Philip Gerard’s new book is The Art of Creative Research: A Field Guide for Writers (University of Chicago Press, 2017). He teaches in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and is the author of four novels, six other books of nonfiction, numerous essays, short stories, public radio commentaries, and documentary television scripts.
Shop Talk asked Gerard to describe an example of what he means by “creative research.”
Recently I spent the better part of two weekends hanging out with a fellow named Dennis Harper whose lifelong avocation has been history—specifically, walking the ground of the battlefield at Wyse Fork and collecting artifacts. Wyse Fork, near Kinston, North Carolina, was the site of a fierce battle very late in the Civil War. Confederates there fought to keep the US Army forces from New Bern from joining up with Gen. William T. Sherman’s sixty-thousand-man juggernaut sweeping north from South Carolina.
Just as at Gettysburg, the last day of battle finished with a brave but doomed uphill frontal assault by Confederates on massed Union troops dug in behind a wall, this one made of pine logs and earth—with appalling casualties. Twenty-one cannons poured canister shot—giant shotgun shells full of shrapnel—on them at point-blank range, killing or wounding more than a third.
Harper, who leads guided tours dressed in the authentic uniform of a Confederate colonel, literally grew up on the battlefield. As a boy he began finding some of the more than ten thousand artifacts he would eventually collect and catalogue, many on display at the local visitors’ center: musket balls, belt buckles, buttons, coffee cups, rifles, bayonets, gold fountain pen nibs, even a signet ring.
His research is meticulous. He maps each find and then matches up artifacts with specific units who fought there—and sometimes even with a particular soldier, culling through regimental rosters of thousands of names. As we toured the battlefield together, he talked about the importance of combining physical evidence with the documentary record to arrive at a true understanding of how those men behaved.
For example, historians typically draw neat battle lines on maps where commanders reported their troops to be. But if you walk the field, you read the ground better, feel the rises and swales in your legs, note the sight lines and exposed places, and realize they were really a couple of hundred yards east or south finding cover in the nap of the land—the line of debris confirms this. As freezing men struggled to load their rifles under fire on a windy, sleety morning, they dropped a lot of bullets. Once the bullet hit the mud, it was useless—a man would have to take time to find it on the ground, pick it up, and clean it off before loading it, else it would foul his weapon and not fire. So the firing line is defined by an almost perfectly straight line of dropped, unfired bullets. And because each regiment carried its own variety of firearm, we can even tell which regiment or company stood where.
Likewise, the “capture zones,” where attacks broke the lines and artifacts of both armies intermingled, can be recognized by equally clear, readable debris fields.
In all my four years of research on the Civil War for a magazine series and book, it had never occurred to me that so many men dropped bullets because of frozen fingers—or out of nervousness, clumsiness, or plain old fear. All of a sudden those men became more real, standing there, desperately trying to load their weapons before the next volley shattered their line. The simple fact of dropped bullets caused me to re-imagine what I thought I knew, to inhabit the point of view of the common soldier, standing shoulder to shoulder with his comrades in the sleet, fumbling though fatigue and the adrenaline rush of danger.
So often research is the act of re-imagining our settled assumptions, seeing a person or object or activity not as we presume it to have been but as it was for others acting in a different time and place.
So drummer boys in the Civil War were not just cute mascots—they were a vital part of the command and control mechanism of the army, beating out instructions above the din of battle, and therefore high-value targets.
Horses were not companions and pets but engines—they moved cannons and wagons and troops. So shooting horses—to us an act of brutality—was a sure way to keep the enemy from retrieving his guns from the field so you could capture them.
Regimental flags—the colors—were not just rallying points of honor and pride but giant pushpins on the moving map of the battlefield: a general on a hill above the fray could watch the progress of his troops by following the flags—one reason that color-bearers were also high-value targets and why, as one was shot down, another would grab the fallen colors and hoist them high again at great risk to his own life.
And sometimes the seemingly minor detail illuminates the moment in a way that makes it rise off the page and come to life. Fragments of heirloom plates found in a position where US Army soldiers dug in prior to an attack were not just spoils looted from homes along the route of march. They were also entrenching tools—as were coffee cups, bayonets, and bare hands—since only one man per company was issued a shovel. I can close my eyes and see those desperate men clawing at the ground with plates, trying to scoop out a trench in which to hunker down against the gunfire. The broken crockery speaks of panic and impending deadly combat.
Objects in a soldier’s kit also saw double duty. A bayonet was a fearsome weapon—seldom used, in fact—except as a reliable candle holder, bearing the light by which a homesick soldier could pen a letter to his wife. The havelock—a linen flap fitted to the back of the kepi (or forage cap) to protect the neck from sunburn—was torn off and used to strain coffee grounds.
That’s one of the great lessons of research: things often meant different things to the actors of history than they do to us. The museum shows us the events of history like a language learned from books—the field tells us how the people of that time actually spoke that language of artifacts.
And if we are to understand their actions and their motives, we need to imagine ourselves into their places and learn what those things meant to them.
So for me, research begins as an act of imagination—or perhaps, more accurately, re-imagination. It’s the hunt for facts, true, but it’s also a kind of time travel, reconstructing the debris of a long-ago event into a living story.
Top photo: Ashley Leahman.