Thursday, February 4, 2016 | By: The Write Way Cafe

An Interview with Richard Whitten Barnes

The Write Way Café welcomes Richard Whitten Barnes, who shares his backstory about writing Enemies, a historical World War I novel.

When did you first have the thought you'd like to write a book?
     I was new at writing short stories; got involved with a writing group who convinced me that one of my stories was too big for the genre, and a book was there waiting to be written. I had never even considered I had a book in me.
     So…I began writing, and 100,000 words later I had a manuscript.

What was your path to getting this book written and published? What type of research did you do?
     That manuscript (a historical WW2 novel) sat in my drawer for a year while I tried my hand at a mystery, which I self-published at iUniverse. It was only after that, and more than 100 queries to publishers that I was picked up by Wings Press, Inc. who liked my WW2 novel.

Where did the idea for your story come from?
     That first book idea came from my long time infatuation with the strange Pacific island names of WW2. Names like Tarawa, Truck, and Leyte. The book was about a merchant marine “Liberty Ship” that traversed the Pacific, calling at many of those places.

What are you working on now?
     Trying to promote my latest (eighth) novel, Enemies, another historical war novel set in WW1.

Why did you pick the setting you did?
     My father and my father-in-law both served in WW1. (we were both youngest children, and they were very young when they served). I always thought how interesting it would be for two men to meet after having had an encounter in the same battle. The story is woven around that concept.

Are your main characters completely imaginary or do they have some basis in real people? Do they reflect aspects of yourself?
     Yes, the characters are imaginary. One is a young boy from Northern Ontario who joins the Canadian Expeditionary Force, while the other is a young German who is conscripted into the German 238th Infantry. I used a detailed history of the 238th as a template for the German boy’s movements, and dovetailed it with engagements of the Canadians. I had to use a Canadian, because the Americans fought in France and the 238th fought in Belgium, mostly. It was fascinating to follow the footsteps of my father-in-law.

Did you face any blocks while writing the book, and if so, how did you handle them? If not, what's your secret?
     There are always blocks. Simply writing a fictional account of a series of battles is not a problem, but weaving it around an interesting plot that holds the reader, then tying it all together at the end in an original way is the challenge where blocks can occur. My time-tested cure for a block is to talk it out (usually with my wife). For me, merely verbalizing the problem seems to result in a solution. I usually come up with the answer myself.

What have been surprises you've encountered while writing the book and after?
     While I have always had respect for the hardships the WW1 soldiers endured, researching the book gave me a whole new outlook, certainly a magnitude more horrific than I had conceived.

What did you learn? For instance, what did you learn about yourself, your process, the writing world; about soldiers from different backgrounds, and about World War 1?
     Nothing much has changed in this world. We still have politicians and generals who send young boys into battle to die for our inability to get along with one another. If I didn’t know that before writing Enemies, I know it now.

Tell us about your writing space and how or why it works for you.
     Ha! When I started writing seriously, I made myself a cozy office in an (empty nest) bedroom away from the rest of the household goings-on. You know… comfortable chair a step away from the computer. Now I write wherever I happen to be in the house; sometimes in the den, sometimes in the rarely used living room, sometimes in the original venue. I’m a vagabond in my own house.
     The reason I can do this is because I write my first draft in pencil in a spiral notebook. I enjoy the tactile process of writing in longhand. I can take that notebook anywhere. After about 500 to 1,000 words, I’ll transpose it into the computer. I like doing that, because it serves as a first edit.

What are some of your favorite books and why?
Jeff Shaara’s trilogy on WW2 in Europe
Robert Parker’s Spencer series
Anything by David McCullough
Phillip Craig’s Martha’s Vineyard series.

     Why? Shaara found a way to tell history in a fascinating way by giving dialogue to real historical characters. I copied that in one of my books, Luzon, where I had FDR speaking with my main character.
     Parker is no-nonsense in his depiction of Spencer and his sidekick, and psychiatrist girlfriend.
Craig has interesting stories in a limited venue much like my character Andy Blake in my St. Joseph Island mysteries.
     David McCullough needs no praise from the likes of me.

What are you working on now?
     I am just getting started (Enemies was just published this past December) on a new Andy Blake mystery. She is a single, 40-something detective with the Ontario Provincial Police. The story will center around a religious cult that goes bad and she must deal with the consequences.

If you were not a writer, what would your dream job be?
     By all means, a classical (or maybe jazz) musician. I think writing is a lot like being a musician, anyway; but that’s for another whole interview.

What aspect of writing gives you the most trouble?
     A) Marketing and promoting my work. It takes a tremendous amount of effort and time; both are in conflict with writing, itself.
     B) Devising a book’s plot that is, at the same time, continuously interesting (page turner) and has an ending that leaves the reader with a feeling of satisfaction. Don’t you hate it when the book just stops cold?

     It is November 11, 1968, fifty years to the day since the armistice of the Great War. The seventy-year-old German diplomat Jürgen Stern is in Ottawa, Canada on a special assignment. He rescues a portfolio mistakenly left behind in his hotel lobby by a man near his own age. Inside are drawings that are obviously from a soldier’s perspective of WW1. One of the sketches is so intriguing he is compelled to find this man and learn the truth about it.
     As war rages in Flanders and Picardy, two young men enter the military a half world apart. The callow, inexperienced Jürgen Stern has been conscripted as part of Germany’s draft, and torn from the arms of a girl he’d thought he could never have.
     Brian MacLennan, the talented young artist from northern Ontario, aching to be on his own and free of the family farm, enlists in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces. Their lives come together almost fifty years later in a way they could not have imagined.
     ENEMIES portrays the daily lives of the two soldiers and their comrades. The story follows the trails of the German 463d Regiment and a company from the Canadian 119th Battalion as history has documented their time in that horrific conflict. ENEMIES is a story of bravery, cowardice, fear, heroism, and ultimately, humanity.



Enemies Video Trailer

About Richard:  Richard Whitten Barnes was born in Minnesota but grew up on the north side of Chicago. A band scholarship took him to Michigan State University, where he majored in chemistry. He is now retired from a long career in international chemical sales and marketing, taking him all over the world. Barnes is a veteran of the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division and an avid sailor. He lives in Lake Wylie, S.C., but spends summers with his wife Marg and dog Sparty at their cottage on St. Joseph Island, Ontario.


HiDee said...

Great interview! Making history come alive for readers is a challenge, I'm sure. Thank you for being with us today!

Richard Whitten Barnes said...

Thanks so much for having me as a guest on your blog. I enjoyed it.