Jan 8

Telling Sea Stories

Friday, January 8, 2016 12:01 AM


I’ve learned some things about writing nonfiction since Adak, the Rescue of Alfa Foxtrot was published by the Naval Institute Press in 2003, the first of what have since become my seven books from NIP about maritime history.

The first thing I learned since then is that it takes me some 3,300 hours, or the better part of two years, to research and write a 300-page book. This means that the first person my budding story has to interest is me. The second is NIP’s acquisition editor.

A second lesson learned is that I must establish very early in this long process that the story is, in fact, not fiction. I spent three months researching one report (or incident), the disappearance of the lightship Cross Rip (LV-6) off her station in Nantucket Sound with all hands on board during the paralyzing freeze-up of 1918, which turned out not to be true. The Cross Rips septuagenarian first mate, Henry Joy, purportedly left his ship—caught that February in pack ice and shoved past the Nantucket Light out to sea—and walked ashore seven miles (seven!) over the floes to ask Keeper William Grieder for permission to abandon ship. Permission denied, Joy headed nobly and numbly back to his ship; neither he, others of the crew (the Cross Rip’s captain was on leave ashore), nor their ship were ever seen again.

A great story: the era of lightships was a fascinating one; the infamous 1918 freeze-up amounted to a one-year ice age across the American Midwest and New England; shipwrecks and mysterious disappearances are always interesting, and better yet, old man Joy’s dangerous trek across the ice gave the story an emotional focal point. But the first mate’s trial seems to have been wholly made up by newspapermen on the Cape looking to lend the Cross Rip’s mysterious disappearance some special interest. No government investigations or anything anywhere else substantiated it.

Another lesson has to do with sources. Unlike political speeches, written history needs facts—events that really happened—at its core. Not only facts, interpretation and speculation are fine in their place, but more than imagination or pure conjecture is required. Sources, both primary and secondary, provide this essential foundation.

Not long ago I thought about writing a book on the American Protective League, a self-described “vast, silent volunteer army” whose quarter-million civilians nosed freely about the United States on a mission to unearth draft dodgers of the Great War. Its eager operatives hoped and believed they would expose the German Kaiser’s spies and sympathizers who, they felt, were surely concealed among millions of disloyal German- and Austrian-Americans in the country.

Primary research materials, in the archives of the Departments of Justice and the Treasury among others, are rich. Secondary sources on the APL are also good, among them many period newspapers and much periodical reporting that provides special insights. Several books, including Emerson Hough’s The Web, a Revelation of Patriotism (Chicago: the Riley & Lee Company, 1919), the APL’s “authorized history,” Prof. Joan Jensen’s The Price of Vigilance (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1968), and recently (perhaps too recently) Bill Mills’ The League (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2013) are available, too.

The history of the APL is interesting in its own right, but that history becomes fascinating when viewed as the distant roots of American anxiety today about homeland security and the xenophobia that together lie at the core of the 2016 presidential campaign. I hope to have time to describe this story someday.

Embassy to the Eastern Courts, America’s Secret First Pivot Toward Asia 1832‒37, my 2015 NIP book, is the true story of two bold and curious diplomatic missions sent around the world by President Andrew Jackson. These missions represented America’s first attempts at regularizing trade with colorful empires in Araby and Asia. It’s the story, as well, of a once-tiny, two-ship squadron that during the next century grew into history’s most powerful fleet. Happily, the adventures I describe—exhausting months afloat followed by exotic port calls, crews swept by epidemic disease, a shipwrecked crew tormented by pirates, frustrating negotiations (some successful, some not) between proud people, and more—are all true, as fully documented in excellent sources at the National Archives, the Library of Congress, on the Web, and in libraries abroad.


9781612514161To learn more about Andrew Jampoler and his latest books, check his website.


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