Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Transfer Day: The Inspiration (Part Three)

Since the Danish West Indies were transferred to the United States during the middle of
World War I, I thought it would be interesting to put a German character on the island whose life is suddenly turned upside down once the flag changes from Danish to American. He had to be a sympathetic character, one my readers could identify with by the basic fact that he is the ultimate outsider:  a foreign soldier behind enemy lines in the middle of a war.

But who would be my German character? And, more importantly, how would I put this German character in the Danish West Indies in the middle of a war?

Slowly over time, I devised a plot in which an officer from a German U-boat, Leutnant zur See Erich Seibold, deserts his ship because he refuses to sink any more passenger ships and cause the deaths of innocent civilians. He waits for the right moment, when the u-boat is prowling the waters of the Azores. Finally, when no one is on the conning tower to witness him, he dives off the submarine, swims to shore, then gradually talks his way aboard a tramp steamer bound for the Caribbean.

When he arrives in St. Thomas, a safe, neutral Danish island, he disembarks, figuring he'll be safe. Once there, Erich enlists the aid of a local girl, Abigail Maduro, who hides him in the basement of her house. Things go well for the unlikely pair until the Black Tom incident in July of 1916 (when German saboteurs exploded an ammunition depot in New York harbor) and Abigail is forced to confront Erich about his true mission on the island, if he indeed is a German saboteur sent to wreak havoc in these peaceful Danish islands. When pushed to the wall, Erich reveals that he is a deserter from a German U-boat, but has no more connection to the fatherland.

Unbeknownst to Abby and Erich, a twist of fate brings Erich's true identity to the attention of the Director of the Hamburg-America Steamship Line, Lothar Langsdorff, who is also the German Consul. Langsdorff blackmails Erich into committing sabotage, setting the stage for the climax, which occurs when Langsdorff plots an assassination of the Danish Governor, setting the stage for the Germans to invade and install him as the first German governor of a German West Indian territory.

Once I had my three main characters set, the story flowed naturally. I took my German U-boat character (Erich Seibold), brought him to the Danish West Indies, introduced him to the island girl character (Abby Maduro), then added the element of danger when the German spy character (Lothar Langsdorff) discovers his presence and cunningly exploits his tenuous position by blackmailing him into assassinating the Danish Governor, to cause a riot and scare away the Americans from going through with the transfer.         

To heighten the drama and add some local color, I introduce some real-life characters as well, such as Governor Helweg-Larsen, Queen Coziah (the legendary leader of the coal carriers), David Hamilton Jackson (a newspaper editor who challenged King Christian X for freedom of the press in the colonies), and Dr. Viggo Christensen, a physician who worked feverishly in the interest of public health.

Above all, authenticity was key. I was determined to portray life in the Danish West Indies during World War I as accurately as possible and spent many hours in exhausting, thorough research. It was a daunting task; however, once I scratched beneath the surface, I found that it was impossible to capture the captivating atmosphere of the islands, the culture, and the mannerisms, hopes, dreams, and fears of her people. Once I connected with my characters, I let them tell their story in their own words. In the end, a certain magic was created. The magic of bringing the past to life.

If the reader walks away knowing a little more about this forgotten historical event and being entertained and thrilled in the process, I will feel that I have more than accomplished my goal. When I look back on these five long years, I often feel that the characters guided me down this path, and that their story existed somewhere out there. I just had to find it, write it down, and share it with the world.

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