How I write: Jeff Shaara
Published: March 15, 2005
|Jeff Shaara broke into writing most unexpectedly. Ron Maxwell had directed the film Gettysburg, based on the classic novel Killer Angels by Shaara's late father, Michael. Afterward, Maxwell, who had gotten to know Jeff, wondered whether he might want to continue some of the characters' stories. Jeff had no writing background, but he decided to give fiction a try, and with that a new career was launched. Six historical novels later, Shaara, 52, has established himself as a New York Times bestselling author. His latest book, To the Last Man, is a vivid story of World War I. He lives with his wife in Missoula, Mont. |
Credits: To the Last Man, Gods and Generals, The Last Full Measure, Gone for Soldiers, Rise to Rebellion and The Glorious Cause.
Because I enjoy it. I enjoy reading something I wrote yesterday that I don't remember writing. What a magnificent feeling that is--it's like a machine turning on, and I'm the conduit. Or I read a conversation between two historical figures [that I've written] and I'm moved. The writing becomes instead the story, and the story even affects me. There are three or four scenes in the World War I book that make me misty-eyed.
|I work at home. The writing process is very disciplined. Every morning about 10, after a couple cups of coffee and a bowl of cereal, I sit down, and I know from whose point of view the chapter's going to be. I just tell you the story.|
It's 80 percent finished as I go. I start every morning by going back and reading what I did yesterday, and fix it.
Generally, research takes a year to 18 months. I actually buy a library. One of the things I do is go online to these used, out-of-print rare-book sites. I do searches on my subject, and look at hundreds of titles and pluck out the memoirs, the first-hand accounts, collections of letters, anything that's of the time and was written by somebody who was there. I stay away from the modern biography, modern history. I respect modern historians but that's not what I'm looking for. I have to hear the voices.
I'm not a historian; I have no background in history. I consider that a huge advantage, because I was not taught by a professor how to look at my subjects. I had to learn all by myself. The voices of the characters are the voices I give them.
When the characters are ready, the story will come out of me. If it doesn't, then I haven't done my work; I don't know the characters well enough yet.
I think I'm a very visual person, because when I'm writing I really feel like what I'm doing is simply describing to you what I see and hear. I'm in the room, I'm standing in the corner, and here's [U.S. Gen. John] Pershing talking to [French leader Georges] Clemenceau, and I'm just telling you what they said. That's the way it feels.
I'm working now on the Korean War era. I have 57 books on Korea I've gotten over the last month. I read every book, and then I travel the ground. That's the lesson from my father: Go to the footprints of these soldiers. There's almost something mystical about that.
If you're excited by a story, if something appeals to you, chances are it will appeal to somebody else. If I start talking about Pershing, I get excited, I have passion for what I do. That's what drives me. I learn to love my characters. At the end, the hardest thing I have to do is kill my characters.