I have just had the privilege and honour of teaching a week-long Arvon course at Lumb Bank with Emma Darwin and Rob Low as co-tutors. For those of you who haven’t been, the location is Ted Hughes' house on the vertiginous side of an outstanding Yorkshire vale and the staff, as always at Arvon centres, are fantastic. We had 15 inspired and inspiring students and I have no doubt there’ll be a clutch of novels in about a year’s time that will have grown from the seeds we sowed.
|The View from the back door at Lumb Bank (mcs)|
Part way through the week, it became apparent that we needed a ‘how to write battle scenes’ seminar that was not part of the planned teaching: not everyone wanted it, but those who did, wanted it very badly (Emma did the ‘how to write sex’ seminar: I leave the recollection of that to her).
So having thought about battles enough to teach a dozen people, I thought it might be worth reprising that here.
Plainly, any battle scene is constrained by the era and location of the novel and it would be impossible to cover all the bases, but there are a few rules of thumb, the first and most obvious of which is that every novel must be character-led.
Thus any battle in which our primary protagonist(s) engage must in some way move her or his narrative arc forward. There are authors for whom battles are simply a blood fest, but they are relatively rare and their books are generally (to my mind) unreadable. In the same way that dialogue grows out of our characters and strives always to reveal more, enabling the reader to get under their skins, so must a battle bring us deeper, closer, into more intimate relationship with our characters.
|Pictish battle scene from Aberlemno churchyard by 'Greenshed'|
In pure fiction, this is relatively straightforward – when I needed to show Bán, the brother of the girl who became the Boudica, as a youth, growing towards adulthood, and needed to show how battle changed him, it was relatively straightforward to create a battle of suitable size in a location that worked.
This becomes harder when we’re writing about historical figures – Boudica, say, or Jeanne d’Arc, or Vespasian – then we know when and where the battles took place, and who won them: so the challenge for the author is to find the characters who fit this pattern, and find how each battle helps them to grow into themselves, helps them become more sophisticated as people… or not. If our character exhibits a courage heretofore unknown, it might be interesting. If our character exhibits a lack of courage, or a bloodlust, or a slyness that was heretofore unknown, it might well be fascinating.
Thus we need to know the why of a battle before we write the where and the who and the how. After that, the choreography comes naturally. It must be grounded in reality: I stop reading a book at the point where a legionary with a gladius makes a huge roundhouse swing and cuts off his opponent’s head - or the more modern equivalent. Yes, it is possible to decapitate your enemy: the Samurai do it. The indigenous Maya were supposed to have an obsidian-edged club, the macuahuitl, which could decapitate a horse (!) - but a gladius is not that, and anyone on the average battlefield who opens him or herself up wide enough to make that kind of a stroke is going to take a blade in the gut/throat/armpit long before any decapitating happens.
|Bayeux Tapestry Scene 57|
As with any other aspect of historical writing, you need to have done your research. To write good battles, you need to have a good grasp of battlefield tactics and the strategies of war. It helps to have spent some time in battle re-enactment if only to gain an insight into the churn of emotions that sing through a battle.
Battles are fun – but only if you are rested, fed, watered, clothed, adequately armed and think you have some chance of winning; otherwise, they are somewhere between a duty and a nightmare. But in all cases, battles exist on the cusp of life and death; at that point where, as Handsome Lake said, the boundary between the lands of the living and the lands of the dead is no thicker than a maple leaf. This is life in the raw: whatever masks a character might raise to keep him or herself safe in their current social construct, these masks fall away when we need to react in the moment without forethought. So battles let us see people as they really are.
|Battle of Marston Moor 1644|
In terms of distance, as a writer, you may need to be able to take the distant – eagle’s eye – view as well as the up-close, personal, blood-in-the-eye of a spear wound, a bash with a shield edge, a blade stabbed out and twisted. If you aren’t a re-enactor (and sometimes even if you are) you need to have read a great many first hand accounts of the era you’re working in – with the coda that any man who writes of his own battles almost always inflates the nature of his part in the fighting. When I fought as part of an Anglo-Saxon battle group, we were told that the word for ‘shield’ meant ‘spear trapper’ - which says a lot about the tactics and the battlefield dynamic. Shield walls need to remain solid: break them up and you have a series of single combats, which may sound heroic, but the truth of a battlefield is that someone else will come along and stab you in the back as soon as you give all your attention to one person and stop being fully aware of all that’s around you. The dynamic is different if there are archers, or crossbows, or muskets (or any modern firearm) on the field; it’s not enough, then, to be aware of the people around you.
|Rowston Moor battle plan (by Chester tourism.)|
To write anything bigger than a single one-on-one fight, you, the author, need to understand the strategy of your battle and its place in the larger war (if there is one), so that you can manoeuvre blocks of infantry/cavalry/whatever across a battlefield with some idea of where they want to go. It can be useful to switch between a far distant ‘eagle’s eye’ or hilltop, or other broad-brush view, in to the shifting of companies or centuries or squadrons and then closer in to the actual cut and thrust. These switches don’t have to be linear and they don’t have to follow a sequence, but we-as-reader need to be anchored in some kind of geographical reality if we are to have any chance of understanding what’s going on.
Last, be aware that we are indoctrinated by television and the movies and real life isn’t like that: not only do most people not decapitate their opponents in a single move, they often don’t slice off limbs, bite off fingers, or kill a hundred people without receiving any wounds (Terminator, anyone?). They also – and this is more important – can’t fight for long if they’re leaking blood from a dozen major incisions and have at least two structural skeletal fractures. Our tendency to a) enhance the damage and b) enhance our character’s capacity is what kicks us into the realm of fantasy. And there’s nothing wrong with fantasy; we just need to know that’s where we’re going.
I left the students with a reading list of the authors and novels in which there are some absolutely outstanding historical battles. It’s not exhaustive by any means, but any of these is a good starting point: Mary Renault’s ‘Fire from Heaven’, Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter, Robert Wilton’s ‘Traitor’s Field’, 'Into the Valley of Death' by History Girl, AL Berridge (all her work is first class and well worth reading) - and Robert Low: just about everything from the Oathsworn to the Kingdom series and beyond. You can’t go far wrong with these.