The following is a copy of a book review that I wrote that appeared in the February 2008 issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society
Hemingway’s Hurricane: The Great Florida Keys Storm of 1935
Phil Scott, 2006, 246 pp., $14.95, paperbound, International Marine/McGraw-Hill, ISBN 0-0714-7910-4
Memories fade with time. Most Americans, if asked what the most destructive Atlantic hurricane of all time was, would say Katrina, which devastated the New Orleans area in 2005. They would be correct-at least with regard to monetary loss. In terms of deaths, most citizens (except for the meteorologically astute) would have long forgotten the hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas, in 1900, when an estimated 8,000 people died. In between those extremes, hurricanes such as Andrew, Isabel, and Camille-among others-come to mind. In his book, Hemingway’s Hurricane: The Great Florida Keys Storm of 1935, Phil Scott shines the light on another Atlantic hurricane, noteworthy not only for the loss of human life it caused (more than 400 deaths), but also because of the human fallibility that accompanied it.
I view Scott’s book in three parts. In the first part, he sets the stage for the Hemingway hurricane by explaining how 700 World War I veterans came to find themselves in Florida in 1935. At the height of the worldwide depression in the early 1930s, many people suffered, among them the veterans. In 1924, Congress had awarded them a War Bonus of $1.25 for each day served overseas, but the bonus wasn’t to be paid until 1945. Once the depression took hold, veterans insisted they needed the bonus sooner, rather than later.
Although the Bonus Marchers, as they came to be called, who numbered more than 20,000, marched on Washington, D.C., and conducted other acts of civil disobedience, President Hoover refused to pay the $2.4 billion required to foot the bill. After Franklin Roosevelt defeated Hoover in the 1932 presidential election, he instituted under the auspices of the Federal Emergency Relief Organization (FERA) a series of evolving organizations that addressed public works projects-among them the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The head of FERA, before transferring to the WPA, also created work camps, with the World War I veterans specifically in mind. Many of the marchers from Washington found work in those camps, with 700 men ending up in three camps in the Florida Keys in 1935.
The work planned for the Keys sprang from the earlier efforts of Henry Morrison Flagler, a human dynamo responsible for the train line that connected the continent to the end of the Keys at Key West. He completed that line in 1912, but as the age of the automobile became permanent, it became obvious that the highway that paralleled this train track (but which existed only in sections) needed finishing. It was this highway the veterans were tasked to complete.
The second part of this book provides a day-by-day account, from Friday, 30 August to Wednesday, 4 September 1935. With a dead-on strike, Hemingway’s hurricane struck the three veteran’s camps on Monday evening. Just 80 miles to the southwest, Key West, where Hemingway lived, experienced winds no higher than 50 mph-an indication of how small (in geographic extent) this hurricane was.
What I liked best was Scott’s skillful rendering of events during that five-day window. Culling information from dozens of newspaper articles, interviews, and depositions from hundreds of surviving veterans and other civilians, Scott creates a montage that puts you at the epicenter. Those meteorologists who might entertain an opportunity to weather a Category 5 hurricane (this author included) will find due pause after reading this log. For the veterans who were trying to survive on a jut of land that barely protruded above the ocean, and in shacks and other structures that soon blew away, they found themselves confronting nature one-on-one, in the open, hanging onto whatever train track, vehicle, or mangrove tree happened to be near. With the last barometer measurement of 26.98 in., estimated winds of more than 150 mph, and a 25-foot storm surge, it was largely a matter of luck whether anyone survived. Holding on for dear life and trying not to drown wasn’t enough-flying debris led to the demise of many. Scott blends the stories of the survivors into a riveting, page-turning narrative. Vintage photographs are a nice addition to the book.
Great stories need a villain, and this one does not prove lacking: Ray Sheldon, who supervised the three camps. An arrogant, confident example of a man who did not take advice well, he plotted the path of the storm from Weather Bureau-provided positions and ignored concern offered by his underlings. Sheldon’s fault was in waiting too long to send for the “relief” train from Miami that would remove everyone to safety.
Although ultimately Sheldon could have avoided the ensuing tragedy by ordering the train earlier, others factors were to blame, including a misunderstanding about how quickly the relief train could be summoned. Because Monday was Labor Day, it took time to bring together a crew and to fire up the locomotive.
Sheldon’s backers will fault the Weather Bureau. There was a period on Sunday when the hurricane moved very slowly, during which its prevailing track and forecast were westward, traveling only 60 miles in 12 hours. As late as 9:30 AM on Monday, the forecast accompanying the hurricane’s position-200 miles east of Havana-stated that it was moving slowly westward. It wasn’t until early afternoon that the Weather Bureau forecast hurricane-force winds in the Florida Straits and gale-force winds in the southern Keys-but still with a slow western movement. Unbelievably, part of the problem was a lack of data-from Nassau, Havana, Fort Pierce, and Tampa, where personnel had Labor Day off. By the time Sheldon ordered the relief train, the hurricane was accelerating rapidly northward. I challenge each of you who read this book to decide, based on the meteorological history, whether Sheldon should bear the brunt of criticism.
By the time the train arrived, it was too late. Except for the locomotive, wind and water forced all cars from the track. Sheldon made a second mistake in midafternoon: he forbade veterans from driving camp vehicles north out of the path of the storm (most who escaped by car lived). Instead, Sheldon ordered that they wait for the train, which he believed would arrive by 4 p.m. In fact, it didn’t come until after 8.
The final third of Scott’s book covers the hurricane’s aftermath, including Earnest Hemingway’s decision to launch his boat and inspect the hurricane’s effects. Incensed by the carnage he witnessed, he published a scathing article decrying the unnecessary loss of life. More than a month following the storm, corpses continued to wash up.
Many depositions and hearings occurred afterward, with the government in the end relegating the catastrophe to an act of God. The Weather Bureau defended itself from critics (mostly other government agencies trying to assign blame). Noteworthy was its decision following this debacle to add more weather stations in the Caribbean and to require more upper-air observations from airlines.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in those times in history when extreme weather and human self-assurance collide. Scott can be forgiven for the occasional literary prose that emanates from a seasoned author (“The developing storm was a blind force, devoid of sympathy, malice, or any knowledge of it origins or destiny. It was merely a temporary cog in a planetary engine….”). He combines history, meteorological drama, and human fallibility into a story that is, at once, mesmerizing, and also a reminder to us all that unjustified confidence-and worse, arrogance-is a human frailty that we all must recognize and resist.
The following is a reprint of an article I wrote from the December 2007 issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society:
A Meteorological Fiction
Until 2001, I spent my career as a research meteorologist, delving into areas as diverse as cloud physics and weather modification, numerical weather prediction, and artificial intelligence. Over a span of more than thirty years, I’d written numerous technical articles. But nearly seven years ago, I retired from my job with the Naval Research Laboratory.
Why did I retire? At the time, I was doing some of the most fascinating research I’d ever done. However, I knew that unless I quit then, I’d miss a dream I’d been harboring for decades: that of writing fiction. (At my retirement luncheon, several colleagues jokingly suggested I needn’t have retired to claim that distinction.)
For years prior, in association with author/mentor Arline Chase, I’d written short stories to learn storytelling skills. It’s one thing to write a story, but quite another to write one that is enthralling and keeps the reader riveted. Regrettably, most of what we write in technical journals-although less so for the Bulletin-is hardly stay-up-all-night-turning-the-page material. Another way to put it is that fiction has to be fun, at least for the genre of fiction that I chose for my first novel.
After retiring, I spent another year writing short stories exclusively. But in 2002, I tackled a novel. Those of you who read fiction know there are various genres. During my short story period, I tried many of them: humor, fantasy, young adult, romance, mystery, and thriller. I concluded that I had the most success and fun writing thrillers. What is a thriller? Here’s a good definition: A novel of suspense with a plot structure that reinforces the elements of gamesmanship and the chase, with a sense of the hunt being paramount. The common thread is a growing sense of threat and the excitement of pursuit. Those of you who enjoy books by Tom Clancy know that he writes thrillers.
So, with genre in hand, I had to choose my topic. In fiction, a common saw is to write what you know. What did I know? Meteorology. And so, for months, with coconspirator Robin Brody (a meteorologist who continues to be my primary reader), we debated ideas worthy of a thriller, together with a plausible premise. After months of discussion, we had the makings of a story.
As the author, I had one nonnegotiable requirement: Enough of James Bond-like spies-I wanted the protagonist to be a meteorologist. If the world had to be saved (and it often does in a thriller), I wanted our discipline to be up there-in lights. Why choose a meteorologist? The choice is obvious. The qualities that manifest our ranks are many: intelligence, attention to detail, the ability to integrate and make sense of disparate sets of data, training in both theoretical and numerical processes, and a thorough appreciation of science in general. One other important quality is our ability to accept frequent failure, and criticism; who among us who has made a forecast wouldn’t agree? What more could you want from a protagonist who must decipher complex clues and save the world in the process?
Of course, I gave my protagonist, Dr. Victor Mark Silverstein, a few added gifts: I gave him a photographic memory (I’ve always wanted one of those) and a genius IQ (something I could have used). The most fascinating characters are not perfect, however. They become interesting and more human because of their faults. Silverstein is arrogant because he knows he’s smart, and he often uses his talents to manipulate people. As you might suspect, this combination can get him into trouble. There to save him is his associate, Dr. Linda Kipling, also a meteorologist, who possesses complementary skills-and is fearless.
Fiction is either “plot driven” or “character driven.” The best books are both. I tried for a balance. You can imagine that meteorology shows up in the plot, whereas human interactions (often involving moral/ethical dilemmas) provide the character-driven aspect.
Two-and-a-half years later, I completed Category 5 (iUniverse, 2005). Obviously, the plot concerns hurricanes. I won’t give away the premise; suffice it to say, the bad guys are doing bad things with hurricanes, and it’s up to the good guys to stop them.
As an aside, I’ve concluded that it is impossible to publish a book with no errors. Readers have spotted a few. I’m proud to say, however, that not one of them (yet) has been meteorological. I can’t take the credit. Robin Brody and several other meteorologist reviewers saved me from embarrassment. (Note, however, my fortuitous forecast for 2007’s Hurricane Noel, for which my book’s east coast track is close to the observed, including “…threading the needle between Cuba and Haiti…”)
To make my story more realistic, I visited all chapter locations except for two remote sites (Christmas Island and the Suez Canal) and the CIA. For example, at the end of Category 5, considerable commotion breaks lose in Bermuda. My wife Becky and I spent a week there scouting appropriate sites (someone had to do it) and taking their GPS coordinates (they’re listed at the beginning of chapters). If you use Google Earth (or go to my Web site, www.paulmarktag.com, where I’ve summarized the images), you’ll see where I imagined the action occurred. Enter the coordinates for chapter 6 (32°22’02″N, 64°40’39″W), and you’ll find yourself at the Bermuda Weather Service (where the staff was most helpful). Do the same for chapter 3 (41°01’03″N, 28°58’17″E), and you’ll be looking at the approximate location for the Pandeli Restaurant, located in the Spice Market in Istanbul, Turkey. My wife and I had a nice lunch there. In other instances, I “construct” a building in a location I’ve scouted. The chapter 8 coordinates (32°18’20″N, 64°47’20″W) in Bermuda identify the concrete fortress where the final showdown occurs.
Following Category 5, I wrote a sequel called Prophecy (iUniverse, 2007), published in July. Although this time the problem facing the world is not meteorological, I chose to keep my meteorologist protagonists. The skills that make us what we are transfer easily to other areas of science-in this case genetics, DNA, and the genome.
However, I must say I feel guilty about deviating from meteorology, and have decided to make amends with the third book in the series. Because it seems to be the meteorological topic of this decade, I’ve decided to tackle global climate change. Robin and I have developed a premise worthy (we think) of a complex thriller. And, if a fictional character is going to be doing the heavy lifting in resolving a climate crisis, I’m going to make darn sure that he or she is a meteorologist. We deserve the recognition!
How do I write a story? Do I plan ahead or make it up as I go?
During discussions with my readers, I’m often asked how I go about developing and writing a story. My explanation goes like this.
I explain that when I go to writing conferences, I hear fierce debates about the proper way to develop fiction. Fiction writers fall into one of two camps. One group says that the only way to do a story justice is to develop all the details ahead of time, to create a detailed outline well before you even consider putting pen to paper, or more likely, finger to key. Such an outline might extend to as long as forty or fifty pages. They say that unless you approach the task in this fashion, there will be too much wasted effort by the writer, retracing and tearing up story lines that don’t work out.
On the other side of this debate stand the naysayers to this approach. How can you possibly let your imagination take hold when you develop your entire story ahead of time? There is no opportunity for spontaneity they say. Writers who make it up as they go say that their characters develop during story development and often carry on seemingly with a mind of their own, adding considerable interest and variation to their fiction.
I see the logic of both sides. Before I tell you how I develop my stories, I must tell you that I am a classic Virgo, who likes his ducks set all in a row-and plans things out in detail. I’m organized and become unsettled when things don’t develop like they should. When I come up with an impulsive thought (like why don’t we go out to dinner tonight?), my wife marvels at my spontaneity and agrees immediately-before I have second thoughts.
All of the above said, you would thus expect me to develop my stories fully before I begin writing. If that’s what you guessed, you would be wrong. For my first thriller, Category 5, the basic concept was that the bad guys had figured out a way to control hurricanes. I also had a notion of my characters (Navy scientists who were sort of like me from my career as a research meteorologist) and a vague idea of how the story would end. But that was all! I developed the story line as I went. That said, there were times when I had to retrace my steps and tear up pages of story. In general, that did not happen. I could never have come up with many of the interesting twists that occur if I had produced a meticulous outline beforehand.
That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.
What made me decide to write fiction and how did I go about it?
For my entire life, I’ve been fascinated by storytelling. I’ve always loved movies and living in the world of make believe. As a child and teenager, I tried my hand at writing fiction. It wasn’t long, however, before I had to make a career choice. I chose science and ended up going to school at Pennsylvania State University, not far from my home in the state of Pennsylvania. I then began a career as a research scientist with the Naval Research Laboratory.
Fast forward about fifteen years when I started a novel, a mystery of sorts. For various reasons, I only got beyond a couple of chapters and gave up. After another ten years, I decided to take storytelling more seriously and enlisted the guidance of Arline Chase, my mentor, who is an author and publisher. Rather than start with something as overwhelming as a full-fledged novel, I began with short stories. When people tell me that they are interested in writing fiction, the first thing I suggest is that they learn the craft of storytelling by writing short stories. Early on, I faced the realization that just because I thought I could write a story didn’t mean that I could generate one that was interesting or worth reading.
Going forward another six or so years, when I had the option to retire from my job with the federal government, I made a decision. Although I was doing some of the most fascinating research I had done in my career, I realized that unless I tackled writing fulltime, I would lose my dream.
For an entire year following retirement, I wrote short stories exclusively, one a month. I asked one reviewer whether she thought I was ready to tackle a novel. She said (and I realize now how true it is) that putting together a good story in a thousand or so words is actually more difficult than a long version. What is it someone once said: Sorry! I would have written you a shorter letter but I didn’t have the time.
For the next two and a half years, I slaved over my first novel, Category 5. Three years later, I completed Prophecy. Next year I plan to publish a book of those short stories I mentioned above, some of which have already appeared in literary journals. In the meantime, I’ve started my third novel.
Although I sometimes wish I had had the opportunity to start this new career much earlier in life, I also realize that I may not have had the skills or the perseverance to do it then. Perhaps my timing was just right.
Why did I choose thriller as my genre of writing?
In bookstores, you see sections labeled mystery/thriller. Although these two genres often overlap, a thriller to me is much more exciting and should be a “page-turner.” Here is, I think, a good definition (sorry, I don’t recall the source): a novel of suspense with a plot structure that reinforces the elements of gamesmanship and the chase, with a sense of the hunt being paramount. The common thread is a growing sense of threat and the excitement of pursuit. Those of you who enjoy books by Tom Clancy know that he writes thrillers.
At book signings, when I tell customers that I write thrillers, occasionally someone will say that thrillers are too scary for them. I say that I choose to think that thrillers are exciting, not scary. When I think of scary, I think of horror and Stephen King. They go on to explain that, in their minds, scary and exciting can be the same thing. They make a good point. If you are reading before bedtime, exciting reading produces the same effect as scary reading-in that you might not be able to fall asleep. At one signing, I explained to a customer that a thriller was a fast-paced, exciting piece of fiction; when I then asked him if he liked thrillers, he jokingly said no, that he preferred slow, boring things to read.
Back when I wrote short stories to learn the art of storytelling, I tried various genres: romance, humor, young adult, mystery, as well as thriller. I decided that I had the most success, and fun, writing the thriller genre. I want my novels to be so exciting that the reader has no choice but to turn the page.
What is foreshadowing and why is it important?
I think that the most important lesson I learned from my mentor, author Arline Chase, concerns foreshadowing. Here is the Random House Webster’s definition of foreshadow: to show or indicate beforehand. In other words, to provide some hint, clue, or indication of something that is going to happen.
Why is foreshadowing important? I learned this lesson the hard way. In many of my first short stories–which I recommend as a medium to anyone testing the waters to see if they want to write fiction–I thought that I was being so crafty with my endings. I wrapped up the crime (or whatever) with a complicated summary that explained to the reader how all had come about. Arline hit me alongside the head with the following admonition: You can’t do that! You’ve got to play fair with the reader! It didn’t take me long to understand what she meant. If you’ll allow me, I will get to my point indirectly.
When a reader completes a thriller (my personal genre favorite), he or she should come away with two feelings. First, she should feel that she’s been entertained, that for her hard-earned money the author not only provided her the license but also the admission fee to a make-believe world where excitement and suspense rule. Second, and just as important, the reader should feel satisfied.
What do I mean when I say “satisfied?” I see three qualities that come under the umbrella of this somewhat vague term. First, the reader should feel that the story made sense and did not have any plot holes that took away from the logic. Second, at the end of the story, the reader should feel that all loose ends were accounted for. Unless there is good reason, nothing should be left to the imagination.
But third-and the point of this article-is that behind all the clever dialogue, intricate plotting, and trouble (you need trouble) that leads to a conclusion, the author must not have held back on details crucial to the story. If the author fails to provide critical information that the reader needs to solve or understand the outcome, the reader will feel cheated. That said, as Arline instructed me, that does not mean that the author cannot be sneaky. In fact, more times than not, those critical details are slipped innocuously into dialogue or narrative when least expected. At the end of the story, my hope is that the reader will slap herself on the forehead and say, “Of course! Why didn’t I see that?”
If she reacts that way, the author will have done a successful job of foreshadowing-and the reader will be satisfied.