We constantly hear that we should write what we know. But there are plenty of things we don’t really know, but we write about anyway, like casting spells or space flight or fighting dragons. Now I’ve written before about ways to tap into your own experiences to add a feeling of authenticity to writing, but today I’m going to offer a much neglected service.
Plenty of books involve military situations, or if they don’t directly involve war and armed conflict, they feature characters who are veterans of conflict. Now there are lots of things you can do to try to get a feel for the experience of the character. You can go to a gun range so you can hear the report and smell the burnt powder and feel the recoil. You can know what it’s like to look through the back sight and line up on a target. You can try fencing or Kendo or HEMA style sword fighting if that fits your era, or any martial art to experience some level of trying to hit a guy who is trying not to be hit and hitting you back. You can play paint ball, and experience the thrill of hyperviolent hide and seek in the woods. You can do archery. You can go to re-enactments and museums. You can go camping so you can say you slept in a tent one time.
But these things miss a big part of the infantry experience. Mostly because these things are fun. There isn’t really a place that lets you experience the boring, terrifying, uncomfortable slog of the footsoldier, unless you are willing to sign four years of your life away.
With just a few simple steps, you can, in the privacy of your own neighborhood, get the full grunt experience.
How, you ask?
Well, here are six easy steps.
1. Wait until the weather is lousy. This will depend on where you live. If you live in Florida, pick August. If you live in the northeast, wait for a rainy, chilly, raw day in– well, here in New Hampshire that can happen in like any one of ten months, but you get the idea. Maybe not January in Dakota because you will die and then you won’t finish your book.
2. Fill a backpack with stuff. Doesn’t really matter what, so long as it makes you grunt to lift it. Get some heavy boots. Cheap ones. Not L L Bean boots with gel inserts. Just work boots from Walmart. And a shovel. You will need a shovel. You’ll use it in Step 4, and the weight will help simulate a weapon, in case the local police aren’t too keen on you hiking the neighborhood with a real weapon.
3. Put on your pack, shoulder your shovel and take a long walk in the rain/sleet/snow/blazing sun. Like a really long walk. Now, you don’t need to actually simulate SEAL training, since plenty of us are too old and out of shape for that today, but it should be hard and miserable for you. Walk until you are breathing hard and your shirt is soaked through with sweat and your shoulders are chaffed from the packstraps and your feet have blisters and the boots feel like they are two surly toddlers clinging to your ankles trying to hold you back. Then turn around and march back to your house.
4. Dig a hole in the backyard. It should be deep enough that you can stand in it and just see over the lip.
5. Spend the weekend sleeping in the hole, eating bad food. MREs are perfect if you can get them, but they’re expensive, so cold Spaghettios or Dinty Moore Beef Stew are a good substitute for mid 20th Century C rations. If you want to go old school you need some biscuits so stale that you are worried that your teeth will break before the biscuit.
6. This is the most vital step. Find the sneakiest, most evil kid in the neighborhood. The one you are pretty sure will wind up in jail or a Republican Senate primary when he grows up. Promise him $50 if he can sneak into your yard and hit you with your shovel.
After spending a weekend filthy, sweating, freezing, wet, sore, tired, blistered, bored and exhausted, but too scared to sleep because some vicious little bastard is waiting in the dark to brain you with a shovel, you will have all the perspective you need to write any grunt from one of Caesar’s Legionnaires to Imperial Stormtroopers.