1. How much research do you complete before you feel confident enough to write in the voice of the historical figures in your novel?
Typically, I read 50-60 books for each book that I write, nearly all of them original sources (diaries, memoirs, collections of letters etc.). Once I feel I have my cast of characters and that I’m comfortable speaking for them, then I’m ready to write. I never write a little, then research a little.
2. A school of thought argues that historical fiction is beneficial to education because it encourages readers to research the back-story of characters, thus learn more about history. Is this at all a goal of your writing?
I didn’t start out with that goal, and I can’t really let that guide me even now. I was astounded to hear from teachers who were using my books in their classrooms, and it made me see that I had a responsibility to “get it right.” Don’t mess around with the facts. Even though I am now aware that students might be reading my stories, I still focus on telling that story as accurately and as completely as I can. I never want to target a single audience or what marketing people would call a “demographic.”
3. You have written that readers argue that there are many other civil war stories to tell, but you do not have the time, or the backing, to dedicate to every Civil War story. What makes a story worth telling for you? This question is particularly in reference to your focus on minor characters of history like Thomas Gage – why them.
There is some guidance that comes from my publisher, who insists that, for now anyway, I stick to large scale “epic stories” (thus, they rejected an idea for the War of 1812). So, if I’m going to focus on a larger story I need to find the voices who will do that story justice. Usually this starts with the people at the top, the commanders, those who are responsible for the decisions that change history. That also includes those voices on the “other side,” the bad guys, if you will, whose decisions are equally as crucial. But once I reached the 20th century in my stories, I realized that those guys at the top were no longer leading their troops into the fight, and so, I had to find voices much closer to the action. Thus, now, in all my books, there have to be those characters who are often composites, who bring the reader (and me) right into the action. I have found that it makes a good contrast to the meetings and command decisions taking place far in the rear, to have to character out front who must endure or accomplish what someone else has simply drawn on paper.
4. You recommend getting the “lay of the land” before one begins to write about a certain moment in history, much like an actor attempts to live with the family of a real life character they are going to portray. Would you say that you take on the role of each of these characters in your process, that you’ve somehow “lived” through many American Civil Wars?
I do feel that way. It’s critically important for me to walk the ground before I write any story (though sometimes that isn’t terrible practical, such as my first WW2 story which takes place mostly in Libya and Tunisia). But seeing the ground, stepping through rocks, feeling the sand or the mud, all of that is important for me. It makes sense to me that if I’m going to put you into the mind of a character who is charging up a hill into the guns of the enemy, it’s much better if I’ve walked (or run) up that same hill, rather than just looking at a photo in a book. Once I feel comfortable with that part of the research, I do try to find those characters who I can relate to. If I can’t get into someone’s head, it’s very hard to speak for them. Ultimately, the characters you see in my books are people I feel very close to.
5. When you first decided to write the prequel and sequel to The Killer Angels, you had no previous experience in writing. How did you prepare for this new undertaking? Did you take any classes or consult any writers?
One of the first lessons my father would give to his creative writing students at Florida State was: “I can’t teach you creative writing.” With all due respect to those who write “how-to” books on writing, I don’t believe those can produce a writer. I didn’t talk to anyone about how to go about tackling this, but I knew that in the end, my father was most concerned about telling a good story. I knew the kinds of research he had done to put The Killer Angels together, that he had relied on the personal rather than just the historical references. I did the same. But from that point on, I have no idea how the story flows from the mind to the written page. Every writer is probably different in how they approach this, but in my case, I visualize the scene, I hear the dialog, and I just write it down. That sounds a little strange, I know. But I don’t understand it myself.
6. In writing Gods and Generals, how much was your father, Michael Shaara’s style in The Killer Angels an influence on your approach to the story?
His format was very important- carrying you through the time-line from different points of view, switching back and forth. I’ve adopted that in every book I’ve done, but he was the first that I’m aware of to do that with a historical novel. Beyond that, I made no attempt to mimic his writing style. I don’t think anyone can do that for long- you run out of energy for it, or you spend so much time focusing on the style, that you lose the story-telling. Many people have used the word “seamless” to describe the transition from my father’s work to my own, which I take as an amazing compliment (and also, I take it with a grain of salt. I’m a long way from being compared to Michael Shaara). But my sister made the observation that my father’s writing has probably influenced me more than anyone else, and in fact, I learned to type as a kid by re-typing his manuscripts (long before there were computers).
7. (In reference to Gods and Generals) As an author, was it difficult parting with your interpretations and leaving them to the mercy of director Ronald F. Maxwell?
Yes. I will never allow that to happen in that way again. I had no input at all into the script for the film version of Gods and Generals. I understand that a director or screenwriter has his own idea of how the story should be told, but if you’re going to use my work, and my name, there should be more of my story included than the 10-15% or so that ended up in the movie.
8. After so many books, why do Civil War stories still demand your attention?
Three things: My own interest in the subject. My publisher’s interest in the subject. And most importantly, the size of the audience for those stories. It is a passionate audience, which I really appreciate.
9. Is there any historical figure, in or outside of American History that given the chance you would write about?
One that greatly appeals to me is Napoleon. I hope that one day down the road, I can tell that story.
1) Favorite moment in history?
July 4, 1776
2) Favorite place to write?
My own office – quiet and solitude
3) Favorite childhood memory?
Going fishing in a boat by myself when I was six years old. My father trusted me to run the motor, to know what to do. And, I caught fish. I doubt that sort of thing is done much these days.
4) Favorite historical site?
Three: Gettysburg; The American cemetery at Omaha Beach, Normandy; and The Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor
5) Favorite word?
Shaara’s latest novel, The Final Storm, is available now.
Interview by Lynnette Repollet