Tag Archives: Elizabeth Wein

Spies In WWII

My senior year in high school I participated in an experimental class. Twenty five of us were chosen. Bishop Alemany was a leveled school, grouped in homogeneous classes: college prep, comprehensive and duh! I have no idea what they called the last group. I had tested into the college prep group. And almost from Day One the nuns and I went round and round about what I was supposed to be learning. For me school meant being able to have a library in the same place I was required to be each and every day, and, bonus, no limit on the number of books you could take out, unlike the Burbank Public Library on Glen Oaks Boulevard with it’s only seven books at a time requirement.

So, understand, the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet and I had different goals as to what was my education and what wasn’t. By my senior year, someone said, ‘okay, let’s try her in this class.’ I have no idea who to thank for this bit of grace. It was a history class. Since I was in third grade, I had said I would be a historian. My actual learning process, despite my parents amazing and continuing commitment, resembled more of a child being raised by educated librarian wolves of the great tundra, so, in truth, there was little chance I would fulfill my goal. But history, the past of just about anything, I considered my exclusive territory clear through my bachelor’s degree in college.

For most of high school, I was, to say a fan seems almost cruel, but I was, a fan of anything and everything surreptitious World War II. I focused especially Allied spies, members of the Resistance, POWs, mostly the RAF Spitfire pilots and small cadres of individuals who risked life and limb to defeat the Nazis and their war machine. Perhaps it was due to my library access the first eight years of my schooling, at Villa Cabrini Academy, the plethora of stories on the lives of the saints, saints who too had risked life and limb in the name of Christ. So, the uncertainty of spying and defeating what was true evil in the world by people who were not that much older me was maybe a continuation of my childhood reading. And so, in this independent study class, I wrote a thesis on spies.

Before spies were hi-tech, before they had gadgets, before they wore tuxedos, played baccarat inhabiting the world of James Bond, they lived difficult, grimy, horrendously scary lives, lives without fanfare, lives without rest or respite, lives of danger and terror. And, after the war, when they had a chance to come to terms with what they had won and what they had lost, they wrote their stories, histories. The stories were gritty. There was little glory, only the end of the war or death. And yet, they did this, volunteered, said yes, despite the fear. Because of these resistors, both homegrown and foreign nationals, the Allied forces triumphed. Much was lost so that there could be a win.

Elizabeth Wein‘s CODE NAME VERITY takes up that tradition of the dread of fighting covertly behind enemy lines. It is not a pretty story. It’s not a happy one. It is a story played out slowly, laboriously, and elegantly, letting us know how excruciating it was to fight a war from the inside out, and how many people were willing to risk, to say everything is so cliché, but all. No matter how many died in battles, assaults,  landings, and no question, we needed them, we praise them, we call them our Greatest Generation, we also needed those who were willing to risk their lives and save their souls on a narrow battlefield in one on one mental combat, a not-photographed battlefield, not trumpeted or on the front page of the Times, one that was shrouded in secrecy, unknown.

Ms. Wein says this is about women and their participation in the war. And yes, this book is. But there is so much more, because defeating evil knows no gender, no age, no nationality. And it is perhaps the most unlikeliest of us who raises her hand, almost casually, and says ‘I’ll go.”  CODE NAME VERITY is an excellent reminder of that ideal.


Over the weekend of February 21 to 23 I participated in the SCBWI Mid Winter Conference in New York City. There is a lot crammed into two and a half days, it is one event after another. This year they added craft for the writers. I’ve done the roundtable, and while it was an interesting experience, I don’t know that it gave me much to take away beyond what applied to the 200 words I brought with me. This year there was a daylong intensive on plot and structure with four presentations: Emma Dryden, Jill Santopolo, Jane Yolen and Elizabeth Wein, all on plot and structure.

While I feel pretty confident I can do plot [versus character] I do have a tendency to wind the plot into knots trying to make the red herrings more red and the obstacles more difficult. And the problem with that is it leaves me confused about what my character really wants to do, which parts of the plots are subplots and which part truly belong to the through line of the story arc.

The craft benefit of this intensive was not just the handouts, but the exercises. The fact that I learned how to identify not just the action [which is the part I dearly love] but also the emotional aspect of the action plot on my character. Now I can sit down and apply these exercises to each and every book I have. Oh, my!

I like my characters, I really do. But initially when I come up with a story I’m more interested in how the plot unfolds and what that means. Not quite theme, although that emerges when I realize where the book ends, but more what kind of scrapes and messes [that old saw–have your character run up a tree and then make them figure out how to get down] the character can get into, and how full of action and adventure they are.

I grew up with mystery books where the character really never changed, never grew, hardly aged. And, although I like books where the character grows up or becomes something other than what they were in the beginning of the story, it is not that huge for me. So the best part of this was not discussing the action plot, but the emotional plot, also called the heartline by one of the speakers. This is how the character goes from the beginning, maybe being cherished and coddled to frightened and in danger to solving the mystery, to the end, realizing he/she is now in charge of his/her own destiny.

When I think of it, I realize how my personal heartline changed from elementary school, through college, to adult hood and beyond. Every person has a heartline. That’s pretty cool!