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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 it?"

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," "Adventure."

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, I’ve 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 fiction.

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, 2003).

My clip files also helped generate at least two true crime books—Homicide! (Pocket Books, 1990), and At Large (St. Martin’s, 1998). By the time this is published, At Large and I will have been featured on the popular "America‘s 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 articles.

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 Chuck’s website, www.CharlesSasser.com

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