Military Fiction

Margaret Note Spelling

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So, short of actually joining the military, what's the next best thing I can do in order to deeply understand the military culture/way things work/attitudes enough to reproduce it extremely accurately and confidently in my book? I mean the US military, primarily; and not specific to a service, either, since I anticipate writing about multiple ones.

For that matter, is it even possible to write an accurate portrayal of military life from research alone?

The main problem I'm running into right now, I think, is simply not knowing the right questions to ask. I do know a lot of basic details, at this point probably more than the average civilian (I have an ex-military family member) but again, knowing the right questions to ask is the key thing and I know there have to be a lot of things I'm taking for granted which just aren't the case. I've roamed Quora at length for a few things and there are always "related questions" which surprise me because I never thought about them at all.

Anything, any method of research, you can suggest would be a great help! My goal is to understand as much about normal military life--not the exciting stuff, just the everyday functioning--in multiple services as you can without actually living it. Not just the details but the spirit of it, the things they take for granted, the random expected norms.

How can I best do that?
 
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Brian G Turner

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Lee Child writes about a military policeman who has left the US army, but sometimes gets involved with it. He's mentioned in one or more interviews how he was concerned about how real some military readers will find his depictions, but apparently the feedback is that if it doesn't happen in their unit, it doesn't mean to say it doesn't happen in other units. :)

Aside from that, I can only advise reading military thrillers written by military people. :)
 

-K2-

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IMO, it will be difficult without a few/more better advisers you can bounce ideas off of. What I'd keep foremost in the front of your mind, is how though conditioned to fall back on training, obey superiors, and fight for your nation...in the end it boils down to the men in a platoon>squad>person next to you, fighting for each other. The big picture gets lost and is really inconsequential during a battle while trying to survive. So, you focus all your passion toward fighting for those close to you. In kind they do the same (hopefully), and in the end you all might survive.

IOW, everything becomes very small and personal. The moment, the enemy right in front of you, your compatriots to your sides. Always forward--together--stop together, flank together, withdraw together. Officers have the luxury and MUST consider the much bigger picture. NCO's their men and the singular objective. The men, each other, nothing else.

K2
 

sknox

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A few comments here. First, realize there is no such thing as a universal experience. An individual's experience is going to vary depending on the type of service, their gender and race, their own personality traits, and dumb luck. Some may experience combat while others experience little outside an office. You might consider assigning specific roles to your characters and doing a deep dive for that particular kind of experience. I have one nephew who was a guard at airfields, while another was a SEAL. Very different experiences.

So that's one consideration; here's another. I'm a historian. We write about stuff we've never experienced all the time. We do this by doing extensive research, both in the primary sources and by reading what other historians have written. I can't tell you what was the "typical" experience of a medieval peasant, but I can tell you a good deal about specifics. You're looking for details you can use as a novelist. And no, you don't have to experience it to write about it. Think of John Keegan's "The Face of Battle" for example.

Third, find some specialist readers. Ideally, you can find ones specific to your characters. So, if one of your characters works in military transport, driving trucks, look for someone with that sort of background. Another is a pilot, maybe another works in cryptography. Do your best to find readers with those backgrounds. Failing that, at least find military people to be your beta readers. Make sure you give them specific questions.

Finally, read. Read other writers of military fiction, of all sorts. There's a *huge* literature there and some really fine writing. Be prepared to have your sould shaken up more than once, but there's some really memorable stuff there. Look not only for fiction but fact as well. Military types can be very, um, detailed. <g>
 

The Big Peat

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I think it's possible, although I've always been nervous as f*ck about the prospect of doing a military based book and having some of my old OTC buddies (ROTC for Americans) look me up one day after reading it and go "Mate, what were you smoking?" It mightn't be completely realistic, but what is? You can go onto youtube and find X Profession reacting to Y show and how this is different and that's different - a little service to the story is part and parcel. And it's not uniform anyway. My experience dealing with the cheerful ex-squaddie on the coach who missed it like mad is different to my experience dealing with the guy who whispered "don't do it" to me through the train seats after hearing me talking about joining is different to dealing with our drill instructors is different to talking to some RE guy who'd been out in Helmand and talking about setting up power lines with not even a full clip in his rifle if anyone came and who admitted to not really respecting any officers is different to my mate who did a gap year with the Paras and the main thing he had to talk about was how he'd taken gay chicken to the point he'd sucked off three blokes (dunno whether I believe it, but...) is different to the psychotic guy who was allegedly ex-SAS and had been busted down twice who told me I had to buy him a pint after I knocked over somebody else's drink and then suddenly backed down telling me maybe I would do as an officer after all. (I didn't test it. Awful medical record). That might be one of the biggest things about getting it right. People's experiences are very different. I once talked to a US vet about coming home and he'd never been near a war zone. Conversely, my BSM in the OTC wouldn't shut up until you made him think about the graves in Bosnia.

But in any case, do your research and see. Personally I found Generation Kill a really good read. Marlantes What it is like to go to war is really good, but pretty after the fact. There's no shortage of military memoirs out there, read enough and it starts to come together. If you feel happy after doing your research, go for it. If you don't... don't.
 

CupofJoe

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An ex-military friend thought the British TV comedy Bluestone 42 got the absurdity, humour and boredom of military life right. All interspersed with just a few moments of abject fright and danger. I thought it was funny.
 

JohnM

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Authentic military fiction, regardless of service branch, needs to be universal. Sure, you can invent some situations that are particular to the characters in a story but the reader must get an authentic, typical military. If possible, talk to some veterans. If not, find some good biographies. Research involves a lot of reading, and I'm not talking about the internet. After a while, what the typical soldier, sailor and tank crew goes through becomes more and more fleshed out. There really is no quick, easy way to absorb all of the detail and then to distill it down to the typical.

When I edit a fiction book that involves military equipment and soldiers, I really need to understand what is going on. It has to not only feel right but be as accurate as possible. Tom Clancy gets praise for accuracy and his ability to engage readers.
 

reiver33

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First-hand accounts, as opposed to official military histories, can be useful, as long as you remember to apply the appropriate 'bullsh*t filter'. the basic problems facing those in the front line don't change that much, regardless of era, theater of war, or weaponry.
 

Joshua Jones

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Well, if you have specific questions, I may be able to help a little. I grew up in a military family and elder brother spent 10 years in the Army, so I know a bit about it, or at least know someone I can ask.

If you're looking for broad aspects, the above suggestions are all excellent. In addition, I would encourage looking into materials which are created for military members, preferably by military members. Take this article for example of how soldiers (which is a term only applied to Army members in the States, never Marines!) make fun of the unit patches of other soldiers (and, truth be told, that whole site is really useful to pick up on subtle bits of culture if you look close enough). You can pick up alot here on the sort of humor frequently used, the fact that each unit has their own patch and many of them may seem outdated or obscure, and that soldiers are expected to memorize the backstory of their patches.

Fair warning, though. The site I linked censors profanity, but profanity and sexually explicit language are pretty common.
 

sknox

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One thing I noticed in a good deal of personal experience accounts is the level of sarcasm, cynicism, and skepticism. Some of it is good-natured, some resigned, some bitter. At the more good-natured end I recall Robert Heinlein in Glory Road talking about the divisions of the military being the Surprise Party Department, the Fun and Games Department, and one other that slips memory just now. At the other end would come the tone in The Naked and the Dead or From Here to Eternity. And those are from WWII; I should think more recent works might be even bleaker. But lest you think this is new, I refer you to most any translation of Simplicissimus by Grimelshausen, which dates to the 17th century.

Anyway, as my ancient history professor taught me long ago, the military of any society is a reflection of that society, so you're going to find every tone and every variation imaginable. As the sage once said: it doesn't take all kinds to make a world, we just have all kinds. To which I'll add, and we have all kinds in the military.
 

Margaret Note Spelling

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Thanks, guys! That's all really helpful. And military memiors have actually been some of my favorite type of non-fiction for a while, which might have something to do with why I'm interested in writing military fiction now.

@Joshua Jones Yeah, I've seen some parts of that website! It's been pretty useful already, although I haven't dived into it extensively yet. I will now. And thanks for the heads-up on profanity, too--although given that what I'm researching is the military, I suspect I can't let that sort of thing deter me from an information source quite as much as I would like to, or I'll never learn anything. :giggle: (There's a reason "swearing like a sailor" is a common phrase!)

I'm probably showing an embarrassing cultural illiteracy, but what movie is that picture from?
 
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Phyrebrat

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My ex was a chief petty officer on subs and was in the Falklands etc. He always used to say how movies get it wrong because they think everything is so army-ish.

He said the biggest thing is that the people become institutionalised in terms of how they do their washing, planning, food, sleep, etc etc. But he said movies always want to make an armed forces retiree have issues with anger or making them a tough dude who has to go into something like hitman etc.

Mind you he helped write the software for the tomahawk missile with Siemens so he ended up in communications when he retired in 97.

Point is, I met all his mates and colleagues and they were all just regular folk with the same morals but different experiences.

with Danny on this, make it up.

pH
 

JohnM

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"Make it up" is fine for small, I'll do what I want publishers. This doesn't work for those who want mass market exposure, Do the research. 90% of any good fiction book is research. Where I work, we have an in-house library with hundreds of books that were used to add authenticity to fictional stories.
 

Susan Boulton

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For that matter, is it even possible to write an accurate portrayal of military life from research alone?
I hope so. I think I made a fair shot of it in my book "Hand of Glory," which was partly set on the Western front in 1917. All I had was written accounts, historical books/ family history etc. I was just a matter of getting my head down and doing the research.

One thing to remember is that if it is a novel, research is necessary, it is hard work and at times boring, but you will only use maybe 10% of what you research. For a short story you only need a flavour of it to give the reader an impression of the background. Also you are filtering the life through the emotions and opinions of your characters, don't get bogged down in dry facts.

Also chose the time period you are researching carefully. Though many aspects of army life are the same though the years, certain things are very different. Also remember if it is fiction and you are just using the military as a basis for your own army I suggest you look at how other writers do it. John Scalzi's Old Man's War is a good example, he uses the US army as a base for his futuristic army.
 

Capricorn42

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I would agree with pretty much all of the above. I can only add that I can recommend Derek Robinson's novels of the RFC and RAF in combat, as they are meticulously researched and effortlessly flip from bawdy comedy (as you would expect from bored, terrified, frustrated young men) to up close accounts of combat and death. He also, somehow, never lets the technical detail get in the way of the story, but instead uses it to add extra depth. For instance, the RAF fighters at the start of WW2 were deficient in various ways. Robinson uses these faults to help illustrate the general air of panic and uncertainty and creeping dread.
 
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