As Navy veterans turned thriller writers, one thing we are often asked is how much of our military experience finds its way into our work. The answer is plenty, but how and what to include can be the difference between a high-octane thriller that’s packed with realism and a tedious study of military life. Finding the balance isn’t always easy, but doing it well results in a novel that is accessible and intriguing to a range of readers while remaining authentic and satisfying to those with a military background. To us, realism starts with people.
Column by Alex Ryan is the pen name of writing duo Brian Andrews
and Jeffrey Wilson, who are the authors of BEIJING RED (May 10, 2016
Crooked Lane Books). Both are US Navy veterans: Andrews served
as an officer aboard a 688 class nuclear submarine and Wilson as a
combat surgeon on multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan
supporting US Naval Special Warfare (SEALs). They have written
four books individually and live in Kansas and Tampa, FL, respectively.
The key to writing a thriller with a strong military component is not mastery of the hardware, the weapons, or the tactics. Make no mistake, those elements need to be right, but what really makes a novel ring true is the characters. If you get the characters right, the military thriller audience will enjoy your story far more than if they think you’re trying to show off your encyclopedic understanding of this targeting system or that firearm. In our books, we strive to make characters so real that our brothers in the Navy are able to say, “Yeah, that’s what I would do, and that’s how I’d do it.”
So how do we pull it off? By writing real people. Real people enlist in the military and risk their lives on combat missions. Real people become officers who command submarines, fly stealth fighters, and make battle plans in the Pentagon. Every Navy SEAL is someone’s neighbor. He’s the guy next door who takes out the garbage on Wednesday evening, cooks burgers and dogs on Friday night, and cheers for his kid at the Saturday morning soccer game. We’re not saying you have to write those aspects of military life into your book. In a fact, if you’re writing a thriller please don’t because you’ll kill the pacing, but always remember that family life and routine matter to your characters. By keeping your characters grounded in the reality of day-to-day real life pressures and priorities, you’ll be far less likely to write trite, comic book-like action heroes and this alone will set your book apart from other thrillers. Your character can perform feats of action hero proportions, but don’t let them think like one. Your plot will determine what your character must do, but don’t be afraid to ask yourself: “If I had this character’s skill set, how would I feel while I was doing the job? How would having my character’s military obligations impact my home life and my interpersonal relationships and vice versa?”
Lingo and Acronyms
The most common dilemma faced by military thriller writers is managing military language. What is the right amount of jargon and lingo to include? The short answer is: Not too much and not too little. Not very helpful, right? Let’s walk you through the two issues with this topic and explain our governing criteria. The first question is how much jargon to include, and the second is how much should be explained?
There’s a difference between including acronyms, jargon, and lingo in prose and using them in dialogue. We are of the opinion that including these elements in dialogue is an absolute necessity, because we want our characters to speak the way they would speak in real life. To that end, you must allow characters to converse organically. If your hero says, “The helicopter for medical evacuation will be here in two minutes and the air support helicopter with machine guns will be right behind them,” no savvy reader will believe he’s a soldier. On the other hand, if you say, “Stalker two-five is five mikes for CASEVAC with gunship two mikes in trail,” you risk the reader becoming confused. The best way to address this double-edged sword is with context. Build a scene that conveys that a helicopter evacuation is necessary and that air support is urgently needed, then when the hero makes his report, the reader is ready to connect the dots. The ultimate payoff of this approach is that the reader becomes immersed in the scene, instead of being patronized or ripped from the moment by becoming aware of their suspension of disbelief.
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With respect to prose, we try to minimize lingo and acronyms until they have already been introduced in dialogue and explained by context. It is frustrating to have to hold your page in the middle of an exciting firefight, to flip to the back and look words up in the glossary. Introduce lingo and acronyms in context and dialogue, before you incorporate them broadly in the prose. In summary, keep your dialogue and prose authentic and minimize overtly explaining lingo and acronyms in favor of using context as your readers’ dictionary.
As former Naval Officers—and brothers of those still serving—we take OPSEC, or Operational Security, very seriously. In other words, the answer to the question, “Did that really happen like that?” is always a resounding “No.” We write fiction. We strive to write authentic characters and portray action and strategies realistically so that the reader feels like a fly on the wall during a real operation. But when it comes to giving away confidential information on how operations are conducted, we are committed to keeping our fiction fictional.
How do we accomplish this? For starters, we focus on individual and global stakes. Ultimately, it’s not the strategic specifics that matters, it is whether the protagonist’s strategy and actions prevail over those being employed by the antagonist. The reader should be more concerned with “if” the hero prevails, than “how” the hero prevails. Tom Clancy was not an actual submarine captain, and Vince Flynn was never a spy, but their characters and stories rang true, not because they violated OPSEC but because they were masters of managing stakes. So rather than trying to “sterilize” a scene to recreate a real-life event, use your imagination to push the envelope. It’s okay to rip your heroes and antagonists from the headlines, but place them in a fictional conflict within your fictionalized world. Readers will be eagerly willing to suspend their disbelief if you will give them characters they care about and stakes that make them cringe. Besides, readers can get “real” from watching FOX News or CNN; what they really want is to be thrilled.
We encourage you to learn more about these issues by reading well-crafted military thrillers. When it doubt, see how your favorite authors do it. Or, attend conferences and strike up a conversation with military veteran authors. At Thrillerfest in NYC this summer there will be a panel on writing military thrillers manned by military veterans (including one of us) and even a panel with former and active Navy SEALs to answer questions. Check out the agenda at Thrillerfest.com, and be sure to say hello to us online at: www.andrews-wilson.com
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- June 4, 2016: The Writers’ Conference of Cleveland (Cleveland, OH)
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- August 20, 2016: Toronto Writing Workshop (Toronto, Canada)
- Sept. 9, 2016: Sacramento Writers Conference (Sacramento, CA)
- Sept. 10, 2016: Writing Workshop of San Francisco (San Francisco, CA)
- Sept. 10, 2016: Chesapeake Writing Workshop (Washington, DC)
- Oct. 15, 2016: Pittsburgh Writers Conference (Pittsburgh, PA)
- Nov. 19, 2016: Las Vegas Writing Workshop (Las Vegas, NV)
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