Thursday, November 4, 2010

Murder to Mil-Spec: Challenging topic, good deed

Elizabeth Zelvin

I had already started work on a Christmas/Chanukah crime story, planning to submit it to Wolfmont Press for what I assumed would be the publisher’s fifth annual anthology of holiday crime stories to benefit Toys for Tots, when I learned that Wolfmont had a different agenda this year: creating an anthology of crime stories on military themes, to benefit a charity called Homes for Our Troops.

Any short story writer can write a holiday story, and nobody hesitates to contribute to a charity that gives toys to needy kids. A lot of writers, who, like me, had contributed to Wolfmont’s previous charitable anthologies sighed and capped their virtual pens, saying, “I can’t write a military story.” At first, I said the same. I thought I’d have to give Wolfmont a miss this year. And then, as so often happens after I say, “I can’t,” I got an idea.

I’ve since applied the technique for generating a story that I used on this occasion to other calls for submission on topics I don’t know much about. It’s simple enough: I said to myself, “I don’t know much about the military, but is there any aspect of the military that I do know something about?” The answer was, “Yes.” As a mental health and addictions professional who’s spent twenty-five years working with alcoholics and addicts in all walks of life, from celebrities and CEOs to the homeless, I know plenty about substance-abusing Vietnam vets and post-traumatic stress. And so my character, Larry, was born: an alcoholic Vietnam vet who works in a bar, is constantly on guard against his memories, avoids relationships, and thinks he has no future—and no choice but to go on exactly the way he is. I called the story “Choices.”

I’ve spent most of my life among people who are not particularly sympathetic to the military in general. On the other hand, just about everyone, regardless of political position, feels compassion for those who come home with severe disabilities. Homes for Our Troops addresses the dilemma of veterans who need housing that is accessible and adapted to their needs: doorways wide enough to fit a wheelchair through, for example.

The more I heard about Homes for Our Troops, the more I liked it. They go into a disabled veteran’s community and engage the people of that community in building a house for that vet. They supply the funds and special expertise, but everybody helps. It’s a lot like an old-fashioned barn raising. By the time the house is ready, the vet and his or her family know their neighbors and have become a warmly welcomed part of their community. Well worth the price of a $12 book of terrific short stories, don’t you think?

You can buy Murder to Mil-Spec at The Digital Bookshop in print and e-book formats, online at Amazon in print or Kindle, or online in print format at Barnes & Noble. The authors will also have copies to sign and sell as they appear around the country. For example, Barb Goffman and I will be reading from our stories at the public library in Reston, VA on December 7. The other talented authors, who have rung a dazzling variety of changes on the theme, include Terrie Farley Moran, Dorothy B. Francis, Big Jim Williams, Lina Zeldovich, Charles Schaeffer, Howard B. Carron, Brendan Dubois, Janis Patterson, S.M. Harding, and Diana Catt.


Supriya Savkoor said...

What a worthy cause, Liz, especially this time of year. I can't wait to read this collection.

Lina Zeldovich said...

I felt the same; I liked the idea, but I didn't know much about the military. I don't even have a distant relative with a military background. So for me the solution was to set my story partially in a war-affected country, and partially in a place I know; sort of use the flashback effect. Luckily I found a CNN clip on-line that featured a castle in Helmand, a province in Afghanistan, recently seized from the Taliban by the coalition forces. I watched it a dozen times, maybe more. Combined with everything I learned about Afghanistan from The Kite Runner and The Thousand of Splendid Suns, it gave me enough inspiration for the story.
The book came out great - every author had his or hers own vision, ideas, emotions. Reading it feels like traveling through time.

Terrie Farley Moran said...


When you say: "I’ve spent most of my life among people who are not particularly sympathetic to the military in general."

I say those are the very people we should remind that it is BECAUSE of the efforts of the people who serve/served in the military that we in America can cop an attitude about the military and express it without fear of retribution.

And I would remind men of a certain age who never served, that the only difference between them and the grunt who went to Nam is the fact that their family could afford/wangle a draft deferment: college, marriage, become a teacher, join the national guard etc.

Buying this book is but a "spec" of payback.

Terrie Farley Moran

Tony Burton said...

Thanks for posting today about the anthology. It really IS a worthy cause, and I'm so pleased at the quality of the submissions that came in for the book. It was really difficult to reject some of the stories, but there was only so much room!

Lina, you're right that it is like traveling through time. With stories set in World War II, Viet Nam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and everywhere in between, there is such wide variety there. And it's not all harsh, though we know war can be a terrible thing. It can also bring out the most honorable characteristics--like burning away the dross from gold ore.

I hope everyone who reads this will take the opportunity to buy a copy, not only to support this cause, but because the stories simply are outstanding!

Barb Goffman said...

Hi, Liz. Thanks from me, too, for promoting the book and Homes For Our Troops. It's a great cause. And I had a similar reaction to yours when I heard this year's anthology theme. It was along the lines of: Crap! I don't have any first-hand knowledge of the military. But then I thought that a good story includes real characters, emotions, and desires. And they apply no matter if the character is a soldier, a veteran, or a civilian. So I really did know the most important things.

With that in mind, I came up with a plot and started my research to get the details right. I have to give props to author Vinny O'Neil (a West Point grad), who spent a bit of time on the phone with me, answering questions so I could get my Army and Navy terms right. Thanks, Vinny! And thanks, Tony Burton, for once again taking your time and energy to put out a charitable anthology and to promote such a good cause! I hope everyone out there will consider picking this book up. You'll get a good read and do a good deed at the same time.

Maggie Toussaint said...

Sounds great, Liz. I like how your mind worked the topic around so that it became something you wanted to write about.

Wishing you all the best.

who's blogging at today!

Heidi Noroozy said...

An excellent cause, Liz. And an interesting approach to writing about a world you are not familiar with. I always learn something new from your posts!

S. M. Harding said...

It is a good cause. My inspiration came from news stories over the past couple of years -- guys who were claiming to be Vietnam vets and who weren't.
Diana Catt and I will be signing the book on Nov. 20, 2-4, Borders River Crossing -- so any of you in the Indianapolis area, please come.
Suzanne M. Harding

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