As my first military history book slowly works its way into the final stages of production, already I am working on several more, and thought it might be an idea to revisit an old list of mine before I go too far. This list is my personal ‘how to’ in writing Military History. It is a guide from which I never err – a personal commitment, perhaps even a conscience to have by my side when writing, which reminds me always of what I am writing, why and how to do it….and I thought I’d share it with you.
1/ Which of the two book types will it be?
Essentially there are two types of military history book with very clear definitions, and these I term (perhaps crudely) the ‘Tome’ and the ‘Bubblegum book’ – let me explain: A ‘Tome’ is a story. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It might be the history of a war, a battle, a general or a soldier. It doesn’t have to be long to be a ‘tome’ but simply comprehensive. A ‘Bubblegum book’ on the other hand, is a list or compilation of people, events or facts all stuck together (as in with bubblegum) and a running thread to join them. An excellent Military History Author, Mark Urban provides two excellent examples. His book ‘Rifles’ was a history of the Rifle Regiment under Wellington’s command. It is an excellent book of the ‘Tome’ variety. His book ‘Generals: Ten British commanders who shaped the world’ was another outstanding read, but this was very clearly a ‘Bubblegum book’. No one is better than the other; it depends upon what you want to say, but knowing that there are two classifications can make your choice and your approach easier.
2/ Ask yourself a question…
Before embarking upon writing your book, you have to ask yourself a few searching questions. Who are you writing for? Has this already been covered recently? Why are you writing it? Is there a need? What are you writing that is new? Why would someone buy your book? Is it a book you want to read? – These are all very essential questions!! Personally, I only write the books I would want to read – that’s why I write them! In short, I always start with a question, and the whole process normally begins with my browsing a book or on-line and thinking aloud “I wonder if…” – when I come to an unanswered question, the cogs start to whirr. Is there a story in this? How does it go? Is it worth finding out? How do I feel about not knowing a day or two later? – If the question is still bugging me and there isn’t an easy answer, then we have a possible formula for a book. Ultimately if it interests you, even fascinates you, and there is no easy or readily available answer, then you might be onto something. Personally I do this with everything, and keep a running list of possible book ideas, which is about 40-50 strong at any one time. Some will become books, whilst others will remain on the shelf, perhaps to be used and combined with a new idea later.
3/ Does the book exist already?
The gut-wrenching moment comes early…or should do. Find out if someone has done it already. In my current book I checked, and my idea hadn’t been attempted for almost 150 years, and my own concept even then was different. For the new one I’m planning, I have spent several days searching. Firstly there isn’t a book out there already – phew! There’s nothing worse than starting to write a book only to find out someone wrote the exact same a year or two ago….this I have learned on a few occasions! If the book does exist, then don’t drop your plan. Perhaps buy the book. Does the author answer your questions? Do you agree with them? Could you do a better job? Is there still a question in your head? I remember planning a new book only to find it had been written just a few years before. My brother bought it for me for Christmas and asked me what I thought. “It’s bloody awful!” I told him, “Oh” said he, sounding disappointed, “sorry mate.” – “Don’t be!” I laughed, “It’s the best news I’ve had this Christmas!” – It isn’t always a bad thing.
4/ Start to do your research.
I am doing this now; today and yesterday and on and off for a month or two in regards to my new project. I have an idea in my head, and went looking for an answer. The answer wasn’t there, but there was a lot of evidence and some scattered knowledge which could be pieced together. Here begins the work; trawl the internet for key words. Find links, snippets of books, forums – in short anything you can use. This can take many days. Go to at least the second page of Google too. Read stuff, write notes of key points and copy and paste everything of use, along with the original link, and email it to yourself. This will help you to order your evidence, to check variations in the story and also enables you more easily to quote your sources and research materiel later.
5/ Start writing as soon as possible.
There comes a time in a writer’s life when they have to stop researching and start writing. Even if you don’t know what to write, just ramble if you need to, but push to get ten or twelve pages behind you quickly. Momentum is important when writing! At this stage, it doesn’t matter if you hate every word; the fact is you’re writing, and that’s the important bit. Come back to it later and see what you think. If you still hate it, you can change it easily enough, because now you’re writing. You have momentum. You will know what you hate and why, and it will become obvious how to change it. On my current book which is in the final editing stages, I wrote for two days solid and hated everything, but I pushed on and soon found my rhythm.
6/ Don’t draw your conclusions until the end.
A very important lesson, this one! Of course, you have an idea where the book is going, but be prepared to change your opinions in the face of new evidence or your own understanding. You will never understand your subject so well as when you are actually writing it, and never until you have typed the words out. Often a moment comes when you are forced to question yourself – don’t ignore it. Follow it and see where it goes. As most of my followers on line know, I have a seven-volume book in production, which is something of an epic masterpiece, but I actually finished it two years ago! So what happened? Right at the very end, as I was writing the conclusion to the seventh book, something struck me. I didn’t ignore it and went looking, to see where my thoughts led me. The result was amazing, and after following through, I realised that all seven volumes were going to need one hell of a re-write. Annoying, but worth it! Remember this is history. It is people’s lives, deeds and legacies, so honour it and be delicate and respectful to the history. If it takes a complete re-write, well that’s how history lives on.
7/ Never make facts fit your opinions.
I have seen a few wild opinions presented as fact over the years. There was the author who stated that Alexander the Great’s entire military career stemmed from his alcoholism, and can never forget the guy who turned up on my ‘British Military History’ group on LinkedIn with the opinion that the reason the Zulus lost the Zulu War was that they couldn’t swim! Now in itself, this might be interesting (though I doubt there’s a good book in the idea!) but he was (oddly enough) unable to substantiate the concept, whilst rigidly defending its validity.Of course, it looks ridiculous. The bottom line is that if you substitute your opinion for the facts, then this isn’t history. Be prepared to change your opinion if the facts support it, and if you must venture an opinion, tell the reader it is just your opinion. I do this last one often, so that whilst venturing a thought, it is never confused with historical fact.
8/ Keep it entertaining.
Facts and figures are important, but don’t bog the reader down. A book should read like a book, not a shopping list, so keep a flowing narrative. Often I read some fictional military history such as Sharpe or the Jack Lark series, or sometimes a G.A. Henty book (as he covers almost every war ever in one way or another) and just get the flow of the action. You have to be able to make the reader hear the clash of steel and the roar – even the heat of the cannon. Of course, everyone has their own style; my own is to tell pure history but to let it flow and read like a fiction book. However you do it, always read your work back and see if it flows nicely. The ultimate tell-tale of your book is the enjoyment of the reader.
9/ Feel free to talk to the reader.
Sometimes you want to say something, but it doesn’t fit. Try as you might, you will break the narrative. My solution? Break the narrative…easy! It was Anthony Trollope who first enraged the literary world back in the mid-late 1800’s by being the first to drop the narrative, turn to the reader and to address them directly. Be prepared to do this if you get stuck; sometimes it is a welcome break or a good time to recap. In my own work, I begin the process early, explaining why I have written the book and what I am trying to find out. As I write, I learn with the reader, so I occasionally refer back to them and to the question posed and run through what we have learned together. I give my opinions or thoughts and question some pre-judgements which might have been made. Personally, I feel that it is important that my reader is journeying with me so that they can be sure of the facts and where they came from – it’s much better than stating “This is so. I am the expert.” which will always create a vast gulf of conjecture.
10/ Wrap it up nicely.
If you can, end with a conclusion and make sure you have tied up the loose ends. Read back through your book and make sure that it reads well and answers the original question or premise in a way which is enjoyable and informative. If your research unearths new questions then pose them, but don’t answer them. Don’t ignore them either. This sparks new fascination in the subject – ultimately this is the reason we are all here, for a love of military history. When you are sure you have done, and have read it through, ask yourself if this is the book you wanted to read, as at the very start. If it is, you’re onto a winner. If it isn’t…go back and make it!
These ten points are the ones which have guided me for a good few years, and form a style for my own writing. I state of course that this is a personal style – there may be variations but not too many, I don’t think. Whether your book gets published, of course, well that’s a different thing, but the chances are that if you convey a passion and a burning question or point, and present this in a readable way with all of the facts, then a publisher will see something in you.
With a new book coming up ready for print, I am still reading it back, checking it, altering it and coming back to what made me write it in the first place. Now and with a new book in the offing, I am going back to this same process. I have an idea and a question which has never been answered. It is a book which I want to read and the facts and figures – and most importantly the story are there for the telling. I anticipate a winner, and something to entertain the reader and make them think and go to look for themselves…remember that history only lives on through the retelling of the stories, so make them good ones!
(Ricky D Phillips can be followed on his Facebook page ‘Ricky D Phillips – Military History Author’ and is Group Manager for the ‘British Military History’ group on LinkedIn – the biggest and still fastest growing military history forum on the web today.)