Fiction is fiction because you make it up right?
That’s correct. If it weren’t made up, it would be, well, nonfiction.
However, fiction can be based on real events. Erick Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is based on the very real events of World War I and loosely based on real people. Most suspect Remarque took several people he’d known and consolidated them into his protagonist, Paul Baumer.
In contrast though, is Audie Murphy’s memoir, To Hell and Back, about his life and the World War II battle that earned him the Medal of Honor.
And people can take a real event as the setting or backdrop of a novel and populate it with totally fictional characters. I do it all the time. Other authors, beyond those of us who write historical fiction, also do that.
For example, if you want to write the story of your life, but you don’t want it to be a memoir or an autobiography – and there are any number of reasons people don’t want a nonfiction version of their lives – you can write about people, places, and events that are made up. You may know the truth or reality behind it, but it’s fiction.
You can change the name of your home town or the state it’s in or you can make up a town’s name. Maybe you change the names of people in your life, but you could also change their professions. And maybe you alter a bit the events of your life, maybe by enhancing one event over another or by making a trauma, for example, more traumatic or less so. Or the character based on you isn’t the narrator but simply another character in the fictional story of your life.
If you want to protect certain people in your life or if you don’t want to get sued, it is sometimes a fine line to walk between your life story and the fiction you’ve made of it.
HISTORICAL FICTION IS THE EXCEPTION
In my case, writing historical fiction, especially about an event like 9/11, I can take dramatic license with some things, but if I were to alter the main sequence of events too much, readers may not relate – or they may criticize me for not getting it right.
The movie, Sully, about the captain of the aircraft who had to ditch his plane in the Hudson River after birdstrikes damaged both his engines, was an adaptation that was so far from the facts as I knew them to be, I couldn’t watch the movie. I got that only from the trailers. People loved that movie, but I didn’t. Capt. Sullenburger was diplomatic about it. A reader might be the same way if, even in your fiction, you don’t get it right.
It’s a case where it’s good to sweat the small stuff, and, to mix a metaphor, I get way down in the weeds at times checking and double-checking minutia.
So, when you set 90% of the second book in a series in a country you’ve never been to, and some of your characters are soldiers and you’ve never been in the military, you got some research to do.
RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH
Google maps is my friend. It ‘showed’ me Afghanistan and several of its major cities. It showed me the mountains and the people. Supplemented with books on the culture of the various ethnic groups, and reading up on Islam, as well as talking to some Muslim acquaintances, I felt comfortable with my portrayal of life under the Taliban and in the aftermath of the Taliban’s defeat.
What bothered me, though, was my portrayal of U.S. soldiers, specifically, special forces. Now, my dad was in the army but he got out in the 1960s. A cousin was one of the first Green Berets, but his last reactivation was for the first Gulf War. He retired from the Army shortly after. From 2001 until my retirement in 2009, I worked with several people who’d been deployed in Afghanistan and later Iraq, however, most of them were Air Force Reserves. I had a couple of writer friends who had been in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002, and they spoke to me in general terms, no specifics, but I knew better than to push against possible PTSD.
In Meeting the Enemy book 2, REVENGE, I don’t get into strategy and tactics nor into the nitty gritty of what happened when and where in a specific battle, but I wanted the interactions between my character, Mai Fisher, and the U.S. special forces she encounters to be authentic.
First and foremost, she’s a woman. In my story, she’s the only woman team lead of a unit of CIA paramilitaries. In Mai’s backstory, she’s been through both British Army basic training and is a reserve officer in the RAF; however, none of that is germane to her cover, which is Katherine Burke, on leave from being CIA chief of staff to be a CIA paramilitary supervisor.
If you’ve read any of my work, you know Mai Fisher is confident to the point of arrogance but competent, and she doesn’t suffer fools lightly. One Afghan vet I spoke to said that officers and NCOs would ignore gender if the person is competent. There might be little tests or challenges, but they would be done to any interloper, man or woman. So, I did my best to reflect that.
Mai and a special forces captain end up with a grudging respect for each other as the book proceeds.
NEEDING THE FEEDBACK
However, I still needed someone to make sure I got it reasonably correct.
That was difficult. Special operations soldiers or sailors or airmen tend not to talk about their deployments or what they do while deployed. Some of that will be classified for a long time, but many times, the soldiers simply don’t want to re-live that part of their lives. Again, all I could get was general advice, no details.
To address my lack of total confidence in my portrayals, I wrote a lengthy Author’s Note for REVENGE explaining how I’d researched in depth but that I didn’t have feedback on how well I did from someone who’d been there, as it were. Authors don’t usually apologize for errors ahead of time, but I wanted any reader with a military background to know I’d done the best I could to make the novel authentic and that even I wasn’t happy with the results.
Then . . . My editor, who is a college professor, said she had a colleague who was a veteran and who, she believed, had served in Afghanistan. She approached him, and he indicated he’d be willing to read the chapters where Mai engaged or worked with the special forces.
It was a somewhat anxious six weeks waiting for the feedback. I understood he had classes to teach, exams to give and grade, and all the other duties of a college professor, but of course I convinced myself it was taking so long because I’d gotten everything wrong.
But what I got was that I’d gotten everything right, quote, “not a grain of sand out of place.” Indeed, instead of reading only the indicated chapters with military presence, he’d read the whole book, enjoyed it, and urged me to forge ahead.
I deleted the author’s note and added the professor’s name to the Acknowledgements.
From my own aviation knowledge and experience, I know that when you’re knowledgeable in an area but a writer, fiction or non-fiction, gets it wrong, it diminishes how much you enjoy the book. I was glad to know I’d gotten REVENGE as right as I could.
That’s not to say that someone, somewhere who might read REVENGE and who had a different experience from what I portrayed could contact me and say, “Get it right next time.” I’ll take that as constructive criticism, particularly if they’re specific about what I didn’t get right, but I’ll still take comfort from “not a grain of sand out of place.”
So, fellow writers, do the best you can do to get it right.
This blog post was adapted from my most recent podcast episode, which will be live on December 8. You can listen HERE.