Military author: Research comes first

December 03, 2008|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE

Stephen Budiansky, author of "The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox," has penned more than 10 books over the years.

Yet he said he's not the type of writer to rise at dawn every morning to pound out a thousand words before lunch. When writing nonfiction - specifically military history - Budianksy said the first step is always research.

"I start with a lot of background," he said in a telephone interview from his Leesburg, Va., home.

For "The Bloody Shirt," Budiansky poured over newspaper accounts and original documents at several locations, including Mississippi State University, South Carolina State Archive, Duke University and the University of Virginia.

As he gathers his information on his subject, he said it allows him to "get my bearings." He identifies key figures and important events that he wants to include in his work.


He spends a lot of time traveling to various locations to gather the information before he begins to write. So he can't predict how long it takes him to complete a book.

Budiansky said he calls his approach "episodic." He said he does a lot of research, then readies his information before he even starts to write.

If he has everything in place, Budiansky said writing can come fairly quickly and concentrated. He credits his days as a newsmagazine writer for being able to bang out 3,000 to 5,000 words a day.

Sometimes, he said, the information "has to stew." He has to let things "ferment in your mind."

Budiansky said when he approaches his stories, he first organizes the information, then concentrates on structure and the way the story unfolds. Sometimes during the actual writing process, he said, he'll find that maybe he's writing more on a particular event than he anticipated. It's then, he says, when he goes back for more research to fill out that part of the story.

Once while doing research, Budianksy said he discovered an article about writing military history that was published right after World War II. In the article, he said, it said that when writing military history, the writer should start when half of the research is complete.

That was certainly sound advice, he said. Experience has taught him not to over-research. It can be hard, he said, especially when writing historical nonfiction, to make sure the information is accurate to continue with the research process.

"At some point, you really have to know you have what you need and start writing it," he said.

Budiansky said he is already working on a new book on the Naval War of 1812.

Why write another book?

"A man has to eat," he said with a laugh.

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