Welcome! So, today I have Megan Erickson and C.S. Poe on the blog today, to talk about what it was like for them to write characters who have come back from war, and are struggling with the effects of the trauma they experienced. I think both Megan in her book “Overexposed”, as well as C.S. in her “Snow and Winter” series do a great job of putting out there how hard it is to walk around wounded on the inside, but to the outside world looking completely fine. The fear of being “stigmatized” or being labelled as “crazy” is yet another layer of difficulty that veterans have to confront. Espcially when most people don’t even understand what PTSD even means or looks like.
So what is PTSD? According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs “PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) is a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault.”
Some of the symptoms can be, “reliving the event (also called re-experiencing symptoms), avoiding situations that remind you of the event, having more negative beliefs and feelings, and feeling keyed up (also called hyperarousal).” Imagine dealing with all that and trying to rebuild a life or starting a new relationship. It’s a lot, and even if it is doable, it does not magically disappear because they have fallen in love.
So, this leads into my conversations with our guest authors. First, I will share my chat with Megan about her heroes Thad and Levi from Overexposed, and why it was important for her to show their emotional pain as accurately as possible. Here it is:
TTB: In “Overexposed” you had two characters who had each experienced traumatic events. Thad is a veteran who has recently come back from his latest deployment, and is still reeling from those experiences, and Levi is grieving his sister who died in active duty.
While reading the story I was really struck by how their ways of dealing with their pain was so different, and yet so similar. Thad’s complete silence, he was almost unable to speak about anything. Levi who was such an extrovert, had to find quiet in order to finally let the grieving happen. And yet, they both ended on the same path, literally. However even once their connection happened, still they could not heal the other person. Each of them had to find a way back from their journey on their own. I thought that was a beautiful analogy, and letting their pain be part of the story made the novel a really wonderful read. Can you talk a bit about why you chose to let the effects of their pain and grief linger, and not just dissipate once the romance began?
Megan Erickson: Thank you so much for your kind words on “Overexposed”. This book was difficult to write because I knew there would be a lot of pain and grief. Regarding letting the effects of their pain and grief linger: I think it’s important to show that grief will change us. It’ll change how we live, love, make decisions, etc. And with Thad and Levi, I wanted to show that love and romance can break down some walls inside of ourselves. Meaning, once we start to see how others view us, especially ones that love us, it gives us a chance to look closer at ourselves. Love can be a mirror. I’m sure there were times Thad was thinking–why is Levi into me? What is it about me that he sees? Do I see myself that way?
TTB: The “Damaged War Veteran” is not an uncommon theme in gay romance. It’s a well used trope, however a lot the portrayals of these character’s experiences can be pretty superficial. It’s hard to develop a romance while trying to accurately portray what the effects of PTSD really look like, without resorting to graphic details or images that could affect the reader in a negative way. How did you approach writing Thad’s PTSD, and how was it different for you than other characters in your novels?
ME: The thing about PTSD is that it affects everyone differently. For Thad, he’d always been a quiet guy, an introvert, and he hadn’t really found many people at all that understood him. So when his brain was actively fighting itself over trauma, his solution was to get away from everyone. He couldn’t understand himself, how could others? Thad was different for me, because I admire those who serve so much, and I wanted to treat his situation delicately. He didn’t feel like a hero, and never really wanted to be.
Some would say that romance is a less serious genre, that the focus should be on getting that believable “HEA” and that getting too deeply into a character’s trauma could hurt the story.
TTB: Why do you think it’s important to be mindful of portraying trauma accurately? Have you found the reactions to Thad and Levi’s characters to be positive or any different from other books?
ME: I think it’s incredibly important to portray trauma well. Mainly because even if a character didn’t go through the same experience, they might have dealt with another traumatic experience similarly, or had the same thoughts. And for them to see themselves reflected on the page and treated with care and respect is everything.
I had no idea how readers would react to Thad and Levi but I was pleasantly surprised. It’s an angstier read, so I’m sure it wasn’t everyone’s thing, but the responses have been amazing and very intense emotionally. One reader got a tattoo with a line from this book, and another got a tattoo of a tent and moon to signify Thad and Levi’s journey on the Appalachian Trail. Which just blows me away. I’m grateful every day for being able to do what I do.
In the “Snow and Winter” series one of C.S. Poe’s heroes, Calvin Winter is a NYPD detective who is still suffering the effects from what he experienced while serving in the military. He is haunted by his memories, and even though he has tried to push it all down and keep going, things are slowly falling apart.
One of the things I really like about Calvin’s character is that C.S. shows how much his struggles with showing weakness, how opening up about his trauma would mark him some how. I think that conflict made Calvin very appealing to me, and I think was a great issue to address. So I had a chat with C.S. about her book and why she chose to approach Calvin in the way she did. Here is what she had to say.
TTB: PTSD in a character, specially in a romance, can be quite heavy if portrayed accurately. For your first novel you decided to delve in the trauma that Detective Calvin Winter had suffered while in combat. I think the book is better for it, and certainly makes Calvin a much more intriguing hero. What parts of Calvin’s struggle with his trauma were important for you to get right?
C.S. Poe: Writing Calvin’s character came with the very serious task of accurately representing aspects of PTSD, and it was in the forefront of my mind throughout the entire writing and editing process. It was important to me to show Calvin as a strong, smart, and brave man, while at the same time reflecting an inner struggle he acquired later in life. Calvin has a battle raging inside, where he is trying to be the man everyone sees– a hero, while accepting the fact that war has changed him and he may need help to overcome what he has experienced. It was his reluctance to seek help that I wanted to portray, the concept that he feels weak or has somehow let people down by not being Captain America.
Another important element to his character was to not make the PTSD who Calvin is. He is a man. He is a highly decorated army veteran and metro detective. He’s a son, a brother, and a boyfriend. He is not PTSD. In order to show this, I had to do a lot of research, which involved days of documentaries and videos, reading articles and support groups, researching VA hospitals, and more. I wanted to represent symptoms of PTSD subtly that suggested Calvin was struggling hard, but that he won’t let it consume his life.
TTB: Something I struggle with when I see it in a novel, is the minimization of trauma once the romance begins to emerge. The idea being that love can make the PTSD go away, when in fact it is a lot more complicated than that. Do you think that putting Calvin’s struggle right in the midst of his relationship with Sebastian gives their love story a depth that would not have been there otherwise?
CSP: Absolutely it did. Through my extensive research on PTSD in veterans, I’ve learned that in fact, many relationships struggle to stay afloat, and even more can often fail. Of course a relationship that doesn’t succeed breaks the single rule of a romance novel, that being there needs to be a Happily Ever After, or at least a Happy For Now, in the case of this ongoing series. Calvin’s happiness and success with Sebastian is a very critical and key element of the character arcs in these books. When the two meet in Nevermore, Calvin is pretty low, and because of how PTSD can intensify with emotional stress from a relationship, especially a new one that didn’t start so easily with Sebastian, it was important that in Book Two, Curiosities, Calvin basically hit rock bottom. I needed to stay true to how devastating PTSD can be, to not belittle what real people experience, while at the same time giving hope and belief that things can get better, as seen through a man like Calvin.
To Sebastian, Calvin is his knight in shining armor. Sebastian doesn’t think anything less of Calvin when the armor is too heavy to hold up without some help. There is a raw, naked honesty between the two men. The ability to ask for and receive help during the darkest moments, while remaining equals, that I think solidifies their romance, and makes them so very special to one another.
I am always grateful to have stumbled upon this genre, and one of the biggest reasons is that it is filled with authors who feel such passion for writing their stories. Thanks so much to Megan Erickson and C.S. Poe to taking the time to talk with me about their heroes and their writing process.
Please comment if there are any other books out there with veterans or those suffering the effects of PTSD that you recommend.
Other favorites of mine are:
Think of England by KJ Charles
Marlowe’s Ghost by Sarah Black
Racing for the Sun by Amy Lane
If you would like to read more about Trauma and PTSD in particular here are a couple of books I recommend:
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel A. van der Kolk
You can buy “Overexposed” HERE.
You can learn more about Megan Erickson and her work HERE.
You can buy “Snow and Winter” series HERE.
You can more about C.S. Poe and her work HERE.
Please stop by again on Wednesday to read about my chat with Dal Mclean and our chat about writing a hero with childhood trauma.
Cheers and Happy Reading!