Join me in welcoming Uncommon History’s first author interviewee, Michael Aubrecht.
Michael, let’s start off with one of my favorite questions for writers. How long have you been writing?
First off, I want to say what a thrill it is for me to be interviewed for your blog Patrick. Uncommon History is fast becoming one of my favorites and I thank you.
My path to becoming a professional writer has been a lot of hard work, but also a lot of luck. Back in 1994 I started writing freelance articles for some independent Internet sports websites. Looking back, I can hardly read anything I penned as they were so amateur. That said, Sean Holtz of Baseball-Almanac read a few of my features and asked if I would be interested in taking on some large-scale projects for his digital publication. That commission led to me getting my first paid gig as a contributing historian for BA. As a lifelong fan of our national pastime, I couldn’t ask for a more enjoyable subject to begin my career with and my work even ended up in some MLB publications and quoted on ESPN Classic. Over the next 6+ years, I wrote hundreds (375+) of studies and essays that now make up most of their website’s historical sections. I am a life-long Civil War buff and during this time I was also toying with the idea about writing historical pieces. Ironically, I was contacted by our local newspaper to consult on a story about baseball during the Civil War. That’s when the door opened…
That project led to me writing Civil War articles and book reviews, which in turn led to my work appearing in more newspapers and magazines like The Free Lance-Star, Civil War Historian, and Patriots of the American Revolution. I also joined a group called Faith-Writers and began publishing an equal amount of Christian-based material. Since then I have become the personal copywriter for renowned artist Mort Kunstler, and I am contracted full-time as a technical writer for the U.S. Marshals Service. Beyond the printed page, my writing has really opened up a whole world of opportunities and media. Over the last 10 years I have: written 7 books (5 are in print, 1 is circulating), given lectures at museums and universities, appeared on multiple radio programs, hosted Internet episodes, provided personal battlefield tours, and co-produced my first Civil War documentary. What surprises me nowadays is that I get asked to speak to writers groups about our craft just as often (if not more) than I do about historical topics. After all these years, the biggest thrill for me is meeting people at book signings and knowing that they enjoy my work.
It is definitely wonderful to be able to tie in our personal passions to professional writing projects. With so much history in your area and your own valued interests, how do you come up with your topics?
I’ll break that down by title…
Onward Christian Soldier and Christian Cavalier were originally going to be one, combined book, but the publisher decided that two, smaller pieces would sell better. (I still disagree and perhaps in the future I’ll put out a larger, expanded version.) Stonewall Jackson has always been one of my favorite historical figures, both as a believer and a military commander. His cavalier subordinate Jeb Stuart is equally fascinating, but on a different level. Both subjects have been written about again and again. Now I knew that I could never compete with previous scholarly biographers, so I decided to write vignettes on these two while focusing specifically on their spiritual roots and how their faith affected them both on and off the battlefield. OCS was received very well and has been developed into a bible study course and used by the USMC Tun Tavern Fellowship.
The Southern Cross was a total labor of love. I had been writing pieces for some small Christian publications and wanted to do a devotional in the worst way. My pastor showed me one based on Abraham Lincoln’s life and thought I could do that too. TSC is unique amongst my titles as it features all of my work: the writing, photos, design, study materials etc. This book has been circulating amongst our troops overseas and I have received some extremely touching letters from soldiers. Perhaps one day I will follow-up with a northern version.
Both of my regional books for The History Press: Houses of the Holy and Campfires at the Crossroads are secular works and really established me as a respected historian in the ACW community. Both studies were written to fill a void. HOH presents the historical churches of Fredericksburg and CAC chronicles the words of Confederate soldiers encamped in Spotsylvania County. I am very proud that the NPS carries these titles in their Eastern National bookstores. These are my best titles by far.
Your love and skill for writing as well as your passion for history certainly come across through your writing. You mentioned that your works have helped to build your reputation among the ACW historian circle. How has being published changed your life personally?
Publishing has affected me on so many levels. At first, there is a genuine feeling of excitement whether it’s seeing your first byline or approving your first cover. That welcome emotion is shortly followed thereafter by sheer terror as you anticipate the impending critiques and reviews. Once you get past the butterflies there is a tremendous sense of pride and validation. Then of course there’s the all-important “ego-rub” you get by seeing your stuff on the shelf. Eventually, you become seasoned at this process and it simply becomes work. You do the best job you can and let the chips fall where they may. Being published for me has changed my life in the respect that I now get to meet my heroes and sometimes make friends with them. In 1994, I stood in line at a Fredericksburg military art gallery for 3 hours to meet Mort Kunstler. Today, I write his copy and can call him at home. One of my favorite writers has always been Eric Wittenberg and we just co-authored a book together. Even my full-time job as a tech-writer for the USMS is a derivative of my freelance work and publishing. It’s changed my life by giving me a career.
Speaking of your past endeavors, which of the books that you have written is your favorite and why?
That’s a hard one. I am very proud of all of these titles, but once again, it’s very hard to go back and look at things that I know I could do better now. I tend to have that feeling about all of my work. I spend months researching, writing, editing, re-writing, reviewing galleys, etc…then when the book or magazine finally arrives, I read it once through and never open it again. I would imagine that I’m like most writers in the sense that we are constantly maturing and our favorite piece should be whatever we are working on at the time. I will add this…The feature on race and remembrance at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello that I just did for Patriots of the American Revolution may be a favorite of mine. It’s critical and one of the more mature studies I’ve done. I also like the lecture that I wrote on Sgt. Richard Kirkland and delivered to the FCWRT at Mary Washington University. Both of those pieces bridged the gap between public and scholarly history.
I’ve been impressed, and pleased, with the quality of research in the books you have published. What kind of planning do you do before writing a book?
Research is THE most important aspect of my process. For what I write about, the best source of both primary and some secondary reference is of course the National Park’s archives as they are an invaluable resource for reference, photography, and illustration files. I am very blessed to live in a place as historic as Fredericksburg where a large collection like that is located. Even better, the NPS has spent a great deal of time modernizing their library and here is where it really pays to be a historian in the 21st century. I say this as their entire 1000-page catalog has been converted into a massive, searchable database. Each item in their bound volumes has a series of keyword designators and a short abstract telling you what the item includes. By typing in a keyword, such as “churches” it provides the researcher with a PDF (Adobe Acrobat doc.) with all of the volumes on file and associated info featuring the word “churches.” Now what this enabled me to do in mere minutes is identify 44 volumes that held potentially usable reference material and sources. It would take months to do that by hand. Each item with the word “churches” in it was listed by vol. number, section number, page and chapter number, and a brief description outlined the major topics. I then told the NPS guys which ones I needed and they pulled them for me to browse. I spent days up at their offices, copying and photocopying page – after page – after page of documents and memoirs, recollections, and other unpublished sources. The pile that I walked away with was staggering.
However, identifying what is available and drilling that information down is only step one. This points you to the reference. But how do you manage it – especially when you end up with everything from old newspaper clippings and diary pages – to official reports and meeting minutes? The answer is you make your own card-catalog. Organization is a top-priority. For “Houses of the Holy” each church had its own folder with a contents and index. As I gathered more and more materials, they all went into the folders. By the time I was done I had a stack of folders bursting at the seams with reference. This kept everything categorized and organized for me as I wrote each church’s section separately. It also helped when it came time to credit people and I referred to these sources for the bibliography. What is extra nice is that I now have an extensive collection of pre-sorted materials that I can refer to again and again for future projects. So through this one book, I now have sources for a dozen more pieces. I would like to add that I simultaneously collected the data on Spotsylvania’s churches and I am already prepared to draft a companion volume when the time comes. So it helped me to think ahead, beyond the immediate project.
It appears that the research side of your works is likely the longest phase of your writing projects. I’m curious, how long does it normally take you to write a book?
The quick and dirty answer to that question is: however long it takes. That said, between 8-12 months for my past books. That’s working on them in some capacity at least 30 hours a week. Half, if not more than that time is spent on research, with the resulting writing and editing split between the remaining 50%.
You mentioned earlier some amount of collaboration with other writers. What are you currently working on?
As I mentioned before, Eric Wittenberg and I are currently shopping our baseball book You Stink! a study on MLB’s worst teams and players around, and I am also working on a keynote speech about Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign for the 2010 CWHC Muster. The main focus for me nowadays is on the 30-min documentary that I am co-producing with Clint Ross about Sgt. Richard Kirkland, “The Angel of Marye’s Heights.” The film is currently in post-production and we are looking to premiere it in February 2010. A website and sneak preview will be online very soon. Movie-making is ten-times harder and more intense that writing. I love it, but this may be my first and last film for a while.
You obviously keep a very productive schedule. What do you enjoy doing in your free-time?
I have a full-time job with a 3-hour commute, freelance work, a foundation, and four kids…what’s free-time?
What’s free-time indeed. Earlier you brought up a good point about different venues for writers. What advice would you give a beginning author?
Determine what your strengths and weaknesses are as a writer. Play to your strengths, but never stop working on your weaknesses. Another piece of advice is to check, double-check and then re-check your sources again. Your work is only as good as the research that you put into it. Finally, remember to enjoy the process. Pursue it passionately, but also remember that someday it will become work. That is if your goal is to do this professionally. If so, then approach it like any other craft. Practice your skills. Educate yourself. Stay abreast of the industry. Make contacts and build a network. And once it becomes a job, it is no longer a hobby. Your feelings about it will change. Not necessarily in a bad way, but it will be looked at differently. It will be serious, and you will have to be serious about doing it. Your reputation is your greatest asset, but it can also be your downfall. Miss a few deadlines, or turn in something less-than-par and you can blemish your rep. Always do your best work and protect it.
Speaking of downfalls. In your opinion, what is the greatest danger or pitfall in the life of a writer?
My answer is themselves. It’s very easy as a writer to become egotistical and get used to calling your own shots. First off: GET OVER YOURSELF. When you are just starting out, and writing for free, YOU make your own deadlines, YOU choose your own topics. YOU edit your own work. When you get picked up by a publication whether it is a website, newspaper, magazine, or book, YOU are no longer in charge. Chances are someone else with far more experience and qualifications will be selecting your topics, setting your deadlines, editing your copy etc. This is a shock at first. But I say listen to these people. THEY know what they are talking about. And if you work hard enough at it, you start to earn that control back a little at a time. Today, I pick my own features, pitch the ideas to the various newspaper, magazine, and book editors that I have a relationship with, and we collaborate. I had to earn that privilege and it took me far too long to appreciate it. And to be perfectly honest, I still answer to a lot of people. Writers just need to be aware that they are often their own worst enemy.
That is some great advice for every writer! As a reader of your books myself, do you think there are ways that your readers can help make you a better author?
When I started with Baseball-Almanac, the work was challenging, and tedious, and for a baseball fanatic like me, awesome. That said, no matter how hard we tried there were always readers out there who had forgotten more about baseball than we would ever know. We called these people the “trekees” (after the Star Trek enthusiasts) and many had either attended these games, or memorized the box scores, because they would find the most minuscule errors and blast us for them. In baseball history, stats and source material must always be validated. Luckily as an almanac we were always able to update our stuff. What this taught me is that our readers in many cases can be our best editors and we must take the time to listen to them. It can be a humbling experience, but it ultimately makes our work better. The same goes for my work on the Civil War. People’s ancestors who fought in the conflict sometimes have knowledge that surpasses that of the National Park Service or heritage organizations because they lived it firsthand and passed those stories down through the years in their diaries and letters home. As a historian I consider myself in a way a custodian of the legacies of those who came before us. It’s a tremendous privilege and responsibility, so I always make accurate research a top priority. In addition, our findings may become reference for a future study and bad reference breeds bad history.
Your love for history is very evident and admirable. As a historian, I have little doubt that you have your own personal favorite places or people to learn from and about. If you could have dinner with three historical people, who would they be and why?
Great question…I would love to dine with Thomas Jefferson, so I could ask him about his relationship Sally Hemmings firsthand. Erwin Rommel, so I could get inside the mind of a true military genius, and Lou Gehrig, because he is perhaps the nicest guy that I have ever studied. (A close #4 would be Jeb Stuart as I don’t think Stonewall Jackson would be much fun and I don’t like lemons.)
That certainly sounds like an interesting dinner! In closing, what accomplishment are you most proud of, writing or not?
Family of course: My wife Tracy, who I have been with since the tender age of 13, and our four children Dylan (18, attending the University of Northwestern Ohio), Madison (12, an accomplished dancer), Kierstyn (5, just started pre-school), and Jackson (2, a curly-haired tornado).
Thank you so much for your time, and your talent, Michael. The readers of Uncommon History look forward to learning more great history from you.
Michael’s Current Book Selection
The Civil War in Spotsylvania: Confederate Campfires at the Crossroads features published memoirs, diaries, letters and testimonials from those who were there to give a fascinating look into the day-to-day experiences of camp life in the Confederate army.
Historic Churches of Fredericksburg: Houses of the Holy recalls stories of rebellion, racism and reconstruction as experienced by Secessionists, Unionists and the African American population in Fredericksburg’s landmark churches during the Civil War.
The Southern Cross: A Civil War Devotional shares forty uplifting devotions, ten encouraging essays, a special sermon that was presented to the soldiers in the field and a short biographical tribute to six of the South’s most pious commanders.
Christian Cavalier: The Spiritual Legacy of J.E.B. Stuart presents an intimate portrait of the flamboyant Confederate Cavalry General J.E.B. Stuart and a testament to his devout service to both God and country.
Onward Christian Soldier: The Spiritual Journey Of Stonewall presents a historical account of the military, personal, and spiritual life of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson who rose from the pains of a tragic childhood to become one of the South’s most celebrated soldiers.
If you would like for the readers of Uncommon History to know more about you and your writing endeavors, please contact me to arrange your interview.