In this guest post, ‘Twinkle’ author SJ Parkinson shares how he goes about writing military novels, and the research necessary to deliver an authentic experience to the reader.
In several of my novels, I’ve gone to great lengths to research the various military branches that I present to the reader. Even though I write fiction, I still try to depict the armed services accurately. The reason for this is quite simple, it makes the work more plausible. As a reader myself there is nothing I hate more than seeing a piece of information I know is wrong. My favorite example is seeing a hero with a revolver, then three pages later the author writes about changing magazines in that weapon. Revolvers don’t have magazines and from that point on you cannot believe what you are reading. The world the author built up is now shattered by the inaccuracies and enjoyment of the book past that point, for me at least, is unlikely.
I typically do one to two weeks research on a novel before I begin writing. Twinkle involved three months of solid research to ensure all of the aircraft, tactics, weapons, and even radio call signs were as accurate as I could make them.
When you write about the military there are always two major obstacles to overcome as an author. First, by their very nature military operations are conducted in secrecy. This makes it difficult to represent the operations of the armed services accurately. The atmosphere of OPSEC (Operational Security) often means details are hard to come by. This is understandable as lives are literally at risk if certain information is released. As an example, that same security limits me personally as some of my duties in the air force are still classified after thirty years. As I once said, “The best fiction grows in the shadows”, but that doesn’t mean you can make up tactics and strategy willy nilly. The battle scenes have to be structured logically and make sense. Members (and former members) of the military read books as well and they are not shy in trashing badly written books. An author who takes liberties, even in a fictional novel, can end up taking a lot of flak (pun not intended) from military members. It’s a bit of a rock and hard place situation, but it can be navigated if you use due care.
The second obstacle lays in the way the military communicates. When they are in combat using radios, they don’t speak in a way that a civilian would normally comprehend. Here’s transcript of a 1981 air battle near Libya. There are two jets involved, 102 and 113 and Bare Ace is their controller:
102: 102’s got one 214 16 miles out, that’s all I’ve got.
102: He appears to be turning a little bit left giving us a left aspect. I’m in single target track.
102: 14 miles 21,000.
Bare Ace: 113 say your heading.
113: 113s heading 070
102: 10 miles
102: 102. The bogeys got us on his nose now 8 miles.
102: We’re at altitude, twenty thousand feet 6 miles.
Bare Ace: 102, 113 your vector 100.
Bare Ace: 102 state.
The pilots and controller in this example use code words along with short concise sentences to keep each other informed of what’s going on in the battle space. Yet, a civilian would be confused as they have no reference to the vocabulary. A glossary can help, but you don’t want readers to reference that ten times a page. It breaks the rhythm of the story and will frustrate many. Instead, an author needs to translate that confusing nomenclature into sentences everyone can understand while keeping the essence of the scene believable. It can be done, but does require work because as I said earlier you don’t want to change things so much that you alienate your military readers. It’s a balancing act to be sure, but certainly not impossible.
In my last sci-fi novel Predation, I received a five star review from a gentleman who said, “The combat is so vividly written that I was there in my mind and almost breathless on numerous occasions.” When you read such a complimentary review, the many hours you spent creating the action scenes become worthwhile. A different five star review concluded, “An ex-military man that I work with said the descriptions were accurately written.” The smile on my face after reading that sentence validated all the effort I’d put into the novel.
Twinkle has many military elements in it and is certainly my most ambitious novel to date being literally global in scope. I hope you can find the time to read it. Thank you for this opportunity to address your readers.
Learn more about SJ Parkinson here: