Writing Military History—Non-Fiction Edition
There's a fiction edition in the future
There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.
We credit Papa with the above, but people have been disputing the claim for ages. It’s true, no matter who said it, but the controversy is also important. How does a historical writer make sure his attribution or information is accurate? Answer: can’t do it without either a recording or a time machine. But we’ve been there before.
So, this essay’s about the writing…
The painstaking process of research, having been done…bwahahahaha! Research is never really done. As soon as you commit to this, that rolls into view, and you have to decide how that influences this. Or if it contradicts it…or if it’s credible or right or made up whole cloth.
And you’re still organizing what you had…
And you write…and you write…and you think…and you edit…and you write and think and edit and write and edit and think and add more stuff to the collection of stuff and you write some more…then you stop, for the love of all that’s holy…
At one point you have to ask…does this still make sense?
It’s an important consideration because this is thinking about the reader. Yes, the market dictates a great deal of what we do. But when you’re writing military history, you must think in terms of what kind of picture you’re painting, because…
History: A written diorama of the zoo that once was us.
Military history, in its very nature, is very, very messy. No matter what period, no matter what mode, no matter where you go, the military history writer had to tell the reader the obvious: this is a deadly activity that you really cannot sanitize. Prehistoric military history—that purists deny even exists—may lack documents and heroic speeches, but not casualties. In War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, Lawrence Keeley tells us that clubs, rocks, spears and bare hands inflicted horrible wounds, wounds that we could address today, but they couldn’t then. The numbers of combatants were smaller, but the percentages of combatants to total populations were much bigger. And their loss or disablement meant that many fewer workers were around and able to keep their band/tribe/clan alive. Steven Le Blanc’s Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage is even more graphic, questioning archeological conclusions such as the reason for the Zuni houses high in the cliffs of Arizona were defensive in nature, not just because the Zuni liked heights.
But do your readers want to know that?
Why do people read popular history books in the first place? Some do it to learn, but a vast majority do it to get a good story, often one they are familiar with already—if not this story, then at least one with familiar characters and scenes. This is one reason there are so many Gettysburg books on the shelf: familiar story with only slightly unique twists.
But not too unique…
These are considerations you have to make when you’re asking if those 150k words make sense. Is this something that the typical reader wants to see? Is this something that the typical book-buyer will shell out their hard-earned dollars to buy? But most important, is this a book that a reviewer will see as a reasonable addition to the corpus of knowledge? Much of this last consideration depends on how you’re addressing the market, if your book is a contribution or a distraction. The difference is important, because contributions add information and distractions distort it. While most books add a few paragraphs of new information or viewpoints to our understanding of the past, others upend what we know…or we thought we knew. The latter are often called revisionist works, but that’s unfair because every new morsel is revisionist by definition. So the writer wants to remember…
History is the means by which the idly curious may satisfy their idle curiosity.
Holocaust denial can land you in jail in some countries, but in others it will put you on the bestseller list. Trashing icons like Robert E. Lee won’t get you many invites south of the Mason-Dixon line, but it might get you a few from the mass media. History readers like heroes to be on a pedestal or in the gutter. If your work does neither, it may not appeal to the typical reader unless you’re writing about a completely unique subject. Military history has good guys and bad guys, even if the casualties are horrendous on both sides and there are no clear winners or losers. This is one reason why histories of the US involvement in Vietnam are so-so sellers: no “winners” but the North and a bunch of casualties for little apparent gain.
Because those writers are telling a familiar story for familiar reasons…
Now, what if someone were to tell the American story in Vietnam as a skirmish in the Cold War that showed how the Soviet Union was really a toothless tiger? It could be done; a skillful writer could do it (certainly not me)…maybe another generation from now. This leads into my belief about writing military history and the filter of time.
Historians can only write good histories of an event or conflict after the last participant has passed away.
John D. Beatty
Eyewitnesses to history abound, and that’s part of the problem. Human memory is fallible, and can only be flawless if we back it up with physical evidence or some other means of recording. While we documented Vietnam with sight and sound, only the parts that the journalists saw were. All the messy stuff—the backroom planning, the frustration with “body counts” and on and on—rely on human memory. While that messy stuff may not go towards the thesis proposed above, it is part and parcel of the memoir-style works on the conflict in the corpus. Write one oriented to the Cold War thesis and you may not get favorable reviews or sales because you’re not giving the audience what they expect.
History readers have expectations for what they’re reading.
They don’t read it because they’re unfamiliar with your subject, mostly. They read it because they are familiar with at least part of it. This, too, you need to think about when you’re thinking about what you’ve already got. Oh, to an extent you need to think about it when you’re planning the work, but…
Expect to rewrite everything at least once… or twice…or more.
So during those many pauses when you’re doing your research or editing or just mulling the d—n thing over (every book always becomes a d—n thing after the fourth or fifth edit), you need to think about what the reader expects. Certain genres demand certain contents, and one of the worst of these is the American Civil War. For reasons that I believe are related to the Lost Cause Mythology, people have demanded a certain amount of romance, lore, personal bits of history, and even relations between combatants from their Civil War literature. This makes most books on the 1861-65 conflict not military history but a unique Civil War History. It also makes the corpus of American Civil War literature unique in the overall corpus of American history. This might explain, in part, why my Shiloh book has not been that well received: very little romance or lore, and what’s there is I challenge.
Some books defy the conventions and are successful; most aren’t.
Write a book that accuses the Americans of racism in the Pacific in WWII and you may get picked up as a textbook, but general sales…not so much. Write one that blames the samurai of Japan for the entire Pacific War and people will challenge your title without reading it. Produce a brilliant essay on Shiloh that doesn’t fit into the Lost Cause Mythology mold and some reviewers will call it “wasted energy on obscurity.”
But you wrote it…
What you produce that someone will read is a combination of recognition and curiosity, of anticipation and desire to know, of a new version of a familiar story that are almost always labors of love. Yes, there are unique stories out there, but the reason that no one wrote about the Battle of Musk Ox Creek is that no one has ever heard of it…good thing because I just made it up. When writing non-fiction, it’s usually not a good idea to do that. You’re painting a picture of misery, and misery made-up demeans the reader and the participants in that which did happen. Yours is a grave responsibility, because what you write will survive you, most likely. The image you paint will certainly survive your critics.
Written history is a lexicographic diorama...
The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War
The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War is less a disruptive work than it is purely military history. Award-winning author Lance Herdegen called the First Edition “thoughtful.” The romance I spoke of is still not there; the blood and gore and terror—unavoidable—are. The Appendix—The Steamboats of Shiloh—is an attempt to analyze the logistical miracle that was Buell’s crossing of the Tennessee River on the night of 6-7 April.
On Monday, 19 June, the Second Edition should be available at your favorite booksellers. The readers of the First Edition won’t find much new, but they might find it less distracting…and at least I’ll get paid for the sales.
Chasing the Dragon
The Hornet's Nest: Did It Matter?
On 3 June:
1800: John Adams moves into Washington, DC, first lodging in the Union Tavern in Georgetown. Adams would be the first president to live in the White House, which was not yet completed, and in fact wasn’t quite done when Adams vacated in 1801.
1937: Edward, former Prince of Wales and now the Duke of Edinburgh, marries Wallis Simpson in Monts, France. Edward had abdicated in December 1936 because the government and the Dominions would not support his marriage to an American divorcee with two living ex-husbands, proving that marriage among the crowned heads was still a matter of state in the 1930s.
And the first Saturday in June is NATIONAL BUBBLY DAY. For those of my classmates who I hope to see in another week…not too much.