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!