Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Research for my Civil War Novel

When it comes to researching background information for a book many tried and true approaches come to mind. You can read about a subject in books, you can visit the setting where something took place, and sometimes you can even interview an expert, but I feel that in order to truly get in touch with the essence of an era you need to gain some experience firsthand. For my civil war novel, The Long Defeat, I decided that in addition to being an avid history buff I also needed to participate as a civil war reenactor in order to make some observations for myself.

Well, I got what I asked for. As a member of the NCWA (National Civil War Association) I’ve made some good friends, gained new insight into the period of 19th century America, and I also have had a really good time. In addition, however, I learned many other aspects of army camp and 19th century life I hadn’t banked on. Turns out marching is hard work. Officers and sergeants shout at you all day, black powder from your musket stains everything, and reloading quickly under fire is much more difficult than it first appears. After marching, countermarching, and drilling in the summer heat in a heavy wool uniform I never thought the water from my canteen could taste so good. No matter how hard or uneven the ground was at night, the sheer exhaustion of camp work, the battlefield, and marching made any bare patch of grass the most comfortable bed imaginable. I promptly fell asleep every evening.

I met many men from very different walks of life, but found that once you’ve proved yourself after a few battles they’re camaraderie is truly genuine. During my first reenactment alone I fired volley after volley at the enemy (in this case the Rebs), conducted military maneuvers on the field, helped put down a food riot (staged of course), participated in a bayonet charge, and got gunpowder all over myself from reloading my ever hot gun barrel. Now I’ve been with the NCWA over a year and am looking forward to participating in the coming season of reenactments (fighting for the North of course). Overall, I have found these experiences invaluable in bringing a new level of realism to my writing, particularly in my book The Long Defeat. Fortunately, I never had to experience the real hunger that actual civil war soldiers had to endure, nor the real killing of brother against brother. Nonetheless, I have found the journey thus far truly eye-opening to say the least, and will continue to pursue more hands on experience regarding all of my writing projects going forward.