Monday, March 03, 2008

Tips on Writing Military Fiction by William Hay

Get to know your local library.

Research is key in writing fiction about the military. As you read on, the underlying notion in my list of tips is: research and more research. This is not a new notion for writers. Most ideas and plots tend to come from some personal experience or something we’ve watched or heard which has intrigued us so much a story emerges. When writing fiction about the military, particularly if you had no personal experience to dip into, and that would include pretty much all of us when the story takes on an historical venue, get used to research and become comfortable at your local library.

While writing or preparing to write my Historical Fiction, all of which have been about military conflict, I’ve utilized the Canadian War Museum’s website and searched the catalogues for books and/or documents. Anything was up for loan through my local library. It’s remarkable what you can find if you spend time search the resources your own nation offers via their Archives or other government agencies. Bureaucracy can be a wonderful thing if you let it work for you!

Know something about the military before writing about it.

Ever watch a television show or movie which involves subject matter to which you have thorough knowledge and say: “They’d never do that!” or “That’s not how it happens!” As a former police officer with sixteen years experience, five of which were in Crime Scene Investigation (yes, ‘CSI’), it happens to me ALL THE TIME!

The same problem persists in military fiction. If you’re writing about the military you have to get to know it. The best writers of military fiction are previous military personnel, because there’s a jargon; an additude among military men and women which is difficult to reproduce unless you’ve been part of it.

Few Hollywood movies have got it right, with the exception of a few, ‘Platoon’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan’ would be among them. In both cases the actors had to take several weeks of training and lived as a soldier for a time. This is hardly an option for most of us, so research is best. When in doubt, ask questions from military people; they are more than happy to steer you in the right direction.

Become intimate with the era you’re story takes place.

It’s not enough to grab a book or two about the Boer War; the American Civil War; the War of 1812 or what ever time period you’re novel takes place. As a writer, you need to look beyond the immediate subject and get to know the time in history it took place. You must get to know the era of which you are writing intimately. How did they talk; what kind of tobacco did they smoke; was beer the drink of choice or was whiskey?

I guarantee writers about the American Civil War are thoroughly versed on the era, as there is such a wealth of material on the subject and a steady flow of fiction writers on the horizon. This aspect of the subject is very important because adding small tidbits of information throughout your story, enriches it and aids you in developing your characters. Without the small historical details, your story will be like a shell of a building, without colour or decorations.

Research the weapons of the period.

This might seem a ‘no-brainer’, but remarkably, I’ve come across novels which fail to meet this all important criteria. Just as you spend time developing the story with your detailed knowledge of the era you’re writing about, as a military novel, you must also obtain proficient knowledge of the weapons of war being used by your characters.

To use a modern example, anyone of you unfortunate enough to have seen ‘Rambo’, (the original), will recall the last scene where Stallone acts dead in the pilot’s seat of the helicopter he and his freed captives are in. When the ‘bad guy’, lands his own helicopter to check out his kill, Stallone suddenly sits up and fires a bazooka at his enemy. This might not be a problem for some viewers, but for us military types, we expected to see the men behind him cooked, not to mention the rear of the helicopter blown away. A bazooka has a substantial blow-back radius with explosive consequences for anything and anyone behind it. Instead he turns and smiles at the men sitting in this blast radius, in perfect health incidentally and flies away in what should have been a crippled helicopter. By not doing your homework, such mistakes can ruin a story, (not that ‘Rambo’ needed much help).

As writers we see things visually and have been adulterated by what we’ve watched on movies or television, which, I hate to say, has perverted science in so many ways for the sake of eye-candy. It is for this reason, getting to know historic weapons can be an arduous task. For example, a building hit by a cannon ball, does not explode which I’ve often observed on depicted; cannon balls are solid metal and generally smash their targets. There are weapons from the eighteenth and early nineteenth century that do explode, but they could be unreliable and often very dangerous to use.

Use personal accounts as a starting point.

History tells us one thing about people: we don’t learn from our previous mistakes. Our politicians and generals prove this fact constantly. While writing military fiction, historical or not, search out publications or biographies detailing personal accounts from soldiers or persons in the war or military action you’re writing about.

While writing ‘The Originals’, a novel about Canadians in the First World War, I tapped into the wealth of personal accounts available to help me paint, in graphic detail, the scene of the battles the soldiers faced in Belgium and France. As a writer, I imagine my stories as a movie and make every attempt to describe the scene visually. There is a danger for an author if you only have modern movies and television as an example of military conflict. The best method of leaning what it’s like in an artillery barrage, perhaps on a warship during a sea battle or flying a bombing mission somewhere of Europe, is from those who actually did it.

They can be an excellent resource, because you will often find more from personal accounts than just description of battles. I find myself relying heavily on them to learn about the era, the additude of the soldiers and their officers. These accounts offer a window of this world your novel depicts the official reports are unable to provide. All of which you can use to further enrich the details of your novel.

Should you be true to reality or your story?

As writers we have to make a decision whether we are to be true to the story we are writing or to the reality of the subject matter the story is about. My friends and family can’t understand why I’ve not written crime fiction; given my past experience as a Police Officer and a Crime Scene Investigator. One such person is a friend of mine who is also an aspiring author of crime novels. He called me up one day and asked if I could review one such novel for technical accuracy. He asked questions like: “Can this happen?” or “Is this realistic?” My answer to him was the same I give to everyone who can’t get over why I haven’t dove into Crime writing. That is: “Reality is far less interesting than fiction.” I’ll argue that statement to my grave.

Frankly, I fear writing a crime novel, because I think it’ll stink. It would be a constant struggle for me since I know Police work is 98% boredom and 2% panic. No one wants to read about the boredom, so how do you write a whole novel about 2% of the job? Writing military fiction placed me in a similar quandary because I’m an avid historian and relish telling it, like-it-was. But I’m also a writer and want my novels to be page turners.

The truth is reality can be interesting if you know how to put a spin on it. With ‘The Originals’, I selected actual events which occurred to the Battalion I immediately identified as worthy for any story. Slowly I collected a list of events, in chronological order and used them as some of the high points that the reader experiences through the main character and generally avoided most of the low periods or “boring-stuff”. Have I compromised reality by doing this? No. What I’ve done is found that happy-place between fiction and reality we all strive toward. Each situation will differ, but by careful design, you can remain true to both reality and your story.


Thanks for reading! Take care and I look forward to seeing you in print!



William Hay
www.williamhay.net

14 comments:

Cheryl said...

What a great article! I recently read a book and saw something that the author could not possibly have researched and it irked me to no end. I think this is part of why I haven't attempted historical fiction yet, because I know the amount of research involved and I just don't have the time right now. That said, I love the late 1800's and early 1900's and the Civil War era. I have numerous titles on each and have devoured most of them. So, I see historical fiction in my future--once kids are in school full-time and my other commitments have lessened.

Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us. This book sounds fascinating. Good luck with your virtual book tour!

Cheryl

Trailowner said...

Hi William:

I liked this article on military fiction but I really loved your take on why you do not write CSI fiction. I write spec fiction but have never managed to get going on novels using my years of background in oil exploration for the same reasons. I would have to exaggerate so much I'd feel embarrassed.

On the other hand, my title on Tour this month -- The Wildcat's Victory has an extensive military component when my protagonist is asked to lead a cavalry screening force. My military action is an alternate- world what-if, but I use my reading of 17th century warfare (Churchill's excellent biography of Marlborough mostly), US civil war material for some of the anachronistic weapons I introduce, two pre-WWI British officer field booklets, and my own army experience in the artillery (I trained on the 25pdr and its range tables).

Chris.

William Hay said...

Hello Cheryl,

Thanks for your comments of support. I too am a huge fan of the 17th and 18th centuries, they were such a pivotal period for North America.

I agree, research is defintely the key in writing historical fiction and can be cumbersome at times, especially if you're tying to remain true to events-the hardest part of writing about the genre, in my opinion.

But if you love a period in history and are familiar with it from your own reading and what-have-you, I find writing about it can be less a chore and a cherished experience.

So stir those plots through your mind Cheryl and keep devouring those historical novels. Maybe a short story about the genre could be an outlet?

Good luck and thanks for you kind remarks.

Bill

William Hay said...

Hi Chris,

I've tried and tried to write CSI 'stuff', but it's just not 'there' for me. I even tried to write a novel based on my actual experiences as a Police Officer pushing a cruiser, but again, as you say: "I would have to exaggerate so much I'd feel embarrassed."

What a truly excellent analogy!

One day, perhaps, once the reality of the job has become a distant memory I might give it a go. In the meantime, my love of history has drawn me and it is to that end I shall continue to write until I run out of ideas. History is, after all, a finite resource!

Good Luck on your tour Chris, with 'The Wildcat's Victory'. I am a closet Sci-Fi/Fantasy enthusiast and shall enjoy taking a look at your 'alernate-world'.

Bill

Lynnsplanet said...

Hi William,

I don't write historical fiction, but I do know how important it is to research and maintain accurate information.

I have five contemporary military stories from a different take. I was an Army brat and an Air Force Wife. My stories are about the lives of the radar technicians, detailing controversarial issues some have had to endure and overcome. The research was enormous and so much fun.

The differences among personnel within units and the sexes versus the general persona of the military itself has caused me some grief in various critique groups, but I've had some wonderful military authors come to my rescue and back me up.

A while back, a retired marine approached me and asked me to consider to writing stories from the dependent families viewpoint. Do you have an opinion on this? Would it be welcome in this time or would the families avoid them because they are living it? I know Vicki Heinz wrote a few back in the eighties.

Bekki

William Hay said...

Hello Bekki,

Thanks for your comment and your question. I live in Kingston Ontario, Canada, which has a long history, rich in the military. We have a large military base as well as the Royal Military College located in the city. Many of my friends are in the military, some of which are overseas serving in Afganistan or have been. Therefore, I do indeed have an opinion.

Dependants of military personel would be drawn to a novel about, what would essentially be: themselves. Creating characters which our readers can identify with is what it's all about. A novel about a community of military families waiting for their loved one's return could be enriched with some interesting sub-plots too!

It would be a challenge Bekki, no doubt, but what a truly wonderful project!

Good luck with it!

Bill
www.williamhay.net

Lynnsplanet said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Bill.

It will be a task I can pour my heart into, that's for sure.

Bekki

hawky94 said...

Hi Will, I am a junior writer, I have written stories before in school, and now I am trying to branch out into writing military fiction, having taken an interest in the military, particularly British military, specifically British Special Forces, the SAS. I have taken influence from novelists such as Chris Ryan and Andy McNab, members of Bravo Two Zero. I have read books such as The One that Got Away and am hoping to begin purchasing other books by Chris Ryan, such as Standby, Standby and Zero Option.

Now to get down to business, I have begun to write, that is, I have the idea in my head and the basic story, but this is all in my head, my story centres around an Ex-SAS soldier who's family is murdered by the IRA during the Troubles, his story of revenge, and how his actions affect the Regiment. I need help putting my ideas on paper, that is beginning my story, after I have begun, I am confident that I will be able to create a good story.

Can you offer any advice?

Joseph said...

I am currently serving in the U.S. Army. I have 10 years of active duty service and I love writing. I am currently working on a set of 3 short stories revolving around The American Civil War. I have many questions that will take up this comment box. Is there any way that you could e-mail me so i can ask you personally? My e-mail is joseph.sowers1@gmail.com. Thank you

Michford said...

hi michael from NZ. Is there any hints you can give me for a mix of military and fantasy genre e.g. a military company that is made of people who have powers one of witch they have in common is the gift of becoming a tiger thanks Michael

Anonymous said...

Hey William,

I want to write a military story/novel and i have no idea what i should have happen or what the main idea should be. I was wondering if you could help me out. Im only 16 and i have no experience with the military besides movies or the call of duty video games. If you cpuld give me a few suggestions oor help me it would be deeply appreciated.

Thanks.

Ciara

Anonymous said...

I am beginning to write my account of the Iraq war, as a 3-tour combat veteran. I want to be completely honest and write a 100% factual account of my experiences, but fear repercussions or government prosecution. Should I change directions, and write the story as if it were fiction? I am very interested in getting started, but don't want myself nor my characters to be attacked with legal problems. Please help.

Jon Jernigan

Robert Lofthouse. said...

Good evening, I found this article very interesting and also very true.
I am currently a serving Infanteer in the British Army and have recently finished my manuscript that will hopefully become my debut novel, it is in the hands of my agent right now so fingers crossed.
It is historical fiction based during the Falklands War 1982, and the main character is a young Paratrooper called Archie, who is caught up in the battle for Mount Longdon. Being abit of an anorack for this particular campaign, I like to think it will be a credible read, despite the fact that the characters portrayed are fictional.
All the best to all those who endeavour to write, never shy away from a veteran of a particular action you are researching, they are a font of knowledge, but beware!
If their personal exploits sound too good to be true, they probably are.

Anonymous said...

Hi William,
I am starting to write a military based fiction that is setting upon 2030.It is based on the diary accounts of two fictional sergeants.I dont have any experiance with military except movies and CoD video games .So can you give any tips?.Here is my email id:parameswarsnair@yahoo.com.