writing

On Reading and Research

Oh, the wonder of books!  I don’t just read a book, I savor it. There’s so much information I find hidden between the lines. Wasn’t it Dr. Seuss who said “Oh the places you will go!”?Before technology I managed to blitz through 2 books a week. With the distractions of writing a weekly blog, writing a book, and life in general, I’ve become a slow reader. My list of “wanna reads” grows ever longer. Certain books I’ve read up to 10 times – “To Kill A Mockingbird”, “Catch 22”, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, “The Catcher in the Rye”, and “Generation Kill.” And then for kicks on the side, I write book reviews. Dr. Seuss, how right you were about the wonder of books.
My own novel is centered partly around a former Iraqi vet. The first book I read to get my bearings about the Marines and how to portray an officer, was called “A Random Soldier: In His Own Words.”  It was a true story. I was at the beach, and needed a beach book. To get some exercise, I walked into town to a used bookstore and picked up an autographed copy by Terri Clifton and her son. I immediately knew that Terri’s son was dead. Somehow I assumed it would be an easy beach read. However, it took me a full year to finish it. The middle of the book was filled with family photographs of Chad at various stages in his life, as well as him in uniform as a Marine boot. A boot is what a new recruit is called before he graduates boot camp. He kept a diary often quoting from mythology, history and songwriters as to how their writings matched his own beliefs. I learned so much reading this book, mainly about the history of the Marines, and military slang. But my longevity in completing the book was due to my fear of the inevitable –  Chad’s time served in Iraq, and his ensuing death. This kid was literally born to die a Marine. Holed up in another hotel room in Scotland, I cried my eyes out at the end because of Chad’s stoicism at what he believed about death and how unafraid he was of dying. He died at the age of 19, not old enough to vote, or order a beer in a bar.  Iraq and Afghanistan seemed to be such a waste as so many young lives have been lost, and for what? America, through Obama’s ineptness at utilizing our armed forces, has lots its battle against terror.
“Generation Kill” came in hand for research about the beginning of the Iraqi war. I also bought the DVDs on Amazon. This book was written by a Rolling Stone journalist who embedded himself with the unit for a year. Slowly, ideas for writing a novel came together. A soldier returning home from war. PTSD? Denial of PTSD?  So I interviewed a 24 year old Marine LT whom I will call Quint, who had wanted to become a lifer, but after 4 years in, chose to pursue a different path. He’d been in war in Iraq in the Al Anbar province – a hotbed of insurgent violence –  during the worst time – 2006-2009 – when IEDs were being used at an alarming rate, taking out entire convoys, or crippling Marines forever. Traumatic orthopedic surgeons from the U. S. volunteered to go,to Iraq to gain expertise in the worst orthopedic war injuries in history. This young Marine had watched a close buddy of his burn to death in the backseat of a Humvee where the powers that be chose to install child resistant locks on backseat doors. He himself returned stateside injury-free. Or, had he? Sometimes PTSD manifests itself while soldiers are still on the battlefield, and sometimes the soldier is successful in hiding his feelings, until one day, he seemingly explodes for no reason.
Having hailed from the mountains that grace Lake Glacier in northern Montana, this Marine grew up shooting elk and deer, meat which was used to feed his family. In Montana high schools, there are more recruiting offices than college guidance counselors. Despite pacifist parents, Quint never considered college, but always thought about joining the military. He scored high on a test his senior year offered as traditionally to students as SATs are in other states. Then, during Boot Camp, he again scored high in rifle range shooting. Inwardly proud, he opted to become a sniper.  But to his mother, it made her frantic with worry that he’d be put on the front line and killed within months.
This Marine was stationed at Fort Pendleton in CA and trained at 29 Palms, a faux Iraqi village created in the Mojave Desert, using actors as Iraqi insurgents and villagers. His mother was unable to drive to CA to see him off because while he received orders to go to Iraq in June, it was another month before he actually boarded the plane to start his first 7 month deployment. Quint took to deployments with ease having spent parts of his childhood camping with his father and playing war games at night in the mountains of White Fish where he lived most of his life. During battles in Iraq, he wore a camera on his helmet, and once returned from a mission,to call his mom in real time to tell her about it. Unnerved by this nearly instantaneous information, his mother refused to watch the video.  With her heart in her throat, she endured her only son’s active service by fundraising to send packages to the troops, singling out one soldier with a personal note and food, socks, disposable razor blades, underwear, and snuff.
Given that commitment in the Marines is 6 years, Quint was able to speed up the process for each deployment served and reduced his six enlisted years to four. He then spent another four years as a reservist, so the years 2006-2014 were spent as a corpsman, but he was only active duty until 2010. He was formally discharged in 2012. Back then, Marines on their way out were being encouraged to re-up. Not only that, but re-enlistment came with a monetary reward. Upwards of $60,000 was offered to each soldier to reenlist. But Quint felt that the moral quality of new recruits was lacking. Having been a member of Charley Company, the oldest and most famous company in the Marines, he felt that his time spent serving America had been better than what most companies endured because of the unity of fellow soldiers. He and one Marine, in particular, a fellow sniper, became so close that they could read each other’s minds and perform as highly skilled snipers without speaking one word. He felt safe when on missions with these soldiers, but the new recruits coming in were so young they didn’t, and couldn’t, understand the meaning of life enough to cherish it. Many were estranged from their families and were homeless.  Quint didn’t trust them like he had other members of Charley Company. In his time abroad, a dumbing down of the military had seemed to have occurred. In addition, it was rumored that former gang members who wanted to kill kill kill for the fun of it were joining up.
While not a national hero, Quint has pins/awards from his service to America. He was deemed a Rifle Expert and Rifle Sharpshooter.  Other medals include Medals for National Defense, a War On Terrorism Service Medal, Iraq Campaign, Ad Altair, which has something to do with the religion classes he took before enlisting.  Lots of colorful pins, and more ribbons and medals, plus numerous challenge coins. Challenge coins are made of real gold and can be painted on one side or both. They are literally works of art, meticulously painted with quotes painted on one or both sides. (I was given one to complete my novel by a Ret. Rear Admiral.) When Quint originally signed up, he couldn’t think beyond enlistment, but this time, a lot older and wiser, he opted for college, and paid for it with government bonds from the Marines. No matter how ironic it sounds, Quint’s long time goal is to build better bombs for warfare.
More research. Through our inept Veteran’s Administration, it’s been a long time coming for soldiers from the Vietnam experience to now to have their emotional injuries recognized with a confirmed diagnosis: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Getting treatment owed them by the Veterans Administration is a shameful mess. Patients have to wait years for an appointment. Suicide is the best option, sometimes 3 a day in various parts of the U.S. Our brave volunteer veterans suffer in silence from invisible aches and pains, headaches, sleeplessness, fear, no appetite, spurts of extreme anger, and obsessive thoughts that they numb with alcohol. One thing is certain – they’re killers now, and find that the adrenalin that kept them “up” in the battlefield, has drained them of mental and physical energy since leaving that arena.
In a book by British writer Joanna Trollope, I read about a British vet whose family misses him terribly but whose wife, his second, hopes he will retire soon so they can lead a normal life. Even though she knew the military was what he was about, she feels very alone without him and wants to return to work even though her responsibility of being a mother to three children comes first. The book is called simply “The Soldier’s Wife.” In America, being a soldier is the next to last lowest paid job other than police. For those whose husbands come home injured, wives face almost overwhelming emotional stress at how to support their husbands – sometimes having to go out and get jobs to offset medical bills, but mostly to offer support for those who’ve lost limbs, sight, hearing, and memory loss. According to a “New Yorker” article I read, in trial therapies of wounded soldiers, counselors found Ecstasy worked better than anything prescribed or unprescribed, for desperate, stressed out, suicidal veterans. Guinea pigs. Not only has the VA failed to get them their deserved benefits, but they’ve become Guinea pigs through private therapists who strive to be the first in finding a resolution to these men’s despair.
Continued research on my novel to create a “real” soldier kept Netflix busy as I sat transfixed, taking notes on “Generation Kill,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Restropo”, “Full Metal Jacket”, “Jarhead,” “Good Morning Vietnam,”, “Battle for Haditha,”, “Band of Brothers”, “Black Hawk Down,” and “Platoon.” I also purchased through Amazon used and new war movies not available through Netflix, such as “Combat Diary”, “The Making of a Seal”, “West Point”, “Saving Private Ryan,” and then, at the movies, “Uncommon Valor,”
Have you ever read a book where you felt as close to the characters as though they were your own family? Writers must like their characters in the process of developing them. Even if I wrote about someone like Ted Bundy, in some perverted way he’d have had to turn me on to get every nuance about him across to the reader. It’s when you get bored with your characters that your writings are shoved in a drawer. This is why I enjoy research. Without it, as a writer, I’d be a liar. In this past summer’s beach read, “We Were Liars”, the main character duped me to the end. I never caught on to the plot until the last few pages, and I consider it one of the best books I’ve read of late.
My favorite kind of book to read is about dysfunctional families, and the one in my own book does not disappoint. Not so much a Pat Conroy “my father beat me for his sins” kind, but more introspective and observant of people’s nuances, facial expressions, and how they carry themselves at home and in public. “We Were Liars” is a tongue in cheek title for that book, and like my stories, with their spiking pyramids, true life events interwoven in fiction, and sudden endings, this book resonated with me so long that I wished I’d written it myself.
Take “What Alice Forgot” by Liane Moriarity. An Aussie by birth, her books are wildly popular in Australia and England. As a manic tennis player, I could immediately understand Alice’s addiction to sports, to the high that exercise lends one that can last all day. So for me…er, Alice, to take a dive off her spin cycle and end up with not only a concussion but amnesia, I easily  pictured myself in the same boat. Amnesia, written about in a humorous way, is funny. I can’t blame my forgetfulness on amnesia or dementia, or Alzheimer’s, but I certainly do forget a lot of things. This book includes a pivotal pyramid, starting in the midst of Alice’s crisis, move forward through her present life, then into her recent past, and at the very end, utilizing her history to bring the story to a close.
Another book about another Alice, “Still Alice” by Lisa Genovese, is an excellent but sad story about a Harvard professor who is struck by early onset Alzheimer’s in her early 50s. Lisa’s book on Alzheimer’s is very well researched so that you can quote the plot if you’re ever at an Alzheimer’s convention.
 ” Inside the O’Brien’s”, again written by Lisa Genovese, is about a police beat officer in Boston who develops strange symptoms while working. Th2014-07-27 19.20.54e first three chapters focus entirely on him, his pride in his job, his family, and friendships among his fellow tightly knit band of officers. Lisa Genovese is well known for writing about the impact of disease on families, and she nails it every time.
Jodi Picoult, one of my favorite authors, also writes about diseases, incorporating them into plot via characters, usually of young adult age. Although as an adult I am a big fan, her books are catalogued in the YA sections of libraries. She touches on heart disease, cancer, Asperger’s Syndrome, and life support, among a wide range of medically related topics.
More than 12 books have been written by Elizabeth Berg, who held a career as a cancer nurse before turning to writing full time. My favorite of her books is “Range of Motion,” where an icicle falls from a city high rise and hits a young husband and father in the head, thereby plunging him into several months’ coma. The possibility of this occurring to anyone is about 100 to 1, and yet it did happen in real life. Both Picoult and Berg use real incidents from the news to turn them into “what if” fiction.
I plunged myself into the Civil War with “Never Home” by Laird Hunt, but was disappointed. To me, it was just a story, nothing special. Trick ending, done before. Read the most recent Lolly Winston, “Happiness Sold Separately.” She isn’t a Donna Tartt, but Lolly Winston allows tired eyes to absorb her stories simply and refreshingly. Speaking of Donna Tartt, all her books are too long. I wanted to remove the snake charmer from “The Little Friend” because it really wasn’t needed in the story, more of a diversion than not. Most people stopped there and threw the book away. “The Secret History” was the most boring book I’ve read besides Moby Dick. And, “The Goldfinch” was just not plausible. To live with a father in the middle of nowhere and have just one friend, whose drug abuse borders on addiction. Enough, already Donna! She tends to focus on drug abuse as often as Conroy was addicted, no pun intended, to stories of child abuse.
And then there are the books I still want to start, but haven’t.  “The Beautiful Forevers”, already about 150 pages in. “Same Kind of Different As Me,” about 15 pages in.  “Sparta” about a soldier returned from war – it’s like reading my already crafted novel with the same first three chapters. How overwhelmed the young vet is, how every surprise sound startles, how easy it is to reach for the faucet, how cold water can actually get. I also have a half read copy of “The New Yorker” in my possession, and 2 Vanity Fairs that sit on my bedside table, untouched.
Oh, the places I will go! As long as there are books in libraries, online and for sale, I’ll do my best to read, whether for research, or just plain fun. I encourage you to do so too. I’d also love to hear about what you’re reading and what were your favorites and why. I can keep them secret, or include them in this blog.

 

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