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“Whoever said the pen is mightier than the sword obviously never encountered automatic weapons.”
― Douglas MacArthur
So you want to write a military book. Many have done it, many are doing it, and many have failed at it, purely and simply because the market is flooded with sensationalist junk. I hope to give you a few hints and tips as a veteran of combat about how to write something that will not only be engaging to a wide audience but will also captivate people’s imagination.
I used the word sensationalist earlier; that’s a calm, collected and polite way of saying that most military writers never let truth get in the way of a good story. Every soldier has a different perspective on an event, as it is in life outside the military. We base our view of things from previous experience, or lack of it. One person’s run-of-the-mill story could be another person’s adjective-riddled story of heroism. If you’re writing a true story, then don’t get too carried away with your descriptive language. Most combat is like losing your virginity: Fast, overly exciting, and uncomfortably sweaty. Sustained firefights aren’t always the bulk of what people experience, so don’t get crazy. If something is short and boring then be honest, readers need to know the truth.
Research is not a place in China nor is it a dirty word. Reach out to former and current service members to get as much information out of them. Many veterans want to tell their story and they won’t bite (hard). Their voice is never heard, and they carry a burden every day, so let them speak and unburden themselves; they will appreciate you listening. Writing effectively about tactics, lingo, and banter isn’t something you can get from the television—get out there and speak to those who lived it. And consider confidentiality: many former soldiers end up revealing secrets without thinking, so consider the legal view of what you write before you publish it. Finally, and this should go without saying, ask for the consent of those you interview to use their name. No one wants a knock at their door.
Cultural differences are huge in the military world. British and American soldiers eat, speak, and fight completely differently. Ensure when you research this that you get both sides of the story from both military forces; both will tell you the other is rubbish. In reality, we all know the British are the best, but I don’t like to boast. And all other cultural complexities should be embraced and not ignored when writing about the military.
Douglas MacArthur made the clearly logical observation that a pen isn’t deadlier than an automatic weapon, but it doesn’t have to be: a pen needs to inspire. Your pen can inspire and it can move people; a weapon only brings death. Use your pen to tell the truth about the military in your writing, regardless of genre, and you’ll find all people drawn to your writing, not just the militarily inclined.
Will Shield is an aspiring travel photographer, writer, and helper of the masses. He also served two operational tours in Afghanistan in the British Army. Check out his blog!