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Volunteer Andrea attends the last night of Jeff Shaara’s Blaze of Glory book tour.

I have a soft spot for the U.S. Civil War, and I am fascinated by the process of bringing historical fiction to life. Months ago, I got my Smithsonian Resident Associates ticket to hear Jeff Shaara’s presentation at the Natural History Museum’s Baird Auditorium. Shaara was in town to promote Blaze of Glory, his historical novel about the Battle of Shiloh.

Shaara switched career gears after his father, Michael Shaara, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Killer Angels, died in 1988. In 1996, Jeff Shaara published his first novel Gods and Generals and has since published eleven more. Much of Shaara’s work spent time on the bestseller list. Still, Shaara said of his father’s legacy, “I am always aware that I am walking in enormous footsteps.”

An engaging speaker, Jeff Shaara offered a lively presentation to a packed audience of hundreds. Shaara is a font of interesting information distilled from primary sources. He said that he gets his facts straight, but the books are novels because of the dialogue and the presence of the reader in the characters’ heads. He makes composite characters of those who are not well-known to history so that a character can be in all the places where the story needs to be told. “But I do not screw around with history,” he said.

The presentation at Baird’s was made without notes and on a stage that could barely contain Shaara’s pacing and gesticulation. He described the events in 1862 that led up to and included the Battle of Shiloh, a major battle in the Western theater of the Civil War. The book Blaze of Glory was no less intriguing than Shaara’s in-person presentation. In the novel, the author splits time between summaries of events and fictionalized dialogue exchanges. The method is powerful and brings the characters to life. Shaara tells the story of the Battle Shiloh from a human perspective, not a historical one. In person and in the book, he refrained from mentioning too many dates. In two hours at Baird’s, he did not show a single map of Civil War troop movements. Large swathes of the audience probably appreciated that fact.

Shaara encouraged the audience to partake of the rich Civil War history in the D.C. area. He is on the Board of Trustees for the Civil War Preservation Trust and has made significant donations to that organization which is devoted to the preservation of Civil War battlefields and education about the conflict.

During the question and answer part of the evening, Shaara suggested that other authors of historical fiction go directly to the source material and walk the ground where books are to be set to “hear the voices of the characters. About his other work, Shaara said that when he decided to write about World War I, he wanted to tell stories from the front lines which meant focusing on lower ranked characters because the generals often were not in the melee.

When asked if his writing was meant to draw parallels with any other wars, Shaara said, “If you hear me in my stories, I’m a lousy writer.”

Blaze of Glory is the first of three volumes in the series. The second volume will cover Vicksburg and will be released spring 2013. The third volume, about Sherman’s March and the final days of the war in the Carolinas, will be published in 2014.

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