Thursday, September 25, 2014

September 25 2014. How do you learn to write about action (by which I mean combat of some type or another)?

My whole life experience feeds into my writing. I think that must be true for every writer. Clearly the Army and combat were major influences; just the same, you need to understand that many of the writers we have now couldn't load a revolver.

Gene Wolfe

Funnily enough, Newt Gingrich asked me that very same question when I visited him—at his invitation. He is (or was) a fan. At the time he was Speaker of the House—third in line for the presidency—and preparing to write a series of action books (which he did not mention). I’m not sure I’d buy a used car from Newt.

But he’s a terrific speaker.  From a distance, he looks like an affable farmer. Up close and personal, somehow the warmth you would expect is missing.

I have been told I write very good action. If I do, it is because most of the action I describe is based upon a specific personal experience combined with a good imagination.  It is not that I have been through everything I write about in my books in a littoral sense. It is more that in most cases I take something I have been through and extrapolate it—sometimes a great deal. But the initial impetus tends to be grounded in reality in some way or other.

Is it the right way, or the best way? No, I don’t want to suggest that for a moment. All I am saying is that it is a way that has worked well for me.

The foundation, of course, as with most everything to do with writing, is reading. If you read as many adventure stories, and as much military history as I have over the years, it would be strange indeed if I couldn’t write action—given the experiences I have had as well.

Could I write action without the experiences. I’m not sure I could—though I’m sure others could—and have. Imagination is a powerful thing. I’m not lacking in that area. Nonetheless, I seem to need to ground my fiction in some degree of reality.

Quite early on—before, in fact, I committed to writing full time—I set out to establish what I tend to think of as a “base of experience.’ This has involved spending time with military units, visiting places where there was action but which were relatively safe and accessible (I have learned there is no such thing as a ‘safe war’), cultivating sources in the security services and military—and generally endeavoring to become comfortable with the various cultures I thought I would be writing about in the future.

This practice has served me well. In fact it led me to meet some of the major players in the U.S. Army, such as General Dave Petraeus—and for my working for General Jack Keane, then the Army Vice Chief of Staff, for a while. In retrospect, although my experiences were fascinating, I probably went too far. Military work took me away from serious writing for some years. A writer should stay a writer. Our job is to observe, record, analyze, illuminate, and communicate. When you become a player, you lose your perspective—and there is a good chance there will be a conflict of interest. Your integrity may well be put at risk.

On the other hand, you can learn a great deal. It’s a classic Faustian situation.

When I write an action scene, essentially I write and shoot a mini movie in my head. Since I think visually, that is not so hard—and, after I have run through it a few times, it becomes virtually real to me, to the point where I can re-run the movie on demand. Somehow, in the process, a great deal of the necessary detail tends to get filled in. Here, I guess my subconscious is just reaching down for what it needs from the deeper recesses of my memory.

Let me stress, I am neither particularly brave, nor physically courageous. However, what does tend to happen is that I somehow feel protected if I am researching a story. Such a feeling has no rational basis—but I’m not unique in having it. I’m told many combat photographers feel exactly the same way.

I do tend to think tactically fairly well. That has its roots in a combination of reading and learning to fight after having been bullied at school. There, even after I grew tall enough to take care of myself, I was always outnumbered so I soon learned to maneuver—and to be quite violent if I though the situation demanded it.

I abandoned that particular slippery slope after I nearly killed another boy by accident. That frightened me more than I can say. I even liked the guy I nearly killed. But when you hit someone in the throat with your extended fingers, and they start to turn blue, you are a hair’s death from serious trouble. My victim couldn’t breath properly. I wasn’t aware of the condition then, but had turned away because assembly had been called.

He turned up very late and still blue. But, he was alive.

The next person I saw that was blue—and this was over 20 years later--was the hanging victim  I found near William Randolf Hearst’s old Castle in Wales. He had moved on to the next stage. He was freshly, but decidedly, dead.

It was that event, as I have described previously, which led to my first book, GAMES OF THE HANGMAN.

The blue condition is called cyanosis. It isn’t a deep blue. It is more of a pale blue sheen—though it is still very noticeable. It is a symptom of low oxygen saturation. That tends to happen when you can’t breathe. Mind you, your don’t need to breathe when your neck is broken.

It would represent a pointless expenditure of energy (if you had any).That man had the longest neck I’ve even seen.

He did, in a sense, give one last breath. After he had been cut down, the air from his lungs was squeezed out as we laid him on the ground. He gave a long groan.

‘Scary’ does not capture the spirit of the moment. Next time I catch the top half of a hanged body, I’ll take it in my stride.

Maybe not.

In truth, when I had him in my arms—just before lowering him to the ground—and the groan—a wave of compassion swept over me.

So young. So dead. So pointless. So sad.

I wanted to make him alive again. He was 19—and, in real-life, he was Dutch. I set the book in Switzerland because I had a Swiss girlfriend. It was to become several Swiss girlfriends. I like the Swiss.

Best you get through  life without seeing the physical consequences of a hanging.

I have both seen and experienced enough violence over the years to have developed a thorough dislike of the reality. Nonetheless, I still enjoy a good thriller, or action movie, so expect I’ll continue to write action until I die.

Will I visit any more ‘safe wars?’ Frankly, I think I have enough experiences under my belt to keep me going for as many books as I’m likely to have time to write. That said, I have a yen to visit Israel.

Make me an offer to visit a combat environment which is so interesting that I can’t refuse—and who knows—70 or not, I might just accept.

I make no pretense to be one—but I enjoy the company of warriors. “Camaraderie’ is not just a word. It means a willingness to die for each other—and they do. Tougher still, they live with scars both visible and invisible—and society doesn’t treat them that well.

War is the worst of things—but it has the capacity to bring out the best in some people. More than a few are my friends, and I fell much honored that I have been so accepted.




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