Clay Soldiers: One Marine’s Story of War, Art & Atomic Energy comes out next month. It is a biography about WWII veteran Charles Caldwell. It’s the first time that I’ve written a biography and it was a much-different experience than I expected. Here are some of the things that I learned.
It’s always better to have someone to talk to. Since I write history articles and books, a lot of times, I can’t speak to someone who actually lived through what I’m writing about like I could when I was a newspaper reporter. Having someone around that I can interview is invaluable. It allows me to personalize the story. I was able to include lots of anecdotal stories to major events like the Battle of Guadalcanal and the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg that add more depth to the story and present a view that you won’t read elsewhere.
Research, research, research. Even though I was able to interview Chuck Caldwell for hours at a time over the course of a year and a half, I would still need to go home and research what we had talked about. His memory is still sharp and he had plenty of letters and diaries to supplement, but there were still gaps that I needed to fill in at times or additional information that I found on a subject that I could ask him about. I usually began each of our interview sessions with a list of questions that had come up in my research. After we went through those, we would start talking about other subjects.
Find something different. Each person has an individual story and you can’t forget that. You need to capture that in a biography. What is it about the story that that first attracted you to it? In Chuck’s case, it was that he had an autograph book filled with the autographs of Civil War veterans he had met at the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and pictures of himself with those veterans. He is also a WWII vet and the 75th anniversary of America’s involvement in that war begins this year. It struck me that young kids would be approaching him this year like he approached Civil War vets in 1938. Things had come full circle.
Never forget it’s about a person. It’s a biography, which means that it needs to tell the story of a person. You can’t get swept up in the events that the person was part of and forget to tell your subject’s story. You have to put yourself in that person’s shoes and try to envision things through their eyes. Sometimes that means you write a much narrower view of major events. However, I have found that although events may be interesting, readers need to connect with people. Writing a biography means you have your main character already. Just tell his or her story.
The first draft is not final. Even after I had the first draft written, Chuck would read sections that would trigger other memories. He would go digging for a picture or letter and tell me a new story that I would then need to weave into the draft. I didn’t mind this. It was why I had given him the draft. Even as a writer, sometimes, I just need to see something on paper to realize that it needs more or less or the written differently. Even while my beta readers were reading what I thought was my publishable copy, I was also reading it and rewording things or researching something to add more detail to it.
Sometimes I never thought it all would come together. I wrote chapters out of order, which was highly unusual for me. I would look at them and think, “How am I going to tie this together in a way that makes sense?” Then I realized, it already tied together in a way that made sense. It was the story of a man’s life. All I needed to do was tell that story as best I could.
That’s what I’ve done. I probably even pushed myself harder to do a good job with this because Chuck got more excited about having his life written down for his family as time went on. I didn’t want to disappoint him. I hope that I haven’t.