0. Why Are You Writing This?
I. How and What to Research (Building Armies, Building Battlegrounds, & How to Select Good Information)
II. Creating Realistic Soldiers (A start to finish tip sheet on how to make your soldier a complete person, with 3 writing assignments)
III. Creating a Narrative (Painting war as a background, Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey, Vulgarity in War *NEW*)
IV. What Not to Write (How to avoid Plot Killers, Pace Killers *NEW*, Writing a Text Book, and Soldier Sues)
V. The Politics of your War Story (Polemics & Writing Wars of the Modern Day) *NEW*
VI. You Will Be Criticized (What to Expect, Strategies Towards Coping) *NEW*
A note before I begin: I will be using the word ‘army’ but certainly everything I go over is applicable to any branch of the armed services. Also this is geared mostly towards historical fiction, thus ‘he’ is used for the character but again, any of these tips apply to women, and also apply to modern, science fiction, or fantasy settings.
0. Prologue: Why are you writing this?
So, you’re writing a war story. Maybe it’s a real life, real war story based on family history, or something that interests you. Maybe it’s fantasy or sci-fi and set in another world completely apart from our own. But no matter where it’s set or when or who your characters are, the biggest question you need to answer is this: Why are you writing a war?
It’s a fair question to ask. If you really want to have a realistic story, you want to have a realistic perspective on what war is and why it comes about, as well as why you want it in your story. The war must be necessary to your story, not ancillary, and it must be, above all else, true. War is never, ever something to take lightly, and it is never, ever something fun.
This is not going to be a tutorial on writing fight scenes, nor is it going to talk about anything at all like a video game. I’m writing this for one reason and one reason only: to help you make true to life stories about the worst thing that humans ever do to each other.
I. How to do Research
Over the course of my amateur historian’s career I find that this is simultaneously the most boring and most horrifying part of the entire war-story process, only because research can be mean hours and hours of tedium, but it is also frequently punctuated by very gruesome things. In my opinion, if you’re doing this part right, you’re going to find things that disturb you. It might take hours of pouring over battle maps and weapons specs to find that one picture that jumps out and turns your stomach, but it will happen. Just be prepared for it.
Everyone knows how to research to some degree, but not necessarily what to research and when it comes to wars. There’s such a breadth of information available that it can become overwhelming to even think about where to dig in. So let us begin by listing key basics you will want to have a notebook filled with before you start your story: (note that if you are writing fantasy or sci-fi you’ll get the fun/headache of writing all this from scratch yourself!)
1. Basics of the War/Your Army: When did it happen? Where did it happen? Know the factors leading to it, key players of it, and what the results of it were.
Then specifically, you want to know where your army participated. This one can turn out to be hard if you are doing anything that pre-dates the turn of the 20th century, but it’s necessary. It doesn’t do well to put your characters in places they could not have been. Please make a note here: Army structure differs a lot from time period to time period and country to country. Do not use a ‘popular’ military structure (ie, modern American), as a template for your entire army. Please, please look up the specifics.
However, that being said, for infantries you can generally rely on this across the boards for structure: (and thanks to *tuomaskoivurinne for putting it so succinctly)
Individual - Squad - (Half-Platoon) - Platoon - Company - Battalion - Regiment - (Brigade) - Division - Army Corps – Army
Usually (and I emphasize usually), the Company is the basic "unit" for the fighting man.
His Squad is where his mates are.
His Platoon is like a big family and they have a job to do.
His Company has an objective and he knows a guy from another Company.
He has heard about this one guy in another Battalion who did something.
2. Daily Routine for Soldiers: With modern wars, there is a lot of documentation on this. I will get into this concept more later, but it’s a huge misnomer to think that war is mostly combat. It isn’t, it’s mostly really boring because it involves a lot of waiting, and a lot of drills. So figure out what your specific people did on their time off.
3. Crime & Punishment: You can go light on this unless you really think someone is going get in trouble, but you should know what general ‘light punishment’ is for missing duty/being a sassmouth/etc is versus “you really effed this up and now you’re gonna get it.” Even if you don’t think someone is going to get in trouble, officers do love to threaten people with anything from extra KP to Field Punishment Number 1.
We will explore this more later, under ‘vulgarity’ in part two, but also do not try to modernize punishments in historical contexts. Maybe now a drill sergeant can’t touch a cadet, but they sure as hell could in 1918.
4. Know the major battles, the basic tactics, and the results of these. And that means all. Soldiers will talk about battles even if they were not in them, and major battles, even if they are far away, often have bearings on the smaller ones. Successful tactics that were new in one battle will come around and show up again in the next. So be aware of when things happen and what develops as a result of them.
5. Know what kind of communications service was available. During WWI for instance, there wasn’t even much in the way of commercial radio, but some companies had one to use for war time purposes. Especially if you are writing a home-front story, you should know who is in charge of media flow. Even if in WWII people had radios and newspapers, they were usually censored before being released, and there was no Wikileaks out there to tell anyone otherwise.
6. Understand the basic workings of hospitals, both field and behind the lines – this means learning what medical technology was available as well, which can actually be pretty interesting, or pretty heart wrenching. You should be aware if there are any diseases on the loose at the time period and what areas they are affecting.
7. Get to know what kind of transport systems were in place, and their frequency in the field.
8. Slang: As far as slang, I don’t feel there is any need to look up a slang list and use it as a thesaurus; this almost always sounds stilted. My advice instead is just to read books and letters from the time period and you’ll get a good idea of what people sounded like. Read from multiple sources, and you’ll start to see patterns forming of how people spoke. Newspapers and radio casts are great if they were available for your chosen time and place.
What to read: Primary sources, biographies, letters, period fiction. If you’re going to read anything written by a second party or a text book check the references first. Know the bias of the information the intention of the person writing it. War tends to breed politics and opinion by outside sources, neither of which truly belong in a war novel unless the book is specifically about those two things. So just be careful, know the facts, form your own opinion, and then report the truth as you see it from all sides. (more on this in part five).
II. Creating a Soldier
Soldiers are people. Soldiers are not robots. They are going to act at times somewhat exaggerated because they’re in extreme circumstances, and trauma either brings out the best or the worst in us. But they’re not Rambo and they’re not the Terminator and they’re generally not insane, trench-knife wielding psychopaths, either.
Ever notice that people are one way when they’re single and then can drastically change when with a significant other, especially if that S.O. is present in the room? Each person has 1,000 aspects, and generally they will reserve a handful apiece for certain atmospheres. You’re not the same with your family as you are with your friends. The big thing is to create the base ‘self’ and the ‘military self’. How are they different? What is across the boards and what do they hide from each side of their life?
1. First let’s start with home and early years. Think of your character. Who were their parents? Were any family members in the military? Does their family value the military? Were they raised city or country, working class or upper class? Do they have a university education? What are their social and political values? Their hobbies? Their religion? Please remember your time period and what values your average person might have. I will use the example of World War One because that’s I’m most familiar with. It’s unlikely I’m going to have a black character with a lot of white friends, or a gay character with a lot of loving, encouraging supporters of his lifestyle during this time period. It’s terrible, but it’s true.
Your assignment at this point is to write down a summary of this character from before he became a soldier. Do it as a piece of flash fiction or just a character study. To do this you might want to be aware of the politics of the time period, know who your character votes for in political elections, and if he (or she) is under any peer pressure from his community to believe a certain way. Keep this sheet. Refer to it later. It will all be important, I assure you.
2. Now on to their military life. What was their reason for joining? Was it money, prestige, pressure from others, or maybe conscription? How does this person react to authority? Did they join before the war? If so, did they expect a war? What are their prior weapons experiences? Then, figure out their outlook on death, killing, and how does religion fit into it for them?
Also, what part of the army are they in? They could be regular infantry, maybe medical, engineer, administration, etc. They will have wildly different experiences in combat depending on where the army ends up placing them.
Once you have the split-self established, you get to see how this character interacts in each environment. Do yourself a favor, write two shorts, 500words minimum; one with your character(or characters) at home, away from the military but after their commission/enlistment. Figure out what they are hiding from their civilian friends and family. Figure out what they’re letting show. Then write a second short of your character(s) in the field or if they have not deployed, on base. How are they different? What do they do that they wouldn’t talk about or do at home? Anything they’re deliberately hiding? If you have several military characters that are close, you might want to explore how their relationship is different in each setting.
3. Now let’s talk about the very difficult part of writing war and soldiers: aftermath and trauma. Here is the toughest part of the whole journey. This is really where you need to be reading first hand accounts of the soldiers themselves that served in your war as well as those of doctors, family members, policemen, etc who saw them after the whole thing was done. People react to trauma in different ways. The best I can say about this is that the human psyche is a very fragile but resilient animal; it can be broken but it also can grow back, even on its own. Humans are survivors, and they can survivor much more than they think they can. But everyone has a breaking point.
You will need to decide who is going to survive your story, and you’re going to need to stick to it. Remember that surviving is an arguable term, as well. Shrapnel isn’t the only thing out there than can hurt a person, and even someone with all limbs intact can still come back a walking dead man.
Something I have encountered over my life, which has been liberally peppered by veterans, is that there is always a divide when a soldier returns home from combat, where he or she no longer feels fully attached to the mundane world. This can be subtle, it can be very apparent, and it can fade, or it can become insurmountable. It all usually depended on what had happened to that person, what they were like prior to the traumatic event, and what kind of support system they had to return to.
Remember that not all soldiers have someone to return to.
4. Vulgarity in War
The simplest way to put this: Vulgarity happens in history. Soldiers swear. Ugly, nasty things can happen between the men. Depending on your time period, racism is probably present. Rape might be present. Don’t shy away from these things because they are horrible to us now.
The biggest issues I see with people who do historical Mil Fic is that they feel ashamed to research or show what really may have happened in a given time period. There are a lot of very terrible subjects that become intrinsically tied to war, and sometimes it’s important to know they are there, even if you don’t care to show them.
Remember that throughout most of history: Soldiers went to brothels. Prostitutes had abortions. There was segregation of all kinds of people for their skin color. Until more or less the 20th century, homosexuality was a crime that warranted imprisonment and sometimes death, especially in a military setting. Men suffered psychological breaks, so war involves a lot of deviance, mental illness, and strange acts that people in normal circumstances might not commit. Rape was often common. Field punishments and circumventing the law happened, too. These are things that really cannot be avoided in a war, even if the war is set in a fantasy world.
Why does it happen? Because when people are angry or scared they want vengeance, they need comfort, and often times they are so broken or so wound up that they’ll seek it in self-destructive or harmful ways without meaning to. And some people didn’t seek it, some controlled themselves, thus, realizing the vulgarity of the war, of the time period, is not always negative, but sometimes a testament to those people who suffered from it, with it, or rose above it. Sometimes it’s simply an explanation of why a good man can do a bad thing.
But you really shouldn’t ignore it, no matter how frightening or politically charged it might get (more on that in Section V).
Likewise, do not make vulgar what was not vulgar at the time; this mostly means do not demonize the enemy using hindsight. I can tell you now from the amount I’ve read that there were no ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ in a trench, just guys, all hungry, all tired, all surviving.
Be true, be true, be true. That’s the mantra to repeat.
III. The Narrative
1. The War is the Backdrop
The number one thing error I see in most military based fiction I read is that people often try to use the events of the war as the plot. It is not a plot. It’s a history. If people wanted to learn that they would look it up on Wikipedia (and I would cry inside. Please see part one about checking sources if you are so inclined to use Wikipedia.) The best war stories I ever read are not about dates and battles and who tactically did what; they are plain old stories, same as any other story, which happens to be set in a war. The war is important, of course, but it is incidental. Your narrative is going to become sharpened and enhanced, and your character brought to extremes because of the war, but you should have character and a plot that lies on top of that.
Example: Boy meets girl. Oldest plot in the book. Look how it changes when one or both are in the war. But it shouldn’t change their inherent development; maybe accelerate it, maybe make it more desperate, maybe it makes them more noble or more monstrous or noble and monstrous in pockets. But it is a plot on its own.
If you really need help thinking of something more specific, try to think of something out of place. War is like travel – things never go as planned. Something outside the plan is going to happen, the madness of the men, a strange sight on the battle field, a letter from home, an incident on leave. Don’t limit yourself, and remember that information coming in from the outside is limited and strange in and of itself. It’s ripe for misinformation and misunderstandings
2. The Hero’s Journey
Joseph Campbell, folklorist and general genius, came up with the idea that all stories are conceptually the same: you have a person who starts out small, and goes on a journey to another world. This can be literal (Narnia) or it can be figurative (say, the war). He will be helped by a certain group of people, fight an enemy, probably fight and destroy part of himself, and then will suffer a real or metaphorical death and rebirth. Then he will return to the world from whence he came. But he always has one foot in the otherworld, one foot in the real world, never to truly fit in either. That pretty much sums up my personal experience with soldiers, especially those that have seen combat.
I think one of the best war stories I’ve read is I Had Seen Castles by Cynthia Rylant. It’s about 95 pages long but it only drops you in the war for about 5 of those. Mostly it is about the development of a young boy from civilian to soldier and how that affects the people in his family and his lovely contentious objector girlfriend. Then we get another 10 pages at the end of how he changed after what he experienced. You start out with total integration to the cause, a few broad but very effective strokes which paint World War II for you, and then you see his lack of integration back into the society he’s come from. The war was always present and permeated everything, but it did a very good job of showing the main character’s transition into the war and out of it again, and an excellent job of how they changed. And while we’re speaking on transitions, this links in nicely to my third narrative point…
3. War is mostly Boring, and Everybody’s Tired
Of course it is also punctuated by short periods of extreme carnage, but most of war is sitting around and waiting, and the waiting is often horrible. Troops in battle do not like having time to think, because when they do they often reflect on what’s happening to them, and also how on earth they’re going to vocalize that metamorphosis in their letters home (often, they don’t). They also don’t like sitting around thinking about what could possibly happen in the future to them, or playing the same game of cards over and over for hours on end. War is a lot of waiting. This is a good place in your narrative to start exploring your character’s own personal Hero’s Journey.
Leave is sometimes awkward because it’s so temporary and soldiers in the middle of a combat tour often have trouble relating to the civilians they meet in town, but you will have to determine the degree of that awkwardness based on the war you’re looking at, the specific rank and corps of your soldier (for instance a supply officer is probably going to do a lot better than an infantry man just off the line, no?), and also the culture of the area they are taking leave in.
In addition, war is flippin’ exhausting. These poor grunts are usually carrying half their bodyweight in supplies like turtles, and marching miles and miles to get to their destinations. They don’t sleep, they eat like crap, and their feet constantly hurt. Add that into the constant waiting for their 30 minutes of Hell and probable death, and you get a pretty good idea of what war is like.
All Quiet On The Western Front is probably hands down the most beautiful, effective, and concise example of both of these points. It handles the downtime of trench warfare with such grace it’s almost painful to read sometimes. I think reading that book twice will teach you more than any tutorial ever will.
IV. The ‘Do Nots’ of War Fiction
1. On Weapons
Do not, please, for the love of all that is good, put weapons specs into your story. Yes you definitely need to know what weapons you soldier is using. If you don’t know the difference between a Mauser and a javelin, as George Carlin puts it, no one will take you seriously. And if you’re going to ever add in any description of a gun, you best well know if it loads from the breech or the muzzle. But, that being said, name dropping and stilted dialogue or narrative detailing the type of weaponry being used kills your flow and it bores the ever loving daylights out of your reader. I will give you an example of why:
In the unabridged version of Victor Hugo’s epic Les Miserables, there is a scene at a barricade where several students (who at this point have attempted to start an uprising), are hiding behind the parapet while the National Guard sprays musketballs and cannon shot over their heads. At this juncture, instead of oh, say, crapping his pants or perhaps praying for his life, Combferre takes it upon himself to give everyone within shouting distance a lecture on the type of cannon being used, a short history of it, its trajectory and how far in meters it’s capable of firing, thus proving it cannot hurt them. Well, Combferre, everyone already knows it can’t reach them, as they haven’t been blown up, and it’s also not realistic at all to take the reader on a two page diatribe about the cannon when the character is in the middle of a combat scene. Remember, if Victor Hugo can’t pull that off, no one can.
2. Beware of Soldier-Sue
Let me tell you what, in my experience, soldiers are:
Soldiers are normal people put sometimes into extreme circumstances. They experience the same things everyone else does, sometimes more intensely, such as going away from home for the first time, appreciating things while you have them, love, hate, fear, etc. Combat vets are mentally worse for the war because of the violence they see, they are often left questioning morality, but they are not often psychopathic as a result. Extreme mental snaps do happen occasionally, but that really isn’t the norm. More than anything else, they are people with whole lives built around them that have nothing to do with the military, and the same loved ones, friends, churches, and hobbies as the rest of us.
So let me tell you what soldiers are not:
- Deranged Sociopaths (I suppose they could be, but again, they were probably a sociopath beforehand). This especially goes for enemy soldiers in combat. The enemy is never a horde of baby-frying, kitten-slitting maniacs that everyone feels ok about killing. They’re people and they believe what they’re doing is right or necessary as much as your character does. Again, please read All Quiet for this point alone.
(The exception to this is, of course, for scifi/fantasy where the enemy really IS a horde of baby-frying, kitten-slitting maniacs.)
- Rambo. Soldiers are you and me and the guy that lives down the street, the baker, whatever. While they are trained professionals who are better at their jobs than the average Joe, they are generally not super-humans who can take down half a platoon on their own in hand to hand combat. There will always be some professional level soldiers, they go on to become special ops guys, but they still are not able to single handedly eliminate a roomful of enemies on their own. And in fact writing this kind of super soldier is in a way a slap in the face to real soldiers who fought and will never live up to the fictional expectation.
- A Dark Knight Who Only Love Can Heal. Seriously, love of a pretty girl or guy does not erase the effects of PTSD. This is the one that personally bothers me a lot, as I have had multiple people in my life who have suffered because of combat experiences, and trust me, love helps, patience can move life along, but there is nothing an outsider can do to completely erase the effects of that level of trauma.
If you would like to know more traps and pitfalls about Soldier Sues, I suggest going to www.tvtropes.org and browsing their selection.
Now. How to avoid Soldier Sue?
- Read memoirs. Talk to real soldiers. I really, really recommend that if you’re serious about writing any kind of military fiction. They can give you a pretty accurate representation of what goes one.
- Also, learn the rules of your military’s time period and ranking system and don’t let your character break those rules without 1. damn good reason and 2. serious consequences happening because of it.
- Conversely, if your soldier is in a position of power, remember that armies work best when they are working together, so your authority figure had better do something to win the love and trust of the men and/or women working under them.
3. How to Lose a Reader in 10 Seconds
There are three ways that I often see a military fiction work lose reader interest faster than you can say hot potato: writing lists of dry, boring weapons or tactics related material with no character interaction (see number 1 of this section), overwrought carnage and destruction, and continual battle scenes. Let’s take a quick look at how to avoid 2 &3.
a. Too Much Blood.
When you’re watching a horror movie, what’s more effective in scaring you: buckets of blood and animatronic monsters bellowing at the screen, or the single shadow on the wall that you can’t quite make out, just beyond the doorway? The most important thing to remember when conveying horror, sadness, or the reality of a situation as devastating as a war, is that less truly is more.
This is because the human imagination is a fear factory. It creates all kinds of scenarios if you give it minimal (but horrible) information, and the suspense, the uncertainty, and the range of terrifying possibilities combine to make whatever is in the reader’s mind far, far worse than if you put all the gory details down on the page. A few well placed adjectives, or a stark line punctuating the end of a paragraph is often more stomach wrenching than a 2 page scene describing how much blood or entrails are lying around on the battlefield.
My suggestion is that if you have this problem, whatever you write go back and pare out 50% of the gore related sentences that are either repetitive, or explaining something that could easily be assumed by common sense, and see how your scene lays after that.
b. The All Battle Channel Syndrome
Certainly battles are the most exciting parts of a war, in the literal sense of the word, but they are far from the only parts. If you are writing too many battle scenes you will run into two problems: first off, there will not be enough time for character development or reflection while the bullets are flying, and also, you’ll run out of ways to describe a battle originally and you’ll end up repeating yourself.
The easiest way to fix the second problem is to write it all and then edit out and repeated or unnecessary scenes later, when you have time to make a list of all the scenes and the language you use in them.
As for the first issue, your readers need the battle scenes to make the war real, but remember from Section III of this guide, the War should not be the Plot. People are primarily interested in other people; what they want to know most is how your characters will react to the events they have just suffered and witnessed. Thus, it is very important to allow your characters downtime, as a real army would allow it’s soldiers downtime after battle to recover mentally as well as physically.
V. Politics in Your Story
1. Polemics Is Interested in You
This is my trickiest point: your war story is going to involve politics. Try as you might, it will on some level become polemic, and have to make some kind of commentary on the society or the military at large which you have written about. Maybe that is what you want, maybe it isn’t, but you have two main choices:
First is to try to stay as neutral as possible. No one who knows anything about war wants to support that kind of mass violence, but also no one wants to say that they don’t support the individual soldiers fighting it. After all, they are our brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, and friends. So the safest route is to go the anti-war, pro-soldier way, and this will make a very good story. Someone will probably still be offended, but someone is always going to be offended by your story.
Second is to go the purposefully political route. If you want to do this you really must know what you’re talking about. Get thorough. Really look into what is happening with the political atmosphere and think about what you want to criticize and why. If you take this route you’re going to piss someone off and probably big time, because this is the route that usually lays blame. If you’re going to lay blame, make sure you can stand by it and do it without shame.
2. Modern Wars
I am going to issue a piece of advice, that comes out of personal experience: modern wars are not history, they are memory. I advise some extra caution if you decide you are going to write any war in modern memory. As I am now speaking from 2013, I am going to say that anything from the 1960’s forward is still memory for someone.
Memories are not to be toyed with. If we look at a case study like Vietnam, that is a highly charged, politically controversial conflict that had some severe impacts socially speaking for the people involved. If you want to write about something like this, realize that you might be bringing up something that many people still suffer nightmares about.
That isn’t a game.
While there is arguably an obligation to be true with any piece of historical fiction, I personally feel there is more of a moral imperative to be extremely detail and fact oriented with something that has recently occurred. As writers, our entire purpose is to reach out and touch someone with our ideas. We absolutely need to think about how we’re going to touch someone if we write about things that they still carry as heavy, lead pieces of guilt.
As well, as the publishing industry increases in might, so does the sheer volume of books on the market. Many ‘Nam vets are already writing about their experiences. When we write books about Mil Fiction, who are we writing for but for the soldiers, to explain, to talk about them, to remember the experience. If there are people with the actual memories already doing it, writing a work about a modern conflict is going to force you to walk one of the most highly charged lines in fiction writing.
And so we must be careful. The worst thing that can happen is that a Mil Fic writer doesn’t realize a work is polemic (when it inevitably is), or when not enough research has gone into the story and it becomes polemic in a way that the writer did not want or anticipate.
Now to some extent, this will always happen, because someone out there is going to interpret your story in a way you don’t want, but this issue can be minimized by good research. While what color pencils were issued by the army in 1917 is a minor historical detail, other issues which are far touchier are going to be part and parcel to a war story. Such as: sex and prostitution, problems with religious identity or crises of faith, insubordination, types of punishment, extent of violence, commentary made from the outside on the goings on of the war, and decisions on tactics (See Part IV, Vulgarity in War). Make an error in one of these (and many other) broader aspects of a Mil Fic story and you might accidentally create a controversy you were not at all invested in.
And then guess what’s going to happen…
VI. People Are Going To Criticize You
This happens with any work of art. People love to take it apart and criticize it, believe in it, take it too much to heart, or idolize it. All of these things, in all shades of mild to extreme, can and will happen once your work becomes public. Especially if you are publishing on the internet, remember that it’s not only public, but instantly public to millions of people, and you have essentially shouted your story into a crowded theater from the stage. Expect feedback, good or bad, because it’s coming for you.
1. Negative Feedback You Should Expect
a. The Constructive Critique.
What it looks like: ”Here is what I liked. Here is what I think needs work. This part confused me. If I were you, I’d do this. If I may make a suggestion.”
This kind of critique can smart when it hits you, but even if the language sounds presumptuous or condescending, remember that tone is hard to interpret via text, and this person is probably trying to help. A good critiquer will give you a compliment sandwich with some useful crit in the meaty part. A bad critiquer will have their heart in the right place but might stumble in the execution. But check out their page if they have one, review some of their work, and then decide if you want to take their advice. It’s always up to you anyway. The best thing you can do with this person is thank them.
In that vein, if you run up against someone clearly knowledgeable, it’s ok to admit someone knows more than you on the subject. Don’t get upset with this person, send them gourmet chocolates and make very good friends with them, because walking encyclopedias are hard to find.
There will also always be Historical Nit-Pickers. These are people who are so immersed in the time period that they know everything even down to details in fashion trends and what color bibles were bound in. Again, even if this kind of critiquer corrects you, and they might be very brusque, the info is probably still good. You should always cross reference their information and always ask their source but I don’t suggest you do so in any way other than very politely.
b. The Completely Not Constructive Feedback
You wrote a war story. But! Someone is offended.
It’s going to happen, probably multiple times. Someone is going to hate the way you portrayed an army, or a type of situation, they think you got the history or the battle wrong, or maybe you wrote about sex or heroin abuse or something of questionable morality like an abortion, a draft, drinking, swearing, the list goes on.
The difference between negative feedback and truly bad feedback is the execution. Bad feedback is not trying to help you, it’s trying to tear you down, call you stupid, shame you, beat you, show you that the critiquer is better/more knowledgeable, and force you to explain yourself.
You do not have any obligation to respond to anyone who cannot speak to you civilly.
But likewise if you put something controversial in your story know why you did it. Know your own motives, deeply, and soundly. Because the way to combat someone who is so angry and offended over what you wrote that they are willing to send a barrage of malice at you, is to know in your heart that you did something you are proud of and that you stand by, because it was for a good reason. Hold onto that, even when someone says something that hurts you. Let it protect you. At the end of the day, you wrote this piece for yourself and for your personal set of ideal readers, and if you know you did it right, leave it at that.
So now we’re at the end and it’s time for you to go out and write your story. Do it well. Tell everyone what you know about the best and the worst people can become and what they go through. Also, if you’ve read this far, tell me, too. I always love reading war fiction, and I’ll be more than happy to read yours.
I broke it down into sections so if you feel like you don't really need to know a certain section you can look for the one you do. All section headers are in bold.
I want to take a moment to thank and for the input they gave throughout the making of this tutorial. They're good friends to have.
I also want to thank for helping edit the first draft.
I am not a soldier myself so I don't have first hand knowledge of combat. But I do have first hand knowledge of soldiers. If it is anything in the way of credentials, I was partially raised on a US Navy base and am from a military family, with members who served in every American war since WWI. I have other much more personal reasons for writing this, that might go into if asked.
I also know literature. I'm an English teacher, so I damn well better.
I also welcome discussion. If you think something has been misrepresented, comment or note me and I'll definitely hear your point of view.
Likewise if you have any questions, I'm always up for answering those, too.
EDIT: March 30, 2013
I made a lot of improvements, cleaned it up, expanded some sections (and marked them), and added a new one.
If you allow me I would like to share some thoughts regarding point IV.
I really think that any extensive detailing on weapons is both unnecessary and boring. If one feels that it would really be necessary to do so, the annexes are exactly for that. Most of the times giving a cue for what the weapon does is much better and more effective, as it spares words and gives the audience what it needs to understand. CS Forrester's The Gun does this very effectivelly and I regard it as a great example of how to make a simplistic but at the same time moving war tale.
I think point 2 is a no-brainer, and it makes the situation much more relatable when you manage to pass out exaclty how ordinary these people are. With that said, though, I think that some exaggeration might still work under certain conditions. After all there are plenty of stories about soldiers who faced impossible odds and made it through. It is mostly a matter of presentation, i would guess. Know the limitis of both factions, what the weapons do (implied, that is, no need to go into detail on that one), and what your character is about. I would also make what I know to be a controversial argument, and say that the objective of the story is very important on this regard. I mean, you could have an instant of a uber-soldier exactly to employ rule of cool and make things exciting. But this is my opinion, and I know many would disagree with it. On a final note in this regard I would also say that all of the elements above can be meld together in a very effective fashion, if the author knows what he/she is doing. Again, these are my opinion and I mean not to be disrespectful.
And to point 3. I've read somewhere a sentence from an author (can't recall who it was now, I'l ltry to get it for later) which is something along the lines of "if you write about war and don't show a battle you're betraying your reader's expectations". I cannot recall the exact wording, but the underlying idea is that combat is exciting, and most readers will be expecting it once they start reading a story about war. I am a big culprit of this, let me say, and I probably enjoy writing combat scenes a little too much. I do not agree with the idea that one can get repetive with combat scenes within a single story. There are always different things to do that require different tactics. Tank combat in broad daylight in a plains, urban combat, commando raids, combat air patrols, etc... It might be a questionable approach, but when I write, historical fiction or not, I do like to pepper my stories with abundant combat scenes.
But with that said, I will say that you are completly on the point concerning the importance of these scenes. They must have a purpsoe and they mustn't be the single thing you'll have to offer your reader. A story is a voyage, you are following a set of characters as they develop as people and learn something. Battles are a part of the journey, not the journey itself. I would also like to add that I do not have illusions about what combat does to a person. I know some examples of this personally. My point is usually to make the story interesting for the reader.
Anyhow, I think I'll leave it at this for now, I'm running long as it is and I don't know if I'm making any sense at this point. I would add, though, that my opinions should be taken with a grain of salt. I do openly admit that I somewhat juvenile in some of my approaches to writing (I think fiction literature should be entertainement first and everything else afterwards) and I do know that some won't agree with me. I also know to admit when I'm wrong.
Moral of the story, thank you for sharing this insightful text, and for making us think harder about this craft we do love so much. Thank you.
However, with regards to the subject of trauma and PTSD, might those primarily be modern issues? Cultural attitudes towards death and war have undergone a lot of evolution over the last couple of centuries. I can't see too many Vikings, Assyrians, or Zulus having the same compunctions over killing their enemies as an educated soldier from a modern civilization.
To answer your question;
Please understand, I know you didn’t comment out of any malintent. My answer is going to be long, but please don’t take it as an attack. I think that war stress is something that most people are under informed on, and that our media has done us exactly zero favors in that regard, so I’m going to try to answer your question as thoroughly as I can.
Sadly, it is exactly this kind of idea I am trying to combat. The idea that PTSD is somehow ‘new’ or that other cultures (ancient or otherwise) were/are less humanly concerned with violence can be a very damaging opinion. Whether intentional or not, it marginalizes the people now that have the disorder, and makes it seem as though this evolved due to culture, which is an idea that can change, not a biological reaction, which is what it actually is.
I will refer you to another article I wrote which deals exclusively with combat related mental illness.
There are a few things that I think need to be cleared up.
1. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not limited to people who have seen combat, and it is not necessarily linked to someone’s mindset, ideas, or preparedness for war. What factors contribute to someone having PTSD have nothing to do with culture, race, age, sex, or ability, or their compunction for killing or not. It has only to do with how much stress that person has been under, and the degree to which that trauma threatened their life or someone they watch get victimized. PTSD appears in combat veterans, victims of natural disasters, victims of domestic and non-domestic criminal violence, child abuse, rape, and small scale accidents like car accidents as well.
(more info: old.impact-kenniscentrum.nl/do… or it is compiled in the other guide I already linked you to)
2. PTSD, which was not originally called that, showed up in the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which was published in 1952. This was the first time that many mental disorders were mentioned and defined. These disorders clearly existed before the printing of the manual, they simply hadn’t been defined and explored. Psychology as a field wasn’t even entertained until around the late 1800s when it began to enter academia and become standardized. Therefore, it was not the disorders that were non-existent, it was the field of study and criteria to evaluate the disorders that were.
3. Not all combat veterans get PTSD. Most come back with some form of mental fatigue or what is called ‘combat stress’, but again, PTSD itself depends on a lot of factors.
As for when and how PTSD showed up in history? Literarily, it is all over both the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as being explored in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and several Indian literary texts, so it isn’t limited to a single cultural sphere. When I said it shows up in these things, I don’t mean ‘that person went to war then he was sad’ comes up in the text. Actual descriptions of the same exact symptoms, after what are clinically considered ‘traumatic’ events, come up all over the characters in these texts. And PTSD has a very specific set of parameters to even be defined as such, so these are not vague generalizations. Even the more vague examples definitely point to combat fatigue and combat stress, even if the most extreme form of PTSD isn’t realized.
Historically, the same type of situation was noted by a plethora of greek historians, e.g. in Xenophon’s Hellenica (and lots of others), and several Roman writings that related to both soldiers and also non-combat related civilian cases. It has also been studied in 17th century China, and there are several notable examples from Alexander the Great’s army <-- this link may not work, I think you need a login, but if you’re interested I’ve got the article.
The point is, tl;dr, no, it is not modern, and no, it has little to do with anyone’s cultural mindset. Violence and violent death takes its toll, and so does living in a combat condition even if nothing has actually happened to a soldier. Now, is it possible that PTSD was less frequent in some wars than in others? Yes, there is evidence that points to that; it does seem at the moment that soldiers who have more time out of high pressure situations to bury their dead and grieve for them, more time in a zone that is ‘behind the lines’ so to speak, they are less likely to develop PTSD, but no less likely to have some form of lower grade combat stress. And that comes directly from the historical evidence I linked you.
There are cultures, such as the Vikings, that we have much less actual evidence on, save a few writings, and some later third or fourth hand accounts of things, so that is really not enough to go on. But it does seem that human beings are human beings, and while they may not have had cultural compunctions about killing, they had the same psychological sensitivities and stress reactions as anyone else. We have no idea the ratios to which this happened, or how pervasive it was in which settings, but to say it is a modern invention is surely misinformation.
as all the others hre, this is exactly what I needed.
say, I'm writing a fantasy/supernatural story, it's like supernatural meets jarhead, and right now it focus more in the characters after the war, 12 years to be exactly and one of the main things I focus, one of his main traits is his PTSD which I want to make sound realistic.
what would could byou suggest me for that?
FYI he is a werewolf and his squad was tasked with... doing pretty much what buffy and the winchester do but in... different settings. I actually published a short story introducing him here
there I tell a brief story of how he would often wke up with nightmares about his worst mission the one where everything went... SNAFU (I wanted to use that word), and even though he forgets what happened that night something that troubles him even more that remembering-, all nights prior to that one and the ones after that, he still suffers nightmares from the rest of his service, and from another event in his life which I'm working currently namely seeing his wife getting shoot in the face when they walk out of the movies...
any idea how to make this work, 'cuz Im a jam of sorts teying to puzzle it in, all the feelings and that kind of ... thingies
Also, I would mention that the fact your MC is a werewolf might have some extra effect on him, but I don't know how you are imagining the werewolf part (ie do they change voluntarily, is it only at the full moon, are they in control of themselves when they change?).
This kinda devil-may-care attitude is what somehow lead the army to him and gave him to choices, rotting in a jail none knows or working for uncle sam...
But no, he didn't have nightmares for the killings he did during fullmoon and/or losing control cause learned how to control it since he was 7, he does regret what he did though, reason why afterwards he became a preist, he wanted--nedeed to help people and redeem for all that and... ayda,yada, yada.
now, you mention here that the life like before the army is an important aspect, well the father was in the army as well, being in the army runs in the family like the werewolf curse, and his father raised him on the road for almost 10 year, raised him like a soldier and a hunter, he wanted him to be like him but, he didn't want that life... sucker for him 'cuz he ran away from it so much it was his only way.
its set in modern times(they have modern weapons like the ak-74, g36c, tanks like the T90 and leopard2) the war lasted five years ,my story is set at the lasts months of that war ,in the capital of the allegory of nazi germany. they are stationed in a sector that is controlled by them ( their general wants them to stay there to protect all flanks while the main army continues their advance,which makes he and his men angry) and while they secure all buildings around them they encountered civilians hiding in a basement and that's where the story starts
As for the 'trope' of love solves all PTSD (GOOD on you that you want to avoid that) ... I actually wrote another guide that could answer your question doughboycafe.deviantart.com/ar…
PTSD is only a part of it, but the other sections rather relate to it. If you're still unsure how to do it, or just want to toss around an idea, please feel free to note me or leave a comment.
I have another question, not all soldiers suffer from all these mental illness,right? it all depends on their experience during the conflict?
sorry for the broken English btw heh.
And no, not all soldiers suffer from these things. Some don't suffer mental breaks at all. Some have different problems than what I've listed- though I think those are the big issues. 'Combat stress' is a very big term for many small problems, and any returning soldier may have any of these problems in degrees, some worst, some not so bad.
It depends on their experience meaning, how much time they've been under combat stress, factors from before combat, what they have had happened to them during the combat, and then... you can have two identical people go through the same experience and not suffer the same outcome whatsoever, for reasons we cannot even begin to understand. I know this doesn't really answer your question thoroughly, but the mind is a deep and mysterious place, you know?
Pues, te pido perdón ahora porque aunque vivo en España, de hecho estoy de los eeuu. He estado expatriada por cuatro años y pico (y yo creo que hablo bastante bien pero la realidad es otra cosa, no?). Así, te entiendo perfectamente pero es cierto que hago errores. (o hablo con un sintaxis un poco hablante de ingles).
Sobre tu historia: esto me parece bueno y interesante que tengas la guerra, o el conflicto, como el fondo y no el argumento. Siempre es mejor, y creo que siempre es lo mejor hablar de las consecuencias de los conflictos y no los conflictos ellos mismos. Ademas, tienes otros elementos ocurriendo allí; el primero siendo que hay cosas sobrenaturales en el mundo. Apostaría yo que si no es normal encontrar este tipo de cosa (digo que si existen eventos sobrenaturales pero la gente en general no lo sabe), eso añadiría otra capa a la trauma psicológico de las personajes. Cuando el cerebro tiene que justificar algo que no puede ser (o no debería ser), hay mas probabilidad que va a aparecer una consecuencia o síntoma de un problema mental. Solo es un cuestión del grado.
Pero bueno, te entiendo perfectamente, porque también siempre cuando leo algo que escribí hace dos años o algo así, quiero llorar por los errores. Y todos estos temas son complicados! Pueden ser buenos también porque a mi prefiero que la literatura habla mas de cosas como racismo o homosexualidad. En el mundo normal es difícil sobrellevar si eres un "otro" en una comunidad de "normales", pero en una situación de combate, eso aumenta la presión del problema de manera exponencial. Creo que no hay una manera de escribir ni uno de estos temas sin ofender a alguien. A veces PTSD si es grave y las síntomas se lo muestran esto. Si lo has investigado bien y hablado con gente que lo tiene este discapacidad, no creo que tengas que tener miedo de ponerlo en la historia en cualquier manera que manifiesta.
Es estoy de acuerdo. Si no voy a hacer algo bien, no lo hago, especialmente con temas tan delicados como estos.
Hablas bastante bien el español sinceramente, aunque he de adimitir que tuve que leer un par de veces las oraciones por un par de cositas nada más. (solo los pronombres, pero entiendo porque los pronombres del español es muy complicado)
Exactamente ese es el planteo del conflicto principal de los personajes, a medida que la guerra avanza y se presentan estos acontecimientos su forma de pensar y de ser cambian rotundamente. Me alegra saber que eso lo tengo en claro y que minimamente lo podré hacer ver de la forma más humana posible, por más que se trate de una fantasía con mundos y personas inventadas.
Justamente eso me había dado cuenta, encuentro muy poca información del racismo en las guerras(que NO tenga que ver con los nazis, de eso hay un montón seguramente) y mucho menos puedo encontrar algo sobre la homosexualidad, y hablo de historias o relatos, el como habrá vivido un soldado homosexual, no documentos sobre torturas o campos de concentración. (again, nazis, como se nota que la gente no sabe de qué hablar cuando se vienen esos temas a la cabeza), asi que lo único que tengo que pensar como homosexual que soy es imaginarme que pasaría si estuviera yo en esa situación, como dijiste antes sobre la presión en el campo de batalla que sería mucho mayor.
Justamente este personaje es muy nervioso, sufre de insomnio, tiene ataques de ira y se pone violenta incluso hacia su novia, hasta se muerde la piel de los nudillos de sus dedos, hasta intenta asesinar a su hermano luego de que este desertara. La pobre chica es un desastre XD; y lo peor de todo es que no se recupera al final del todo, y creo que es lo más lógico para ella, especialmente porque al entrar al campo de batalla ella es muy joven.
No conozco gente que haya sufrido este tipo de cosas, así que me puse a ver documentales de gente, veteranos hablando al respecto. Eso si que ayuda mucho, al igual que esta guía.
Indeed, medicine evolves and ironically enough it evolves many times due to war.
American Civil War, Union side, 173rd New York XIX Corps Army of the Gulf. And I do have a few stories
Phew ok - that's quite a question. Here are my opening words of caution about that specific choice of countries: highly political. highly polemic. and the history of relations with the middle east and the west is a tangled, horrible web of lies.
Now this could be good or bad for your story - tangled web of lies just means there's a lot of material. But it also means a lot of research to do it right. And the highly political statement refers to the fact that your audience already has set opinions about the players on the board (whether those opinions are right or valid is not the question, there is a preconception, and you have to keep that in mind), and because it is a contemporary issues and setting, realize that it could strike a variety of chords in people, offend, hurt, anger, whatever. So it's a good idea to figure out precisely why you want to set it in the modern day and what statement you are or are not trying to make with it, but also who you want to read this.
About the scenario itself, with this particular war, I would start doing this:
1. some history research from 'clean' sources (meaning unbiased), and figure out just where the knots in the tangled web of lies are. Figure out who supports who, who at this point has military assurance pacts, which countries have under the radar military assurance pacts (because believe me, China is going to be involved in there somewhere). Remember that not only the military, but some black ops special forces will be in the area, then also various national intelligence agencies, and just to make your life harder, tons of private intelligence and military agencies as well. You should be aware of these only so you don't have military personnel doing things that are not publicly acceptable for them to do. I really don't suggest adding spies unless you're a total masochist. too much research, most sources unvalidated, too much drama. I only bring this up to point out the chess board is more like a chinese checkers board, and there's about a million different people and sides.
2. go and find some clearly biased sources, because each country or 'side' is going to have different information, spun in different ways, that will influence how they react to each other.
3. research the religions. thoroughly. You picked a very religious area and the religion definitely plays into how people live day to day as well as the law code of each country, how their military operates, etc.
4. Figure out whether or not an actual open war has been declared. For instance, the Second Gulf war wasn't actually a war between Iraq and the US because it was never declared so by congress, but it sure was a war. However, things like single invasions or quiet funneling of small handfuls of troops and weapons to aid in border skirmishes is not a full out war. Does it become one? If so, when? Or does someone openly declare war? If that happens, that massive chain of military assurance agreements is going to come into play and all hell is going to break loose. Determining the escalation will help you determine how much of a commitment your main players are getting from other countries, and whether or not that commitment is public or undercover. It will also help you figure out if there is a global reaction to this or not, what is on the news, and how the home fronts feel towards it.
Those are my starting suggestions. If you aren't a Marine yourself, I would also look up, if you aren't from the US (or hell even if you are), basic protocols of the USMC. Watch a few movies. Take them with a grain of salt. Then go talk to some Americans, preferably some with military service or family members in the Corps.
Long response is long.
But yeah, basically, that is my advice to begin with. After that you can start looking up tech or whatever else, though your research will probably lead you to some other avenues you want to explore.
If you want to talk about anything else, please feel free to note me! This may have just created more questions than you had to begin with But anyway, I'm always up for a chat about it.
The first point, I hear what you´re saying but my initial comment about biases wasn´t regarding the characters in the story. I was warning that the people reading your story out here IRL are going to have preconceived notions about this conflict, and it´s especially touchy for Israelis, Americans, and Arabs. Which is fine, you can still write a story about it, just realize that you might in fact piss off a lot of readers, which may or may not be the goal. It shouldn´t deter you from writing. It´s just something to take into consideration. So my question was, is there a specific reason you chose this region? Does the story have something specific to say about what´s going on over there? Because it will be a really good thing to know solidly why you want a story in the Middle East when you´re going into writing it.
Story related- The last thing you said about the relationship between the RM and the USMC sounds like a solid option with lots of potential. I´d like to see what you do with it.
As for the other stuff... I´d be careful with painting Israel as cocky. Again, this is something I´d have to research a helluva lot, but from what I currently know, they can´t be cocky, mostly because they´re surrounded by enemies and also, Palestine is within their own borders, so they are ever vigilant. It´s also one of the few nations that has universal conscription, meaning they even conscript women. Everyone there knows how to fight and they are all prepared for it. Now, it´s definitely possible to make a few mistakes if the tactics just don´t go as planned (war is like travel. something always goes wrong), but I would caution what you attribute that to.
Also you might want to look up who would be the first to respond. My immediate instinct would have been to say the USA, just because of the history and relationship, and I´m fairly sure they have a TON of military bases in the area. Also, remember that Americans are constantly staffing the NATO bases in Rota, Sigonella, and Kuwait, and the American navy still has Men Afloat down here in the Med patrolling for God knows what. This is where the military assurance pacts come into play - probably you want to see who is actually militarily allied with who, and what aid they´ve promised to provide in the event of X, Y, or Z. Something like an Israel/Iran war would likely pull in a good 15-20 other countries and wind up as WWIII if actually official war was declared.
If it´s sticking to smaller skirmishes and then bigger attacks that Israel seems to be capable of repelling mostly on its own, then the other countries wouldn´t necessarily have to declare open war. Here´s something to look up that I vaguely remember causing a stir a few years back when I was still stateside - Good old GW Bush never actually declared war on Iraq but did something that basically extended the stay of soldiers sent overseas to combat zones. If I remember properly, without Congress declaring war, the Prez could only send troops for 90 days unless Congress backed the move, then they could stay longer. But that was gotten around, probably by the Patriot Act, which is still hanging around like a bad smell. I do remember the loophole having something to do with it being a state of national emergency, but this was years ago and I´d have to look it up. I could dig around if you´re interested. It would probably be a good idea to see how the US, France, and UK are able to comit troops to hotzones and what that means for them. Since you mentioned letters home, that means we´re going to be seeing homefront reactions, and depending on what the government does, that will definitely influence the reactions fo the people waiting at home, and the flow of information.
they’re generally not insane, trench-knife wielding psychopaths, either
I could kiss you for that line alone
Wonderfully in-depth and very useful. I'll file this away for use with a fantasy idea I had that involved a war. That is if I ever find the scrap of paper I jotted the idea on.
I'm very glad this will help. And yeah, you know, I think it's easily relevant for fantasy and sci-fi. I get really irritated with sci-fi sometimes because it doesn't add any sense of human realism to it, and an author thinks they can literally do whatever they want because it's not 'real earth' or something. And that's not always true.
As for the second part, of course I will. I can't say I'm the kindest critiquer our there, but I am honest, and I very much want all my fellow mil-fic writers to improve and make great stories. (hell, I'm certainly not beyond the point of critique myself, so I get as good as I give ) If your story is on dA, link me, if not, I can give you my email and you can send it to me.