Suzanne Morgan Williams: 2k9

Introduced first in 2007, debut children’s authors have formed a cooperative effort to market their books. Last year, I featured many of the stories of how the 2k8 Novels Were Revised. This is part of the ongoing stories from the Class of 2k9

bull rider by susanne williams

Research on Iraqi War Injuries Changed Character

by Suzanne Morgan Williams

My revision process was long and the book you can read today is very different from my first draft. I’ll concentrate on one point – how Ben O’Mara’s character changed because of my research.

First Draft – injuries unclear. Bull Rider is about fourteen year old Cam O’Mara whose older brother, a champion Bull Rider, joins the Marines and is seriously injured in Iraq. In my first draft, which I intended for the youngest middle grade readers, Ben’s injury was almost entirely off stage and was not identified as being incurred in Iraq at all.

Second draft – specifics. In the second, which was for older readers, I decided to tackle the Iraq issue. I assumed Ben’s injury would be a paralysis, possibly from a gunshot or shrapnel – something that left him wheelchair bound but able to speak and use his upper body. I talked to a doctor friend and found out what type of injury this would be, researched therapy techniques and costs (that figured in the plot at that point) and read a long treatise on spinal cord injury. As for his mental state, I also assumed Ben would be angry about the war and, when Cam asks him, “Would you go back? Would you do it again?” he would answer, “Would you?”

Third stage – research. That was before I began to research and double check all the material about bull riding, ranching, and injured veterans that I’d written into my draft. I interviewed a person who worked daily with injured Iraq vets in rehab and he told me, no, they didn’t see much paralysis from this war because of body armor. He said that the injury that was devastating our troops in Iraq was Traumatic Brain Injury – TBI. He then described TBI and its treatment. He also told me that almost all the injured vets he cared for wanted to go back to Iraq. They wanted to be with their units. Subsequent conversations with medical staff, military guys, and social service workers confirmed this. I needed a different Ben.

Third draft – Integrating new information. The biggest changes were in his abilities. A severe TBI leaves a person unable to talk or walk. Ben would have to learn to walk, talk, dress and care for himself and to read again. He would forget things. And his dialogue had to change radically. The straight talking opinionated Ben that I had written would now have to speak in short, broken sentences or not at all. At least until enough time had passed for him to heal. And the new Ben wanted to return to Iraq – a lot. This gave Cam, my main character, the job of asking questions. He’d lost his brother as he knew him, and the questions about what that meant and what war costs a family, a soldier, a community seemed natural to Cam.

Although Ben started out much more severely impaired than I’d originally imagined, being able to have him recover from TBI did give me more flexibility than if he’d been paralyzed. Brain injuries are unpredictable. Some TBI patients recover quickly. Others don’t. Some seem almost totally recovered, while for others the outward signs linger for years. With TBI, Ben had the prospect of learning to speak and walk again, although the emotional and social effects of his brain injury would be more elusive.

End result – Deeper, more interesting character. So this revision required that I review Ben’s every action and line of dialogue, but in the end he was a deeper and more interesting character. And his experience reflected what is true, not what I had assumed and imagined.

Suzanne Morgan Williams

5 responses to “Suzanne Morgan Williams: 2k9”

  1. Very interesting process you went through, Suzy! And it’s especially interesting because of all that we hear on the news about Traumatic Brain Injuries. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I love the step-by-step process you take us through here. And to end up with a deeper, more realistic character – well, that’s the dream, right?! Nice article!

  3. Wow, Suzy! I had no idea BULL RIDER had gone through such changes, but I absolutely love the finished product! It is a book that definitely has resonance and really enjoyed reading such a special, heartfelt story.
    Ann Haywood Leal

  4. As the spouse of a veteran, it means a lot to me that you took the time and effort to meet and interview veterans and their caregivers. Your story is rich and interesting and rings true in ways it just wouldn’t if you hadn’t taken this long and difficult journey in revision.

    Thank you!