answers about the missing 10th, he was too valuable to let go.
“I could shoot you through the head and take it myself,” he bluffed, wanting more information.
The German shook his head. “Come now, Major, you will not do this.” He motioned to the buildings around him, and when Major James Koben looked to the windows, he saw at least 100 German rifles pointing back down at him. Once the crowd became aware of them, this stand-off would erupt into chaos.
“On my word,” the Nazi officer explained, “they will surrender to you.”
Koben didn’t flinch. “Not buying it.”
“But you must kaufen it,” the German said, his face contorting into a frown, “or else you will be responsible for the incitement of Ragnarok itself.” The German pulled a small, rectangular glass case out of his pocket and placed it on the table. A large and dead black bird was inside.
“What’s that?” Major Koben asked. “It just looks like a crow. Or a raven.”
The German’s demeanor turned cold. “If you want to find the 10th, you will have to look in the stomach of this reven, and 70,000 of its friends.”
— More to come. Thanks for reading, everyone. To visit my Amazon author page, please click here.