The website of the historical fiction writer.

Killer Blows

The first workshop I attended for the Conference was called ‘Killer Blows’, all about writing convincing combat scenes in historical fiction. Leading the workshop were four experts in the field who have written fight scenes at various points through history. Angus Donald has  recently published the fourth book in his Outlaw series about the legend of Robin Hood, Douglas Jackson has written novels about the Roman Emperors Claudius and Caligula and has had three books published in the Gaius Valerius Verrens series. Russell Whitfield has recently published the sequel to Gladiatrix, a novel about a female gladiator and Bernard Cornwell is well-known for Sharpe, set during the Napoleonic Wars and The Warlord Chronicles about the legend of King Arthur. He has also written about the American Civil War and England during the time of Alfred the Great.

Designed as a question and answer session, the first topic of discussion asked whether taking part in re-enactment groups was a good way of researching a battle. Answers given included that they were useful for understanding the choreography of a fight but also martial arts classes can help as can using imagination (how to balance with swords and shields with footwork). One common mistake writers make is to have too many moves in single combat scenes. Most did not last longer than a couple of minutes. Terrain and weapon accuracy are important and too many adjectives can be a problem.

Character feelings were discussed with the advice that personal experiences of similar situations should be considered. Examples of this included the dressing rooms of rugby matches, the war in Afghanistan and police riots which is a modern-day version of the Anglo-Saxon shield wall. Depending on the training and discipline of the fighters, they either rely on their training to control them or let lots of booze carry them through the fight. War memoirs (for any war, not just the one you write about) are useful as they convey the feelings of what it is like to be facing possible death or injury. John Keegan’s The Face of Battle was named as a very useful book.

Writing about atrocities at any time of history is a challenge. How should the protagonist react? It is important to remember that the laws of morality in war are different. Different cultures in different time periods have rules of war, such as the laws of chivalry in the Middle Ages. Some authors have the character showing mild disapproval while others tell it like it was and let the reader decide.

The role of women in battle was something that interested a lot of people as they do not feature anywhere near as much as men (one reason being that they are far too sensible for such things.) Some women did fight, such as Boudicca and Joan of Arc but these are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Anyway, the workshop was very enlightening and if you are stuck for anything to read then go out and read what these people have written:

Tomorrow’s post will be all about whether or not historians and historical fiction writers lie or are just somewhat creative with the truth.

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