Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Guest Post by Trish Doller: Researching Military YA

Reading all these YA books this week got to me to thinking about how much research must go into these books to get the facts and the tone right. Fortunately, Trish happened to comment on a tweet about Purple Heart that she was writing Military YA, so I asked her to share her research process. And boy was I blown away by the sheer amount of time and effort she's been putting into her new novel. So here's Trish:

My current project--tentatively titled The New Normal--is about Travis Stephenson, a young Marine who comes home from Afghanistan, wounded on every level. Too much more would be spoiler-y, so let’s leave it at that.

I got the idea after doing a newspaper interview with a 19-year-old Marine who was home for the holidays after being deployed to Iraq at the beginning of the war. It struck me then that he had seen and done things that his high school friends couldn’t even imagine--and how different it must feel to be around those people afterward. You might say he was my initial research, along with several other local soldiers who shared their stories of Iraq with me while I worked for the newspaper.

Since getting serious about writing Travis’ story, I have read a ton of books, including firsthand accounts like Colby Buzzell’s My War and Ryan Smithson’s Ghost of War. I’ve read books about Marine Recruit Training (boot camp) at Parris Island and Evan Wright’s account of being embedded with the 1st Recon Marines, on which the HBO miniseries Generation Kill was based.

Speaking of Generation Kill, I’ve watched each episode at least a half a dozen times--not only from a technical standpoint, but to study the way the characters interacted with each other. And while the world was buzzing about The Hurt Locker, I was using it as research material, as well.

I also have a real life Marine who serves as my “nitpick questions” advisor. He’s answered stuff like, “Is it realistic for a guy to graduate boot camp, be assigned to a unit that’s deployed to Iraq, and go join them?” and “How likely is it that two guys from the same recruit platoon would be assigned to the same unit?” While I have no idea if any of this information will make the book, you just never know.

Because my story is about the war in Afghanistan, I’ve been following the blog of an Air Force officer stationed there. He features pictures and accounts of his daily life. I also monitor the news all day long because Operation Moshtarak is happening now. Every single day there are pieces of information that weave themselves into the story. I have a Muslim friend who helps me maintain authenticity when it comes to the people. I’ve studied the weather, the food, the culture, and even what languages are spoken in which parts of the country.

But because my story is also about a young man returning from combat, I’ve also read endlessly about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In fact, I even bought The PTSD Workbook and began filling it out as if I was my character to find out what he might be feeling and how he might respond to his surroundings. One of my friends spent time in Iraq and I am constantly reading her bits of the story to make sure Travis’ responses are natural.

In addition, Travis has been physically injured, so I’ve done some research on his type of injury. In fact, after I started writing, I discovered a real life Marine who has suffered the same injury. I emailed him to ask if he’d answer questions for me, but sadly, never heard back. So far, I’ve used the Internet for medical research, but I can see that soon I will need to speak with medical professionals so I know what his timeline for recovery will be, as well as what sort of aftercare he will perform on himself.

Of course, my character is not living in a vacuum, so I’ve been spending a lot of time scouring forums for military parents. There I’ve discovered how afraid they are for their children and the stress they experience when their soldiers don’t call or write. They support each other and they’re full of interesting tips on what to include--and what not to include--in care packages. Did you know that some of the guys asked their moms to send them solar showers because of a lack of hot water? All of these little tidbits serve to make the story more authentic.

Everything I’ve learned has been fascinating, so much so that it’s hard to know when to stop, when “enough” research becomes “too much”. But I’m only on my first draft, so I don’t think I need an intervention--yet.

Trish Doller is a pre-published author, represented by Kate Schafer Testerman (a.k.a. Daphe Unfeasible). She lives in Florida with two dogs, two teenagers, and one husband. Visit her website at (You can also read a kick-ass excerpt from The New Normal there.)


Sandy Nawrot said...

Awesome guest post. You know, we tend to have a romantic vision of authors sitting in their beautiful den, overlooking their garden and writing out their hearts. Which I am sure happens, but never do we imagine they are involved in an almost grueling project of research. I have so much admiration for authors that take it to that level!

Library Cat said...

Fantastic post. As a librarian, I often think about the authenticity of books that I read. Even compare it to my own research for history papers - tons of research, all in my head, then ideas floating about, and finally something down on paper. Painstaking - so I really cannot even imagine this same process hundreds of time more intense to have an outcome like a novel. Thank you for telling us about your work.

bermudaonion said...

I've wondered the same things about these young men returning from the horrors of war. Vance has a friend who served in Iraq and is now in Afghanistan and I worry about him all the time!

bookaholic said...

Lovely guest post :)

Sas (Squishy133) said...

Wow! That was really interesting! There is so much work that goes into military novels that I completely took for granted.
The insight into a genre that I'm not all that used to was really great.
Much appreciated Trish and Lenore. :)

Zibilee said...

Wow! Great guest post! It does indeed sound like the authors of these types of work do an awful lot of research and leg work, which is really impressive when you think of it. I will have to try to keep my eyes open for Doller's book. It sounds like one I shouldn't miss.