Saturday, February 29, 2020

The secret to best-selling military fiction: Author Larry Bond talks about writing and research

I'm a great believer in thorough research for several reasons, but one non-obvious reason is that it's easier to write about what's real than make it up. - Larry Bond, author.

Those of you who love military fiction would probably have heard of American writers like Tom Clancy and Larry Bond.

Larry launched his writing career in the mid-1980s when he co-wrote the war story, Red Storm Rising, with Tom. The book was an instant hit. Red Storm Rising tells the story of a fictional conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, describing how war might unfold with contemporary weapons then fielded by NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The book also described speculative platforms like stealth fighters. The bestseller has been used as a text at the United States Naval War College and similar institutions. 

We are honoured and humbled to have had the opportunity to learn about writing from Larry (seen above in 2018). Here are excerpts from Senang Diri's Q&A with Larry Bond.

1. How long did it take you and Tom Clancy to plan and write Red Storm Rising, counting from the day the idea
 was first raised till the book was published?
LLB: We weren't keeping exact track, but I would say about 1.5 years.

2. In the pre-internet era, what were three challenges when researching military themes?
LLB: Information had to come from commercially published sources or personal contact. Often the kind of information Tom wanted wasn't about the technical characteristics, but the subjective experiences of service members. We made field trips to Aberdeen Proving Grounds, the Norfolk/ Virginia beach area to interview operators and get hands-on experience.

I can't list "three challenges." Our goals were:
  1. To depict the operation of military equipment and service members in a plausible, easily understood narrative.
  2. To craft an exciting story with a military theme.
The tanks, fighters, and other gear in Red Storm and all the other military thrillers serve the same purpose as horses in a western or swords in a samurai story. They are tools that the heroes need to do their job. They can be unusual or flashy, but should never become the center of attention. The story is about the characters, not the equipment.

3. What impact has the internet had on the speed with which you can uncover information for your writing?
LLB: I have yet to find a single app that lets me type faster, but there are several tools that I would miss if the internet disappeared.
  1. One of the ones I use most is the ability to check the spelling of foreign names or words. Before I had to use the dictionary or an atlas, with much page turning. This allows me to get back on task quickly.
  2. Another is Google Earth and Google Maps, which lets me easily place the action in real-world locations. I can either find a location suitable for the action, or shape the action based on the actual terrain, which makes the writing almost an interactive experience.
  3. The ready availability of photos and diagrams, and better yet, videos. It's great to call up a YouTube video of a tank firing or a missile launch and keep that in mind while I describe it.
4. How has the US DOD responded to the plots and concept of operations for various weapons described in your books? Was there ever a concern you had described events or battle scenarios too close to reality?
LLB: None in my recollection. I have asked questions during visits and interviews that were not answered, based on classification, but nobody's ever raised a fuss. Once service members see that you're trying to get the story straight, they'll work with you to help build the story. And the best stuff isn't classified. 
When I visited a fighter squadron while researching Red Phoenix, they helped me figure out which widget on an F-16 could get shot up so that our hero could fly for a little while, but not make it all the way back to base (engine oil pump). They also shared personal experiences of ejecting from an F-16, which was amazingly useful, and little bits of fighter culture that I'd never find out on my own.
While the internet helps a lot, it can only answer questions you ask. It can't tell you what you didn't know you needed to know.

5. How do you balance writing a credible story with the need to preserve opsec? Does self-censorship even arise when you are writing?
LLB: Security never's been an issue. I've had security clearances, and there are two broad categories of classified information: Technical specifications, and operational plans. The technical stuff is so far down in the weeds that it would bore a reader, and isn't necessary to tell the story. The operational plans - what they actually plan to do - don't matter, because I've got my own plot, and by the way, I know what battles will be won or lost by each side before I start typing. The good guys cannot get their act together before the end of act two.

6. How would you respond to people who suspect that classified information was used for your books, which is why they sound so authentic?
LLB: That they don't understand a) How much information is available in the public arena, and b) that you don't need that kind of information to tell a good story. 
After Hunt For Red October was published, and people I worked with found out that I knew Tom, asked me to confirm that he was with the DIA or ONI or some other alphabet agency. Tom had never been in the military and had never had a security clearance. If you read HFRO carefully, looking for "sensitive details," there aren't any.
And here's a writer's trick. If you're missing a piece of information, write around it.

7. Do you work out your plots in advance before beginning each novel?
LLB: Absolutely. Not only because I want to avoid writing myself in a corner, but because the story usually has many events happening around the world, and the sequence is important. It makes starting a new chapter easier if I know in general what's supposed to happen.

8. Do your characters ever take on a life of their own and influence the direction of your stories?
LLB: Yes. That's one of the fun parts. Obviously characters start out with certain roles, but as I write, and I have them react to each situation, sometimes the most honest reaction is not what I envisioned. It can result in a minor character take on a larger role, such as the Russian grandmother in Cold Choices, but it can also mean a minor character ends up disappearing when I discover that they can't advance the plot.

9. Do you write specifically for your readers or do you write the sort of novel you would like to read?
LLB: Both. If I can't stand my own stuff, I'd be a pretty poor writer. I try to write so that if someone in the military service reads it, they don't cringe, and hopefully enjoy it. And if it works for someone who's "in the business," then I know that the civilian reader is getting an authentic story.

10. Would you describe where you write? With portable digital devices, can you write on the go or is there a favourite desk/room where inspiration flows?
LLB: My office is a second-floor bedroom, making for a wonderfully short commute. I do believe in the "cabin in the woods" meme. If I'm writing away from the house and its distractions, even just sitting in an airline seat, my output increases. But I don't have a "special spot" - or maybe that's what my office is.

11. Do you have a word count per day or do you let the story develop naturally during each writing session? Is there a fixed time of day/night when you write best?
LLB: I start in the morning and write until I'm done. Starting in the afternoon doesn't work for me. I know other writers are much more productive. Unless I'm late, I'll aim for 1,000 words a day. I've peaked at about 2,500, but I think all three Muses were backing me up that day.

12. What's next, writing-wise?
LLB: I've got a lot of projects underway, but most of them have to do with our publishing company, the Admiralty Trilogy Group. Chris Carlson, who I've written the last six books with, and I have ideas for more more stories, but being a publisher takes up a lot of our time.

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