Why would any writer choose to write a novel about a subject he or she is completely unfamiliar with?
There are subjects I know quite a bit about, at least for a layman: genetic engineering, the history of chess, Tudor England, classical ballet. I have written about these things. However, in If Tomorrow Comes, the sequel to the 2017 Tomorrow’s Kin, a large part of the plot is military. I have never served in the military; no one in my family has served since WWII with the exception of my niece, who is a Navy JAG. She battles with legal briefs, not M4s. But a major viewpoint character in my novel, Corporal Leo Brodie, is a young Army sniper who washed out of Ranger School with the elite 75th Regiment.
Why write this character?
The “how” involved a lot of research—really a lot. I read memoirs by Rangers who served in Iraq. I did online research for updates. I read the Ranger Handbook: Ranger Training Brigade, United States Army Infantry School (and I can now construct a field antenna, should the need ever arise). I read parts of the Manual for Courts Martial, especially Articles 90-94, which deal with disobeying orders from commanding officers. And then, just to make sure I did not make a fool of myself, I hired an ex-Ranger to read and correct the manuscript. He was incredibly helpful.
One of the oldest saws in writing is “Write what you know.” Yes, good, do that if you like. But you don’t have to. Tom Clancy, author of such books as Th Hunt for Red October and Patriot Games, never served in the military (he flunked the eye exam for ROTC). In The Dispossessed the late Ursula LeGuin, not a physicist, created the wonderful character Shevek, who was one. William Gibson has said that when he wrote Neuromancer, he’d barely seen a computer. And no writer has ever been to Mars, scene of many SF novels.
If you want to launch into areas totally unknown to you, or set a story in a place you’ve never been, or create a character with a job you’ve never done, you can. But you need to (1) read a lot, and not just for facts. I wanted to know what it felt like to, for instance, patrol a perimeter. (2) Use the Internet, but judiciously because there is a lot of wrong information out there. (3) Talk to people who have done that and been there. Learn all you can from them. And then, when the book is done, find someone (maybe the same someone) who will, for love or money, read what you’ve written and correct whatever is wrong.
That’s the how. What about the why? Why would I, a middle-aged (and that’s polite), female, non-military writer create Leo Brodie?
I believe that fiction is better when the author is intensely involved with the characters. Brodie seized my imagination. For months I thought, breathed, dreamed Leo Brodie. Every time I sat down at the keyboard to write Leo’s scenes, I wanted to become him, echo his thought patterns, embrace his values (not all of which are mine), inhabit a twenty-four-year-old male body in superb physical condition who can make kills at incredible distances. I didn’t completely succeed, of course—we never do—but I tried.
I did the same with my other viewpoint characters, but they were easier. Marianne Jenner, the protagonist of Tomorrow’s Kin, is also a major character in If Tomorrow Comes. She and I share gender identification, age, motherhood. Dr. Salah Bourgiba and I share some background, even though I am not a medical doctor. Although here, too, I had an expert, an M.D., read the final manuscript. She made many valuable suggestions.
If Tomorrow Comes takes place on an alien planet, Kindred, in an alien culture, and in the future (although not that far in the future). In Tomorrow’s Kin, the (sort of) alien Kindred came to the aid of Earth. Now Earth is going to the aid of Kindred—although not in the way, or with the outcomes, that they expected. Leo Brodie, Marianne Jenner, and Salah Bourgiba are also launching into the unknown.
As SF, and SF writers, have always done.
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