After all, I was writing about deployment: a huge topic, one that's timely, sensitive, and one that so many people not only know about but have been through firsthand. And I'm brazen enough to attempt to capture that experience when I've never been through it?
Yet that's what I set out to do.
On one hand, that's kind of what fiction writers do every time they sit down. Beginning writers' work often tends to be largely autobiographical, but eventually, if you've written long enough, you move past that and invest in stories and characters several steps removed from yourself.
My first book was a mixture of the two: I included bits and pieces of things I knew personally (I went on lots of Uintah hikes as a teen. I was hit in the head with a rock at recess and needed stitches. I performed in Into the Woods. All of those show up in the book in various ways.)
But I also addressed things totally foreign to me, such as what it would be like to marry a man already sealed to another woman. That element is a huge part of the book, and I had to emotionally go there to figure out how Brooke would handle it and how Greg would approach the idea of marrying again.
After Lost Without You came out, my aunt, who is a second wife herself, went to my mother and asked, "How did she know what it feels like?"
Yes! I got it right! The only response I had for that was, "I guess I imagined well?" That's the kind of reader feedback that makes you want to do a dance in the end zone.
As I wrote Band of Sisters, I talked with many military wives who had been through or were currently dealing with deployment. Two of them I've known for many, many years. I'd also watched firsthand as one of them went through a deployment (and thoroughly picked her brain).
In spite of my work, I feared it wouldn't land well. Maybe I'd offend because I didn't do justice to the pain or the reality or fully express my respect for the military.
One concern I had is the fact that there is no "typical" deployment, so any woman who'd been through it could say, "That's not how it was." More, what my characters experience as National Guard wives who live in regular neighborhoods is totally different from what a woman would experience if she lived on a military base during a deployment.
What would a military base wife think reading it? Would she think I got all the details wrong? I could see someone rolling their eyes and going, "There IS no Army base in Utah. Duh." But there are hundreds of Army families here. Utah soldiers have died fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. A street near us was recently renamed after one of those fallen soldiers. He did fight with the U.S. Army, even if there's no Army base here. (But Camp Williams is here!) I couldn't very well put that kind of disclaimer on the book, so I held my breath and hoped those deeper into the military would give me the benefit of the doubt.
I chose to write about Guard wives for a couple of reasons: first, because those were the kinds of women I had the most contact with, and my research would be more accurate using their information. But also because, frankly, it's tougher to not be on a base during a deployment. The Guard tries hard to support families in a variety of ways, but when push comes to shove, they simply can't scratch the surface of the support and benefits other families get by default from living on base.
When you're in a regular old neighborhood, likely with no other military anyone nearby, no one gets it. Even a simple conversation about what's going on with your soldier turns into a pain the neck rather than a comfort because you have explain acronyms or this particular element of the military. You can't just get a worry off your chest with a simple sentence or two.
I worried and worried and worried. I went into the project without much knowledge, so I relied heavily on several military wives for information and then, armed with that information, I tried to imagine how each of my five (very different) characters would react given their ages, circumstances, personalities, etc.
With all military details, I relied on my primary resources, down to what ranks the husbands would realistically have and why. Even though I didn't randomly make stuff up, I still mentally bit my nails to the quick waiting for people's reactions. To my huge relief, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
I recently got an e-mail from a two-time Vietnam vet who read the book and sent all his veteran friends the same message he forwarded to me, a long letter about how during the times of his deployments, he "knew" what his wife and children were going through while he was away, but he didn't "understand" until he read my book. He proceeded to tell these vets that they should all, Mormon or not, read the book so that they, too, could understand.
Another military wife, whose husband had recently returned from Iraq, downloaded the first three chapters from my website and then e-mailed me. She first admitted she never reads LDS fiction but decided to read those chapters then went on to say that even though she's a tough cookie, I wrenched a few tears out of her (something she hated to admit) because, in her words, I "nailed it."
A couple of times a week I get similar e-mails, many from women about to enter a deployment, others from women who have already been through it, and even from non-military readers who are grateful they've learned a bit what it's like and can better support a military family they know.
And then there are the other letters. The ones that have absolutely nothing at all to do with the military aspect of the book. Letters that say things like, "Wow. I realized that I'm a Nora. I saw so much of myself in her, and I learned I need to change."
Below is a snippet of an e-mail from a military wife: