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Teacher, author discusses his work with students

April 09, 2002|BY ANDREA ROWLAND

andreabh@herald-mail.com

CLEAR SPRING - John Michael Priest has written five books about the Civil War and edited six others. He's led Civil War battlefield tours in Maryland and Virginia. He's taught Civil War history as part of his job as a social studies teacher at South Hagerstown High School.

But prior to last month, Priest had never combined his three vocations.

In March, he discussed his work as an author and historical researcher with students in grades six through 12 at Hancock Middle-Senior High School.

"In all these years, it's the first time I've talked about my writing to students," said Priest, 52, of Clear Spring. "I haven't even spoken at South High. I thoroughly enjoyed it."

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Principal John Davidson, a history buff, said he invited Priest to speak in Hancock because he thought Priest's extensive experience with research and the publishing world would benefit the students.

"It all ties into the reading and writing we emphasize in the schools," Davidson said.

Priest's presentations to students were informative and interesting, according to feedback from teachers, Davidson said. "It was a great, a very positive experience," he said.

Priest spent a full day discussing his books and the research he did to complete them, giving advice to would-be writers, and answering students' questions, he said.

He advised students interested in writing careers to first read a variety of books and magazine articles about their target subjects to "learn more about how you want to write it," he said.

He suggested referring to "The Writer's Market," a catalogue of newspapers, magazines and other publishers, to learn about all publishing possibilities. Priest also suggested that novice writers start with magazines to "make a name for themselves."

Priest was first published in an historical magazine in 1986 - years after he began collecting material related to the Battle of Antietam. He dates his love of Civil War history to his childhood, when he family took frequent trips to the battlefield in Gettysburg, Pa.

Priest told students that writing about history is fascinating, but not the most lucrative profession.

"You're not going to die rich with history," he said. "If you write something trashy, it'll probably sell a lot better."

On average, Civil War history writers sell about 500 copies of a single book, Priest said.

About 30,000 copies of his first historical novel, "Antietam: The Soldiers' Battle," have sold since White Mane Publishing first printed the 437-page account of the bloody Battle of Antietam in 1989, Priest said.

"The thing sold like crazy," he said. "It's still outselling anything I've ever written."

Priest has since penned "Before Antietam: The Battle for South Mountain," "Victory Without Triumph" and "Nowhere to Run" about the battle of The Wilderness near Fredericksburg, Va., and "Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg."

He is now working on a follow-up to "Pickett's Charge," he said.

With the help of student researchers at South High, Priest has edited six more books based upon the writings of Civil War figures.

None of the books published after "Antietam: A Soldier's Battle" have reached the success of his first book, Priest said.

He attributes that book's success to the fact that he wrote it from the perspective of the common soldier based largely upon the writings of enlisted Union and Confederate soldiers at the battle.

"I talk about generals when they get in the way," Priest said. "I don't trust their writings - they had reputations at stake and too much to lose."

His tendency to write from the viewpoint of the enlisted man rather than the generals and other commanders, and to interpret the way soldiers said the words written in their diaries and other source materials to create "a novel with footnotes," has earned Priest the title of "renegade historian," he said.

Not everyone likes the way he writes. Some Civil War historians claim he writes "historical fiction," Priest said.

He disagrees, but has learned that criticism goes with the territory of being an author.

It is another lesson Priest imparted to his young audience at Hancock Middle-Senior High School: "You've got to get used to not being accepted," he said.

Priest also talked about the satisfaction he derives from seeing the results of his research and writing in print.

"Nobody wants to be forgotten," he said. "Writing leaves you with some immortality. That's vanity, I know, but it's true."

Priest said he hopes his discussion with students fueled their desire to read or write or learn more about history.

"Writing is a great way to expand the mind," Priest said. "Maybe now someone will decide to take up history or get into writing."

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