Take One Author Lecture And Call Me In The Morning

I’m back to work already.  My convalescence was short-lived, but it felt so good to sleep and read and cross stitch to my heart’s content for the week– even if it did fly by.

Before I returned to the land of the working stiffs, I got the chance to hear historical fiction writer Jeff Shaara speak at the local museum.  The Civil War is a huge deal in the South on a regular day, but since this summer is the 150 year anniversary of the start of the war, it’s like someone found the fountain of youth and it was filled with donut holes.  Jeff Shaara’s lecture was the kick off event for the summer’s programs, and I couldn’t pass up hearing such an established writer speak.  If you didn’t already know, Jeff Shaara is a best-selling author of historical war fiction, and his book Gods and Generals was made into a movie a few years ago.

I usually stay away from super popular historical fiction, especially Civil War and World War II fiction, which Shaara specializes in.  It’s nothing against the authors themselves.  I know most of them are very talented, but unfortunately it drifts into pulp fiction and away from the history sometimes.  And it’s done to death!  There are way too many armchair generals out there who want to relive that one important charge up the last hill and win against all odds, and there are an abundance of authors willing to give them a fix.

Shaara doesn’t seem like the type, but during his lecture he did point out several times (but it was apparent regardless) that historians don’t like “people like him” meaning historical fiction writers.  Oh yeah.  More than once during the hour something he said poked the wrong bone in my historian’s body.  It’s not that historical fiction writers don’t try to get their facts correct.  Shaara seems like he pays extra careful attention in his research to get the smallest detail perfect, but they’re in it for the story and not the facts.  Shaara shared a small anecdote he found about a Civil War soldier musing over tree blossoms falling around him from enemy fire.  Although it was a beautifully sad image, it was this kind of “poetic” story that Shaara searched for and wanted to tell.  A historian wouldn’t care about falling flowers except to maybe determine which position a brigade took during a battle.  A writer would.  Shaara also stressed how he had to get into his “characters'” heads.  These people aren’t characters.  They were real people, and their actions in history are finite.  Fiction writers have to put words in their mouths, and no matter how much research is done, most of it remains an invention of the author.  A historian wouldn’t dream of assuming such a thing.

The general public loses sight of that, and it showed during the lecture.  Most of the questions were centered around Shaara’s opinion on the outcome of battles or generals’ strategies.  He has no formal history training, nor did he intend to be a writer with his life.  Shaara’s father, Michael Shaara, is most famous posthumously for his book Killer Angles, which was made into the TNT movie Gettysburg during the early 1990s.  Jeff Shaara was approached about writing the sequel and prequel to the movie, which got him into the writing business.  He’s since written a dozen or so books of historical war fiction and is highly regarded in the English and history fields.

All that complaining aside, it was great to hear Shaara speak.  I was a bit disappointed because he focused so much on his father’s achievements, and he can more than stand on his own in the historical fiction community at this point.  I wished he’d spoken more about the challenges/pleasures/process of writing historical war fiction.  Or even the significance of Civil War literature.  It just seemed a bit unfocused, but Shaara seems like great, genuinely nice guy.  DH drove me out there since I was still hobbling around, and we both enjoyed the event.

I jumped in line after the lecture and got a book signed.  I don’t quite know yet if I’m a Jeff Shaara fan, but I couldn’t pass up the attempt to remember the lecture with a signed paperback.  I chose his one novel about the Mexican-American War, Gone For Soldiers just to try something different from his mainstream Civil War and WWII stuff.  I don’t know if I ever described my Master’s thesis here, but it touches on the war a bit, so I feel drawn to this book even more.  I’m excited to get into it and see what Shaara is all about!

He has two more books about the Civil War coming out over the next couple anniversary years, one about the battle of Vicksburg and another about the battle of Shiloh, so look out for those if you’re so inclined.  His final novel about the Second World War comes out in May, so I’m sure you’ll be seeing his name around.

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