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Shelby Foote:

I’ve never had anything resembling a secretary or a research assistant. I don’t want those. Each time I type, it gives me another shot at it, another look at it. As for research, I can’t begin to tell you the things I discovered while I was looking for something else. A research assistant couldn’t have done that. Not being a trained historian, I had botherations that led to good things. For instance, I didn’t take careful notes while reading. Then I’d get to something and I’d say, By golly, there’s something John Rawlins said at that time that’s real important. Where did I see it? Then I would remember that it was in a book with a red cover, close to the middle of the book, on the right-hand side and one third from the top of the page. So I’d spend an hour combing through all my red-bound books. I’d find it eventually, but I’d also find a great many other things in the course of the search.

You can read the whole 1997 interview here, including some helpful thoughts on the writing of narrative history and why he wishes historians were better writers.


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4 thoughts on “Shelby Foote on the Serendipity of Research”

  1. Shayne McAllister says:

    I’m reading through his Civil War series now so I was interested in the whole interview. I love this paragraph.

    “I had a funny experience with copy readers back at the outset. They worship reference books and dictionaries and all that ticky kind of thing. We had a sure-enough expert for volume one. He complained that I was using the phrase “by ordinary” instead of ordinarily. He said, That’s incorrect. You shouldn’t do that. I said, No, I’ve heard that and used it all my life. He said, That doesn’t keep it from being wrong. I said, “Well, let’s look.” I opened the Webster’s unabridged and went to ordinary. Under it, it said, “By ordinary—Shelby Foote.” That convinced him. ”

    I looked this up in some online dictionaries and it’s true! Can you imagine being the copy editor?

    http://useful_english.enacademic.com/254615/by_ordinary

  2. “thoughts on the writing of narrative history and why he wishes historians were better writers”

    I heard the same thing from David McCullough in an recording from Yale at an event honoring Penelope Lively. Too many historians simply dump their notes on the page, he said.

  3. Tom Troxell says:

    I find the same thing to be true in sermon preparation; not that my sermons just ‘happen.” Often, something I read in a totally different context will come to mind and I find myself looking for that book by [insert name] on [insert topic].

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Justin Taylor, PhD


Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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