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.”