How do you write about something you’ve never experienced? Respectfully, that’s how.
I write military history, memoir and fiction but have never served, although I have worked in civilian support roles. This puts me at both a disadvantage and an advantage. My disadvantage is that I lack the authority to talk on the subject from a place of personal experience. This means I often partner with a researcher who has a military or technical background and has a story to tell. I can then focus on using my writing and coaching skills rather than worrying about my lack of experience. My advantage is that I can ask stupid questions and I have to triple check all my assertions and assumptions. This helps me to be accurate and credible in both the details as well as the storyline.
The other advantage that’s more unexpected is that I have a naivety about situations. I don’t have the benefit of years of preparation for and exposure to the incidents I portray and that means I can approach a story without preconceptions. I have no SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) in my head for how things work. This provides three useful dimensions. First, I often have no idea how a story will play out because I don’t have the training or expertise to tell me what should happen if protocols are followed. The mistakes I make by thinking as a civilian can open up possibilities in a story that create a plot twist or character flaw. Second, I check frequently with my writing partner about technical details and that helps both of us to confirm the accuracy of both the story and the information. Third, I can write more for the reader because I’m often closer to their position as someone who has not been in similar situations in real life. This helps the reader to digest some pretty complex information and to enjoy books that might normally be outside their comfort zone. I’ve learned a lot from authors like Andy Weir who wrote The Martian about a mission to Mars that goes badly wrong. I have no scientific background yet I was hooked on the detail of this space mission and all the complex calculations needed to tell a very human story. Obviously, Weir has never flown to Mars and is an author not a NASA scientist, but his meticulous research and light touch make the details accessible and engaging.
A huge challenge for me in my recent book, An Average Pilot, was that I needed to understand how radar worked on board aircraft in the Second World War. It was an evolving technology and played a critical part in the story, but I knew nothing about it. This led to weeks of research and conversations with my co-writer, Luca Lazzara, before I could write a page and a half of text. In the same way, I needed to know about the backstory of one man who had an extraordinary life but who only featured on a dozen pages in the book. I gave his story as much attention as anyone else in the book.
This is what I mean by writing respectfully. Small details matter in military stories. The lives of the men and women who served matter. The lives of civilians who supported them matter. The lessons they teach us matter. This is what matters to me as a writer – being respectful of the history that I have the privilege to be able to write. And I respect the generosity of the people who help me with the research. They take time to share their stories and expertise and to help me to understand the detail of what needs to be written.
Writing about stories that are not my lived experience means putting my ego outside the metaphorical door and remaining curious and thoughtful in everything I place on the page.
Let me know how you create things that are outside your lived experience. You can find me on via Twitter/X and FaceBook @MarvellousMinds and Instagram and Threads @MarvellousMindsCreatives
Publisher: Double Dagger Books https://doubledagger.ca/