During my 14 years in the military, I found myself relating more and more to these words made popular by the Fallout game series. With each deployment, I saw the truth they contained: that we, as humans, have tendencies ingrained in us that – no matter how hard we try – will lead us down the path that countless ancestors have walked before. But just like my heroes and fellow veterans, Robert Jordan, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien, I used my experiences in an unchanging war to bring something different and wholly unexpected from a military veteran: a fantasy novel called Gift of the Shaper. I’m here to tell you a little bit about how war shaped me, and how I found myself moving in a direction that I never expected.
When most people find out that I wrote a book after spending 10 years in Special Operations, their tendency is to think that it’s a non-fiction book. I know this because, when I tell them “It’s an epic fantasy — think Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings,” their response is always a surprised “Oh?” and it’s funny to me every time. I know their expectations — that I, like many veteran-turned-authors before me, would have written something about my time in Iraq or Afghanistan — but when I tell you my reason for writing fantasy, you will quickly understand why that could never have been the case.
On February 18th, 2012, my military family experienced a devastating loss. Coming home from a combat mission, the four-man crew aboard Ratchet 33 — a single-prop U-28A barely as long as a school bus — prepared to make their landing at an airfield in the small country of Djibouti. As those of us in the Air Force Special Operations Command know all too well, though, there are risks with every mission and even a routine procedure like a landing must be carefully attended. The reports on the incident point to spatial disorientation as the culprit, but on that day, Captain Ryan Hall, Lieutenant Nicholas Whitlock, Lieutenant Justin Wilkens, and Senior Airman Julian Scholten lost their lives — and my world, along with my friends and family, was never the same. Julian was my friend, and the U-28 flying community is a small one, so the waves were felt immediately. Many of us, myself included, struggled with how to move forward. We leaned on friends, talked to counselors, and mourned the loss of our brothers. Some of us stepped away altogether, scarred by a loss too fully to ever recover. Others, like me, found solace in distraction; we carried on the best way that we could, knowing that facing the monster head on would only serve to break us down. And so, a few years later while forward deployed from that very same base in Djibouti, I took on a means of escape that would change my life forever.
On a hot day in East Africa where the internet access was as scarce as skyscrapers, I found myself with time on my hands and a lot on my mind. I needed a distraction. All that I had with me was my iPad and a few choice books — among them, a copy of Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World. Knowing that Amazon wouldn’t be delivering anything to our location any time soon (“Take a left at the hippo pond. Watch out for lions.”), I had to work with the tools at my disposal. I took out my iPad and stared at the touchscreen keyboard. I had grown up on the tales of Aslan and the White Witch in Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I was well-versed in fantasy and epic narratives; I understood story structures. Why couldn’t I write something like that?
So that’s just what I did: I started writing.
There are many approaches to writing a story, but the one that worked best for me was the “gardner” approach: I’d plant a seed, cultivate it, and see what came from it. I didn’t know where my story was going when I first started; I was more like Stephen King’s Gunslinger, following the man in Black as he fled across the desert. I could see where it was going, but I didn’t know just where it would lead. Over the course of the next two years, though, I would find out. I would watch my characters as they grew and interacted with their world, curious myself as to how things would shake out. Sometimes I didn’t know the answer as to why they had done something; sometimes I could see them headed in a certain direction, only to change course at the last possible moment. There were many surprises in my story that I didn’t even see coming until they happened. This was what made writing not just a creative exercise for me, but an adventure in and of itself. In many ways, the writing of Gift of the Shaper reflected my own life, as a lot of the time I had no idea where I was going (some of my friends might say that I still don’t) — but I was having a hell of a good time doing it.
As I developed the story that would become Gift of the Shaper, I drew from two wells: my knowledge of the fantasy genre, and my experience in war. They were equal in importance, and I surely would not have been able to write the novel without both. Think about it: some of the greatest fantasy novels ever written are even centered around war — go ahead and try to think of a story that doesn’t include an epic battle at the end of it. My money says that you can’t without googling it, because war is something at humans excel at and embrace. It excites us, and it’s something that we all experience in some form or another as we live out our lives on this Pale Blue Dot. It all boils down to this: conflict makes things interesting, and war is the ultimate conflict. I don’t think it’s any coincidence, then, that I would turn to fantasy as my particular escape. Even though it was as far removed from my daily life as could be (magic and swords versus airplanes and computers), there was still an underlying theme of war — and war was something that I knew. But how could I bring my knowledge of war and apply it to a fantasy setting? Well, I’d have to start with a god.
I knew that I wanted to have characters that were driven by something greater than themselves, and we don’t have to look much further than religion to see that people are capable of devoting themselves to it entirely. So I thought that I would take an tale that a lot of us are familiar with — an evil being who seeks ultimate power — and make it my own. So I came up with the Breaker of the Dawn, the central antagonist and one of the three gods of creation, who had been locked away for trying to corrupt humans. But even men from humble beginnings can oppose the will of a god, and my protagonist, Thornton, would do just that — albeit not intentionally at first. Much like me when I was writing my story, Thornton was simply reacting to the world around him and doing what he thought was right. But, after two long years of getting all my thoughts down on paper, I had a completed manuscript.
Any published author will most likely tell you that writing the book is the easy part — what comes after the writing is an exercise in patience, humility, and endurance. There were rejection letters from agents, feedback from test readers, negotiations with the publisher, and the overwhelming urge to tell the best story possible. But, just as I had done throughout my military career, I squared my shoulders and powered through; it was the only way I knew how. After what seemed like an eternity of sending out query letters, I heard back from a small publisher in Pensacola called Indigo River who had worked with veterans like me previously. They had no fantasy titles yet so I almost didn’t query them at all, but when they came back with “We think you have a great story here and we’d love to help get it to print,” I knew I’d made the right choice. I was deployed to West Africa at the time, and we didn’t have any alcohol on base, so instead of champaign, I had to celebrate with a Red Bull and some pop tarts. It was the best celebration meal I’ve ever had.
Before I go, I want to leave you with a thought. One of the things people ask me the most is whether I think writing helped me deal with the loss of my friends, and if it could be used therapeutically to help deal with things like combat-related PTSD, and my answer is always the same: an emphatic “Yes.” I was in my 30’s when I started writing, and I had zero expectations about being published when I did so. I have a few friends who have taken up similar creative ventures as well — painting, poetry, music — and I cannot cheer them on hard enough. If you feel similarly called to do something creative, I want to be the first to welcome you to the fold. Contact me through my website and I will be overjoyed to help you take your first steps.
I truly believe that war may never change — but writing can change everything.
David “D.L.” Jennings is a 14-year veteran of the Air Force, separating in 2018 to pursue a career in writing. His debut novel, Gift of the Shaper, won the 2018 Beverly Hills Book Award for Best Fantasy, and was a finalist in the 2018 Best Book Awards for Fantasy. When he is not traveling the world or writing, he blogs about his experiences at his website, https://www.dl-jennings.com/. Gift of the Shaper is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and various other book retailers.