A Note on Research

I went into writing Wilderness—which is, at its heart, a novel of the American Civil War—with very little background knowledge on the subject.  But there was something there that called to me.  Perhaps the inherited and taken-for-granted freedoms and privileges that were granted us by that struggle.  Perhaps the common mythologies of the period that all Americans share in.  Lincoln and Grant and McClellan and Lee.  Stonewall Jackson and the Iron Brigade.  Gettysburg.  Whatever it was, as soon as I started reading the various histories (starting with McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, which, as it turned out, was the best place I could’ve begun), I found it hard to stop.  One book led to another and I followed trails of ephemera found in footnotes and endnotes looking for those small, authoritative details.  I managed two trips back east to visit the battlefields and see how well what I read in books matched up with what’s actually there (pretty well, as it turned out) and slowly, then quicker and quicker I earned a history for my protagonist, Abel Truman.

Another way I tried to get a better handle on the bottomless history of the era—and that tends to raise a few eyebrows—was through war games or, if I’m being high-brow, “conflict simulations.”  Having had their heyday back in the 70s and 80s, war game are just what they sound like: they are: games of war.  Imagine and insanely-more-complex version of chess if chess purported to simulate an actual, historical battle or military campaign.  Maybe I’ll go into my long, geeky background as a wargamer in some later post but, for now, suffice to say that being able to push little chits of cardboard representing army units around on paper maps was immeasurably helpful in getting a visual, visceral handle on the physical place of the battle.  Playing a game on a battle, seeing where the roads ran and having a God’s eye view of how the terrain lay helped me to understand why the corps and the divisions and the regiments moved the way they did.

But as much as Wilderness is about the Civil War, it’s also about, well, the wilderness.  That is, the woods and the wild outside places as I know them.  So, to that end, I soon convinced myself I needed to spend lots of time hiking and camping in the places where the novel would be set.  I went out into the woods around Lake Ozette in Washington State (called by the Makah Indians of the region Kahouk or “Big Lake”—which it is) and down the wild beaches that run south from that place.  At Ellen Creek just north of Rialto Beach, I found the spot where my imagination would put Abel’s driftwood shack and, in a little cove even further north, I found the view to the oceanic horizon that he would gaze out on every night.

All this is just to illustrate I drew widely from a lot of disparate sources to cobble together the historical underpinnings of the novel’s narrative.  On the actual Writing (with a capital “W”) of that narrative, well, that’ll be a whole ‘nother post.

Here, in The Gamers’ magisterial wargame on the Battle of Gettysburg, This Hallowed Ground, we see a typical example of a wargame in progress.  In this case, on the first day of the battle, we have Howard’s 11th Union Corps facing off against Rodes’ Division of Ewell’s 2nd Confederate Corps just north of town.  The hexgrid over the map regulates movement while the playing pieces themselves represent the troops that fought there; in this case by regiment and with each regiment rated for firepower (based on # of men present and what they were armed with) and morale (historically rated for how steadfast they were in the actual battle at hand, in Howard’s unfortunate case: not so much…).

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