More from Jeff Shaara
Published: February 25, 2005
|Picking a topic|
If I mentioned the Red Baron to you and you've heard of the Red Baron [legendary German flying ace Manfred von Richthofen], it conjures up an image probably of Snoopy. I love that, because now it's my job to tell you the truth--now here's the REAL story. That's the appeal for me. [John] "Black Jack" Pershing--sure, a lot of people have heard of him, but what do you know about the man and what he accomplished? Between 1917-1918, this man--and this is not hyperbole--saved the Western world. He changed history by the way he held the American Expeditionary Force together, the way he deployed American troops. What the Americans accomplished in World War I was extraordinary. I didn't know this going into the research; I was looking for characters.
Walking in his subjects' footsteps
For my World War I book, I went to France, I went to western Belgium, basically all along the Western Front. Now some of it's gone, but there are places you can still go and get a feel for it. If I'm going to draw a picture for you of this hillside that this soldier marches up, it would be awfully nice if I saw the hillside, not just rely on some description on a page. I have to see it. There is something that happens when you walk in the footsteps of these characters that really affects the way their story comes out.
Somebody said to me, "How dare you put words in the mouth of Robert E Lee!" Well, in Virginia, that's a very real thing. If I dare to put words in the mouth of these characters, I had better be comfortable with those words.
If I'm putting words in the mouths of significant historical characters, real people, I have to believe that the language, the specific conversations, the meetings, the decisions, whatever took place, are authentic. Word for word, of course not; that's why they're novels. But I never put a character where he never was, I never create a meeting that never happened, I don't put two people together who never met.
If I'm reading the memoirs of Pershing, for example, and there's a meeting with him and [French leader Georges] Clemenceau, he mentions what was said in a meeting in a general sense. It's my job to put you there. If my job is to take you into the room with these characters and create the dialogue, the dialogue has to be authentic of the time, accurate to the personality of the characters, and it has to be accurate to the moment. That's why, as much as possible, I have to hear the voices of these characters. I can't rely on a biographer to tell me what Pershing was going through. I'd rather hear it from Pershing himself.
Adding narration without hurting the flow
[I add narration] usually at the beginning or end of a chapter, preferably at the beginning, and a page or less if possible. The way I write, each chapter is usually a short story. A chapter almost always ends on a strong note. If you then put a chunk of narrative there, you dilute that ending.
His toughest challenge
Feeling comfortable with the dialogue that I'm giving these characters. And I really work on that. When I get compliments for that, they're the nicest.
The question he hates
"How do you write a bestseller?" If you're going in with that motive ...
Somebody asked me today, "How do you write a book for the movies?" Well, first of all, you've got to start by writing a good book. And if you're thinking about the movie, you're not going to write a good book.