How To Write Military Sci Fi When You Have Never Served?

Updated: Apr 26, 2019

Many say it’s probably impossible to write good military science fiction when you have not spent a day in uniform. Look at some of the big names in the genre. David Drake, Robert Heinlein, JF Holmes (Hi boss!), John Ringo, Brad Torgensen, and Michael Z Williamson? They all served and let’s face it, they use that knowledge to turn out great works all the time. Hell, I read their stuff voraciously. To me, Hammer’s Slammers taught me more about the futility of Vietnam than anything else, and Redliners was one of the best novels about veterans “coming home” I ever read (Yes, they’re both by Drake, he was a big influence in my teenage years).

But let’s say you never served a day in uniform? Is it possible to write in the genre and not serve a day in uniform? Well, I’d say “ask David Weber.” He certainly managed to create the Honorverse, which is believable, and the books have certainly taken on a life of their own.

But not everyone is David Weber. So how do you, the complete neophyte (waves hand) make a go of a genre where you have an audience who is going to ruthlessly point out every error there is (hi fans! We still love you guys!) .

First, there is read and research. I am lucky that I am a history grad, history is a great place for any Mil-Sci Fi author to unashamedly steal from (ask David Drake). To me, some of the great stories of history are just plain awesome in a sci-fi setting, and if you fudge a detail or two to make a better story, so be it? What you don’t want to fudge, the experience? Try like hell to get that right, with some grounding through my very short time in Army ROTC (till that darn epilepsy kicked in). I also was a service brat in NAS Rota, Spain in the early 1980s, so there is a tiny bit of grounding, albeit it a tiny bit.

I also had other influences, such as a couple of little games back in the 1980s, like Traveller, Twilight:2000, and Battletech (the last one had some decent writing from some then unknowns in the industry, Mike Stackpole being one of them). All of those games had great writing and plots, and probably, along with D & D, created an entire generation of writers.

Second, talk to the veterans, know what they were feeling, in so far that they can tell you. People in combat get scared, tired, and not a little bit emotional. From what I have been told (and yes, Virginia, listen to the veterans when they tell you something, it’s probably a good story idea in the making.) But know the “ticking time bomb veteran” is honestly, a damn overused trope I try like hell to stay away from.

My Grandfather was a sufferer of PTSD, didn’t keep him from raising a family, establishing a

career and influencing the writing of this writer for years to come. The only thing he ever shied away from talking about from his experiences during World War II in the ETO was Ordhruf Nord. Our family is Eastern European Jewish, and he was only the second generation born here. Bit too close to home that, I think, but even that can influence writing. His biggest issues? Insomnia, a bad temper, and an aversion to loud noises. I’ve found that to be quite common with that sort of thing, but again, I could be wrong.

Another thing? Don’t be afraid to read the writing of other writers critically. It’s the best lesson on how to learn the craft. Especially in this genre. I admit my writing’s been influenced to some extent by every author I have mentioned in this post. And yeah, I expect, if I ever make something of myself in this industry, perhaps my writing will influence someone else. It’s the way this works. That doesn’t mean plagiarize. It means, take what you like from a style, and make it work for you.

Don’t also be afraid to get ideas from other entertainment, not whole plot ideas, but how things look, (description of equipment, or starships are really awesome here) or how characters look, or act. Be careful with this, as lifting dialogue wholesale is a really bad idea. “Tuckerizing” friends and family is also cool when you are stuck for names. (Be careful about this, my wife is still ticked she died in the first few moments of my short story!).

Talk to other authors and veterans, especially those who have “seen the elephant”. Getting them to see if your work “passes the smell test” is always welcome. My stepfather has “been there, done that” in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he noted some issues with my use of radio procedure. That said, it was also the French in the future, which comes to another point…while research and getting it right are a good thing, fudging it for the sake of the flow of the story isn’t always a bad thing. Just don’t do it too often. Again, most readers of Mil Sci-Fi are in the military, and respecting the reader’s suspension of disbelief is paramount above all else.

Finally, never stop learning. Be it from history, or from current science and technology trends. Keep note of what’s out there. If it sounds feasible, use it. There’s plenty of cool out there if you know how to apply it. That said, be careful about people’s copyright.

So that’s my bit of advice. I am a bit of a neophyte here, and have a ton to learn in both the craft, and the industry, but I am eager to learn. Perhaps I’ll revisit this blog post in a year, and see what I’ve learned since then? Be an interesting thing to do in my opinion.

But the biggest rule of them all, and this applies to all writers? Keep writing. Writing is like a muscle. It only gets stronger if you put it to use. So, get off your duff, and use it. Your initial stuff may stink, mine did. But it will get better the more you write. That, I promise.

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