This is the first of a periodic series where I ask other authors to discuss the mistakes they frequently see in fiction about their day jobs or former professions. If you write, I hope these help bring authenticity to your work — or at least point you toward sources that help you get close. My first guest, Stephen Kozeniewski, is a former Field Artillery officer and author of the novel The Hematophages, recently released by Sinister Grin Press. Be sure to check out his bio at the end.
By Stephen Kozeniewski
Did you ever dream you were falling and then suddenly, just before you hit the ground, you’re jarred awake? That’s the sensation I experience when I’m reading a book and a service member says “roger that.”
Radio discipline is something that’s hard to get right in dialogue if you’ve never actually had to do it. Roger, you see, doesn’t have a last name. “Over and out” is another serial offense. “Over” means “I’m done speaking” and “out” means “I’m done speaking and this conversation is complete.” “Over and out” is just extraneous. But, more importantly, you get yelled at if you say it.
You get yelled at for a lot of things in the military. Some are important. Most are stupid. It’s the important ones that keep you from dying, but it’s the stupid ones that mark an author as an amateur.
Another example of something that’s hard to get right is forms of address. I cringe when a soldier calls a colonel “Colonel.” It should be “sir” or “Colonel Smith” if you’re in the army. For that matter, calling an NCO “sir” or (almost even worse) “Sarge” is a big no-no. Of course, that’s all army customs and courtesies. In the Air Force it’s perfectly fine to say just “Colonel.”
I’ve done beta reads for several authors to check their depictions of the military. Honestly, though, I should really only check work that features the army between 2004 and 2008, which is the branch I served in and time frame during which I served. I worked with airmen and marines, so I know a little bit about how they do things differently, but I’m hardly an expert.
You’d probably say I’m hardly even an expert in the army, with the limited length and scope of my career there. For instance we would’ve called “A Battery” “Alpha Battery” whereas during World War II it would’ve been “Apple Battery.” (Both start with an “A,” but the NATO alphabet we currently use didn’t come into common usage until after the world war.) So if you can, I’d recommend finding a service member from both the era and branch you’re writing about to see if they’ll go over your manuscript. They may only find small things, but every cringe you save a veteran will seriously raise your cool points.
Stephen Kozeniewski lives in Pennsylvania, the birthplace of the modern zombie. During his time as a Field Artillery officer he served for three years in Oklahoma and one in Iraq, where, due to what he assumes was a clerical error, he was awarded the Bronze Star. He is also a classically trained linguist, which sounds much more impressive than saying his bachelor’s is in German.
His latest book, The Hematophages, is the story of doctoral student Paige Ambroziak, who joins a clandestine deep-space mission she suspects is looking for the legendary lost vessel Manifest Destiny. The mission takes her to the blood-like seas of a planet-sized organism infested by lamprey-like monstrosities, and she soon learns that there are no limits to the depravity and violence of the grotesque nightmares known as… the Hematophages.