Brad Taylor served for more than twenty-one years in the U.S. Army, retiring as a Special Forces Lieutenant colonel. He’s most recently the author of Operator Down, the latest in his Pike Logan series. He joins Signature to say frankly: If you do your research and exercise some imagination, go ahead and discard the old “write what you know” advice.
One of the oldest pieces of advice given to an aspiring writer is, “write what you know,” which is fine if he happens to be John Grisham writing about the law, or Joseph Wambaugh writing about the police.
But, what if one wants to write about something very few people have actually done? Something like Jason Bourne, or — yes — John Rambo, when the writer has no idea what such a life really entails? Most writers want to relay the story as accurately as possible, without making details up out of whole cloth. Because of that, I’m routinely asked for advice on various aspects of the military and the mindset of a Special Operations soldier (yes, when I started writing, I did, in fact hew to the advice. If I had been a policeman, my main character would have been a cop. I was an Operator, so that’s where I went).
Is it possible to write realistically and/or accurately about a shadowy black-ops team without having lived at least some of that life?
Of course it is. It just takes research, and a hefty amount of restraint from throwing all that research onto the page.
1) Less is More.
The natural inclination is to develop a character down to the roots, and then throw those roots on the page, but invariably, if you do that for a military character and have never served, you’re going to make mistakes. Too often, I’m reading a book about a protagonist who’s in a Special Operations unit, be it a SEAL, Green Beret, Ranger or some other unit, and the writer – in an effort to cloak the novel in authenticity – runs down a laundry list of units, military occupational specialties, schools, or other esoteric things, and invariably, parts are glaringly wrong. In attempting to be authentic, the writer caused the exact opposite, and the truth is, none of that is necessary. Use a light touch, only hinting at the past, and including just the necessary details you need for the book.
Instead of your protagonist, Rock Squarejaw, having served as an 18B Engineering Sergeant on Operational Detachment – Alpha 1124 in Al Qaim, Iraq in 2005, just say he was a Special Forces soldier with a tour (or two) in Iraq. While the first option sounds better to the layman, I’d read it and say, “Engineering Sergeant is 18C, and ODA 1124 is based in Okinawa, Japan, and has never rotated to Iraq.” Truthfully, was any of that information even necessary to the plot? Probably not. Think about it – what do you really know about John Rambo from First Blood? He was a Special Forces soldier who served in Vietnam, and that’s about it. You tell me your character is an SF guy with a tour in Iraq, and I’m good with that. If you need the engineering title because he’s going to blow stuff up, then by all means put it in the manuscript. Just be sure your research backs up what you write. Which brings me to my next point.
2) Research is Still Required.
Please, do some minimal research on the subject. With the availability of the internet, it’s inexcusable not to, but only as much as is necessary for the plot. If you’re going to have a weapon in the novel, at least know how it functions. If you’re going to give your character rank – complete the due diligence to make sure it’s accurate. You don’t have to become an expert on the entirety of special operations, but you do need to understand your slice of the pie.
As an example, in the beginning of an adventure novel by a very famous author, a “Delta Force Commander” is in the back of an aircraft, about to conduct a free-fall jump. He looks at his two youngest troopers, both Privates First Class, and asks if they’re okay. They say the plane is going too fast and they’ll be ripped apart upon exiting. At this point, I put the book down (around page seven).
PFC is the rank one gets coming straight out of basic training – and now these two neophytes are in one of the most elite units on the planet? Conducting a free-fall parachute jump? And why on earth are they talking about being “ripped apart”? It doesn’t matter how fast that aircraft is going when they exit. They’re simply in the atmosphere and immediately achieving terminal velocity – whether that means they’re slowing down (high speed aircraft) or speeding up (hovering helicopter). The aircraft velocity wouldn’t harm them at all. The lack of research was insulting, and while the book had very little to do with the military after this initial scene, I had no faith in anything else the author described.
Does this mean I expect the author to go jump out of an airplane before putting words on the page? Not at all, but it would be nice if he or she had done a little research – and it’s easy to do with the internet. USSOCOM puts out a fact book every year, and it’s full of information that can help the writer do just what I’m talking about: hit the wave tops accurately (google SOCOM FACT BOOK. If the author had, he would have seen the demographics for the average Operator). For that matter, the Army puts out its own fact book every year, which has units, locations, operations and everything else a writer can plagiarize for a history (google Army GREENBOOK).
As for weapons, there are websites galore that deal in nothing but gun porn – but be careful here. Once again, less is more. Do you really need to write that a bad guy withdrew from his Kydex holster a Roland Special modified Glock 19 with an RMR holosight, or simply write “pistol”? If the model matters (and sometimes it will – such as a pocket pistol, or a suppressed pistol), then include it, but if it doesn’t, and you’re just using your research because you can, think hard about leaving out all the extra words.
3) Embrace the Mistakes.
You’re going to make them no matter how hard you try, and when it happens, you’ll get the emails. Trust me, I know because I’ve received plenty – and I lived the life. You can’t be an expert on everything, so accept the mistake and remember it for the future. At the end of the day, if you do what I’m recommending, they’ll be small pinpricks from some guy who really takes his weapons/esoteric knowledge seriously. The other 99% will appreciate the nuance – and the effort. I know I would.
In the end, “writing what you know” is great advice – within reason. Just because you’ve never heard a shot fired in anger doesn’t mean you can’t write a riveting story of a gunfight. Ask Stephen Crane. At the ripe old age of twenty-four, he wrote The Red Badge of Courage, considered a seminal work on the Civil War, years after the war was over and having never served. All he had was research, and a penchant for writing. I can’t give you Stephen Crane’s skills, but if you do minimal research and remember less is more, you’ll have all the authenticity you desire.