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Writing the Historical Biography
by Charles W. Sasser
A friend from Iowa called. He was acquainted with the closest living
relative of the famous Sullivan Brothers, all five of whom went down with
the USS JUNEAU at the start of World War II, and whose deaths led to a
federal act prohibiting close relatives from serving together in the military
during wartime. Would I be interested in writing a book about them?
He was talking about a historical biography. Of the more than fifty books
I have published, at least a dozen are considered historical biographies.
Chances are you have read some of them: One Shot-One Kill; First
SEAL; Arctic Homestead; Pattons Panthers; Hill 488; Raider...
All have been published by major houses like Simon & Schuster and
St. Martins. All have sold well and several continue to earn a
few grand in royalties each year. In print since 1990, for example, One
Shot-One Kill still generates annual royalties of about $6,000.
All the more reason to write the historical biography.
The historical biography centers on the life of a figure who, because
of his accomplishments or deeds, has contributed in some significant way,
who has made a difference. That does not mean the subject
must be Abe Lincoln, Josef Stalin, or, God forbid, Paris Hilton. First
SEAL tells the story of LCDR Roy Boehm, the founder and first commander
of the Navy SEALs. Raider is the bio of Special Forces SGM Galen
Kittleson, the only soldier in history to make four raids to free American
POWs. Both were little-known figures, although both contributed in a major
way to the military.
Historical events also fall loosely within this category. Since an event
involves people, at least most of the time, it stands to reason that their
bios must be included with the event. Here again, the subject does not
have to be Hiroshima, the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock, or
Tom Cruises wedding. In Smoke Jumpers, I tell of the wild
fire at Storm King Mountain that took the lives of fourteen smoke jumpers
and hot shots. HILL 488 explores a heroic battle in Vietnam and
the eighteen Marines who fought it.
In choosing the topic for a history, think small. By this, I dont
mean think small in the scope of the work, but instead in choosing the
right subject. Youre not going to sell another tome on Shermans
March or the early life of Karl Marx. Look for those compelling figures
that may not be central to the history of a particular period, but who
populate it and contribute to it. My Pattons Panthers
explores the tankers of the obscure 761st Tank Battalion of WWII, the
first all-black American armored outfit to see combat. Shoot To Kill
looks at cops who have had to use deadly force.
Our world is full of ideas for the historical biography. Newspapers,
magazines, friends, acquaintances, neighbors... Any or all may contribute
a gem that can grow into the next successful book. I constantly take notes.
I look. I listen. Friends in Alaska tipped me off to big game guide Les
Cobb and his wife Norman, who were the last homesteaders under the U.S.
Homestead Act; their tale became Arctic Homestead. Pattons
Panthers started with a newspaper clipping announcing a reunion of
the 761st Tank Battalion. I may write on the Sullivan Brothers because
a friend knew a friend of a friend... See how it goes?
Interviews form the core of a new book. For God In The Foxhole,
a 2007 book for Simon & Schuster, I interviewed some 40 veterans.
I interviewed nearly all of the sixteen surviving members of the 761st.
Unless sheer numbers make it prohibitive, I go face-to-face with my subjects.
I spent considerable time with both Roy Boehm in Florida and Galen Kittleson
in Iowa, for example, enough that we became close friends. I dont
want merely facts. I want to know what happened behind the scenes, who
were the other players, how they felt, how things worked, how things looked
and smelled and tasted. I want to capture in print my subjects
personalities, their motivations, their very lives.
No single person--or group--can possibly know, understand, and interpret
all that is available about a historical episode. To fill in the gaps,
I do massive research, not only by surfing the internet and reading every
book and article I can obtain on the subject, but also by questioning
historians and obtaining official documents and histories. In addition,
I visit sites when possible and quite frequently participate in activities
that provide me a better understanding of my subject matter. I actually
parachuted into fires with firefighters for Smoke Jumpers.
A friend of mine who penned the more-or-less official history of the
761st Tank Battalion, a heavy book full of facts and figures, wrote to
me following the release of Pattons Panthers: I
told what happened, he said. You made it come alive.
I write for the popular market, not for academics and fellow historians.
History is worthless if no one reads it. I write in the style of what
is commonly known as the nonfiction novel. I tell the story
as though it were, in fact, a novel, fleshing out events and characters,
making the scenes live. I want you the reader to be there and understand
what it was truly like. Facts are as dry as last autumns leaves,
and about as useful, unless the reader can be made to live these facts
and comprehend what they mean.
A final reason for writing the historical biography is how all that interviewing
and research leads to other projects. One Shot-One Kill morphed
into a sniper novel, The 100th Kill, now in its third or fourth
printing. Pattons Panthers and other World War II history
I have written led to the OSS Commando fiction series, the first
of which appears this winter. I wrote the five-novel Detachment Delta
series from research conducted for a half-dozen books I research on U.S.
Special Operations and Warfare.
I need to stop now and telephone that last surviving relative of the
Sullivan Brothers. I know there is a great sea story there. So, whats
keeping you from starting your own historical biography?
© Copyright 2006, 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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