written by Carole Wagener

Book cover for The Hardest Year, a veteran’s story by Carole and William Wagener

A veteran’s letters are a rich source that can be mined for gold when writing their stories. Using these first-person accounts, the events of the time when they were written should be reasonably historically accurate. Many veterans wrote letters home to their sweethearts or their parents who saved them. Some brought home journals, tucking them away, while today’s soldiers communicate by email or text, which may be harder to keep.

A dusty shoebox filled with 300 hand-written letters from my husband’s time in Vietnam (1968-1969)  provided the backbone of our book, The Hardest Year: A Love Story in Letters During the Vietnam War. William took scads of black-and-white photos during his time in ‘Nam. We chose thirty photos for the book depicting the lives of the Wageners vs. the Vietnamese lives.

While writing my book, I used quotation marks around the body of the letters instead of italics, making it easier for the reader’s eyes. As my husband held the copyright to his letters, he became my coauthor and wrote Chapter 18, “The Hardest Journey Home.”

I corrected the punctuation and spelling errors in the letters except in Chapter 13, “Geez, Louise.” A misspelled word had led to a humorous misunderstanding, with me believing my newlywed husband was having an affair, so it was important to keep that misspelling.

In my Author’s Note, I included this statement. “The vernacular is accurate to that time using words that are no longer politically correct. The letters, based on actual events, may have been compressed … Some names and identifying characteristics were changed.”

But did I find the gold? Oh yes, I did. I entered the book into my first writing contest with the 2023 International Book Awards, and surprisingly, I came in as a gold medal finalist in military history, possibly because of quotations from the U.S. Department of State publications.

Perhaps you have your grandfather’s WWI journal or your father’s WWII letters stored in the attic. To start, take a writing class at a community college or online,  join a writers’ club, or attend writing conferences.

For extra help, I recommend joining the Military Writers Society of America. You don’t have to be a veteran to join. MWSA  offers free writing courses and has an annual book contest. I didn’t win their contest, but if you visit Goodreads.com, you can read a review from one of their judges who loved The Hardest Year. When marketing a book, good reviews are priceless.

The Veterans Breakfast Club Happy Hour meets on Zoom every Monday at 4 p.m. PST. It’s a supportive and educational organization for veterans and their families where Todd DePastino interviews military authors. Contact todd@veteransbreakfastclub.org for a free magazine or membership information.

So, write to preserve your veteran’s story and include some photographs. Your family might not understand now but will thank you later for leaving this unique legacy behind.