Emerging Civil War correspondent Elyse Kuhn took the time recently to talk with ECW’s Dave Powell about Dave’s new book, Battle Above the Clouds.
Dave Powell never imagined himself as a history writer. However, it seems to be what he was meant to do. The pieces fall perfectly together for him when he starts writing.
Powell is the author of the Emerging Civil War Series book Battle Above the Clouds: The Lifting of the Siege of Chattanooga and the Battle of Lookout Mountain, the first of two volumes about the battle of Chattanooga. The book continues almost where he left off after his three-volume study on the battle of Chickamauga, although Battle Above the Clouds is less in-depth.
“I wanted to continue on where I previously left off and explain what happens next,” Powell stated when I asked about why he wanted to do a book about Chattanooga. He also said that writing the book was easier in the sense that he did not have to do as much research, because of all the information he had already gathered when writing his three-volume study on Chickamauga. In general, however, this book was slightly more difficult to complete because it was more concise. Because the format was so much smaller, Powell said every word counts so much more.
In regards to his method of coming across his information and how he goes about writing his books, Powell gets “very into” what he’s doing because he is so determined to do a good job. He says a part of the reason he likes writing history so much is because when he starts out, the storyline is already there. Powell said he could never see himself writing fiction because he has a tough time coming up with the story line, but when it comes to history the story “grows organically” because it’s already something that has happened and there is no need to make anything up.
Powell said that when writing, he feels as though he “over-researches,” and he always visits the places that he writes about as much as he can. He attributes his ability to travel as much as much as he does to his “wonderfully understanding wife.” He drives everywhere, which makes it a little more difficult to get to places so far away, but he still visits as much as possible. The need to travel does tend to make the research process take longer because he can’t always get away right when he needs to. For instance, Powell said that Chattanooga was about a ten-hour drive from where he lives near Chicago, Illinois.
When he is working on any piece of writing, Powell said that he tries to work in as many primary-source quotes as he possibly can. “I like to let the narrators speak for themselves,” he explained.
One thing that makes getting these quotes difficult at times, he said, is the fact that there is a major imbalance in sources. There are many more journals and letters from the Federal side, as opposed to the Confederate, which Powell says has maybe one quarter of the information. Powell says that at times this makes writing a book about a battle very difficult because he does not want to get all of his information from just one point of view.
After he has finished a first draft, Powell said that the most important thing he has learned to do is rewrite and self-edit. This would be his advice for all aspiring authors, as he claimed it is the most important thing to do when writing—“however much you hate it,” he said. If he were to give any other advice to a young writer, it would be to take any and all opportunities thrown their way. Powell claimed that even writing in a journal or a personal blog for oneself is good practice. He says to write all the time.
Powell has always been writing himself, but not always about history. He was an American history major in college, but did not plan on ending up where he is today. Originally, he wanted to be a military office and never saw himself as a historian or anything like that. Powell was always reading and enjoyed history as well as science fiction and started out writing fiction—or at least trying and being reportedly “awful” at it. He says no one would ever want to read his fiction, but that it was fun to try and then laugh at with his friends when he was younger. Powell added that he admires fiction writers because he could never possibly do what they do.
The first time Powell knew history was something he could truly pursue was when he got an article published in a magazine in 1997. He also realized that this was something he truly enjoyed and was also good at.
Powell has come pretty far since then. He said that he has found himself to be “very lucky” and “incredibly fortunate.” He loves the fact that he has the freedoms that he does. He almost went back to get a maters or doctorate degree until he realized he loves where he is now. “Any advanced degrees I pursued at this point I would be doing just for vanity’s sake, since I don’t think I would ever use those degrees professionally,” he admitted.
Powell conceded that one of the biggest blessings he’s had in his career is the fact that he has not faced much rejection at all. He’s aware how uncommon that is when trying to build a career in writing.
When I asked him if the field needs more young people to feel inspired, as he once was, to write about history, he replied yes. We have some amazing history writers as it stands, he said, but the world could definitely use some fresh, younger faces that are eager to write about history with the same eagerness he has.
“Every new generation of historians brings new ideas, new perspectives, and reinterpretions of our shared past,” he said. “History will always need new voices and fresh ideas.”