Here’s a variation on the theme of writing what you. What if you write about something that you don’t know? Can you still write about it? The answer is both yes, no, and… it depends.
Have you seen Full Metal Jousting on the History Channel? Have you seen the collision of lance and armor? It is an incredible spectacle. It is also a real life history lesson for the writer who wants to depict a medieval setting. There’s no staging of hits. There are no theatrics other than what comes from the drama of watching repeated collisions of horse and rider and lance. It’s the real deal and it is an intense sport reborn for modern times.
Each episode has added two or three facts about jousting that are terrific details for the writer. For example: in one episode a smaller horse was chosen to give the rider the advantage of targeting up at the opposing rider – a greater chance to unhorse than targeting down. In another episode they talked about the need to release the reigns once the horse and rider begin their charge down the lane. The reason is so that when (not if) when they are hit – if unhorsed – they don’t pull the horse down with them and hurt the horse. Knights then retake the reins after they pass their opposition so they can stop the horse. Another example: armor weighs 80 pounds and knights (what else can you call them?) walk funny in full armor – legs out a little wider, more bent, torso stiff, neck immovable. Another example: the horse is as important as the rider and the relationship between horse and rider is critical to success.
If you’re writing about this time period and wanted insight to the practice this is the perfect show to watch.
I wrote a lot about fencing in my novel Open Wounds. I have fenced on and off for some thirty years, mostly épée, but also foil and saber. I’ve also choreographed and taught stage fencing using rapier, case of rapiers (two at once), rapier and dagger, short sword (like épée), and broadsword. I’ve done these things because I love playing with swords (who doesn’t?) and I’m fascinated by them (who isn’t?). They also inform my writing. Giving me details about combat with swords that would be difficult to get without the insight of personal experience.
A writer named James Duffy, who has written a wonderful pulpy series of historical novels about gladiators in ancient Rome called Gladiators of the Empire. On his website you can see pictures of him doing gladiatorial reenactments with a group of re-enactors in New england where he trained for two days as a way of doing research. I have to say… that sounds like fun.
This is one of the wonderful parts of writing – doing so that you can write more authentically. It’s opportunity to learn and fun. I wrote a novel (one more revision still needed) with a protagonist who played a Warhammer like fantasy miniatures game and collectible card games like Magic The Gathering. I played these games at a gaming club for a year – doing research, and having a lot of fun.
Does it mean you have do what you write about? No. Can it help? Yes. Do you have to do what you write about? It depends (on what you’re writing about).
And in case you haven’t seen the show – check out Full Metal Jousting and let me know what you think.