I just finished a book I was reading as part of my research for my next book. It has taken me four months to finish it. Non-fiction works that way with me. It was fascinating, small print, footnotes – not my usual fare. But it gave me background that I need. It’s title is The Old Lie, The Great War and the Public School Ethos, by Peter Parker. I bought a used copy since it’s out of print. I’ve got notes written in the margins now, pages dog-eared, flags sticking out its side, and a coffee/tea stain here and there on the cover (or that may have come with the book).
Here’s some Latin that haunts the book and England during WWI:
Dulce et Decorum est,
Pro patria mori
(it is sweet and right to die for your country)
This is what drove English boys to war from the public schools at ages of 17 and 18, to be officers. It’s still doing its work today. The thing is in 1914 England the world was very different from what it is today. Context is everything.
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.
I always look for new books to read. I’m a fan of historical fiction and am on the constant lookout for the next stand alone or series that I can sink my teeth into. My favorite series over the last fifteen years has been by a little known author named Dewey Lambdin. The series is about a man named Alan Lewrie who starts out in the first book as a seventeen year old midshipman and moves (so far) through fifteen plus years of his life to a position of post-captain of a frigate in the English navy during the years of the American Revolution and through the Napoleonic Wars.
The larger story of this man’s life is epic. Each individual book is unique yet adds depth of character to Alan mine-arse-on-a-band-box Lewrie. And Lewrie is an imperfect soul with a temper for violence and lack of skill in decision-making when it comes to women and relationships. He makes mistakes and pays for them. He’s a rake. He does good sometimes selfishly, sometimes for profit, and sometimes without knowing it. And sometimes he is very, very bad. But he is always like-able – especially because of these character flaws. I have followed him over 18 books, one more or less a year per year, every year of both mine and his life. It is like reading one long novel about one human being whose life is painted large on canvas. It helps if you like nautical, bawdy (there is sex and violence a-plenty), funny, adventure stories.
I found the series browsing through the new mass market paperbacks in a Barnes & Noble, looking for something good to read. The first book, The King’s Coat grabbed me from the opening scene when Alan’s father catches him in bed with his step sister, steals his inheritance and railroads him into the navy. I’ve loved every minute of each book ever since.
Two novels especially stand out (some in the series are better than others but all add in some grand way to the larger story line). One, Havoc’s Sword spends the first third of the book detailing a duel with pistols in which Lewrie is one of the duelists seconds. It is a wonderful piece of writing and takes place all on dry land. Another is a The King’s Captain in which the last half of the book takes place at anchor during the mutinies at Spithead and Nore – something I knew nothing about and found absolutely fascinating.
And here’s the coolest part. We had the same agent once a long time ago for a short period of time (about two years). I’ve corresponded with him ever since and last year he wrote a blurb for my novel. He writes all correspondence on a typewriter and has replied to every letter I’ve sent. My dad reads his books too. Every February (when the next book generally comes out) we race to see who will find it on the shelves of a bookstore first. This is as it should be.
My son is already asking when he gets to start reading them. He’s going to have to wait.