Wednesday, October 13, 2010

October Secret Agent #25

TITLE: A Proper War
GENRE: Historical Fiction

The morning the Germans disappeared, Emil wasn't asleep.

Since they took him prisoner, he'd ceased sleeping. Too many nightmares hid beneath the skin of slumber. Instead he lay all night in a half-doze, thinking of his wife's hair. The way she shook it loose at bedtime. The way it always smelled like sunshine, even in the dark of night.

The shout for roll call usually yanked him reluctantly from those thoughts. That morning, though, it was the eerie silence which pushed him upright in his bunk. He hadn't heard the shout, yet the hut was empty.

Heart pounding, he leapt out of bed, kicking the tangle of blanket aside. He wasn't asleep--he didn't let himself fall asleep, did he?--but had somehow missed the shout from the courtyard. He ran through the hut without stopping to pull on his shoes. He'd only been late for roll call once; the backs of his legs still carried the marks of that mistake.

His bare feet slapped on the planks and he slowed himself down on the doorframe.

And stopped.

The prisoners weren't lining up. Instead they clustered in knots just outside of each hut, madly whispering.

Over the heads of the others, Emil saw nothing. No sleepy-eyed soldiers shuffling through the mud. No one bellowing for roll call. No guards at the gate. Nothing apart from the whispers of the prisoners. The Germans had vanished.


  1. This is really well written- the prose flows beautifully. I especially like the part about the "backs of his legs still carrying the marks of that mistake."

    I'd definitely read on!

  2. Totally hooked.
    Not only have you written this beautifully. "nightmare hid beneath the skin of slumber"
    You've also picked a really good time to write about - I've always wondered what happened to the prisioners right after the Germans left.

  3. I'm German - and I like it a lot. I would read on to see where you go with this story.

  4. Really well written and I'd definitely read on.
    The fact that he doesn't sleep makes me think he might have been the first one to discover that the Germans had gone, which may be a nice touch. The other option is that this is the first night he actually does sleep. Subconsciously, he knows the danger is no longer there. This would make more sense as to why there are already lots of prisoners outside whispering. Or... you could leave it as it is! It's good.

  5. I'm a sucker for beating up on Nazis. I love your prose, story and inciting incident.

    So I have only minor items.

    Is it WW I or II? Probably obvious, but all you need do is substitute Nazi for German once.

    Slogging or slushing rather than shuffling through mud.

    I'd like you to tighten up the use of sleep in the beginning sentences. Perhaps start with: Emil couldn't sleep since the Germans took him prisoner.

    We don't know yet that the Germans have disappeared, so best toss the opening line.

    Later you say 'That morning', putting distance to the event. Unless this is a flashback try 'this morning.' ('That' is often editorial and therefore brings you out of the story. It feels like author intrusion, unless as I said it's a flashback and agents don't usually like a lead-off flashbacks). Writer beware.


  6. I'm hooked...totally! Beautifully written. I'll be watching for A Proper War on book shelves at local book stores... Well done!

  7. I'm glad everyone is enjoying this so far! Thank you for the excellent feedback thus far.

    FYI, this is WWI, something that is made clear in the very next sentence (a reference to the Kaiser). I tried to get that sentence to fit into the 250!

  8. This is very good so I'll offer up a few nitpicky things.

    That morning though, it was the . . . if you cut 'it was the' that will give it more immediacy.

    He wasn't asleep . . Should it be - He hadn't been asleep, he hadn't let himself fall asleep - because if he is up and awake, it's obvious he's not asleep.

    Cut madly in madly whispering.

    And I did wonder if he would refer to the other men as prisoners, rather than men, or soldiers.

    But it really is good. I'd buy it based solely on this sudmission.

  9. I love history and know nothing at all about POW's after WWI. This topic should be a great one to set a story in since WWII seems to get most of the pub. Liked the writing, but think it could be more spooky. If I'd been locked in a place and the guards were gone I'd be standing at the gates, which were probably left open. I think you have a minor issue with everyone getting out of cabin without waking protag. Still, great start and you put me there, which is the most important thing.

  10. I think this writing is good and you've chosen an interesting topic. This is clearly one of those where one page is very hard to get a sense but already we know, or feel, it's going to be some kind of recovery from the war story. How to get back into life.

    I guess I'm somewhat questioning whether this would be the reaction. Would they all be whispering in little groups? Would they be shouting out their freedom? Would they be running in to tell the other prisoners? I don't really know.

    I liked it enough that I would certainly read on past the first page. I think the key with historical fiction (as with all writing) is finding an agent who falls in love with it.

  11. Thank you all for the great feedback! You've given me excellent suggestions for tightening this even further.

    I've read some interesting accounts of what happened in prison camps the day the armistice was signed. In some, it was announced and the gates were thrown up. In some, the prisoners took over the camps, sending their former guards behind barricades in their bunkhouses. In a few, the guards and other staff just melted away in the night. But many of the prisoners were unsure of just walking out of the camp and waited for people like the Red Cross to come and transport them home. In at least one camp, the prisoners waited patiently until Christmas Day for the Red Cross, over a month after the war had ended.