By Gwenna Sebastian (Guest Blogger)
I have a regular job, sadly, where I’m a medical biller and coder. While at the lunch table, we somehow got on the topic of snorkeling and scuba diving in Cancun. I off-handedly remarked that I have my “Open Water Diver” certification. My two lunch mates sort of looked at me. To which I said I was researching for a book I was writing at the time and my characters scuba dived. I wanted to be sure I knew what I was talking about.
One lunch mate remarked to the other, “Good God, I hope she doesn’t start writing about an ax murderer next!”
We all thought it was funny, but it did make me think about the fact that I love to research, almost as much as I love writing the story. It’s important to me and a point of pride that if I’m going to write about a character who does scuba dive, for instance, that I actually know what I’m talking about. Was it really necessary for me to take scuba diving lessons? I guess that depends. For me it was since I wanted to write from experience, not just based on what I read. For that novel, I didn’t want to bluff my way through it.
Over the last several years, I’ve been researching and writing about the Vietnam War. I obviously can’t experience it, but I do talk to vets who were there. For several years I even enjoyed the expertise of one Vietnam vet who worked in the entertainment industry as a military advisor for television and movies.
I’ve also handled an M-16 rifle and been inside a Huey helicopter. Again, it’s not the same as being there, but it gives me perspective. Understanding the “GI lingo” of the time, a colorful and often ribald mix that included Vietnamese and French, to me is important. And I can never have enough books on the subject.
The two main characters in my new release, Lost and Found, are both former military. Mark Connor is a Vietnam veteran who at 18 was drafted into the Army. Josh Myers is from another time. He joined the all-volunteer Marines because it’s what he wanted to do and survived the 1983 terrorist bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut.
There are big differences in being a Marine or an Army soldier and it’s important to me to understand what those differences are. Mark and Josh verbally spar and name call, constantly. It’s part of the military culture. In Vietnam, the Navy and Marines called soldiers "dog faces" or "doggies". So when Mark calls Josh an "ex-jarhead" or even "cupcake", both popular Army slurs, it is natural for Josh to call him a "dog face". It’s an understanding where both of them came from. Josh may not have served in Vietnam, but he is a former Marine and in many ways, it’s an acknowledgment that he knows who and where Mark comes from.
Mark calling Josh a "cupcake" right from day one is not a slur on Josh’s sexuality, especially since Mark is also gay. It’s simply typical of an Army soldier to call a Marine a "cupcake". Name calling within the ranks and the services is not only common, it’s expected. My son is a combat medic with the Army National Guard and he was called a lot worse by his sergeants back in basic training. All of his buddies were. In Vietnam, the Army nor the Marines for that matter weren’t nearly so “PC”.
I don’t expect all my readers to understand that, but I still wanted that authenticity. Mark, whose lover was killed back in Vietnam, still goes back to Vietnam almost every day in vivid flashbacks and nightmares. He relives it as if he was still that kid almost 40 years ago, riding in a “slick” or “humping through the boonies.”
I wanted you to experience his Vietnam.
His flashbacks in his POV are vivid and intense when he relives them. He doesn’t experience them as part of his past but rather as part of his present. He’s still a boonie rat in the bush and so he still thinks and speaks like a boonie rat.
It’s important to balance it, though. Not everyone understands all the nuances and differences and they may not necessarily want to. It’s really easy to overdo it- use too much of the research. The old phrase, “Less is more” really does apply. I could easily overwhelm a reader with all things Vietnam, but then what would be the point? The struggle that Mark is experiencing, his growing attraction for Josh, that’s the focus of the story- not his past in Vietnam.
It’s also easy to offend someone, however unintentional. Slurs toward the Viet Cong (VC) or North Vietnamese Army (NVA) can be inflammatory just as slurs against Arabs and Muslims are today. Mark might remember and experience the VC by much less polite names, but using those terms can be highly offensive, even if historically correct.
I hope that I struck a nice balance of authenticity without overdoing it and that you, as my reader, experience just enough of Mark’s Vietnam to better understand his past and struggles. It was an incredible time in our history, one I can’t resist exploring and writing about and will continue to in my future projects.
I’d like to thank Lisabet for inviting me to speak here today. I had a great time and hope to come back again in the future! And remember to thank a veteran, no matter the time they served, as they served for all of us.
Lost and Found by Gwenna Sebastian is published with Lyrical Press: http://www.lyricalpress.com/
BIO: Gwenna Sebastian lives in upstate New York with her husband and three cats. Her son is a medic in the Army National Guard, having recently served in the Iraq war. Gwenna has been writing since she was fourteen and has taken a keen interest in the military, gays in the military and especially in the Vietnam War. She’s a vocal supporter of Gay rights, Gays in the Military and Gay marriage. When Gwenna is writing or researching for her next novel, she’s a full time medical biller and coder for a billing company and teaches medical reimbursement part time in the evenings.
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Live Journal: http://gwennasebastian.livejournal