A friend of mine just ran up against the fact that the research questions he was asking for an Unconventional Warfare story may or may not have run up against the brick wall labeled “Classified.”  As in, “You’re not supposed to know the answers to those questions, let alone put them in a book.  Stop asking.”  This got me thinking about a few things I’ve run up against as an author over the last few years.

There is a delicate balance that must be struck when telling a story, a balance between authenticity, the demands of reality, and the story you’re trying to tell.  My military fiction has been praised by some for its authenticity, since I have my guys use realistic tactics, using the terrain and what resources they have at their disposal to the best advantage they can.  I also try to include the various mishaps and turnabouts that happen in real-world operations, following a guideline that I came to in Iraq on my first deployment: “‘No battle plan survives contact with the enemy?’  Try, ‘No plan survives the first step outside the wire.'”  Misread terrain, bad intel, weather, enemy action, random local civilian action…all of the above can throw an op into a cocked hat, and that is something that I’ve tried to illustrate, along with some of the intensity and fatigue of firefights and the like.

I’ve worked some of the same elements into the Jed Horn series.  Even though it’s about fighting mostly made-up monsters and demons, I’ve gotten comments on how it feels authentic, just because the main character is human, doesn’t see everything coming, and gets his ass kicked a few times on the way to victory.

At the same time, there are ways that strict realism is neither desirable nor workable.  The first case is the aforementioned “reality.”  Some of the stuff that I could describe shouldn’t be described, for the same reasons that my friend couldn’t get his research questions answered.  The most obvious example in my own work is from my Author’s Note at the end of Alone and Unafraid.  I was deliberately making stuff up about the embassy in Baghdad, because the security arrangements there are not something that anyone who is not directly employed in them has any business knowing about.

On the other end of the scale is “story.”  The whole point to writing a thriller is to tell a rollicking story that people want to read.  If it’s authentic to the core and as boring as 90% of real-world military operations really are, then you kind of failed.  Some people (not many, but some) have complained about the pacing of the Praetorian books, that it’s unrealistic.  I could point out that I make mention of the long days of planning and bored watching of the objective that comes before the excitement, but apparently some people missed that, or were just looking for a reason to complain.  The fact of the matter is, yes, I do skip ahead instead of spending fifty pages on planning and gear prep before ten pages of action.  That’s why it’s a “story” and not “real life.”


Authenticity vs. Reality vs. Story
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Peter Nealen

Peter Nealen is a former Reconnaissance Marine and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. He deployed to Iraq in 2005-2006, and again in 2007, with 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Recon Bn. After two years of schools and workups, including Scout/Sniper Basic and Team Leader's Courses, he deployed to Afghanistan with 4th Platoon, Force Reconnaissance Company, I MEF. Works by Peter include: The American Praetorians Series Task Force Desperate (October 2012) - ebook , paperback and audiobook Hunting in the Shadows (June 2013) - ebook and paperback Alone and Unafraid (August 2014) - ebook and paperback The Devil You Don't Know (June 2015) - ebook and paperback Lex Talionis (June 2017) - ebook and paperback The Jed Horn Series A Silver Cross and a Winchester (October 2013) - ebook and paperback Nightmares (January 2015)- ebook and paperback The Walker on the Hills (December 2015) - ebook and paperback Older and Fouler Things (September 2017) - ebook and paperback The Brannigan's Blackhearts Series/Universe Kill Yuan (Spring 2016) - ebook and paperback Fury in the Gulf (November 2017) - ebook and paperback Burmese Crossfire (January 2018) - ebook and paperback Enemy Unidentified (March 2018) - ebook and paperback Frozen Conflict (May 2018) - ebook and paperback High Desert Vengeance (August 2018) - ebook and paperback Doctors of Death (December 2018) - ebook and paperback The Unity Wars Series (P.L. Nealen) The Fall of Valdek (July 2018) - ebook and paperback The Defense of Provenia (August 2018) - ebook and paperback The Alliance Rises (September 2018) - ebook and paperback Short Stories Rock Meet Hard Place (Part I) - Baen Books Blog Non-Fiction Operation Redwings: The Rescue Story Behind Lone Survivor (December 2013) - ebook only The ISIS Solution: How Unconventional Thinking and Special Operations Can Eliminate Radical Islam (SOFREP) (November 2014) - ebook only

One thought on “Authenticity vs. Reality vs. Story

  • February 8, 2017 at 5:15 pm

    Good thoughts, Pete! Thanks a lot for putting these words down. Thanks for your service as well.


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