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James-Stewart-early-publicity-pictureI’m a big James Stewart fan from his naïve characters to his western gunfighters to his psychologically tortured characters. I’ve got most of his movies, his two TV series, and even his radio series.

I became a fan in college when I had to watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for an American history class. I loved the movie and started watching others. My second movie was It’s a Wonderful Life. Needless to say, after those two movies I was hooked.

I’m not the only one either. James Stewart is a national icon who avoided much of the bad behavior that so many TV and movie stars fall into.

I was a little hesitant to read Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend by Michael Munn because the first review I saw of the book seemed to make it sound like it was a book out to tear down Stewart’s public image.

So I passed. However, it was on sale as a Kindle version, I decided to chance it. I’m glad that I did. While some of the elements of the first review are in the book, the reviewer must have focused on the negatives because it bore little semblance to what I read.

Munn was friend of Stewart and his wife, Gloria, from the 1970s on. He writes in an easy flowing style that was filled with lots of personal anecdotes. It also included interviews with many of Stewart’s friends and co-stars.

Much of the story I was familiar with; Stewart’s shyness, his love of comics, his friendship with Henry Fonda, his war service, and his patriotism. However, I still enjoyed reading it again because Munn brought in some fresh viewpoints from his experiences and other stars’ experiences. 220px-Brig._Gen._James_M._Stewart

Some of the new stuff I read about was that he supposedly had an explosive temper. It took a lot to anger him, but when he reached that point, he was apparently a volcano. Luckily, it didn’t happen often.

Stewart supposedly did undercover surveillance for J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. This was the most-interesting new tidbit. As hard as it is to believe, it is also believable.

He also had some complex love affairs, particularly with Margaret Sullavan.

The book also talks about the roles that Stewart was considered for and ultimately didn’t do. It is interesting to imagine how those films might have looked had Stewart been the start. It is also interesting how many of Stewart’s films were considered failures when they were released but have ultimately come to be considered classics.

The one thing I didn’t like about the book was that Munn seems to want to paint racist. Although he can’t show anything outright that would make a person think Stewart was a racist, he tries to read behind comments and actions of Stewart to see something. This was also the aspect that the review I first read played up.

All in all, it was a great book. It left me with a more well-rounded opinion of Stewart while still leaving intact my opinion that he was also a great American and a wonderful person.

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Chuck Caldwell and I at his home during an interview he did with the Hanover Evening Sun. For more Evening Sun photos from the interview, visit here.

I had a presentation this past weekend at the annual WWII Weekend at the Eisenhower Farm in Gettysburg. Now, I’ve been given an average of two presentations a month for the past couple years, but this one made me nervous.

It was a talk about Chuck Caldwell, a 92-year-old WWII veteran whom I got to know while writing his biography. I had spent about two years working on the biography, Clay Soldiers: One Marine’s Story of War, Art & Atomic Energy. So I knew the topic.

Why was I so nervous?

I think it was because I know the audience would have preferred to have Chuck speaking to them. Heck, I would have preferred it and attended. However, Chuck spoke at the weekend two years ago and the heat got to him and he collapsed. Since that time, he’s been gun shy about going back.

It just felt odd for me to be talking about the life of someone who was still alive. Some of the audience members would know Chuck. What if I said something different from their memories? What if they thought that I didn’t do Chuck’s Forrest-Gump-type life justice?

I was nervous because I really wanted Chuck to proud of the job I did even if he wasn’t there.

Well, the presentation went fine. Once I got started, I only rarely looked at my script. I even started throwing some anecdotes that really showed the way Chuck has interacted with history. For instance, one time during an air raid on Guadalcanal, he and another Marine dove into the nearest air raid shelter for cover. Well, inside that shelter was none other than Marine General Vandergrift and Army General Patch discussing the Army’s takeover of the island from the Marines. Chuck and the other Marine decided to run back out and face the Japanese bombs rather than the two generals.

Chuck Caldwell is one of the greatest people whom I have had a chance to meet and I’m glad I have gotten to know this American hero.

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C03aaClay Soldiers: One Marine’s Story of War, Art, & Atomic Energy is out and starting to show up on the shelves of stores. You can also find it at online retailers, most notably Amazon.com.

I took some copies over the Chuck Caldwell (the subject of the biography) last week. He started to get choked up when he saw the finished product. I think he thought that he would never see the final book.

I have to say that I wondered at times myself. It was mainly early on in the process when I was trying to bring together all of the various times and stories from Chuck’s life. You would think that with a biography that would be easy to do. You follow the timeline of his life.

The pieces weren’t working together as I wrote them. I knew that they had to because Chuck lived them. So I went back to the source time and again, digging for more details. I used my early drafts to find the gaps in his story and talked to him about those times, looking for stories that even if they weren’t part of a big event were interesting and showed more of the type of person Chuck is.

It took a year and a half (making it the second-longest time it’s taken me to write a book), but all the rough spots got smoothed out and the final book tells a great story. I think it will topple Saving Shallmar: Christmas Spirit in a Coal Town as my favorite non-fiction book that I’ve written.

I like both books for the same reason. I have living people who I could interview. Doing this, I was able to get a lot of details that wouldn’t show up in other places. I know because I scoured historical societies, newspapers, etc. looking for information on both topics. Still, there are plenty of things in both books that you won’t find anywhere else except those books and the memories of the people who I interviewed. Those details give the books a richness of setting the time and place or the story or portraying the people involved.

While I work hard on all of my books, I think I may have worked even harder on Clay Soldiers because I knew that I was telling the story of Chuck’s life. It was going to be the summary of his life and his one chance to see it as a book. I didn’t want him to be disappointed.

He wasn’t.Scan1z (2)z

I think what I like best about the book was that I was able to bring it full circle. It begins with him as a 14-year-old boy attending the 75th anniversary reunion of the Battle of Gettysburg where he met and had his picture taken with Civil War veterans. The book ends with the roles reversed. He is now the aged veteran as the 75th anniversary of World War II begins. The youths will be coming to him now to hear about his experiences and have their picture taken with him.

If you missed my preview of the first chapter that I published a while back, you can catch them in this series of blog posts.

Clay Soldiers

 

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.

Scan1z (2)zIt’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. C03aa

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.

Clay SoldiersSometimes 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.

He talked with Civil War soldiers, fought against the Japanese in WWII, and chased mushroom clouds after atomic bomb explosions…

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Chuck Caldwell in his contamination suit at the Nevada Test Site in 1957.

Chuck Caldwell was always fascinated by history, so much so that as a 14-year-old boy he traveled to Gettysburg, Pa., in 1938 to meet with Civil War veterans at the last, great Civil War Reunion. Besides the 75th anniversary reunion, he would go on to attend the 100th, 125th, and 150th anniversaries of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Joining the Marines at the beginning of World War II, he went on to fight in some of the most-harrowing battles of the Pacific … Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Guam. He survived with two wounds, a Purple Heart, and malaria.

After the war, he worked for the Museum of Atomic Energy in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and spent summers at the Nevada Test Site collecting data at Ground Zero after atomic bomb tests, sometimes standing beneath mushroom clouds as they rose into the sky.

Though it all, Chuck has his art. He drew, painted, and sculpted miniature figures that have become sought after by collectors around the country.

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Chuck Caldwell’s artillery gun crew on Guadalcanal during WWII.

Clay Soldiers is the story of a man who became part of this of America and chronicled it through his art. It is the story of an ordinary man who has lived an extraordinary life.

Clay Soldiers is due out in late April, but you can pre-order your copy now at a reduced price of $15.00 and have an autographed copy shipped to you when it is released.

Clay Soldiers

img099I’ve been working on a biography of an interesting World War II veteran who is 94 years old. His name is Chuck Caldwell. It’s the first time I’ve written a biography on a living subject. I’ve been sitting down to interview him for a couple hours every week then taking the information he has given me to use as a jumping-off point to research deeper and track down others to interview.

Once I write a decent draft of a chapter, I’ve given it to Chuck to read to make sure the facts are correct and to see if it makes him think of any other stories. Usually, I leave the draft at the end of one of our interviews and pick it up the next time we meet.

The other week he actually asked me to stay while he read through the pages that I handed him. I thought that I would be bored waiting for him. I wasn’t. I gave me a different insight into what I was working writing.

I watched as Chuck read. At times, he would nod his head. Other times, he would actually chuckle. He would write a few notes in the margins here and there.

At one point, he stopped and said, “This is going to be great for my children to read.”

Suddenly, a lot of the doubts that I had been having about the process and whether I was doing Chuck’s story justice fell away. I knew that I was on the right track. Watching his reaction, I was invigorated. This was the first feedback that I was getting on the story so it meant a lot to me.

Now I am back at work on the next chapter, pulling in pieces from our various interviews to create a timeline that I will match to archival research and other interviews. I am also excited to see where this project takes me because so far, it has definitely taken me outside of my writing comfort zone.

I can’t wait to see how it ends.

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