The evolution of an idea

Writing constantly amazes me. 

Generally speaking, the process of writing a book or article is always a learning experience – as you gather and work through your sources, then put them together into a cohesive story, you keep learning new things and are forced to think through all the little nuances of the event, person, etc.  In my case, several of my magazine articles, in the end, changed their focus and tone a bit as I developed the story I was telling – and this is mostly due to what the evidence was telling me along the way.

But this change of focus – or “evolution” as it were – was very evident in the process of writing the book on Jeb Stuart’s Ride to Gettysburg with Eric.  Eric and I both time and time again have recounted how our original idea for the book – a narrative of Stuart’s ride through Maryland and Pennsylvania in June/July 1863 – morphed into a very detailed historiography of the ride and events, as well as a full discussion of the ensuing controversy.  When we began the project, we didn’t envision what it ultimately became.  The final product was a result of the evidence talking to us along the way – prodding us to think deeper, change our focus, and tell the story of not only the ride narrative, but the controversy in words of the participants that have rarely (or never) been published before.

Admittedly, neither Eric or I, or our coauthor Mike Nugent, must be smart enough to have known that the same thing would happen with our newest book on the retreat from Gettysburg.  When the three of us started this particular project several years ago, it had a similar beginning to the Stuart’s ride book – a deeply researched narrative hadn’t been done before (including Kent Brown’s book, which focused more on the logistics of the retreat) – so we set out to do that.

However, along the way, this project too has morphed.  Our idea, in effect, has evolved nearly 360 degrees from where we started.  The material research has literally doubled in the past couple of months… the bibliography went from about 16 pages to 31, most of it primary source.  And a huge amount of it never used before.  All that evidence began “talking to us” again.  We have therefore expanded the project from an event narrative to more discussion involving the decision-making of both sides during the long days of the retreat, and how the Gettysburg retreat event fits in the grand scheme of the Civil War in the East.

I suppose much of this is because no event of the war happens in a vacuum, and there are ramifications, like a ripple effect, that the event has on everything that happens afterwards.  If you study the war long enough, you know that – but it’s when the evidence begins speaking to you somewhere deep in your head that you really realize what those ramifications are and how they fit into the complete picture – as best as can be done nearly 150 years later, anyway.

Eric has posted about some of these types of thoughts lately on his blog, here and here for instance.  Eric likes to call these revelations – or perhaps more correctly “evolutions” – “eureka moments.”  Sometime I just wonder if they shouldn’t be called “duh” moments.  The story is there all along, you just need to go looking for it.

Since we’ve expanded the scope of this book, and allowed the idea of evolve, we’ve nearly doubled the size of the book since it’s “completion” some time ago.  We’ve gone from 9 original chapters to 16, including our Epilogue.  Our estimated final word count including everything but the footnotes is something like 125,000 words or so.  I believe it will be a bit larger than the book on Stuart’s ride.

I’ve really come to believe that ideas are seeds – not flowers.  The garden is one that you won’t have a clue what colors or types of flowers you’ll have until it grows and blooms. 

Published in: on August 20, 2007 at 11:16 am  Leave a Comment  

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