As fiction writers, we make stuff up. That’s what we do. Even those of us who like to incorporate some factual elements in our books, in the end it’s all about make-believe people in a make-believe world doing make-believe things. Still, those make-believe people have to be relatable, and seem authentic, which is why we authors try to “write what we know” or immerse ourselves in whatever field or industry we want to know about, if we can.
Last week, I had the opportunity to interview thriller writer Joseph Finder for an article that’s running in Salute magazine. Finder recently returned from his first “Operation Thriller III” USO Entertainment tour to the Middle East. He went with four other authors — Kathleen Antrim, Michael Connelly, Brad Meltzer and Andy Harp.
What I wanted to know most in my interview, as a writer, was whether Finder felt this trip would change his writing of the military in any way. Finder has addressed military themes before in his best-selling books such as High Crimes, which was made into a feature film starring Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman. But until now he says he hadn’t really met people who had actually been in combat. Here’s what he had to say:
“In a couple of my books, I’ve got military characters. High Crimes is about a court martial. I did a lot of research. I talked to lawyers and people who had been in the Marines to get a sense of what that was like. In a sense, I got my information sort of second hand. I mean, I went to some court martials. I did. At Fort Drum and other places. But it was a little bit removed from the [action] – I didn’t meet some of these people who had actually been in combat… [So, this experience] has to change the way we write. It will. It changes the kinds of stories we’re going to tell… Just to sort of be able to tell it like it is… There’s this general in High Crimes, for example, who is a bad guy. He’s just a jerk, a megalomaniac. I’m going to be less inclined to write a person like that who is a character, because that’s not really the way it is. So that will change the way I write about leadership.”
I would be inclined to think that an experience like this WOULD change the way an author writes. It’s like writing about parenting before you’re a parent. Sure, you can make stuff up and be fine, but when you then have experience with it, you feel compelled to draw from that because you know then your story will be “more real” and, subsequently, better understood. That’s not to say that a general, or even a parent, can’t be a jerk — I mean, anyone can be a jerk — but, as a rule, if you want your fake people to seem real it would be silly to ignore what really is real, if you have access to it.
P.S. The “i” in Joseph Finder’s last name is actually pronounced like the “i” in “hinder,” but I couldn’t resist using this post title. :)