Read everything you can. Get to know the place you’re writing about. Know when to stop researching and start writing.
Those are three of the lessons I have learned in the last quarter century as a writer of popular history.
My first book was an oral history of the Vietnam war based on interviews with nineteen American veterans who were living in Israel. Before starting the work, I realized that even though I’d grown up with the war, and had protested against it, I needed to know much more about it. So I got my hands on every book I could find, in particular other oral histories, and read them. By the time I sat down with my first veteran, I was well prepared. My questions were not stupid. I understood the answers I was given, even some of the slang. The veterans I interviewed grew to trust me, and one even asked if I’d help him write his own memoir of the war. By reading as much as I could, even about a subject I thought I already knew pretty well, I was able to write a better book.
For my second book, I was fortunate to have found a publisher who had considerable experience with military history. This time, I was writing an account of a British commando raid in the German-occupied Channel Islands during the Second World War. I’d been inspired to write the book after visiting the islands, and my publisher’s advice to me was to return and this time to pay attention to what one could only experience by being there.
Walking the route the commandos took, I realised something that hadn’t been clear from the maps — how steep were the hills and valleys they had to climb in the dead of night, in pitch darkness [see photograph of Sark, above]. I also learned how loud the wind can be on these islands at night, though I had always imagined it to be silent. And because I was there, I was able to interview a veteran of the Wehrmacht, who had served on the island and had fallen in love with a local woman – and then returned after the war. The result was a book that the Wall Street Journal called “riveting”.
My third book was about the independent Georgian republic of 1918-21. It was one that I’d been researching for decades. I had accumulated boxes of documents, corresponded extensively with experts, and even visited the country.
I could have continued researching that one on and off for another few decades, but decided a couple of years back that there comes a time when you stop researching and start writing. I managed to get the book published in time for the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and it got excellent reviews, including from The New York Times.
Having learned those lessons, and knowing the kinds of questions publishers ask, I’m already working on my next book. Am I uniquely qualified to write it? Yes, I think so. Are there any other books on the subject? No (at least not in English). Can the book be tied into any upcoming anniversaries? Well, the 75th anniversary of the event I’ll be describing comes up in two years time.
And as you can imagine, I’m reading all I can, will soon visit the location, and have a deadline with my publisher, ensuring that I know when to stop researching and start writing.
Eric Lee is the author of three popular history books: Saigon to Jerusalem: Conversations with Israel’s Vietnam Veterans; Operation Basalt: The British Raid on Sark and Hitler’s Commando Order; and The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921. His next book, Night of the Bayonets: The Texel Uprising and Hitler’s Revenge, April – May 1945, is due to be published in March 2020.
Images: supplied by the author