James Scott's job as a historical non-fiction author is a lot like his former job as a daily newspaper reporter.
"In journalism, it's about telling the story," he explains. "In doing what I do now, it's also about telling a story, but instead of doing it over 30 inches, you're doing it over 300 pages."
During his time at The Post and Courier, Scott traveled to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Philippines to cover international stories. He also spent plenty of time at the Columbus Street headquarters, working on meaty investigative pieces that earned him the S. C. Press Association's Journalist of the Year Award in 2003.
Still, his new career isn't exactly the same. "There's no police scanner in the background," he laughs. "But it's very rewarding in a lot of other ways."
One major difference: Scott no longer has to deal with the daily demand of work that's required of a daily newspaper reporter, tracking down sources, typing up copy, all in a day's turnaround. Instead, he'll spend years on a project — like his first book, 2010's The Attack on the Liberty: The Untold Story of Israel's Deadly 1967 Assault on a U.S. Spy Ship — before moving on to the next one. Last month, Simon and Schuster released Scott's The War Below: The Story of Three Submarines That Battled Japan, which he'll discuss at the Charleston County Main Library on Wed. June 12. Scott will lead a discussion about the U.S.' underwater campaign in the Pacific at the Main Library, talking about the overall submarine war and showing off some great World War II photography.
"Working for a newspaper is a great primer for doing what I do," he says. "Newspapers really teach you how to write fast. They teach you how to write economically. They really operate under 'less is more,' and they're also used to taking complex things and boiling it down into very simple understandable language."
Although The War Below focuses on three World War II submarines, Silversides, Drum, and Tang, Scott tells a much bigger story about naval warfare. The topic aroused Scott's interest because despite all the violence, it really came down to economics. As Scott explains, at its height, the Japanese empire stretched across 20 million square miles and seven time zones. Its troops needed everything from bullets to toilet paper, and Japan needed ships to get those supplies to where they needed to go. So the United States cut off supply routes with its own submarines, a strategy that was instrumental in the eventual defeat of Japan.
In order to tell such a broad story, Scott wanted to find a handful of submarines with individual experiences that could help illustrate the bigger picture. "[The subs] had these unique stories that were interesting stories to tell and interesting for me to research, but that touched on these types of things that happened for other submarines and that were a big part of the war," Scott says.
Writing these kinds of books takes a lot of research — Scott even calls it a historical scavenger hunt. "I go and I spend time in the National Archives," he says. "I go through hundreds, thousands of pages of documents. I have to go hunt down people, do interviews." Doing so takes a lot of self-discipline, and a big challenge is picking a subject that can keep him interested through the 100,000 to 150,000 words he'll eventually need to write.
"You have to look at every chapter almost like an individual story, so if you break it down that way, it's much easier to navigate your way through it," Scott says. One day, he's tackling an appendectomy performed on a submarine. The next, his focus has shifted to a sunken ship full of American POWs.
"It's kind of like running a marathon — it's 26 miles but you complete it one mile at a time," he adds.
Scott hopes to finish up a third book, about America's "Doolittle raid" of Tokyo in retaliation for Pearl Harbor, this summer. Then he'll start work on a degree from the Charleston School of Law. It's a back-up plan, in case his book career doesn't work out. Until then, he's hunting his way through notes and research on another part of World War II history, using his journalism skills to condense all of his collected information into another 300-page volume.
"I operate under the idea that less is more," he says. "Every time I read a book, I know if I'm done and left wanting more versus finishing a book and saying, yeah, that was 30 percent too long. I always think it's better to leave people wanting more than finding that they're stuffed."