The Black Hills Veterans Writing Group assists veterans who want to write up their military experiences, perhaps with an eye toward publication. Some veterans may have few writing skills, having written little beyond the strictly utilitarian. Others are already quite sophisticated, perhaps even with a manuscript in hand.
Start with a Short Summary of Your Military Service
To think of writing a whole book about your military career is, for some, a surefire way of guaranteeing writer's block. A one or two paragraph summary is more inviting. Even if nothing further is written, you at least now have a personally constructed autobiographical anchor for the inevitable obiturary notice that family members must hastily throw together.
Because some veterans share almost nothing about their experience, it is understandable that notices are often notoriously meager. "He served in World War II" or "He was in the army in Korea" might be the only epitaph that future family will have access to.
Use Internet Photo Archives to Job Memory and Add Details
The majority of veterans probably have few photographs of their wartime experiences. In many battle zones, cameras are banned, sometimes along with diaries, because of the sensitive information that might fall into the enemy's hands. But photographs can stimulate the memory and fill-in you-are-there details that recreate a scene similar to the one you are trying to remember. The Internet, of course, is full of photo archives. Pictures can be turned into words once combined with personal memory and your own context. Check out the D-Day pictures at Normandy, for example.
Field Test Your Ideas at a Meeting
Making a brief presentation of your military background at a meeting provides a good mechanism for collecting and organizing what you want to say. You'll be able to inventory and focus your ideas. What better place than among friendly faces in an informal setting, especially when other veterans can add interesting anecdotes of their own. You'll probably leave the meeting with a healthy momentum to continue developing what you've started. This is just the frame-of-mind that's good to have when you start to write down your experiences.
Pass-around visuals like photographs help to anchor your thoughts, as do cherished war objects that you've saved over the years, like pieces of clothing, medals, patches, and battlefield souvenirs. What things did you say that seemed to catch their attention? Did the questions reveal interest areas that you should expand upon?
Let Other Veterans Read Some of Your Writing
If you get to the point that you've actually got some writing in hand, continue to field test samples of your writing to see what kinds of responses you get. Excerpts in Word, for example, even with photographs and links, can be be sent to those on the e-mail list at the same time the meeting announcement is sent. You can always include your e-mail address if you want comments sent directly to you. Knowing that your writing is reaching a "real" group of readers might help you explain things a bit more clearly and carefully and seriously.
Of course, your writing can be posted to this website too. Everybody in the world can potentially read your writing, though few actually will--because they won't know enough to look there, unless you tell them. Even so, feedback on your writing will help you grow new insights, especially if it's not all from family and friends who feel compelled to say nice things even if they'd rather be more critical. By posting just an excerpt, you won't feel that you're giving away the store to pirates and plagiarists. Besides, our copyright warning is at the bottom of every page.
Old Letters Home Can Help You Remember
Trying to recall past events can seem bewildering. Dates, places, people, and events seem teasingly easy at first, but can prove elusive. Letters home can be helpful in jogging memory, providing a glimpse into your actual state of mind during a moment long ago. Most letters are abbreviated and lack essential context. You can reconstruct many of the details years later. Without your explanations, most of these letters will be unintelligible to later generations of your family. As with old family photographs, they will eventually be thrown away.
Letters home were still the principal means of communicating with family right through the war in Vietnam. After that, ubiquitous e-mail and international telephone calls all but ended the centuries-old reliance on letter writing. A higher level of dedication is needed to save e-mails long-term, so most are simply erased.
Of course, letters from the front are not personal diaries that can be secreted away. Writing to loved ones back home means that the horrors of war will be softened, deleted, or simply turned into a more neutral tone of grumbling about discomforts and disappointments. After all, who wants to make family members deathly afraid or anxiety-ridden?
Khe Sanh veteran John Corbett describes this desire to protect while writing letters home:
I am caught up in the sequence of events here at Khe Sanh. Three weeks ago I had never heard of the place; I couldn't even pronounce the name. I use what daylight remains to write my first letter home. My parents have no idea where I am in Vietnam, nor do they know which Marine outfit I am assigned to. I don't want them to worry, so I lie in the letter. I write that I am with a Marine detachment in Saigon. I exaggerate and say that I have the opportunity, on weekends, to play a round of golf. I have written a bunch of lies. If I am wounded or killed here, they will find out soon enough, so it is needless for them to know where I really am. My lies will hopefully keep them from worrying, and I won't have to worry about them worrying about me. I have enough things to worry about here.” (West Dickens Avenue: A Marine at Khe Sanh)
However, Corbett’s plan failed when his fretful mother discovered her son in a photograph on the front-page of the local newspaper with a story about the Marines being surrounded and outnumbered at the battle site.
It can’t be forgotten that wartime mail is always censored in case it falls into enemy hands, who would welcome letters with information about tactical operations, future troop movements, and overall morale.
CDs and DVDs Offer Cheapest Publishing
Final copies can be published on cost-saving CDs or DVDs for friends and family members. Photographs, text, and videos can be easily formatted with existing home software, then reproduced. Links are possible, too, but probably won’t stand the test of time.
Print on Demand Publishing
“Print on demand” (POD) publishing is perhaps the current best alternative, resulting in a typical paperback book that looks exactly like most other books found in a bookstore. Beyond the text and photos, the writer is responsible for getting the manuscript ready to be printed, or “camera-ready.” This usually costs less than $500, even if you have to use the layout and editing services of other people.
Thanks to new technology, books are printed by the publisher as orders come in, seemingly one at a time. This eliminates the financial risk that worries mainstream publishers who must print thousands of copies that may not sell well enough to recoup costs and make a necessary profit.
Print-on-demand publishing should not to be confused, however, with vanity publishing which requires the writer to pay upfront for a thousand or more copies. The drawback of both forms of publishing is that marketing and distribution of the book is all but missing, not good if the author has dreams of selling lots of copies and becoming famous.
Even so, Amazon.com and similar online companies list print-on-demand books for free, and invite readers to review them. Besides, it’s safe to say that the best books will create their own markets, referrals and links flying from desktop to desktop. This is especially true of books that respond to unsatisfied market demands.
Be sure to use Google or similar search engine to survey every topic very quickly. These are short articles right on your computer desktop. You extend your knowledge, and test what you already know--or think you know. This can make you more confident as a writer. Start immediately by finding out what print-on-demand is all about. Begin by reading the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia pages on the print on demand and on self-publishing. It reliably provides a commercial-free evaluation and overview.
Use Online Tools to Quickly Get Up-To-Speed on a Topic
Wikipedia will undoubtedly become your most important research tool. You'll learn that some of our most famous writers published their own books: Stephen Crane, Benjamin Franklin, Zane Grey, Rudyard Kipling, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Paine, Edgar Allan Poe, Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg, George Bernard Shaw, Upton Sinclair, Gertrude Stein, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain. When one such book didn't sell, Thoreau quipped "I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself."
Study the Military Memoirs of Other Writers
Those writing memoirs know that studying the published memoirs of others will give them a smorgasbord of how-to possibilities about content and style. "What can I write about?" and "How should I arrange the material?" are quickly answered by example. With veterans from every war and nationality publishing their stories, you'll eventually find a formula that fits your own personality.
The Black Hills Veterans Writing Group was featured in a national journal, Composition