Back in September of last year I got involved with a project to supply flag cases to the families and loved ones of fallen US service members. I’ve been slow to get started on the cases for a lot of reasons, not least of which was the difficulty of reaching out to those families and loved ones. The first step was to let them know I’d received their information from the project organizers and that I’d be building the cases. These people had already received a letter from the government, maybe hand delivered by someone in uniform. Now here I come reminding them of that pain again. I like to think there’s an element of hope or goodness here, but I can’t ignore the fact that these particular cases wouldn’t be built without someone dying in combat.
I’m a veteran myself, and maybe that’s what makes it hard to think about the reason these cases are needed. There’s a solidarity that stays with you long after you separate from the service. The old saying stands true and strong: You can take women and men out of the military, but you can’t take the military out of them.
I can’t help but feel a pang of loss, sometimes a deep ache, when I think about the lives represented by the flags that will go in these cases. It doesn’t matter that I never met any of the five men whose cases I’ll build. It’s enough that I know they served to compel me to this task. This doesn’t feel like a labor of love. It doesn’t feel like a chance to prove my skill as a woodworker. It feels like a duty, albeit one where I get to choose the pace to completion. After e-mailing the five families I’d be building for, I took the first step of sourcing the wood I’d use. Most of it is coming from a stockpile of California walnut (Juglans californica) that my dad’s been storing for decades. Yesterday I went through the boards and pulled out enough to get at least three cases finished. I’ve had one family request cherry, and I’ll be getting that from a nearby wholesaler.
One of the families on my list is in a nearby foothill town, not far from where SFWA Comm. Director, Jaym Gates, spends time now and then. She graciously donated some valley oak (Quercu lobata) off the property. I’ll get enough material from these four logs for that one local case and its face frame, with some left over for another if need be.
I struggled to find a connection between writing and woodworking with this post. What could a writer, veteran or not, take from this blog today and apply to their WIP or revisions?
It’s all about doing something that’s really damn difficult, but that we feel obligated to do nonetheless.
When we have our characters faced with perilous, emotionally challenging, or life-threatening choices, there needs to be a damn good reason for it, something that connects intimately and inextricably to the character’s nature and arc. Throwing a character into a meat grinder for the sake of action just doesn’t cut it. Likewise breaking someone’s heart just to satisfy a dramatic impulse, or killing off a major character with the idea that your readers will really be thrown for a loop (or applaud you for employing GRRM’s favorite literary device).
Consider the ramifications of putting your protagonist up against the inevitable. And be sure you’re ready to tackle the revisions to your plot and storyline that will inevitably result from your doing so. If you can’t connect your theme to the peril, emotional challenge, or threat to life and limb, then you’ll need to revise the story enough to make that connection apparent on the page. Better yet, make sure your characters have something inside that prevents them from avoiding the road ahead.