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Writing Military History—Fiction Edition
There are easier ways to make a living...
Like using the keys below; only I can see who you are.
I believe we write because we not only have something to say, but we also want to torture ourselves by reading what we write repeatedly. Books, articles, blog/Substack posts, short stories…all of them are gone over again and again until they are completely unintelligible or the writer cries “enough” and sends it on its way.
The reason a writer writes a book is to forget a book, and the reason a reader reads one is to remember it.
This is true of fiction and non-fiction, but it is especially true of fiction, because the way fiction starts is a writer gets a story in the head…and it sits there, knocking…knocking on your head. It wakes you up at night; keeps you awake other nights.
Yet it defies writing…until…
One day, when you thought you’d forgotten all about it, it comes back to you fully formed, with a middle and an end and, if you’re lucky, a beginning…of sorts. Now, you think, I can start to get this thing down, get it out of my head. You only think so…
To get history right ... starting from when, exactly, and in what depth?
Let’s say that your story idea involves two pilots on opposing sides. Now, we’re getting somewhere…but your story could happen in several periods. Now, decide when the market would like to see this story take place. This could be tricky, because markets are fickle. Yes, it’s business research, but you are in business if you want to make money on your story. So, you do that little mundane chore, then you scratch out an outline, maybe even a climactic scene or two…but…
Written when, by whom?
Now, having decided what the market wants to see and you have some material…what’s the point of view and how is the story told? You’ve got lots of choices. The most common is third-person omniscient, where the narrative emanates from an all-knowing observer who can see what the characters see and can also read minds. A subset is third-person limited, where the observer/narrator tells only what the main characters can see/hear. And, there’s first-person, where the story is told by one or more characters in their own voice. We won’t talk about second-person. I’ve tried it; it’s hard…
Recorded (literally) when, and by whom?
Even deciding the point of view isn’t limited to the most common choices. There’s the epistolic style that I’ve tried in a short story, where the story is told by a series of communications. There’s the quasi-memoir style that I’ve seen in older works, but not well. And there’s the “Dear Diary” style which is a little of both that I’m trying now. If an omniscient observer picks up a bundle of letters or a diary that tells a story, when do you tell the reader that’s how this story’s told?
We view the value through the lens of “Who do you trust?”
There’s a degree of trust that the reader has to have in the writer to not switch points of view in mid-stream, or to leave gaping story holes, or not to just stop writing like Gertrude Stein’s infamous “later he caught the consumption and died” in Three Lives. The able writer has to finish the important elements of the story in some reasonable fashion, finding ends for the main characters.
Did they get it all, or just the bits important to them, to support a narrative, prove a point?
While all this is important in fiction, in military historical fiction, it’s just that much more stuff to concern the writer as he endeavors to get the facts more or less right. Once the story pattern is stable—the bit where this event follows that one and this character shows up here, not there, because the story works better or works at all—the technical details sometimes get in the way.
What kind of truck is in this period?
When were the first bulldozers used in warfare?
Where do war dogs originate?
Could B-17s really fly on two engines?
When did the expression “OK” first appear anywhere?
When could married women serve in the US Army?
If law enforcement were to look at my internet search history, I’d be in jail. I’ve had to research all these, and much more of a military and non-military nature, for military fiction and nonfiction, because nothing is quite so frustrating as seeing something that obviously shouldn’t be there in a story. Finding out how short a female character’s skirt might be in 1918 Paris was hard work; figuring out what her hat looked like was easier. In movies, it’s bad enough when it’s wrong…
Then there’s the duplicate story problem…
You’re rattling along, minding your own business. You’ve published your story; some like it; some don’t. Then someone comes along and says, “I liked the original better.”
I wrote a story that in part sort of sounds like an actual event that was published in a book written and published after I had started my book, though before I published it. It was too late to acknowledge a story I’d never heard of before, so I have to endure this kind of derision.
Which highlights the big decisions: real or fake?
It’s fiction, yes, but do you base this fiction on real people, just making up dialogue but having actual persons act in their own story with actual events? The hazard to that approach is that real people often have descendents or ardent fans or both. You have to get permission from descendents, sometimes, and it may not be forthcoming. You may never get the approval of fans, sinking your story early. The events you’re depicting: Real or not? Depicting actual battles or campaigns is OK, but it's challenging to fabricate events when the existing ones are thoroughly documented. Are you complicating history or complementing it? The units: same questions, same complications on steroids. Some units in some periods are so well documented there’s no room to stick in an extra person, let alone a fictional commander or a unit.
Lots of decisions to make, research to do.
In one sense, historical fiction, military or not, is harder than nonfiction, but in nonfiction you have endnotes and sources. In fiction, you can avoid that, but you have to do just as much work to make it sound right. At the beginning of this essay I said there are easier ways to make a living, and I quoted Tom Wolfe about why writers write. There’s a lot of manic to the craft, but there’s no more satisfying feeling than to finish another story, fiction or not.
Crop Duster depicts two fictional characters in fictional units fighting in actual battles in airplane types that really existed. It would have been a great deal harder, believe it or not, to make up the events that they take part in. Though A Higher Call by Adam Makos and Larry Alexander is non-fiction, they published it just before I published Crop Duster, despite the market research I did…because I was looking for fiction like it…
The two main characters are based on composites of different men I never met, but did a great deal of research on. Their aircraft, their situations, their responses to those situations all happened between 1939 and 1943…if to different people at different times and places. In that way, they are composites of real people and events.
Worth noting…it took me twenty-five years off-and-on to write.
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On 7 October:
1571: Naval forces of the Holy League, Spain, and the Ottoman Empire clashed off Lepanto in the Gulf of Patras in western Greece. It ended in a Holy League victory that stagnated Ottoman expansion in the Mediterranean, but also left the western half in European hands. Notable participants included Don John of Austria (yes, there was a real one) and Miguel de Cervantes, who wrote Don Quijote.
1871: The Great Fires of 1871 began almost simultaneously in Chicago, Peshtigo, Wisconsin, Holland and Manistee, Michigan. After several months of drought, both the tinder-dry cities and the lumber towns were ripe for burning. While the Chicago fire is best known, the other three destroyed more area and killed more people—over 4,000 by some accounts. The Spooner/Baudette fire of 1910 in Minnesota, ironically, started the same day.
And today is NATIONAL INNER BEAUTY DAY. Meant to celebrate the inner beauty of everyone, I adore the inner beauty of all my beautiful children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren…and, of course, of the rest of my family.