Three award-winning journalists discuss their unique approaches to chronicling seminal moments in American military history with Writer's Digest columnist Don Vaughn.
This article about writing war stories previously appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Writer's Digest.
Writing accurately and truthfully about war is never easy. Writing about conflicts that occurred decades and even centuries earlier is even more difficult.WD reached out to Mark Bowden, C.J. Chivers, and Nathaniel Philbrick to discuss their most recent war-themed books and the challenges they encountered researching and writing them.
What was the inspiration for your most recent work? Tell us briefly how the project came about.
MARK BOWDEN (Hue 1968, Atlantic Monthly Press): Several years ago, my editor and publisher, Morgan Entrekin, suggested a book about the Battle of Huế during the 1968 Tet Offensive. I initially declined, but the more I looked into it, the more I realized it was an amazing story that had not been told in the way I would like to tell it. I felt after a long career in journalism that this was an opportunity to study an event during the war in Vietnam that could act as a lens on the whole conflict and I could arrive at my own well-informed understanding of what happened.
C.J. CHIVERS (The Fighters: Americans In Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, Simon & Schuster): I spent years accompanying military units for The New York Times, with some magazine work on the side. I came to realize that the limits of daily, weekly, or monthly journalism didn’t let me tackle my subjects in a way that allowed them to cohere or bring in the context that developed over time. So the idea behind The Fighters was to revisit a small body of representative characters to try to tell tales that had more coherence and arc. I felt a duty to go back and give it fuller meaning and purpose than possible in fast-turnaround journalism.
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK (In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown, Viking):I believe mainstream writers tend to downplay the importance of the sea in our country’s history. I knew that what made the victory at Yorktown possible was a naval battle, the Battle of the Chesapeake, so In the Hurricane’s Eye was an opportunity to write my own version of a naval slugfest and continue the story of George Washington, which started for me with [my books] Bunker Hill and continued with Valiant Ambition.
Take us through the research you did for this book. What was your process?
BOWDEN: I started by reading everything I could find about the Battle of Huế, while jotting down the names of people I would like to interview. Next, I contacted the National Archives in Maryland regarding the official records on file there, and simultaneously tracked down Marines who had fought in Huế that I wanted to interview. My preliminary interviews were scattershot because I had no deep understanding of the battle as it unfolded. In addition, I visited North Vietnam twice to interview participants there. I hired a Vietnamese graduate student at the University of Delaware, where I was teaching at the time, to translate those interviews when I returned home.
CHIVERS: The first step was identifying a small group of characters who were distinct from each other and would bring some of the quintessential experiences and the common recurring experiences of the two wars for people who didn’t know what they were. The second step was securing their agreements to cooperate with this project, which would be difficult for them. I would tell them, my ambition is to download your brain with immersive interviews and then go through your personal records and documents to help me understand your experiences. The next stage was to write the thing, and the last stage, which I would argue is the most important, was fact-checking. I went through the manuscript with my primary sources, then hired an independent fact-checker to do it all again.
PHILBRICK: With each book I spend a year broad-brush researching, trying to identify the plot I want to follow and the characters I want to focus on. From there, the research becomes very specific by chapter. I look for documents that have not been consulted deeply as a way of providing some new angle on it. For In the Hurricane’s Eye, I reviewed the logs of the British and especially the French ships involved in the battle. There are copies of many of the French logbooks at the Library of Congress.
What were the greatest challenges you faced during the research phase?
BOWDEN: One of the most challenging aspects was figuring out how to do the reporting in Vietnam. During my first visit, I relied on a translator/fixer named Dang Hoa Ho, who was very knowledgeable about military veterans’ organizations and knew his way around the government bureaucracy in Hanoi. The second time I went over, the deputy of the information ministry assigned himself as my guide and translator, which was disappointing because I knew that having a government official with me would inhibit people from talking about their experiences. Luckily, I was able to have Hoa go back on his own and question some people further. Another big problem was finding South Vietnamese soldiers who were willing to talk. Many who remained spent years in prison, so drawing attention to themselves and their role fighting against the North Vietnamese Army was not something they were eager to do. Even those living in the U.S. were reluctant to talk because they still had family in Vietnam.
CHIVERS: There were times when some of the characters’ memories clashed, which presented minor technical challenges. When people had very particular memories of the same thing, yet the memories were impossibly opposed to each other, I would include the other person’s memory as well. The greatest challenge, however, was managing the emotional content of these experiences. When I set out to do this, I thought it would help me process some of my own at war. It didn’t. It had the opposite effect.
PHILBRICK:Yorktown was not just a naval battle—there was a lot going on and a lot of context to establish. I needed to show what was happening on land as well as on the water. It was a narrative challenge, but also a research challenge because of the information I needed. Part of my research process is going to the places I describe. I find that absolutely essential. I’m never quite sure how it translates into how I ultimately write the book, but it’s the only way I can visualize and get my mind around how the parts of the narrative fit and interlock.
How long did your research last? When did you know you were done and ready to start writing?
BOWDEN: In the sense that I was still doing research and reporting right until the end, six years. But if you broke down the work, it’s 50/50, so I would say three years conducting research and three years writing.
CHIVERS: It probably started the day I joined the Marine Corps. But the real research started in 2010, when I knew I was going to write a book. So that would be roughly eight years of research. It didn’t end until the book went to print. We were researching and fact-checking until the very last minute.
PHILBRICK: For me, the research takes about a year and a half. It’s a year of the broad-brush research, then it’s chapter by chapter. With each chapter, the research becomes more focused. The research doesn’t end until I’m in copyediting.
What is your process once you have completed your research? What do you do with the material before you start putting words on paper?
BOWDEN:I create files on my computer, which for Huế 1968 was an effort to organize my own thinking about the battle and make sense out of a great mass of material. That makes it easier for me to find what I need as I’m writing. At the same time, I’m drawing outlines for how I’m going to structure the book, which basically corresponds with my understanding from an overview standpoint of how the battle unfolded.
CHIVERS: My process was to write each chapter chronologically, each with a separate deadline. When I reached the end, I would go back and edit each chapter. Some of the chapters I gave a significant workover, removing 30 or 40 percent. That involved the complete removal of a lot of material, then stitching what remained back together. When I got those edits done, I went to a line edit, and then I went to fact-checking. This is just work; no different from carpentry. You have to get the material, then shape and cut it into what it will be. For each character, I filled boxes with notes and reference material. I had an advantage that some writers of military history don’t have, which is that most of the people who interested me were still alive.
PHILBRICK: Throughout the year and a half where I’m mapping it all out, I keep a research journal, which I go back to once I begin work chapter by chapter. Once you learn a lot about a subject, I think you can become desensitized to what’s interesting about it, and the research journals help with that. When it comes to researching a particular chapter, I take notes on the computer. Often I end up with a couple hundred pages of notes for a particular chapter. I divide the chapter into parts, then I begin to write.
How have your research skills evolved over the years? How did the research of your latest book compare to that of your first?
BOWDEN: They are very similar. The only difference is when I researched Black Hawk Down, I was doing it on paper rather than a computer. And I didn’t have all of the resources I have today. With Black Hawk Down, I conducted all of the interviews myself and transcribed them by hand.
PHILBRICK: A lot of it is technical. When I was working on In the Heart of the Sea, which I began in 1998, that was in the days of the library. But living in Nantucket I don’t have easy access to an academic library, so I buy a lot of the books I need and scribble all over them.
How long did the actual writing take, from first words to final? Did you set daily or weekly goals for yourself?
BOWDEN: I usually will write anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 words a day. One of the tricks I learned a long time ago is never stop at the end of a section. I like to get started on the next section before I stop working for the day, so the next day I can easily get back into it. While I started writing fairly early on, the straightforward first draft probably took about a year, with another year spent reorganizing and revising.
PHILBRICK:It’s about a year of writing. But then there is working with the editor and revising, which is the part, in a way, I most enjoy. It’s really fun to make a book better.
Did you face any significant difficulties during the writing of the book in regard to structure? Did you create a detailed outline first?
BOWDEN:I outline all the time—that’s something I learned when I was a young reporter writing daily stories. These outlines have become more and more complex, but they really don’t amount to much more than me sketching out the organization of what I’m writing. And I’m revising those all the time.
CHIVERS:I had so much material that sometimes I would mention something that I thought I had dealt with earlier in the book, but had not, so when I got to editing, some facts wouldn’t necessarily make sense to the reader. I would have to go back to earlier chapters and insert information more fully and properly.
PHILBRICK: I knew the structure for In the Hurricane’s Eye would be as big a challenge as any of my books because the theater of war was so vast. It was fun to find the thread. The thing that held it all together for me was Washington’s perspective, following his point of view while all these seemingly random events were occurring.
Who do you turn to for insight and advice when working on a manuscript like your latest book? Who sees your work before submitting it to your publisher?
CHIVERS: One thing I did with this book to a slightly larger degree than my last book, The Gun, is I sent it to more expert readers. In addition to hiring a fact-checker, I handed out chapters and in some cases the entire book to knowledgeable readers, who went through it with their own red pens. This mitigated the risk of factual errors, which infect too much writing about war.
PHILBRICK: My wife, Melissa, is the first person to read new chapters. Actually, she hears them. I read them out loud after dinner while she does the dishes, and she has a little pad by the sink where she scribbles stuff as I read. It’s an absolutely essential process for me because reading something out loud is a completely different experience from reading it on a computer screen or on the page. I get a much better sense of pacing, a sense of repetition of words, all those things. I will integrate Melissa’s feedback then send a draft to my father, who is a 90-year-old retired English professor. He knows grammar in a way that I don’t, so his input is extremely helpful. Then my researcher, Mike Hill, reads a draft as well.
How do you decide on the topics of your books? What makes you think, This is something I want to write about?
BOWDEN: This wasn’t true of Huế 1968, but I’ll often begin working on something not knowing whether it will be a magazine piece or book length, and at a certain point you just realize there is so much material and the story is important and rich enough that it will take a book to tell it.
CHIVERS:The Fighters felt like an imperative—I had to make this experience that I lived and shared with all these people into something richer for the people who were there. You could say the book required me to show up and work on it.
PHILBRICK: For me, it has to feel emotionally right, and it has to be a project I can live with for three years and not regret. I like to change things up. I’ll go from one topic to something completely different, and I enjoy that. I like challenging myself in terms of the research and the writing.
Who have been your journalistic influences? Who inspires you?
BOWDEN: Early in my career I loved Tom Wolfe’s articles and books. I never tried to imitate him stylistically, but I did try to imitate him in the sense that I approached the stories I was writing as artwork. I appreciated the skill with which he crafted scenes and how he developed characters. Other influences include Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, John Hersey, and Joan Didion.
CHIVERS: One writer I have really enjoyed in recent years is Rania Abouzeid, who covered the Syrian war alongside me. She frankly kicked my ass with her coverage for The New Yorker. I have a deep professional appreciation for her.
PHILBRICK: David McCullough has always been a role model for me in terms of a career. I also owe a huge debt to every historian in my bibliography. All of them have had an impact on me.
At the end of the day, do you prefer short- or long-form journalism? From your experience, what are the pros and cons of both?
BOWDEN: Because of my love of writing and storytelling, I gravitated toward stories that took up more space, took a bit more time to work on, and were narratives as opposed to reports. That was just where my preferences and interests took me.
CHIVERS: I still work in daily journalism every day, but I prefer the long-form work. I need a project that follows me around in my head for weeks or months until fully satisfied. I like the deeper dive now. I spent years training for it.
What advice can you offer journalists just starting out? What do you know now that you wish you had known at the start of your career?
BOWDEN:Newspaper and magazine writers often let the institution shape their careers. That works for a lot of people, but if your ambition is to do great work on your own, you have to create room in your life to pursue the stories that excite you, and do them the way you want to do them.
CHIVERS: Stick to the basics of journalism. There is no magic wand. Follow the basics until you’ve mastered them, but know that you are always susceptible to fumbling them.
PHILBRICK: When I was a young, I wanted to be a Writer with a capital W. I saw it as some kind of thing where inspiration would strike and the words would flow onto the page. I’ve since realized that if you’re going to be a writer, you have to be able to sit by yourself for hours at a time and write. Inspiration strikes every now and then, but it’s not the reality of being a professional writer. The reality is just being there and doing the work.
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