A Few Things I’ve Learned About Writing Military Science Fiction
By Vincent H. O’Neil (aka Henry V. O’Neil)
I’ve been writing for many years, and have published books in the mystery and horror genre in addition to military science fiction. I believe I’ve learned a few things going down that road, and would like to share a few of them.
Before I start, I want to repeat something that I say before every presentation I ever give on the topic of writing. Writing is highly creative and deeply individual, so everything in this article is offered as something that has worked for me that might be of use to you. If anything I say here sounds like it wouldn’t work for you, by all means ignore it.
You can find great inspiration in your research.
Although I’m a graduate of West Point and a former US Army Infantry officer, there are a lot of things I still need to know to write my stories, and so I spend a lot of time researching different topics. I’ve never been in combat, and so I read a lot of the first-person accounts from people who have. I feel it’s crucial to get a wide range of perspectives (career military and draftees, all the ranks, and as many of the different jobs as I can find) in order to develop characters who reflect a broad range of motivations and experiences.
I can’t tell you how many ideas and inspirations I’ve derived just from doing my research—which doesn’t have to terribly in-depth. The Complete Idiot’s Guides are an excellent source of basic information on a broad array of topics, and just learning the fundamentals of subjects ranging from theater arts to private investigation gave me the inspiration I needed to write at least two of my novels.
It’s helpful to read books in the genre you’re writing—and outside of it.
Like so many authors, I’m an avid reader. I learn a lot about this craft just by enjoying other people’s works, and I find it useful to go back and re-read passages that communicated the feelings I’d like to transmit in a given sequence. For example, John Steakley’s science fiction novel Armor is especially good at presenting the chaos of a futuristic battle, and Timothy Pressfield’s historical fiction (Gates of Fire and Tides of War in particular) contain highly evocative action sequences.
Some of the best research for military science fiction comes out of non-fiction history. If you’re looking for inspiration to create a twisted, dystopian government, the history books are loaded with them. If you want to describe the experience of soldiers operating in unfamiliar environments, personal diaries from antiquity to modern times are very helpful. From Xenophon’s Anabasis (a first-person account of an epic march through enemy country that’s also an excellent primer on adapting to the situation and overcoming obstacles) and Douglas Porch’s The French Foreign Legion (a superb history that follows the famous fighting force all around the globe) to Charlton Ogburn’s The Marauders (the complete history of Merrill’s Marauders in the Chine-Burma-India theater of World War Two, as told by one of its communications officers) and Walter Lord’s Incredible Victory (a riveting description of the World War Two naval Battle of Midway) the histories are an extraordinary resource.
No matter how much research you did, try not to show off about it.
I’ve read just enough about space travel and astrophysics to get myself in real hot water if I ever try to act like an expert. If you are in fact an expert, and can weave your knowledge into a compelling story with engaging characters, by all means do that. For the rest of us, a lot of the time it’s better (and less distracting for the reader) to simply demonstrate that the ship has artificial gravity and not go into an explanation of how it was achieved. This is, after all, science fiction.
In an early version of Glory Main I carelessly described the book’s faster-than-light method of travel as being intergalactic, but luckily two readers said that such a claim was a stretch even for this genre. Luckier still, it made no difference to the story if I changed intergalactic to interstellar, and so that’s what I did.
Remember to tell the story.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received as an author goes like this: You’re not a writer, you’re a storyteller. It’s helped me a lot, especially when I find myself trying to make a passage more literary than it needs to be. The most elegant turns of phrase and the niftiest tech gadgetry won’t save an uninteresting tale filled with one-dimensional characters—so make sure you remember to tell the story.
This is also good advice for overcoming writer’s block or simply keeping the page count growing: Tell the story. If you get hung up, ask yourself what comes next and then write that.
Life is messy—now and in the future.
Human beings are flawed and prone to mistakes, and when we act as a group it sometimes magnifies these deficiencies. Big organizations are infamous for poor communication, inadequate planning, lack of agility, and simple blind stupidity. Luckily these drawbacks can be used to create dramatic tension, moral dilemmas, and dire situations for your characters to deal with, while also presenting an imperfect world that the reader will recognize.
Action sequences, especially battles, can be presented using many different tools (multiple viewpoints, unreliable reports, and frenetic activity, just to name three) so don’t be too concerned with ensuring it all makes sense. The Duke of Wellington is alleged to have once said that a battle is very much like a dress ball, in that no two people will see the same thing or recall it the same way. If Wellington was unconcerned about explaining what happened when and why, there’s no reason for you to be concerned about it, either.
About the Author:
Vincent H. O’Neil (a.k.a. Henry V. O’Neil) won the St. Martin’s Press Malice Domestic Award for his debut mystery novel Murder in Exile: A Frank Cole Mystery in 2005. It was followed by three more books in the Frank Cole series (Reduced Circumstances, Exile Trust, and Contest of Wills) and a theater-themed murder mystery entitled Death Troupe.
His Lovecraftian horror novel Interlands features his first female protagonist, the graduate student Angie Morse who is searching the woods around Providence, Rhode Island for a lost stone obelisk once worshiped by a colonial-era cult that perished at its feet.
His Sim War military science fiction series is published by Harper Collins under the name Henry V. O’Neil. The first book in the series, Glory Main, was released in July 2015 and the sequel, Orphan Brigade, was published in January 2015. The third book in the series, Dire Steps, was released in August 2015.
Check out his website.