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Clip em Write em
by Charles W. Sasser
"There was an eerie sense of wondering what was
fact and what was fiction," my editor wrote when she received the first of my
new action-adventure series about the War on Terror. "How do you do
The answer was simple: I use "clip files." As a
full-time freelance writer for nearly 24 years, I go through newspapers and
magazines every day scissoring out what interests me or what may interest
me at some point. I then file according to subject matter. The cabinets in my
office are jammed with file folders tabbed with at least twenty different
headings such as "Terror," "Space," "Politics," "Crime,"
I depend upon my clip files to supply me with
little known quotes, accounts of forgotten incidents, anecdotes, and in general
a better understanding of my subject whenever I write for magazines or book
publication. Not only for nonfiction either. The best novels and short stories,
Ive discovered, are based on fact and seeded with actual events.
In the year 2000, the U.S. destroyer USS Cole
was bombed by terrorists in the port of Aden, Yemen, killing seventeen
American sailors. I used that, as well as world politics and actual military
operations surrounding it, to launch my fictional account of a U.S. Army Delta
Force detachment sent on a mission into Afghanistan to rescue U.S. hostages
seized by al-Qaeda from the ship. (Detachment Delta: Punitive Strike,
Avon, 2002). I pulled clip file folders "Afghanistan," "Terror," and
"Islam" to work into my copy that extra taste of reality that made my
editor exclaim about how she wondered what was fact and what was
At the beginning of each of the Detachment
Delta novels is this note: "I hope to continue the merging of fact and
fiction to create stories that may very well reflect the REAL stories
behind counter-terrorist operations by the United States."
There is one other major way clip files have
proved invaluable. When my editor at Pocket Books asked me to write a history of
the all-black 761st Tank Battalion of World War II, I immediately started
a file. I researched in my own library, which is as large as those of smaller
high schools, among my already-existing clip files, and on the Internet. Soon, I
built a thick "Tank" file from which I extracted lists of books and other
helpful sources, along with the names and possible contact points of survivors
of the hard-fighting outfit. Thanks to my clips, I now have a toehold on the
project and a number of people to locate and interview.
I began clipping newspapers and magazines years
ago while writing hundreds of crime stories for the true detective magazines
after I quit my real job. Ghoulish as it may sound, I scanned the local
dailies for new murders. I started a file on each one and maintained it
beginning with when the crime was committed until the perps were caught,
convicted and sentenced. Only then was I able to write and publish the story.
The process sometimes took up to five years or more. I have one extremely thick
file on a sensational case that occurred in 1981 and is only now being resolved;
I keep it in anticipation of writing a true crime book.
Gradually, I began keeping files on other topics
that interested me. For example, when the phenomena we now call "political
correctness" swept America, I opened a file that eventually grew into an entire
cabinet full of materials. So far, that data has produced half-dozen magazine
articles, a novel, Liberty City (America House, 2000) and a nonfiction
book, Going Bonkers: The Wacky World of Cultural Madness (Paladin,
My clip files also helped generate at least two
true crime booksHomicide! (Pocket Books, 1990), and At Large (St.
Martins, 1998). By the time this is published, At Large and I will have
been featured on the popular "Americas Most Wanted" TV series. Clips
from that will go into what else but my "Television" file.
Clip files supply materials to supplement
research on books already underway; they provide further resources for research;
I glean names, addresses and other vital statistics from them; finally, they
actually give me ideas for new projects. My book Smoke Jumpers (Pocket
Books, 1996) came about largely as a result of a magazine article I read about
those brave and reckless souls who parachute into forest fires to put them out.
I clipped and filed. The file grew and grew over the next two or three years
until it DEMANDED release into a book and several magazine
Many of the more than 2,500 magazine articles I
have published over the years owe at least part of their existence, and much of
their authenticity and soul, to my clip files. Clip em and write em. Clip
files are an important and permanent part of my library and office, to which I
owe much of my success as a writer and author.
© Copyright 2003, Charles W. Sasser
Charles "Chuck" Sasser is author of more than 60 published books and thousands of magazine articles. Visit Chucks website, www.CharlesSasser.com
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