Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: My Life That Was Korea: 1990 – ? (page 2 of 16)

Book Trailer for Bureau 39

bureau39_ebook_front 2If you’re going to promote your book these days, you need to spend a lot of time on social media. Just posting a link to your book on Amazon or wherever else that it is available is just not going to work.

You need a video.

Specifically, you need a book trailer.

Of course, you still have to publish it somewhere and of course you still have to get people to watch it…who you hope will want to buy your book, but it’s just one of the things that indie authors have to do if they want to reach a wider market.

 

What do you think? Makes you want to go out and buy the book now, doesn’t it?

Bureau 39: The Beginning

bureau39_ebook_front 2Many people have asked me how did I come up with the story for my latest novel, Bureau 39. The story of Frank Mitchum chasing down an old Army buddy in Korea while trying to cut-off North Korea’s funding for its WMDs started out as a story about a murder in Itaewon, which was based on an actual event that happened in 2002. The novel, Murder in the Moonlight, which was my first foray into the annual National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in 2012, was the story about a woman found murdered in a hotel in Itaewon. The woman, the daughter of a former United States Forces Korea (USFK) general was in Korea visiting friends. When she ends up dead, her father contacts one of his former NCOs, Greg Sanders, who is a defense contractor in Seoul, to find out what happened. Sanders runs into his old nemesis in the CID who is convinced that the woman was murdered by her boyfriend. Later, Sanders finds out that the daughter got caught up in a drug smuggling conspiracy involving members of South Korea’s underworld and a North Korean defector. The closer Sanders gets to finding out who killed the girl, he becomes caught up in a web of deception and murder.

I wasn’t happy with the how I developed the story and shelved it to work on The Panama Affair.

And then in 2014, I heard about a former Army Ranger who was caught trying to smuggle 100 kilograms of methamphetamine into the United States.

The meth was from North Korea.

It was time to look at the story again.

Bureau 39 — An Excerpt

bureau39_ebook_front 2WRAPPED IN LAYERS of threadbare rayon and vinylon, Kim Min-hee shivered on the shore of the frozen river and hoped she wouldn’t have to wait too long. After traveling for almost two days to get there, she had lain low for another day to watch for military patrols, and had been unable to light a fire for fear of being spotted. Hungry and cold, she spent the night huddled under an old blanket she had found tucked between rocks at the edge of the mighty Yalu.

She felt the small package under her clothes. Its weight and shape were both comforting and deadly. If things worked out, she would make contact with a Chinese buyer who would pay her well for the package. Bingdu—methamphetamine or crystal meth, was a valuable commodity, but if she was caught carrying the drugs, she would either be shot on the spot by one of the patrols, or worse, arrested and sent to one of the work camps where she would most assuredly die. The risk was extreme, but definitely worth it if Min-hee wanted to escape to the South.

Getting the drug was simple, since there was a man in her village who made it in his kitchen. He had once been a renowned chemist at a state-run laboratory, but when the country fell on hard times, he and other chemists who found themselves out of work turned to alternative means to support themselves. There were others who made the drug, but Min-hee’s villager was the most reliable. He had lost his wife the winter before, and no longer cared about life. The government threatened to crack down on the production and sale of bingdu, but the kitchen labs prospered, and the thriving black market along the border between North Korea and China was impossible to stop.

Min-hee had heard there was even a factory that was producing the drug on an industrial scale. Supposedly a Chinese businessman had built it and was manufacturing the drug using some of the same chemists who had been producing it in their homes. Min-hee feared it would only be a matter of time before chemists like the one in her village would be put out of work, or executed. The regime liked to keep the people scared, and mandatory attendance of public executions in the village square did that. Either way, if these rumors were true, she would have to come up with another way to fund her passage to the South.

Like many of the people in her village, Min-hee had sampled the drug she was carrying for the Chinese trader. Fellow villagers had told her how, in small quantities, bingdu suppressed the awful hunger they all felt. At first, she wanted nothing to do with it, but when she could no longer endure the gnawing emptiness in her stomach, she relented. The drug also had other supposed medicinal benefits. Some took it for headaches, to treat a common cold, or to seek relief from depression. She heard about soldiers who used it to stay alert when they were on duty or workers who took it to work longer hours in the country’s factories.

Everyone who tried it more than once found it extremely difficult to stop using.

Min-hee was not the only person in her village who sold the drug to Chinese traders. There were others who were willing to take risks, but not everyone was so lucky. There was one woman in her village whose son was arrested and thrown into jail for smuggling the drug into China. When the woman went to try to secure the release of her son, one of the guards told her that if she ever wanted to see her son alive, she had to bring him two grams of the drug. She did, and her son was freed. Another woman was caught and never heard from again.

It never crossed Min-hee’s mind that what she was doing was wrong. When she was younger, she had been mesmerized by her country’s charismatic leader. Once, while serving in the army, he visited her radar station on a mountain. She and the other women in her unit wept when he stopped to talk to them and pose for a photograph. It was one of the happiest days of her life. She believed in her country’s policy the Juche ideology or self-reliance. However, not everyone felt the same way. People grew tired of the food shortages and the empty slogans that told them to grow more mushrooms or annihilate the enemy to the last man. These slogans did not improve their lifestyle or put more food on the table. Soon, she dreamed of a better life.

National Geographic — December 1979

national-geographic-seoulOne of my prized possessions is a 1979 issue of National Geographic that I bought on eBay to remind me of what it was like to come to Korea in 1990.

It was late summer 1990. Iraq had invaded Kuwait, Die Hard 2 and Ghost were two of the summer’s hottest movies, and I had been working at a Del Monte canning factory in Mendota, Illinois since mid-August.

How I ended up at Del Monte, after having taught in Japan just nine months earlier, is not entirely another story, but part of my plan to return to Japan via Malaysia—you know, the shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line.

The day after I interviewed for a teaching position at a new language school opening in Malaysia, I was hired by Del Monte and promptly started working the night shift from six at night until six in the morning. If I were headed back to Asia, I was going to need some funds to tide me over until I left. As it turned out, I got to put some of my college skills to good use: my job was tell trucks where to dump their loads of sweet corn and to keep track how much corn had been delivered and processed. I also relieved the two tractor operators who pushed the ears of corn into the processing facility. Actually, it was one of the best jobs I ever had and I really enjoyed the people I worked with at the facility. Had I not been offered a job in Korea (I’m getting there) I had been offered a full-time job at that plant.

At the same time, one of my friends, who worked at a printing shop in LaSalle, told me that one of her clients was the manager of a Japanese plant which made auto parts. This client had a thirteen-year-old daughter going to Washington Grade School in Peru, Illinois. Problem was, the girl’s language skills were too low for her to do well in school. My friend suggested that because of my Japanese language skills, I would be a good tutor for her. In the end, I ended up teaching the girl, her younger brother, and mother before I left for Korea. I’m getting there!

Around this time, I was informed by the recruiter of the language school I had applied for that I didn’t get the job. Although I had done well on the interview (later, I would see the notes from that interview which included the comments, “He has that All-American look; he will sell well in Asia”), the school wanted more seasoned teachers. However, the recruiter told me that positions at two schools in Seoul were opening all the time.
chamsil-2-danji-001

In the beginning, I taught the girl in the afternoon before I went to work at Del Monte. Most of the times, I got to the school early and waited for her in one of the classrooms while she finished her classes. One day, I happened to notice a stack of old National Geographic magazines in a bookcase. I picked a copy and started thumbing through it. Turned out it was one from 1979 that had a story about Seoul, South Korea. It was more of a coming-of-age story about Seoul and how the city had finally risen from the ashes of the Korean War. One photograph in particular of a housing project near Olympic Park stuck out more than the other ones of salarymen drinking and Andre Kim posing with two models. Maybe it was the stark, cold feeling that I got from the photo which showed the Number 2 subway line being built and the muddy tidal flats of the Han River in the distance which made me stare at it longer than other photographs.

Three months later, I would be living in that apartment complex when I started teaching at the ELS school near Kangnam Subway Station.

Had fate intervened that day which made choose that issue over other issues? I would like to think so. Not long after I started teaching at ELS, one of my colleagues and friends, Ken Celmer had that same issue and shared it with me. I still couldn’t get over how I had seen that same issue rightbefore I found out that I had been hired to teach at ELS.

Looking at it today, it’s 1990 all over for me.

chamsil-2-danji-002

That’s when I took the road less traveled again…and once again, it would make all the difference in the world.

A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall

Hard Rain

Not much of a rainy season in Korea this summer. Had some torrential rain for about three days in mid-June. Hasn’t rained much since. Now that August has arrived, we are entering typhoon season. Had some really wicked typhoon seasons in the late 90s. I remembering coming back to Shinch’on from teaching a class at SNU in 1998 and it rained so much traffic in some places in Seoul was at a standstill.

This is a stream/drainage ditch not far from where we lived in Daejeon. This is mild compared to some heavy rain we had here in 2011.

Hard Rain 002

Hot Enough For You?

Heat WavesThe dog days of summer are upon us and it’s been one sweltering, humid day after another with no relief in sight. It’s without question one of the hottest and most humid summers I have experienced in all my years in Korea.

There have been some hot summers here in Korea that come close to this summer. The summer of 1994 was a wicked hot one. Back then I was teaching at Yonsei University’s Foreign Language Institute and had an early morning conversation class that started at 7:00. By the time I walked to school from Yonhui-dong, which was about a 15-minute walk, I was already drenched. The school didn’t turn on the air until 8:00 so that first hour was a brutal one.

Not many folks had air conditioning in their homes back then, either. I was living in this boarding house, just down the street from former South Korean president Roh Tae-woo, and I had one window in my room which looked out on another house. I spent two years in that boarding house; some rough times indeed during the summer months.

I read that other day that this heat wave is expected to last until the middle of August.

The daytime temperatures hover around 90-92 degrees with 100% humidity. It’s been that way for almost two weeks now. It’s done wonders for my morning workouts. I’ve been working out every morning from 6:00-7:30. I start out with an hour on the treadmill. Thanks to the heat and humidity, I’ve been able to sweat off a couple pounds.

A Reflection of a Winter Day

Reflection of a winter day 001Yesterday in Daejeon it was a balmy 61 degrees; today it was back down to a more seasonal 30 degrees.

It’s been one of the colder winters in Daejeon but not one of the of the coldest I’ve experienced. My first winter here was brutal. I remember hanging up my clothes in the laundry room in my apartment in Chamsil 2-Danji and finding them frozen stiff a few hours later.

And no snow to speak of. There was some accumulation back in December but that was it.

This photo was from 2012 when Daejeon got a lot of snow; the most it has snowed in the nine years that I have lived here.

Yes, You can Judge a Book by its Cover

WR_newcoverYou know the old adage, “you can judge a book by its cover?”

It’s true.

It’s especially true if you are an indie author and you’re trying to fight for a piece of the action in a market that is getting smaller and smaller. If you want your book to get noticed you are going to need a design that speaks volumes (excuse the pun) that’s about the size of a pack of cigarettes (and sometimes smaller).

Book cover design. Can’t say enough about it. There are plenty of freelance designers who can take your ideas and come up with a good design. Sadly, there are some not so good designers who might even use the design for your book for another project. This has happened to two of my writing friends. I hear 99 Designs is a good place to get started. Their rates are compatible and you can choose from several designs.detail of a statue at the Korean War Veteran's Memorial in Washington, D.C.

I’m fortunate that I have my own designer, Anna Takahashi Gargani who works her visual magic time and time again.

Recently, she redid the cover design for my first book, War Remains. I think she did a pretty good job. This was the original design. For starters, it’s a lot stronger and the font and color she uses is both bold and soft. She also was able to bring out more definition from the original photograph.

It’s a sweet design for a very good book and story.

 

Discovery

Around Daejeon 001I love where my writing takes me.

You never know the journey your going to take when you sit down and start writing. Even when you think you have everything outlined, once you start writing and your characters begin to come alive, they sometimes take you to places, real and imagined, that you hadn’t considered.

For my latest novel, a Cold War techno-thriller, I thought my beginning was solid until I tried to fit in a scene that just wouldn’t work no matter how many times I tried.

Then I began to look at what was happening from one of the character’s perspectives and everything changed.

“Silent Night, Holy Night” — A Korean War Christmas

koreachristmas2MacArthur said the boys would be home by Christmas.

They weren’t.

KOREA — Christmas Eve, 1950

They clanked their cans together and took a drink of the icy cold beer. It was the first beer either tasted since the regiment withdrew to Chunju. They were about to take a second drink when they suddenly stopped. It had gotten eerily quiet outside and that’s when they both thought they heard what sounded like some far-off singing.

“Did you hear that?” Bobby asked. “What do you reckon that is?”

What Bobby and Harold thought was singing started low, almost like a whisper and had grown louder and nearer. They recognized the song immediately. One by one, the men in the platoon walked out of their tents to find the source of the mellifluous melody, which turned out to be a dozen young Korean boys and girls aged around ten or eleven huddled together with a middle-aged Korean man around a fire burning inside an empty fuel drum. Bobby, Harold and the rest of the men who came out of their tents to investigate, gathered around these tiny carolers and listened to them sing.

Silent night, holy night,

All is calm, all is bright.

Round yon virgin, Mother and Child

Holy infant so tender and mild,

Sleep in heavenly peace,

Sleep in heavenly peace.

It was the first time that most of the men had close contact with any Koreans, especially children. They came across thousands of refugees fleeing burning villages along the Pusan Perimeter last summer and passed thousands on the road to Pyongyang. Seeing all those refugees always put a different perspective on the war for the men, but this was different.

Flames from the fire burning inside the fuel drum danced in the cold night air and illuminated the dirty, rosy-cheeked faces of the children. The girls were bundled up in thick woolen jackets over traditional Korean hanboks while the boys wore similar jackets over baggy trousers. They sang slowly and eloquently, enunciating each word clearly and carefully.

The men stood silent, transfixed by the carolers and their sweet, angelic voices. A few of the men with children of their own back home thought about them and how much they missed them, especially at this time of the year. Those without children thought about parents, brothers, sisters, and other loved ones at home. Almost all of the men were a little misty-eyed, even First Sergeant Marshall, who was never known for showing any kind of emotion in front of the men, looked a little choked up.

After the children finished singing, they all bowed. Bobby and a few other men ran into their tents and returned with candy and chocolate they received in Christmas packages from home and passed them out to the children. The children bowed again and then moved toward another cluster of tents.

The men watched the children leave and then stood around the fire, warming their hands over the flickering flames.

“Don’t you men have anything better to do?” Sergeant Marshall inquired.

A few of the men dispersed and returned to their tents; others continued to warm themselves around the fire.

“That was really nice, wasn’t it, Sergeant?” Floyd Brown, the radioman from Second Platoon said. Brown was another one of the company’s replacements having only been in country for a week. He was the platoon’s third radioman since Kunu-ri. “Sounded like little angels.”

Bobby and Harold also thought so as they gathered around the fire. Marshall, who stood across from Bobby and Harold, stared at the fire quietly. That’s when Bobby noticed Harold was still holding the can of beer. He motioned to Harold to offer Sergeant Marshall one of the last two cans of beer they had in their tent.

“Sarge, would you like a beer?” Harold asked. “You know, it’s Christmas Eve and all.”

“Reyna, where the hell did you get the beer?”

Harold looked at Marshall sheepishly.

“You didn’t swipe them from the jeep that was parked outside the CP this afternoon by any chance, did you?” Marshall asked.

“Let’s just say that I requisitioned them for awhile, until our beer ration comes in,” Harold said grinning.

“Sure Reyna, I’ll have a beer with you and Washkowiak.”

The three men sat in the tent around a small stove fashioned out of a fuel drum. Although the tent was drafty, at least they were out of the raw, bone-chilling cold that would undoubtedly drop even farther during the night. Harold opened another can of beer and handed it to Marshall. Outside they heard the singing of the children serenading another group of soldiers a few tents down from their tent.

Read the rest of it here.

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