Telling the Stories of War

From Writers Digest:

Writing accurately and truthfully about war is never easy. Writing about conflicts that occurred decades and even centuries earlier is even more difficult.WD reached out to Mark Bowden, C.J. Chivers, and Nathaniel Philbrick to discuss their most recent war-themed books and the challenges they encountered researching and writing them.

What was the inspiration for your most recent work? Tell us briefly how the project came about.

MARK BOWDEN (Hue 1968, Atlantic Monthly Press): Several years ago, my editor and publisher, Morgan Entrekin, suggested a book about the Battle of Huế during the 1968 Tet Offensive. I initially declined, but the more I looked into it, the more I realized it was an amazing story that had not been told in the way I would like to tell it. I felt after a long career in journalism that this was an opportunity to study an event during the war in Vietnam that could act as a lens on the whole conflict and I could arrive at my own well-informed understanding of what happened.

C.J. CHIVERS (The Fighters: Americans In Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, Simon & Schuster): I spent years accompanying military units for The New York Times, with some magazine work on the side. I came to realize that the limits of daily, weekly, or monthly journalism didn’t let me tackle my subjects in a way that allowed them to cohere or bring in the context that developed over time. So the idea behind The Fighters was to revisit a small body of representative characters to try to tell tales that had more coherence and arc. I felt a duty to go back and give it fuller meaning and purpose than possible in fast-turnaround journalism. 

NATHANIEL PHILBRICK (In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown, Viking): I believe mainstream writers tend to downplay the importance of the sea in our country’s history. I knew that what made the victory at Yorktown possible was a naval battle, the Battle of the Chesapeake, so In the Hurricane’s Eye was an opportunity to write my own version of a naval slugfest and continue the story of George Washington, which started for me with [my books] Bunker Hill and continued with Valiant Ambition.

Take us through the research you did for this book. What was your process?

BOWDEN: I started by reading everything I could find about the Battle of Huế, while jotting down the names of people I would like to interview. Next, I contacted the National Archives in Maryland regarding the official records on file there, and simultaneously tracked down Marines who had fought in Huế that I wanted to interview. My preliminary interviews were scattershot because I had no deep understanding of the battle as it unfolded. In addition, I visited North Vietnam twice to interview participants there. I hired a Vietnamese graduate student at the University of Delaware, where I was teaching at the time, to translate those interviews when I returned home.

CHIVERS: The first step was identifying a small group of characters who were distinct from each other and would bring some of the quintessential experiences and the common recurring experiences of the two wars for people who didn’t know what they were. The second step was securing their agreements to cooperate with this project, which would be difficult for them. I would tell them, my ambition is to download your brain with immersive interviews and then go through your personal records and documents to help me understand your experiences. The next stage was to write the thing, and the last stage, which I would argue is the most important, was fact-checking. I went through the manuscript with my primary sources, then hired an independent fact-checker to do it all again.

PHILBRICK: With each book I spend a year broad-brush researching, trying to identify the plot I want to follow and the characters I want to focus on. From there, the research becomes very specific by chapter. I look for documents that have not been consulted deeply as a way of providing some new angle on it. For In the Hurricane’s Eye, I reviewed the logs of the British and especially the French ships involved in the battle. There are copies of many of the French logbooks at the Library of Congress.

Link to the rest at Writers Digest