Writing Adventure 1: The Road to Adventure
edited: Friday, May 14, 2004
By J. M. Taylor
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Friday, April 09, 2004
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First in a series of articles about my wanderings down the road to writing adventure.
My Road to Adventure
Occasionally an orbiting Spooky gunship would call in a suspicious sighting, maybe spotted employing the Air Force's then-new top secret night vision sight using low-level TV, or keyed by the infra-red track of a truck barreling south under the trees winding down a branch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
It was just into the dry season, probably October or so, just east of Tay Ninh, South Vietnam, close to that protuberance of the Cambodian border aptly named the Parrot's Beak from its shape on the map. Nights alternated between boring and exciting in the sandbagged bunker listening to the hiss of the radio and the Coleman lanterns, slapping mosquitoes. I would search the map coordinates radioed in by Spooky and compare the locations with our plot of the friendly Cambodian and Vietnamese troop positions cross border, off limits for us American's. If all the good guys were clear of Spooky's target area, I'd give the go-ahead to shoot. The next few minutes everyone in the Tactical Operations Center would bend closer to the hissing speaker, sweat dripping, listening intently for the gunship to come back with a damage assessment. A note in the log, then back to the mosquito war.
In contrast, the afternoons were lazy, perched high in an observation tower waiting for the night shift to start. Often a breeze drifted across from the jungle, cooler than trying to sleep in the tin-roofed hooches housing the handful of Americans supporting South Vietnamese army cross-border operations into Cambodia from the US Army’s abandoned 25th Infantry Division base camp. I remember thinking about Bernard Fall’s Hell in a Very Small Place as I looked out across the jungle from the tower. Fall's account of the North Vietnamese encirclement of the French positions at Dien Bien Phu in 1955 remained vivid in my mind, as were the old National Geographic photos of the Mainland French and Colonial paratroopers dropping from C-47’s to reinforce the beleaguered camp.
May 7, 1954 - Vietnamese forces occupy the French command post at Dien Bien Phu and the French commander orders his troops to cease fire. The battle had lasted 55 days. Three thousand French troops were killed, 8,000 wounded. The Viet Minh suffered much worse, with 8,000 dead and 12,000 wounded, but the Vietnamese victory shattered France's resolve to carry on the war.
In 1968 the North Vietnamese had tried to bring back history at a place called Khe Sanh. Close to the Seventeenth Parallel dividing North and South Vietnam, the Marines built a base of operations in the Khe Sanh valley astride one of the many branches of the Ho Chi Minh trail. In outward appearances, and to the men subjected to the North Vietnamese assaults, the sprawling complex was an uncomfortable parallel to what happened to the French at Dien Bien Phu - an isolated base camp on a low plateau surrounded by commanding hills with extended lines of supply - vulnerable to direct fire from hidden gun emplacements.
The NVA reported 1600 men dead - two divisions shattered. The Americans lost 250 men. The finale was overshadowed by the overall events of the Tet Offensive, a military victory for the Allies, but a psychological victory for the North Vietnamese.
So during the dull afternoons I pulled out a sweaty spiral notebook and scratched out an essay comparing the siege of Khe Sanh to the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Later, back at the base camp at Long Binh, with the battle for Dien Bien Phu still on my mind, I began my first novel on a little portable typewriter with the opening scenes set at Dien Bien Phu. Still unfinished, this rough draft was my first real thought about serious writing.
For the remainder of the time I was in the Army, like most service members, I worked long demanding hours and just didn’t have the energy and imagination after work and family to write, or even seriously think about writing. I admire those who are able to hold down a full-time job and write on the side, but I wasn’t one of them. Plus I didn’t have the foggiest about the skills needed to write, didn’t even realize the craft existed.
I thought you just wrote - I was wrong.
You can think about writing, imagine situations in your head, and mentally describe interesting characters to yourself. But you aren’t a real writer until you follow Alex Haley’s dictum:
"Apply your seat to the seat."
In context - Only if you sit down and write will you ever really be a writer. And to be a writer read by others, you must express interesting thoughts in interesting ways. One of my favorite examples of writing that will endure forever, even in the old English:
"...Who casts not up his Eye to the Sunne when it rises? but who takes off his Eye from a Comet when that breakes out? Who bends not his eare to any bell, which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell, which is passing a peece of himselfe out of this world? No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."
An excerpt from John Donne's "Meditation XVI" written about 1624
Every writer dreams of crafting such eloquent words, quoted for hundreds of years after their death and recognized by anyone familiar with English literature, an excerpt even used as the title of a popular novel that became even more famous. Dreaming about writing is great - but most people never get beyond this point. How many times have you heard - or maybe even said: "I’ve got a book in my mind if I ever get around to writing it."
I wanted to write exciting books like Tom Clancy's - military-techno-thrillers featuring characters with Jack Ryan's appeal. I read Clancy’s works and many other modern military authors to include Dale Brown (Flight of the Old Dog), Stephen Coont's (Flight of the Intruder) and Harold Coyle (Team Yankee), in addition to my old favorite action and suspense authors ranging from Edgar Rice Burrows to Robert Louis Stevenson to Robert Ludlum. And I wanted to include the reality of military life and war so well crafted by W. E. B. Griffin in his Brotherhood of War series.
For classic novels that also happen to be set in the tragedy and turmoil of war, I re-read Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Then I remembered how a character could drive an adventure story, as crafted by Nevil Shute's Trustee from the Toolroom. Reading all of these reminded me that every good book has common elements embodied by a certain writing craft - engaging characters involved in resolving critical dilemmas, in sometimes unique, but always interesting, settings. Not surprising, I discovered that Robert Louis Stevenson also wrote about writing in his book, The Art of Writing, and even named his own favorite authors. (I'll list mine in a later edition.)
My next attempt at a novel began while I was assigned to the Rapid Deployment Task Force in Tampa, Florida - the bastard child of Readiness Command - kluged together to focus our military efforts in the Middle East, and the predecessor to Central Command, the organization orchestrating the war in the Middle East.
Living in Tampa reinforced my interest in one of my all-time favorite authors, John D. MacDonald and his hard-bitten character Travis McGee. MacDonald's McGee lived on a fictitious barge, the "Busted Flush," won in a poker game and docked at Fort Lauderdale. Hard on the inside, but generous to a fault to the underdog, McGee was a character who could save the world (or at least South Florida) and get drunk, all in the same night. MacDonald's stories are so real that people still go to Lauderdale and walk the docks searching for the Busted Flush.
McGee's exploits and my participation in several writing workshops inspired me to write my first completed novel, Flash of Emerald, set in Tampa, Ybor City and the Florida Keys. This novel, Flash of Emerald, an EPPIE winning thriller, contains elements of what I know best: military people and operations ranging from intelligence gathering to nuclear weapons; South Florida swamps, towns and cities including MacDill AFB; the beautiful and potentially dangerous world of scuba diving, all mingled with a touch of terrorism and old Soviet villains. The characters all came out of my mind, of course.
So I wrote my South Florida novel, and began a sequel. But there was still something unfulfilled.
Coming Next - Adventure Writing 2: Middle Eastern Culture, An Enigma.