21 June 2006 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 5 comments

As promised, today I will tackle some the mechanics of how I write. No, I don’t mean noun, verb, adverb, preposition. What I mean is how I get to finished product.

By way of background, my style has always been to permit the soldiers to tell their own stories in their own words wherever possible. I therefore often see my role as narrator, connecting their stories in the proper factual context, so that the whole thing makes sense and is historically correct.

Also, as my regular readers know, I am a lawyer. I write pretty much all day every day. Due to the nature of what I do, I rarely have the luxury of spending hours and hours laboring over a single paragraph. Instead, we have to get stuff done, often promptly and quickly, due to deadlines and budgetary constraints. Finally, I have a very short attention span, too short to be able to labor over a single paragraph for hours on end. Instead, my preferred method has always been to get things down on paper–a complete draft–and then to go through multiple revisions to tweak it. My book on Sheridan’s Trevilian Raid went through about twenty drafts because of this.

I start with an outline. Because I know what I want to say, the outline is not terribly detailed, and is just really there to remind me to make sure that everything gets included. I then build a baseline of narrative. For purposes of illustration, we can use what I’ve done on the Dahlgren manuscript the last two nights. Ully Dahlgren’s death triggered a tremendous controversy, so it’s extremely well documented, probably more so than the death of any other colonel of the war, save perhaps Elmer Ellsworth. Consequently, I have a huge amount of material on the subject, so figuring out what to use is a critical piece of the puzzle.

The baseline is the basic facts. For this chapter, I used two sources to craft the baseline: volume 33 of the OR, and the memoir of Ulric’s life by his father. They mesh together well enough that I have assembled the basic facts. Next comes the process of incorporating additional materials to flesh it out. Having selected those things that I want to use, I plug stuff in, making sure that there are proper transitions, and that the additional material does not break up the flow of the narrative and makes sense where it’s been added.

When that’s done, and an entire draft is complete, then I begin tweaking and revising. My first drafts are decent, but they always need work. I will print it out, grab different colored pens, and then start going through the manuscript, marking changes. I use a different color of ink for each complete pass at the manuscript so that I can easily tell when I made the change. Once I’m done–usually three passes–I will then sit at the computer and plug in the changes. I will then print it out one more time, and then go through it the same way once or twice more. At the end of that process, I typically am completely incapable of seeing anything else wrong or that needs work.

When I reach that point, I then bring in my network of friends who read stuff for me. They will read it, mark up the draft and then send it back. Using my author’s discretion, I decide what of those suggestions to use or not use, but I typically end up making over 90% of the suggested changes, and usually 100% of the suggestions to correct factual errors (yes, we all do make them). Once I’ve gotten the last set of feedback, I take one last pass at it, and then it’s finished.

It’s a cumbersome process, but it works for me. I’ve actually learned to short-cut the process a lot over the years. The Monroe’s Crossroads book only went through about seven drafts instead of the twenty-four that Trevilian went through. By the time it leaves my hands as a finished product, I’ve been through it so many times that I can’t see anything more, but it does not leave my hands until I am satisfied that it’s the best product I can produce, and that it’s factually correct and accurate.

So, that’s the process. Like legislation and sausage making, it’s not a pretty thing to watch, but hopefully, the final product is worth the bother. 🙂

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Comments

  1. Charles Bowery
    Thu 22nd Jun 2006 at 12:45 am

    Eric,
    Excellent info, thanks. I’m glad to see you share my Mac addition; I’m a closet Luddite, and learned computers in college from my future wife, who had a mid-1980s Macintosh. I wrote everything I’ve published on the same laptop as you. Interesting that you don’t use any of the citation programs out there- frankly, they seem like more work than they’re worth.

    I think I will adopt your practice of doing the draft on the computer and then revising in pen several times.

    The one other question I would add is your method of tracking primary source info. From your comment about bankers boxes, it sounds like you do all of your note taking by hand. I’ve gotten into the habit of just using my laptop to take notes, giving me the capability to cut and paste passages directly into a draft. Do you ever do that? Secondly, do you make photocopies of every source you get from an archive, if they allow photocopies? I have tons of material from various archives for my MA thesis, but don’t have a lot of it in hard copy.

    Again, thanks!
    Charles

  2. Thu 22nd Jun 2006 at 8:34 am

    Charles,

    I don’t use any of the citation programs, although I have considered them. I prefer to do things the old fashioned way, because that way I have a level of confidence that I haven’t missed anything.

    Regarding primary source info: Unless I have absolutely no other option, I never, ever take notes by hand. I much prefer having photocopies of the original documents, and given my druthers, that’s what I will always choose. Sometimes, you have no choice, though. Some things simply can’t be xeroxed. On those occasions, if I have to transcribe, I will always do so on my laptop for the reasons you’ve stated.

    Eric

  3. Thu 22nd Jun 2006 at 10:24 pm

    I found both articles discussing your methods fascinating. I have one question though. I realize there are tons of books, research on the Civil War. How do you choose what subject matter you write about? Is it primarily of your own interest?

    Given that, how do you create a book on a subject matter without having the feeling the material is not simply a reformatting of the same data.

  4. Thu 22nd Jun 2006 at 10:26 pm

    Well the one question actually became 3 questions. However, I appreciate the answers in advance.

  5. Fri 23rd Jun 2006 at 9:18 am

    Middle America,

    I’m glad that you found something of merit here.

    As for what I write about, with one exception, it’s always been to write about what interests me. I learn through study.

    As to your other question: I try not to read anyone else’s interpretations as I write my own, as I don’t want to regurgitate what someone else has done, which is how I avoid that. I also try to be judicious in choosing material so that I’m not using suspicious or unreliable sources.

    Eric

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