Sunday, December 4, 2016

What Was Your Character Thinking? Or: What I Learned on a Cold Dark Training Mission

English: American Black Bear Ursus americanus ...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I was out in the mountains of Virginia, training with the the K-9 Search and Rescue teams, but I was thinking a lot about plot development and characters. 

If I could pick one nugget to share from my experience, it would be that in a "situation" whatever the situation is that you've cooked up for your character, the thing on their mind will be the last related story they were told. 

Example 1:

I had been out as a walker most of the day tracking the handler who was tracking the dog who was tracking the lost person. We had a "find." A young woman and her friend were hanging out in the bramble as our subject. After applying fake first aid to a fake injury, we assisted in an equine evacuation. The girl and her friend had been in the woods for hours, and I was asking how they did. The woods can be a scary place. "Were you afraid?"
"Only of bears," she said.

Huh, okay. 

Fast forward, dinner's done back at base, and they're calling for volunteers to be staged in the woods. I was glad to do that, I'm quite comfortable in the woods, and I had sufficient equipment in my pack that the below freezing temperatures and chance of snow didn't feel concerning. So off I went. We drove until there was no more fire road, then I was walked waaaaay out into the woods until I hit the location they'd assigned me, and my handler left me there. The last thing the handler was talking about was bears in the woods. Since it was pitch black out there, I asked if I was allowed red lights (we don't use white lights in the woods if we're not using a search beam, because we're trying to keep our night vision. I use a green light when I'm walking in the woods at night, because it's easier to read a topographical map.) 
"Why do you want lights? Are you feeling scared?"
"No not really, it's just that you've been talking about black bears; and when the K-9 runs out of the brush, I'd like to know it's a dog and not a bear. I'd like to know if I'm about to get  licked or mauled."
"Good point, but no. We'd prefer you not use your lights."

So there I was. Alone. Wrapped in a black tarp. Sitting under a tree, contemplating life. And the rustling sounds around me. And was that a snort? 

As I said before, I'm perfectly okay in the woods, night or day. What sent me out of my comfort zone was that a potential threat loomed in the forefront of my thoughts, since it had been alluded to twice that day in the context of sitting alone in the woods. 

Those earlier conversations are what made me pull my knife out of its sheath and stab it into the dirt beside me. I kept my hand on the handle. A low level hum of "what if," ran the entire time I was waiting for my "rescue."

Example 2:

Fast forward; The K-9 team found me as the moisture in the air started to rise and the dew began to form. The temperatures were dropping precipitously. I headed to the equine camping area to warm up in front of the campfire before Hubby and I drove to our tent to get some sleep. Around the blaze, we were sharing war stories of past searches. One of the last stories they told was that the night before, only one equine searcher was in the area. It was a single woman in her horse camper. She was the only one who was supposed to be there. Late in the evening, she heard two men talking outside. She listened as they circled around her trailer. 

The woman called over to base and several men came over and did a search. Finding no one, they went on their way. The strangers came back and tried the woman's door handle. She racked the slide on her semi-automatic and called out, "Leave now or I shoot." They high tailed it out of there. 

It was an odd story because no one should have been testing her door's locks. It was also concerning because no one was supposed to be in the area, not even park staff. To be honest, there aren't many who want to hang out on the top of a mountain, camping in December. 

I heard the story and promptly forgot the story. That is, I forgot it until Hubby and I were in our tent. We were the only tent in the whole campground and the campground was a good distance from the equine area and even farther from base. No big deal, Hubby and I are perfectly comfortable in the woods. Though, a little warmer would have been more pleasant as far as our comfort went, that's for sure. 

As we lay in our tent, a dually truck drove around the camp twice, nice and slow. 

Here's what I was thinking:
I'm in silk long johns in my sleeping bag. My boots are a hassle to get on. No one would hear me if I screamed. My pack is in the car. I have no gun. I didn't even bring in my knives. It's around twenty degrees outside. There's nowhere to run except deeper into the woods. Dressed the way I am, there isn't a good chance of survival if I run towards the woods. My best option, if these men come to cause problems, was to get past them, out the small tent door, down to the bathhouse and lock myself in the shower room. Of course, I'd be barefooted and in almost no clothes, so unless they left pretty quickly or there was a ton of hot water available, I'd probably freeze. 

I'll be honest, the bears were such a long shot in terms of actually being a problem, that it was just something that played through my brain. The story about the men - who tried to enter our teammate's trailer and had to be chased off with the threat of gun fire - that was much more worrisome. Worrisome enough that I only slept lightly, keeping an awareness of the sounds, trying to catch footfalls coming toward the tent.

The next morning, I was talking about it with Hubby. Of course, he was in the same straights I was -- clothing and weapons wise. He'd heard the same story and the concern of folks not on the mission being in an area that was supposed to be empty. He went through almost the same thought processes as I did. 
"So what did you conclude? Did you have a plan?" I asked.
"I guess it would come down to who won the fight us or them."
So he had imagined how he'd have to spring from the sleeping bag (and we had to stay zipped against the cold). His conclusion, we didn't have a good shot at coming out of this okay. He hadn't considered getting to the showers but said that would have been a good route. 

We both decided that we'd make better weapons choices next time around. Live and learn and come out the otherside. It's all an adventure.

On the drive home, I thought about the significance of that last story one hears, the last odd concern that was expressed. It has the power to construct a new understanding of an otherwise okay situations. The storytelling becomes a warning that looms large when in a situation where the other person's story elements are lining up with yours. It's a great way to get to know a character or twist a plot.

I thought this was a pretty good thing to keep in mind as characters are sharing their stories with the others in a book. So I'm sharing my observation with you in case you're wondering just what your character would be thinking.

~And happy writing.


  1. You are so right! I look back and I can see these same things in hindsight now from my days in the military and especially those involving field training. All of our best training and experience comes to bear, yes but the last thing we hear about a similar situation is what plays in our heads for us.

    I have two examples as well. In one I was off to the leadership course for soldiers who'd already made Sergeant who were looking to step up and add rockers to their sergeant strips. I was regaled in the academic portion by students who knew students who'd been through the training before about things that would happen in the field training exercise. One thing in particular stood out: Try not to get assigned to guard the ammo dump. I was told it was just a place to put a couple of extra people on the rotation when my squad would be assigned to operate the HQ. I drew a short straw and off I went with another unlucky Sergeant to sit for two in the dark, empty sensory deprivation chamber that was the ammo dump building while the rest of the squad got to assign missions and run the show. We were told 'no lights, no talking, just listen and be prepared to defend' and then locked in for two hours. We sat close and talked in very low tones a bit but mostly, we just listened. For more than an hour, as I'd been told, nothing much at all happened and we were whispering to each other what a waste of time it all was and how, even if we were attacked, we were 'sitting ducks'. Well, much to our total shock, we were attacked. Our night vision saved us momentarily as the first couple of soldiers broke through but then my MILES gear went off and so did my cohorts. We were done. We'd listened to the stories, hadn't explored our environment and hadn't formed a plan. We found later that there were sidewall ladders that would allowed us to get up off the floor of the building to have a vantage point over a search team and even an advantage.

    In the 2nd, I was at another military school earlier in my career. This was to pick up the skills of a different duty position but a field training exercise of several days length was a requirement. As a more experienced soldier, I was put in charge of a squad of young soldiers who'd been training for their first duty assignment. I got lucky with my squad. I had a couple of college graduates and a few hunters who knew what it was like to be out in the woods, tracking and so forth. They performed well, mission after mission both doing our personnel specialist jobs and doing more military type assignments. They did exceptionally well in an ambush assignment. After we stood down from that and had what's called an 'After Action Review' (AAR), we were given an easy mission dealing with our actual administrative jobs which we completed quickly. Tired, but buoyed by our successes, we were then given a 'tracking' mission. Looking at the map, one of my hunters and I caught on quickly that we were going right back through the area where we'd been ambushed previously. The senior Sergeant assigned to us just grinned when we tried to prod him for confirmation and asked, 'So what's your plan?' We walked that trail until about a half mile before the 'ambush' area and then we performed a flanking maneuver to come at the squad laying in wait from two sides and to eventually encircle them. I actually crawled right past their own squad leader at one point. He ignored me as he lay concentrating on the path. When we were all in position, we lit them up. In the AAR, when they had to explain why they'd let us walk right through their lines they said they were told we'd be on the path, that everyone comes down the path and that it would be an easy mission for them. A hard lesson learned there over such a simple thing.

    1. Those are awesome examples! Thank you so much for taking the time to describe them to us. I truly appreciate it!


  2. Several years back I was in Canada, training with Russian Systema practitioners from around the world, most of whom had military and/or police experience. (I have neither.) Our instructors were world-class current and former Russian Special Forces guys. Yes, the Spetsnaz. Some of the nicest guys you'd want to meet, by the way. We were at a camp on a lake a few hours north of Toronto. We trained outdoors every day, 8-10hr/day. One day we were told we would be adding an additional training evolution, in the forest at night. After dinner we trooped out into the woods, maybe a mile from camp. We trained with E-tools, the small shovels that every soldier knows about. In addition to being fine digging tools, they are exceptional close-quarter combat weapons. Dusk came, then eventually full dark. We'd been told to bring our flashlights but we would train with lights out. Needless to say, it was a completely different experience than training during the day. Dealing with the fear was the biggest part. The military vets, especially the special ops guys, were right at home, although they complained about not having their night-vision goggles. To me, they didn't need them, they seemed to know where they were at all times. We did one-on-one, two-on-one, three-on-two combat drills, hand-to-hand and with the shovels. After about a half-hour, several guys opted to head back to camp. I was one of them. It was a bit too intense for me, I have to admit. But I learned a helluva lot, and I'd like to think that if I was out in the woods in the dark, I'd do all right. Especially if I'd brought my E-tool.

    1. So interesting! Thank you for sharing. I wonder where I could get training with an e-tool...

  3. Everyone--who hasn't been there--thinks the woods/deserts/mountains/swamps/outlet malls are "chill" and "they got this." Those are the folks who typically end up needing a rescue--and in my case with outlet malls, a hug. I'm a big fan of the plan-fail/logic-fail as a conflict igniter and there is SO much writer fuel here. o_0 Um, of course that may not have been your intention but thanks anyway. This is CANDY.