Posted by: J. Thomas Ross | June 25, 2013

The Author as Reenactor

Two newspapers arrive at my house every day. I admit I don’t read every article, but I do skim through every page because, in addition to the daily news, I never know when I might find something useful – a story starter, an idea for a character’s backstory, a different perspective on an issue, or an odd piece of information that I might use in a future story.

On the front page of June 10’s Philadelphia Inquirer I found the article “Marshaling Global Forces for Gettysburg’s 150th” by Edward Colimore (the fifth article in a series about the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg). The article immediately caught my eye because history has long been an interest of mine and reenactments are both fascinating and educational.

Cannon at Gettysburg - photo courtesy of Ann Kuni

Cannon at Gettysburg – photo courtesy of Ann Kuni

To celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, there will be two major reenactment events, one presented by the Blue Gray Alliance from June 27th to 30th and the other, the one featured in the Inquirer article, the Gettysburg Anniversary National Civil War Battle Reenactment from July 4th through 7th. The latter is expected to have almost 15,000 reenactors, who are coming not only from all 50 states but from 16 foreign countries. Planners expect about 80.000 spectators from the USA and 18 other countries. The reenactment will include 800 acres of battle grounds and camps (using 100 cords of firewood), 135 artillery pieces, and 400 horses (consuming 2000 bales of hay). As many as 500 reporters from around the world are expected to cover the events.

I’ve never attended a Civil War reenactment, but since many Revolutionary skirmishes and battles occurred in NJ and southeastern PA, I’ve had the opportunity to view Revolutionary War reenactments. Watching a battle in person while standing outdoors in a field gives you a whole different perspective from watching a battle enacted on television or in a movie. When you experience the battle from ground level, in addition to seeing the haze of smoke and hearing the bursts of gunfire, you feel the heat of the sun or the splash of rain and smell the acrid smoke. While watching the battle reenactment is exciting and informative, if you don’t tour the campsite before and after the reenactment and talk to the reenacters, you’ve missed out on something special and even more enlightening, for reenactors have a thorough knowledge of the time period, including many details not covered in the average history book.

Many reenactors, both men and women, assume a persona of the time and tend to stay in character in the campsite. They become Civil War soldiers (or camp followers), wearing soldiers’ clothes and living in tents the way soldiers did. [Reenacting is not a cheap hobby, either. An average rank-and-file Civil War soldiers kit costs $1200.] Reenacting takes dedication, imagination, and a willingness to learn. In a tour of the camp you will see reenactors going about their daily business, cleaning their weapons, or giving demonstrations of the crafting and cooking of the time period. And Reenactors love to talk and share their expertise. Ask questions and you will come away with increased knowledge of the time period and a new perspective on the people who lived then.

When I taught history, we were fortunate to have a school secretary — Jane Peters Estes — who is a knowledgeable Civil War reenactor and gives historical presentations in the area. Her visits to the classroom were eye-opening to me as well as the students. For example, she asked us what we thought were the three most common causes of death for women in the mid-1800s. We came up with disease and childbirth, but the third cause eluded and surprised us – fire. Imagine women wearing long skirts in houses heated by open fireplaces and you can understand why.

As I read the Inquirer article and thought about reenactments, I realized that writers – fiction writers in particular – can learn a lot from reenactors. To create and write believable characters, we need to have a thorough knowledge of the character’s time period and environment as well as social standards and way of life. We need to get inside that character, to walk around in her/his skin, to see things as he/she would, to experience what she/he experienced, to view events from that time’s perspective, to relate to other people the way that would be proper for a person of that time. We need to know that character well enough to conduct a believable reenactment.

When a writer knows a character this well, dialogue flows naturally as does the character’s response to plot events. The story and the character cannot be other than logical and believable. [The one problem for a writer – which happens to some actors who get thoroughly into a part – might be leaving that character and world behind to resume her/his normal daily routine!]

Do you know your characters and their setting well enough to reenact them?

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Gettysburg - photo courtesy of Ann Kuni

Gettysburg – photo courtesy of Ann Kuni

 

 

 

If you’re interested in the 150th anniversary reenactments but cannot attend, you can see the highlights on your computer, smartphone, or tablet. History buffs can pay $12.99 to subscribe. In addition, a DVD production by filmmaker Rob Child will be available in November.

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