Arms and the Writer

weapons2

Historical fiction author Kathy Owen has a must-read post at Jami Gold’s writing blog. Owen reminds writers that readers of historical fiction KNOW THEIR HISTORY, so any mistakes in your story will turn off the very people you’re trying to reach.

Of course, that advice is true of any genre. Not long ago, in a manuscript I was critiquing, I read how the protag raised a 2×4 over his head to protect himself from a street thug’s nunchaku attack, but the “numchucks” broke the board in half.

No. Not even Bruce Lee could whip a flailing weapon hard enough to do the work of a sledgehammer. I’ve been studying martial arts for thirty years, and though I don’t compete any more, I still do katas, both empty handed and with kobudo weapons. In the picture above are my favorites. From left to right, we have the sai, short stick (a length of pipe, ’cause I’m cheap), tonfa, nunchaku, and staff (bo).

Over the years, I’ve also learned how to make and use the sling, the atlatl, and bola.

Fantasy fiction fairly bristles with primitive weapons, including dirks, daggers, swords, staffs, and many others. Many of your readers will know the capabilities and limitations of those arms. Some details in a story can be faked, but many cannot. And if you are truly fascinated with your subject, you’ll want hands-on experience, experience that will make your stories come alive. Jean Auel amassed a vast knowledge of primitive survival skills after she determined she wanted to write about prehistoric peoples. I, on the other hand, was taught tracking and hunting skills as a boy, and later took up backpacking. In my early 20s, I studied Isshin-Ryu karate. Only much later did I write fiction based on those passions.

The point is that you have to have not only practical knowledge of your subject, but a love for it. The reader can sense that, and will enjoy your story more as a result.

There’s a scene in Aztec Midnight when Jon Barrett, the protag, must escape his captors and find his kidnapped wife. With only seconds to act, and with an armed guard nearby, he improvises a bola:

There was no time to breathe, no time for a second try. I hooked a weight from the scales into the hole at the end of my leather belt.

Gabriel groped under his vest.

The hook on the second weight slipped into the hole on the other end of the belt.

Gabriel had the gun in his hand.

I dropped forward, crouching on one knee, and used the momentum to swing my bola toward Gabriel.

It snapped in my hand, and I released it. It spiraled through the air and across the room.

The pistol fired and filled the room with an ear-splitting crack.

The bola slapped against Gabriel’s knee and coiled around his legs. The second weight whipped around and smashed into his calf.

Gabriel bellowed and dropped to his knees, eyes clenched shut. I saw him open his eyes, eyes wrinkled in rage and pain, and he leveled the gun at me for a second shot.

I think that worked nicely. It never would’ve sounded believable without 1) my fascination for the subject and 2) knowing what I was writing about, which gave me the confidence to tackle such a scene.

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Ray Bradbury

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D. L. Shirey192 Flash Fiction Markets (and counting!)
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Quote of the day

Margaret Atwood

“Why is it that when we grab for heaven — socialist or capitalist or even religious — we so often produce hell? I’m not sure, but so it is. Maybe it’s the lumpiness of human beings. What do you do with people who somehow just don’t or won’t fit into your grand scheme? All too often you stretch them on a Procrustean bed or dig a hole in the ground and shovel them into it.” – Margaret Atwood

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J. C. Wolfe6 Popular Rhetorical Devices and How to Use Them
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Want to be more successful? Try thinking about death

New Orleans New Orleans cemetery

A study published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology finds that thinking about the worst that could happen, including death, energizes athletes, as well anyone striving to improve their “performance-related activities”:

Study co-leader Uri Lifshin of the University of Arizona told Medical News Today: “Terror management theory talks about striving for self-esteem and why we want to accomplish things in our lives and be successful. Everybody has their own thing in which they invest that is their legacy and symbolic immortality.”

“Your subconscious tries to find ways to defeat death, to make death not a problem, and the solution is self-esteem. Self-esteem gives you a feeling that you’re part of something bigger, that you have a chance for immortality, that you have meaning, that you’re not just a sack of meat.”

There’s a fire inside every artist that drives him to complete that special piece, to create a thing of beauty and meaning that will survive him and tell people of a future time that he once lived. And mattered.

A memento mori works as a severe yet effective motivator. Focusing on mastering oneself in the face of oblivion is a discipline that enables us to live more, not less. The Bushido code of the Japanese samurai reflected the same strategy for optimizing one’s efforts: “One who is supposed to be a warrior considers it his foremost concern to keep death in mind at all times, every day and every night, from the morning of New Year’s Day through the night of New Year’s Eve.”

Gotta go. I have a novel to finish.