The Battle for Verisimilitude

In the possibly immortal words of Pepé Le Pew, “I am a lover, not a fighter.”

Seriously, I’m not a fighter. This is my weak spot as a writer. So if I were going to only write what I know, I’d be in deep trouble. And as much as I want my work to be accurate, I’m not going to visit active battles to experience the horrors of war for myself.

My current story begins in the middle of a medieval Viking naval battle. After the initial flow of writing, I realized that it was missing quite a bit: sensory description, proper blocking, and an understanding of exactly how many Vikings could fit on board a ship while they are hacking it out.

I’m lucky that my husband is a naval historian, so he was able to point me to some good resources on how such a battle would take place. And, he took the time to go over how Viking sea battles differed from other types of sea battles. But none of that is sensory, so last night and today I’m reading fiction with battle scenes.

Last night I read Pressfield’s description of the battle of Thermopylae in Gates of Fire since this book is widely respected. I also read the portion of Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla Saga that deals with the Battle of Svolder, which Steve says is the perfect sea battle to review for my purposes.

Today will be battle scenes from Master and Commander, which have the benefit of being sea battles, though different. I’m already reading C.S. Forester’s The Good Shepherd, which was recommended by an admiral in the Australian navy as an example of impressive leadership and tactical brilliance in sea battles, though I doubt that there will be boarding actions in that one.

I’m on the lookout for stories with boarding actions, because outside of a bit of ship maneuvering that’s how Vikings fought. Steve assures me that their skill at maneuver was weak beer compared to the masterful actions of Greek trireme battles. (Viking partisans, take your fight to my husband if you want to disagree. I’m merely the container, not the source of this opinion.)

I do a lot of research for some of my stories because I am not an expert in anything except vegan cooking and project management. And let’s face it, how many of you would pick up a stirring book about vegan chefs competing on the world stage to make the best vegan cheese? Hmmm. Maybe that’s not such a bad idea after all. But one story at a time.

My friend Bill Webb seems to write with the philosophy, “If it bleeds, it leads.” He has a wildly enthusiastic fanbase. Since this story is starting in the middle of a battle and it’s not something I’ve done well before, I’ll also take a look at his work. Like my husband, Bill is accessible to me so I can ask him questions if I run into them. And he’s generous with his knowledge.

Hopefully my research will make this story better, but there will come a point (probably tomorrow) where the research has to stop. There is never enough time to do all the research needed. Then, it’s “once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.” The fictional dead will never know what hit them.

I hope your writing is as exciting as mine is today. May you meet the enemy and come back with your shields and not on top of them.

Be well, friends!

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Battle scenes are always hard. It takes an entirely immersive experience for the reader to love them, which is hard to pull off. I would not doubt that the Greek triremes were more agile maneuvers than Vikings, however, all the Viking battles described are not in the same descriptive format as the Greeks’ are, being part of verse compositions rather (much closer to how Homeric epics describe battles). SO we really do not have a great idea of how/if Vikings used tactics at sea, while we have a great number of Greek battles described by men with military experience.
    The boarding of the enemy ship is probably the more exciting part of a Viking naval battle, while in books like Master and Commander and the Horatio Hornblower series the maneuvering of ships with complex sails in difficult winds is just as interesting if not more so than the close combat scenes.
    Excited to read what you come up with!

    1. Thanks so much! I am anxious for you to see it. One of the problems I have writing from Caedmon’s POV is that he is too smart for me. He’s modeled after Steve and is even smarter than Steve. One thing I’m struggling with is the difference between Viking and Estonian naval tactics, but Steve dismissed that with a rude sound saying that the differences were so minor as to be unimportant.

  2. I’m a war vet. If you want to ask questions, you can.

    But people don’t really want to read about war as it actually is. They want to be entertained. Real, accurate war is anything but that.

    When people talk about battle, they’re thinking of choreographing the battle movements or punches in a fist fight. Any action scene is about your character and his opinions and emotions during it. You can describe the fear the character has as he’s about the lose the battle and not be able to do the heroing thing he was supposed to. Or how his temporary ally’s eyes blaze with the lust of battle. Lots of things you can do without having to do as much choreography.

    But if you really want to see what war is like, just grab Phil Clay’s Redeployment. Skip the first story and read a couple. He wrote it five years after he returned from war. It’s pretty accurate, and not a pleasant read.

    1. Thank you so much! That was what I needed to hear. I probably need to add a bit more emotional and sensory content to the scene I wrote but at least I know that I have the choreography right.

      I really appreciate your offer to answer questions. I am not sure what questions I have at this point.

      I will take a look at Redeployment. It sounds like it would be good for me to read anyway.

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