On Writing A Civil War Novel
As I’m an avid consumer of historical military fiction (authors like Jeff Shaara, Bernard Cornwell, Ralph Peters, Gingrich & Forstchen, PJ Nagle, and Harold Coyle), I decided to write a Civil War novel. I built the story around a real company of soldiers recruited in San Antonio, That’s Company K of the Sixth Texas Infantry, CSA, aka The Alamo Rifles.
This article is about the process of writing a first novel. With each new chapter I rediscovered that military historical fiction is a whole different beast than anything I’ve written before. All the magazine articles and newsletters I’ve written were easy compared to writing a novel. First of all, the darned book just wouldn’t leave me alone. I’d wake up early in the morning eager to hit the keyboard to get the gist of a new scene recorded, since breakfast and the morning newspaper tend to wipe clean any sleep-inspired ideas. I kept jabbering to my wife about the characters and how to take them down the path the real Civil War put them upon. I took to e-mailing scenes to my sons and brother to gauge their responses. I read whole chapters out loud to my cornered family during holiday gatherings.
For over three years, I practically lived with one or another of six primary accounts of the war written by soldiers in the regiment or brigade to which my characters belong. One of the most pleasant surprises was learning how many odd and exciting anecdotes are in those six primary accounts. Honestly, truth is stranger than fiction, so much so that I decided the book needed an “Afterward” to list the memoirs and note that the most unexpected vignettes in the story really did happen.
Then there has been the core question that seems common to writers of historical fiction: Is the historical war storyline mainly a vehicle around which to create human conflicts and the development of fictional characters, or are my fictional characters primarily the vehicle to tell the story of the war for this one regiment? I think I started with the characters being the means to tell the war story of the Sixth Texas, but the characters kept growing and demanding more attention than was my initial plan, so by the end perhaps the human side prevailed over the war itself. But I’m not sure, and each reader will decide that answer for himself.
The fictional characters became my family. My job was to dream them up; name them; put personalities on them; put them in tight spots and get most of them out again, deciding who to kill off and who to keep alive until the end. That was great fun, but not as easy I thought it would be. I learned it’s tough to knock off a good guy. Even more, the main characters had become my kids, and you just don’t “do in” your own kids. Also, it was much easier to create good guys than real meanies, yet good stories need villains. On the other hand, even good-guy characters need human shortcomings, like we all have. I confess that my guys are not overly complex and with a few intentional exceptions, are good people, but sometimes the dark side pops up in all of them. I hope.
With the story about three-fourths written, I had an epiphany and decided the book needed a romance. Bear in mind that I’m a big admirer of the novel The Killer Angels and the movie Gettysburg, which have no female characters, much less a romance thread. All along I’ve just wanted to tell the war story of the Alamo Rifles, nothing more. Then the light bulb clicked on to remind me that war is depressing and reading about battle after battle and hardship after hardship is also depressing. Prisoner-of-war camp and then the Atlanta campaign in 1864, which are big parts of the story of the Sixth Texas, may have been long periods of terrible hardship and non-stop fighting, but a book about it needs a distraction every now and then – like a romantic interlude for some lucky soldier. The other thing is that I have never written a romantic scene and wanted to try. Turns out it was great fun, and more importantly, my wife gave it a passing grade. I don’t yet know if the lovey-dovey bird-walk away from the war itself detracts from the essence of the novel, but I hope not, because it’s one of my favorite parts.
Then there are the forbidden words. The unspeakable “N” word, which is the racial slur that continues to plague Mark Twain’s books today. Huck Finn is truly one of the great American classic novels, but it still gets banned from school reading lists and classroom instruction because it includes the “N” word. I’m not even in Mark Twain’s shadow, but to be authentic in 1860’s dialogue, should I include that “N” word in the everyday conversation of my characters? What about the other “N” word? The one which is an anatomical reference, not the place where we put priming caps on our muskets. If I use that word in the romance, will the book be deemed too racy for teenage readers? I’m not telling if either of those hot button words fell victim to the delete key. Writing this before the novel is finished, and certainly not fully edited, I don’t even know if any forbidden words will be in the final version. (Author’s Note: The book is now done, and I can’t be coy, both N words are in the book.)
Since war is an ugly business, how many light-hearted experiences should be part of a war novel? My answer has been enough to flesh out the personalities of the handful of very young men who are my main characters. Young guys are not known for a lot of serious introspection, they are known for doing stupid things, saying stupid things, taking risks, ribbing each other, and somehow enduring crappy situations. The primary account memoirs and diaries helped here, because those veterans remembered many of the mischievous and light-hearted things they did between the battles and other hardships they endured. Again, I hope my guys reflect that in a realistic way.
Since my novel is first and last a war story, how many battles should be included? How often and in how many ways could I take my characters through the horrific experiences of Civil War battle? Wouldn’t the battle experience be too repetitive and intense to include time after time? Again, a close reading of regimental and brigade histories led me through this challenge. I found that not one of the Sixth Texas’ dozen battles were fought in the same circumstance as any other. In the real war, sometimes the Sixth Texas was attacking, sometimes defending. Sometimes they were in the forward skirmish line, sometimes they were elbow-to-elbow. The terrain varied. Opponents differed. Engaging Yankees armed with Henry repeating rifles led to a very different fight than engaging Yankees armed with old Springfield smoothbores. Fighting US Colored troops brought about different emotions than fighting other white men. The outcome of the battles ran the gamut from great success to utter defeat. It turned out that I could highlight those differences. Moreover, being historical “fiction,” in some battles key characters die, or are captured, or are seriously wounded. In other battles the whole group skates through unscathed. I tried hard to put the same core elements of combat into each battle: Fear, the fog of war, chaos, the nastiness of blood and offal, but I think each battle wound up with a different feel to it. I hope.
The internet has been a blessing for quick research to identify which Federal divisions and brigades opposed Cleburne’s Division in their engagements. It was then surprisingly easy to find online histories of Union regiments that might well have fought the Sixth Texas. Those internet sources usually included officer’s names, after-action reports, and more cool anecdotes that I could weave into the storyline.
A final challenge was how to use my experiences as a 15-year Civil War reenactor to write a better Civil War novel, without writing a novel that’s obviously written by a reenactor who is eager to display his knowledge of the material culture of Civil War soldiers, or the field craft of Civil War soldiers. It was very tempting to describe the brass buttons on the characters’ uniform jackets, or list the nine steps of loading a musket, or quote the specific orders to move a formation of soldiers about, or tell how to turn a sack of cornmeal into edible food, or how to make a brush shelter that might keep men dry during an overnight thunderstorm. While it’s neat we learn those things in our reenacting hobby, I found it very tempting to overdo them in writing. Nonetheless, I included some Civil War reenacting “trivia” because, after all is said and written, I am a devoted Civil War reenactor, but only a fledgling novelist.
The completed first draft was 120,000 words long. I quickly sent a printed copy to my brother, who since our teenage years has guided my choice of books to read, and is an astute Civil War historian. I asked my English teacher-librarian wife to tackle an electronic version. She is an avid reader of novels, but doesn’t know much about the Civil War. I thought this pair of willing “prime-readers” would give me candid, but not too brutal feedback. Waiting for them to read and critique the drafts was like holding my wife’s hand while she delivered each of our sons. I was on pins and needles, time slowed to a crawl, and I was really scared my newborn child would be missing something important. (Turns out both sons were missing hair, balding by thirty, but that came much later.)
Brother and Wife each provided me a fair set of compliments. When talking by phone about the book, Brother laughed a lot at the parts where I hoped readers would at least smile. Wife blessed my main characters as believable and interesting.
On the other hand, they both gave me lists of suggestions, chapter by chapter. That stung, but I had asked them for it. I returned to the keyboard, not too sullen, and started patching the fabric that connected the chapters, reluctantly grateful to have guidance from critical eyes of people I trust and respect. I don’t transition very smoothly in real life, and Brother and Wife confirmed my story line needed smoother segues too. It took some work to lessen the gaps between the chapters. It was harder to reshape a few of the characters. It took some nipping, tucking, and injecting little bits of personality and backstory here and there, but again I concede the prime-readers’ observations helped me improve the believability of the characters. In the months of revisions I also added a few new characters to better paint the whole picture.
Both were too nice to suggest I delete or rewrite whole chapters, for which I’m grateful. Well, that’s not true. Wife did urge me to delete one complete, albeit short, chapter right at the end of the book, a chapter wholly based on a quietly remarkable incident in a diary, but an incident that was not particularly germane to the storyline. Wife said it detracted from the core story at a time when the focus needed to stay tight on the key action. So, I did it. It’s gone. But it hurt to hit that “delete” button.
Wife was also not shy about suggesting whole paragraphs of “boring history and irrelevant details” bite the dust. She didn’t want to get bogged down in either the minutia of the stuff soldiers carry, or the bigger picture of the war, she wanted the characters to carry the tale. After zapping a whole chapter, paragraphs became easy victims. Her suggestions shortened the story by 2,500 words, and I think it is now a leaner, better, character-driven book.
Did writing the book make me a better Civil War reenactor? I don’t think so, although the ongoing reading and research did make me better appreciate the hardships Civil War soldiers endured for long periods of time during the campaigns. Those guys were tough hombres, no doubt about it.
On the other hand, some of my campaign reenacting experiences did more to enrich my writing than the writing the book did to enrich my reenacting. I recall the immersive event I did in 2007, Bank’s Grand Retreat, where we marched over twenty miles in the deep woods of Louisiana, fought skirmishes every day, camped and ate for four days without modern logistical support, but did do picket duty every night, and never saw more of modern America than a stray plastic bottle or beer can on the trail. We had experiences like filling canteens in creeks (the water purified with iodine pills), cooking in the dark, depending on hardtack crackers for sustenance, packing up in the pre-dawn, hitting the trail early for four days in a row, marching most of the day, then fighting while more tired than I thought possible. Then we did it again the next day for four days.
Those experiences helped me get in the heads of my characters in a way I couldn’t have done before the four days of immersive campaign reenacting. I had to endure discomfort for more than an isolated hour in order for the deprivations, hardship and endless activity to make an impact, to give me just a taste of the real circumstance of Civil War soldiers on campaign – and no one was really shooting at me.
Conversely, the casual reenacting static camp weekends didn’t provide any helpful insights for writing the novel. Those weekends are great fun, they are not the right kind of virtual time travel, and do not provide enough “magic moments,” to help me write realistic scenes about a terrible war that happened 150 years ago.
Hunters shoot different game, athletes play different sports, and authors write different genres. My plunge into military historical fiction was the biggest challenge I’ve had as a writer. I hope the result is something worth reading.