Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Today! Author Paul Cool

Welcome to Paul Cool, author of Salt Warriors: Insurgency on the Rio Grande and winner of the Robert A. Calvert Book Prize. Cool earned his Bachelor and Juris Doctor degrees from the University of San Francisco, and Captain’s bars in the U.S. Army Reserve. He’s written about the frontier for Wild West and True West magazines, Texas Rangers’ Dispatch, Journal of Big Bend Studies, and other publications.

Salt Warriors is more than a recounting of a chaotic period in American history.
This fast-paced account not only corrects the record of this historical episode but will also resonate in the context of today's racial and ethnic tensions along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Everyone is encouraged to leave comments and/or ask Paul questions. There were a lot of questions I could have asked, but I narrowed it down to five. I hope you’ll come up with more for him!

Welcome Paul Cool.

Helen: Did you know from the start that you wanted to write about this event in history? Or did you decide as you researched?

Paul: While driving across country in 1999, I stopped in El Paso, where I picked up C.L. Sonnichsen’s 60-page book about the Salt War. I was fascinated and thought to expand upon it. I first thought I would write about the Salt War Texas Rangers, who I perceived as not the hapless bunch historians had described. The more research I did, the more I understood that previous tellings had only scratched the surface. The story was big, rich, and very complex. There were so many protagonists acting at cross purposes, and many of them, thankfully, were made for fiction. Somewhere along the way, I realized that I was lucky to have found a tale of community, corruption, and chaos that had never really been told.

Helen: How did you do your research - libraries, court records, interviews with descendants?

Paul: Most of my research was conducted in government archives and university libraries. Previous Salt War historians largely limited themselves to research in Texas and New Mexico. Because I live only an hour away from the National Archives in Washington, over the years I was able to dig up documents related to the conflict that no one had accessed. Library microfilm collections from Baltimore to Seattle yielded hundreds of contemporary news articles—at the time, this was a front-page story coast to coast. And the Internet was essential. Oral traditions of descendants cleared up some mysteries. One descendant graciously shared the only known photo of Salt War Texas Rangers.

Helen: How did you keep track of all your research? For example, did you have a physical file cabinet and filing system or a virtual one?

Paul: I rely largely on both physical and electronic filing systems. I wound up with about two shelves of tabbed binders and several plastic tubs, all filled with photocopied or downloaded documents or transcriptions. I had multiple CDs of almost everything, just in case the home PC crashed.

Helen: Smart man! My hard drive died earlier this year and again last week. Your research probably led you to many sources and places. What "turn" in your research was the most unusual or most unexpected?

Paul: Because so much of the traditional story was just plain wrong, there were many unexpected finds. A series of discoveries revealed that the local Tejanos (Texans of Hispanic origin) had a long history of military service, beginning a century before as presidio soldiers. When the presidio closed down, citizen soldiers regularly defended El Paso, usually against Apaches, but also against the Confederates who attempted to seize their property during their retreat from Glorieta Pass in 1862. Records in the State Archives revealed that the leaders of the 1877 rebellion had been Texas Rangers. This long record of self-defense helped me to realize that the uprising was not an unruly mob action but an organized insurgency by a population used to governing itself and fighting for its way of life. In some respects, they reminded me of the Sons of Liberty and Minute Men of Colonial Massachusetts in 1775.

Helen: Describe your writing process for us.

Paul: I’d like to say that I write a minimum number of words each day, but my schedule is a lot more haphazard. I write when the spirit tells me. Sometimes the well goes dry, but usually I cannot wait to get back to the PC and type. When not writing new material, I regularly re-wrote the draft manuscript.

Throughout the research stage, which lasted right up to the end, I chronologically and thematically organized the personal letters, army and government correspondence, newspaper reports, and other primary documents. From these, I transcribed hundreds of thousands of primary source words—sometimes entire documents, at other times just relevant passages—and similarly arranged these into electronic source documents. This process is inefficient, I suppose, but it helped the material really sink into my consciousness.

Early in this process, I created an outline, identifying what would go into each chapter. Over time, the number of chapters expanded and contracted several times over. Each chapter had points I wanted to make, based upon my evolving understanding of what the story was about. The organizing helped me to lay out a narrative and to identify the quotations I would use to illustrate characters, actions, and interpretations.

Generally speaking, a chronological approach worked best, but this was not always true. The first few chapters were especially difficult to arrange. I repeatedly rearranged information, trying to find the best way to introduce the reader to the various characters and themes. Chapters 8 and 9 are “context” chapters that bring in some key background information not found in the earlier chapters. From Chapter 10 on, the story is straight ahead narrative, largely propelled by the protagonists’ actions. But the hotter the events in El Paso, the more important that conversations, decisions, and even inaction outside the county became. Some national and state politicians, as well as some newspaper editors, sought to use the crisis to bring on a second war with Mexico. Decision makers in Austin, Washington, and at various military headquarters acted based on old, conflicting or otherwise unreliable reports, and so that became a part of the story parallel to the violence in El Paso. As I said, it’s a complex tale, and I incorporated various approaches to make sense of it all.

By 2005, I had created a kitchen-sink draft of maybe 225,000 words. Ultimately, I got it down to 125,000 words, plus the front and back matter. A large book for a university press, but Mary Lenn Dixon, my excellent editor at Texas A&M University Press, supported my desire to tell the whole story from deep background to “whatever happened to.” The process of getting it down to size was painful. Many extended eyewitness accounts had to be chopped. But the tightened book is a better one.

Helen: You cut a hundred thousand words! We’ll end the Q&A here before we all start crying at the idea of chopping that much from a manuscript and open this up to questions from readers. Just click “Comments” and ask away or leave a note.

You can find out more about Salt Warriors: Insurgency on the Rio Grande on the Texas A&M Press website. You can also order a copy there – never too early to think Christmas!

Also, follow Paul on his Blog Book Tour.

Thank you so much, Paul Cool, for stopping by today.

The Comments section is open!


  1. Great interview.

    I loved reading about the progression of the book, from inception of the idea through research to structuring and editing. The choices Mr. Cool had to make, the focus of the book and why he chose it, the editing process itself; a good read.

  2. Reading about the research process was very interesting. I'm going to send a link to this post to a friend who is doing historical research. I think he would find it helpful.

  3. I agree with both of you. I found Paul Cool's research process fascinating and eye-opening.

  4. It's very difficult to write about actual events because you have to get it just right. I applaud Paul for digging deep and coming up with such a great book concept.

    Morgan Mandel

  5. Thank you all for your comments. I have always been intrigued by the creative process - how are movies made? How are books written? What choices are made and why, etc.?

    There were two major challenges I faced. Getting it right and making it interesting. The research, the digging you've mentioned addressed the accuracy. And that was a real hurdle. What in the historical record to believe or disbelieve--and if true -fully or partly? If not true, why not? Often an incident or a contemporary's statement appeared once, without corroboration, so how do I know it really happened or was really said? One has to get a feel for the characters--did it sound right? Does it match what you, the author, understand of this person, this situation, people in general, situations similar to that. So one makes choices what to believe and, with all the cutting I talked about, what to leave in. The author chooses which characters will drive the history, or tell it.

    oh, yes, and when to stop digging. When is enough enough? As I indicated, I had a kitchen sink draft: big, bloated, just too many words wallowing around in the mud. So I had enough facts, and it was time to edit--harder than writing!

    The other hurdle was keeping the reader with me. It is a dense story with more characters than I would like. But many people played a part, and I wanted that breadth of experiences to come through. So how to keep it interesting? How to make it dramatic? There is always drama in conflict, but how to build it? How to introduce tension and maintain it? the facts were what they were (once I established which available ones mattered), so it was a matter of introducing the competing elements in the right order. I;ve never written fiction, but have read enough history to know that the best history reads like fiction. In one sense, it can be better if you can get the reader to agree, "You couldn't make this stuff up."

    Morgan is right, you have to get it just right, but then, in her or his own way, so does the novelist. At some point you have to believe "I can do this," and, something different, believe "I have done this thing."

    Helen -- thanks for this opportunity to talk about one of my life's great experiences. Paul

  6. I am always in awe of authors who undertake the arduous task of all the research and organization it takes to write historical books. Hats off to you, Paul - and it sounds like a GREAT read - very complex and full of intrigue. Great interview, both of you, I learned a lot from Paul's description of his writing and shaping his book process.

  7. Velda Brotherton9/10/2008 4:19 PM

    Goodness, what a huge task, but it sounds like you whittled it down to size and a good book without going insane in the process.
    Interesting to read how organized you were in the doing.

  8. I'd love to read a post filled with online research tips. What kinds of search engines did you use, and what tricks did you learn to wade through the layers of information? There's so much online exploring that can be done... you can really get lost, can't you?

    Fascinating interview. Thanks.


  9. Thank you to Paul Cool for sharing such interesting and valuable information. I agree with everyone who was fascinated by the research and care you took in working on this book.

  10. Sorry I'm coming to this when the conversation is almost over, but I was gone most of the day. But I really enjoyed reading this.

    Very interesting blog. I will have to tell my son at the Austin Library about this book. He is a history buff, so it will appeal to him.

  11. You're always welcome to the discussion MaryAnn!

  12. I'm going to recommend this to my ex, who is a huge history buff and will no doubt love this book!


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