Thursday, June 21, 2012

Guest Post by A. J. Walker on Military Fiction

It's my pleasure to introduce A. J. Walker to you today.  And be sure to check out Hard Winter, A. J.'s latest book and first in the Timeless Empire series.  The book's links and description immediately follow the post.

Writing military fiction for those who have never 
heard a gun (or longbow) fired in anger

by A.J. Walker
Let’s face it: most writers are wimps. We spend our time in front of the computer or curled up on the sofa reading while our heroes are out slaying dragons and bench-pressing fair maidens. Yet so much fiction, especially fantasy fiction, is set in wartime. How can we write about this experience if we haven’t been in it?

Of course, some writers have, and it improves their work. Glen Cook spent time in the Navy and knows the military life.  It shows in his Black Company series. David Drake writes military science fiction informed by his time fighting in Vietnam.

For the rest of us there’s research. The first thing you learn when you start reading soldiers’ memoirs and books about military life is that a soldier’s primary concern is not the enemy. The average soldier only rarely confronts the enemy. His day-to-day concerns are more mundane. While some enlist in order to escape their past, they tend to find the past following them.

In my fantasy novel Hard Winter, the action takes place in an army marching to war. Recorro, the protagonist, is trying to figure out the secret of the Gatherers, strange spirits who randomly steal people from their beds. They’ve taken his wife and even stolen his memories of her. His unit is soon split apart between those who support their rulers and those who suspect the government to be behind the Gatherers. Like the Russian army in 1917, many lose faith in the war and soon there’s a second army forming inside the first.

Politics is only one of Recorro’s worries. Supplies is another. This is the case in every army. Rations are bad, pay comes late, boots wear out, weapons break on first use. Soldiers become scavengers to survive, and this gets them into all sorts of adventures before they ever see a battle. Like with many campaigns, the soldiers in Hard Winter find their lives growing steadily worse the further they march into enemy territory.

Soldiers also have lives back home, and these lives become obsessions when they’re in the field. A good example is the Civil War novel A Fine Likeness, written by military historian Sean McLachlan. While there’s plenty of fighting, the two heroes have other thoughts on their mind. The rebel guerrilla leader is thinking of his sweetheart back home (who’s being wooed by a rival) and figuring out how to get percussion caps for his men before they run out and can’t fire their guns. The other protagonist, a Union officer, is deeply in grief over his son’s death and agonizing over his wife’s visits to spiritualists.

Notice that I’m taking examples from all across history. The experience of the regular soldier hasn’t changed all that much. Whether he’s wearing armor made of bronze or Kevlar, he’s hungry, homesick, sleep-deprived, and alternately bored and terrified. It’s in these emotions, not those of the battle, that the real story can be found.

Here are some books that provide insights into the experience of the common soldier:

The Face of Battle by John Keegan. A celebrated military historian gives us a soldier’s-eye view of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme. The medieval section is the most useful for fantasy writers and includes such interesting details as how you’re just as likely to get crushed to death in the crowd as you are to get cut to pieces.

War by Sebastian Junger. An embedded reporter’s study of one American unit’s time in Afghanistan and the lasting impact it had on their lives.

Eye Deep in Hell by John Ellis. A detailed and grim account of daily life in the trenches of World War One. How do you take a bath in a trench? This book will tell you!

This list could go on for pages. Do you have any favorites you’d like to share?

A.J. Walker is an archaeologist specializing in the medieval period. In his spare time he writes fantasies and mysteries. Find out more about him on his AmazonPage and his blog, where he hosts the popular Medieval Mondays series. His latest book is Hard Winter. The back cover blurb is below.

His past has been erased, his future is uncertain, but he knows one thing—in the coming revolution he must choose which friend to support and which to betray.

The Dragonkin have ruled the human race for centuries, but now the eastern territories have broken away and a blight has left thousands of humans destitute. Assassinations and riots plague the cities.

While the empire’s future is in peril, one man struggles to reclaim his past. Recorro lost his wife to the Gatherers, shadowy beings that prowl the streets on moonless nights. Those who witness their passing are forever changed. Recorro can remember nothing about his wife beyond the fact that she existed.

Aimless and struggling with despair, Recorro joins the army gathering to crush the rebels. What he discovers there may answer all his questions, and topple the empire he swore to uphold.


  1. I have a fair amount of war in some of my stories. I do research and imagine what it must be like and try to capture it. Good post.

  2. One of my favorite military stories is "The Forgotten Soldier" by Guy Sajer. I've read it at least a dozen times and I cry everytime I read it. As you said, even the "mundane" things, when thrown into the middle of battle, suddenly become the most important - and heart wrenching thing ever. I tried to do this same thing with my military fantasy series. I hope I succeeded in doing that, relying on other soldiers to help me craft the story, since I myself have never served.

    Great post! Gives me the urge to work on my sequel! Woo!

  3. AWESOME guest post!!

    I tagged you for the Liebster BLOGGER Award! Check out my blog for more information: