When I left academia, my plan was to write a book that I had been thinking about for a while. A book that would tell the complicated story of the Civil War in the Southwest, a theater little-known in American culture and often overlooked (or outright dismissed) in histories of the conflict.
I knew that I could write this book in a traditional academic style: an introduction outlining arguments and historiography, a set of thematic chapters.
But I thought the project had trade book potential. And that meant writing in a new way, a narrative history style: chronological storytelling, with vivid descriptions and several central protagonists.
The war in the Southwest had many different moving parts. Conveying the fullness of its history would require, in the end, nine protagonists. When I began thinking about how I could possibly articulate all of their experiences, over seven years of warfare, and in a way that made sense to anyone, I turned not to models of history writing, but to fiction.
The source of my inspiration will probably strike you as anti-intuitive at best, and totally insane at worst. It was, dear reader, Game of Thrones.
I had watched the first season of the series, and started reading the novels. As I read, I was both appalled and intrigued. I’m not usually drawn to fiction that glorifies misogyny and violence, and yet George R.R. Martin had me turning those pages. How was this possible?
I considered the structure of the novels and it hit me: Martin was using multi-perspective narrative to pull me along. He would introduce one character in one place, then leap to another in the next chapter. The plot moved forward in time, but the narrative moved between characters. This meant that as a reader, I was in a constant state of anticipation. When would I find out what happened to Arya? When and how and where will these characters ultimately come together? At what point will I know how everything (and everyone) is related?
I wondered if it was possible to use this narrative strategy to interweave the experiences of the historical figures in my book. I decided it was. And I thought that it would be challenging—but also incredibly fun to write.
During two years of writing, I did a lot of experimenting and revising. I pulled apart chapters and put them back together again, in a different order. I researched and wrote nine different biographies, and used them to tell a larger story of the Civil War in the Southwest.
I cannot wait for readers to meet—and really get to know—the nine people who played such important roles in shaping the history of the Civil War West.
To give you a sense of who they are, I will be posting a short piece about each of them in the weeks leading up to the publication of The Three Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West, in the order in which readers will encounter them.
It is my hope that The Three-Cornered War will illuminate dimensions of the Civil War that we don’t often think about, while also being a really good read. And that it will offer just one example of how historians can write history differently.
SPOILER ALERT: There are no dragons.
You can pre-order The Three-Cornered War (out on February 11, 2020) now at:
Featured image by Artush, via art.com.