Writing Excuses 14.28: Warfare and Weaponry
Key points: Combat, fight scenes, warfare, weapons? How do you write it when you aren’t the expert that some of your readers are? First, if you think it may be wrong, let it be a character who can make a mistake. Super soldier takes more homework to get it right. Second, pay attention (reading or listening) to people who “have seen the elephant.” Talk to somebody who has been there. Search the online community, including YouTube historicals and recreations. Make it personal. Why is the reader going to be invested in this? The more you know about human beings doing human things, when you write about them in a situation not too far different from things you have seen before, you will get a lot of it right. Use extrapolation, add elements of technology, magic, or combat that change the way the game is played. Add wildcards to make it your story. Keep the lens tight, and focus on a few characters, even if the landscape is very wide. Give us someone to care about.
[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 28.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Warfare and Weaponry.
[Dan] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Mahtab] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mahtab] I’m Mahtab.
[Brandon] We are going to talk about weapons!
[Brandon] This is actually one of my favorite topics, because it lets me talk about a hobby horse of mine.
[Brandon] One of the big dangers with dealing with fantasy and science fiction, particularly when it comes to warfare, I find, is that, well, I don’t have the time to become as much an expert as some of my readers in how to go about conducting war. I’ve never been in a war. This was actually kind of a bit of an issue when I was working on the Wheel of Time books because Robert Jordan had been in a war. He was in Vietnam. So the way he wrote warfare was very different from the way I write warfare. So my first kind of question for you guys is how do you approach, specifically, with this sort of thing, combat, fight scenes, warfare, weapons? Doing this right when you know that many of the readers out there are going to be better at this than you are?
[Howard] Um… The crutch that I fall back on forgetting things wrong is… I try and make sure that when tactically something might not be a good idea, might not be the best way to do a thing, I’m okay with that character having gotten it wrong. If I’m trying to write somebody as a super soldier who tactically gets everything right, I have to do a whole lot more homework, because that’s the character that the actual soldiers in my readership will take issue with first. The… The second thing is there’s an aspect to soldiering that no one who has not soldiered can really understand. The… It’s a blend of adrenaline and esprit de corps and fright and thrill and… Often they talk about it as seeing the elephant. But compensating for that, you have to make sure that you have read extensively and listened extensively to people who have had those experiences. So that when you describe things, you don’t describe… Especially describing feelings, describing things from a point of view character, you’re not doing so in a way that an actual soldier will say, “Nobody feels that. Why would they feel that? You wrote that wrong.”
[Dan] We give this answer so much, but that’s because it is incredibly true. Talk to someone who knows what they’re talking about. I’ve got a handful of police and soldiers that I will send something to, to alpha or beta read for me, if I suspect that I’ve gotten it wrong, which is most of the time. It’s the emotions in battle. It’s, for me, where I often fall down, is the tactics. I’ll have a scene and they’ll come back and say, “These are the dumbest soldiers ever. Why didn’t they do X, Y, and Z?” I realize, “Oh. There’s a procedure that’s already in place for this common combat situation that I didn’t know anything about.” So having good reference points and readers who can help out is really valuable.
[Brandon] One of the advantages that we have right now that writers didn’t have even just 10 years ago is a large online community that talks about historical warfare and battlefields. For someone writing fantasy, like me, I can go to YouTube and there’s a whole ring of them. Some of the ones I watch are… There’s one called BazBattles which is just historical battles, kind of showing the tactics that each general is using and why they were using them. There are people like [Lindy Mage? Lindybeige] and Scholar Gladiatorius [Schola Gladitoria]… I’m very bad at saying his YouTube channel, but they talk about historical battles. There’s people like Shadiversity that just will talk about here is how a weapon was used in these sorts of things. They can be really handy. I will sometimes just go to some of these…HEMA, historical martial arts things and say, “All right. Let me see some people fighting sword against knife.” They will have 20 bouts of people…
[Brandon] Doing a recreation for you, where they are fighting…
[Dan] That’s fantastic.
[Brandon] You can see directly 20 times in a row how that battle might play out. It lets you write it.
[Dan] There was a BBC series… I can’t remember the name, and I’ll try to get it for the liner notes… Where there was a historian and his father who was also a historian. They were British. They would just go around to famous sites of battles in… That had taken place somewhere in England and say, “Okay. This is the hill. That’s where this guy’s army was. That’s where this one was.” So you got a really great sense of the tactics and how the terrain affected them.
[Mahtab] Writing for young readers, you don’t have to get that technical, you don’t have to get all your facts so correct, because you’re writing for younger readers, and they are not as experienced as the adult readers. But what I like to do is make it very, very personal. One of the stories that was set in World War I was War Horse by Michael Morpurgo. That is actually told from the perspective of the horse, but of course, you have the young protagonist who really loves this horse. It’s recruited by the Army, and the entire journey is about the horse getting back. It’s… The thing is, you could have something as big as war, but you can make it very, very personal to the character. The interaction with how it feels to lose something and want it back and then kind of work that in. So, you’re more looking at how it is personal… How that warfare is personally affecting your main character, as opposed to just focusing on the tactics or the weaponry. At least for us, I think it’s a little bit easier than writing…
[Brandon] It tends to actually work really well, right?
[Brandon] Like, one of the questions I wanted to ask is how you might have a large-scale war happening, but keep it personal. But I think you just got to it. Making sure that you’re keeping your eye on why is someone really going to get invested in this. Often times, the reader’s investment is directly tied to how invested they are in one character, or a set of characters, life through this battle and how they are surviving and what their goals are other than just staying alive, or does their goal just become I want to live through this.
[Dan] My grandfather fought in World War II, and he was specifically a supply sergeant. So all the stories he would tell us were about… They were not about battles, they were not about who won and who lost and who got killed. There were about we didn’t have enough socks so here’s how I found some socks so that our unit could have some and things like that. Which really gave me a different sense of how personal it can be, and the kinds of concerns that soldiers actually have. It’s like two minutes of fighting and then three weeks of waiting around wishing you had clean socks.
[Howard] My grandfather fought in the first World War. He was born in 18…
[How old are you?]
[Howard] He was born in 1899.
[Howard] He died in 1968. I never met the man. But he wrote, when he was… I think when he was in his 30s. One of his kids said, “Dad, you are always harping on these old guys who talk about their Civil War experiences, because obviously they’ve inflated them and whatever. Why don’t you write a book about yours?” So he did. He wrote… In my family, we just call it PFC 1918. Because it is his journals from the year 1918 when he enlisted through his experiences in Europe. He did not see the horrors of World War I that we so often talk about. But he got there afterwards. His descriptions… Some of them are very emotional, and some of them are very clinical. Having never met the man, I… He doesn’t write much in the way of emotion. But it’s been an incredible resource for me because it’s a point of view that I don’t get from any of the history books.
[Brandon] Mahtab, you have a book of the week for us.
[Mahtab] Yes, I do. It’s one that I really, really love, I read it quite recently, although the book is, I think, maybe three or four years old. It’s called The Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey. It’s a dystopian post-apocalyptic science fiction novel. What I love about this is, it’s basically a fungus has destroyed most of humanity. What it does, in terms of changing humans, is once it kind of infects the humans, they turn into cannibals and they just want to devour the other humans. This has basically destroyed most of civilization. But, just outside London, there is a small little place called Beacon. There is a lab that has been set up by a scientist who’s rounded up these kids. They’re called Hungries because the moment they smell humans, they just want to devour them. They’re studying them to find out a cure to it. But, what I loved about it is this book needs a lot of expo. But it is… It gives you the bits and pieces just as needed. So it’s a very, very close focus lens. It starts out with Melanie who is a Hungry. She is in this lab being tested. She just makes a joke, like. She’s put in this wheelchair, strapped up, and then under the like a military watch with guns trained on her, this child who’s probably about 11 years old is taken into the classroom. That just poses so many questions. It sets up the narrative, and you know you’re in good hands. So the story is about finding the cure, being attacked by the remaining humans, and the conclusion is just so fabulous. I mean, it’s unexpected yet satisfying, which is something you guys always talk about. This one really demonstrates it. So, The Girl with All the Gifts, M. R. Carey.
[Brandon] Excellent. Howard, I wanted to put you on the spot again. I know I’ve done this a couple times already in this episode, but you write military science fiction and you write about what it is like to live as part of a military group. But as far as I know, you’ve never been in the military.
[Howard] I never have.
[Brandon] So what… Are there things you know you’ve gotten wrong that our listeners might get wrong? That you have been corrected on, or that you’ve learned to do right? Or are there certain things, specifics, they have really helped you to get this right other than, of course, get some friends…
[Howard] The things that I got wrong… The things that I got wrongest, I got wrong early on, which was me poking fun at my ignorance by having ranks and forms of battle and whatever where it… I deliberately made it so it did not make sense. I stopped doing that. Because you can really only tell that joke once. It’s a joke that I’m telling on myself. Those aren’t funny for very long. Research, and a large part of what I get right, I got right because I spent 11 years in a dysfunctional corporate environment, and a top-down management structure that is dysfunctional is not unlike a military command structure under fire. Because a lot of those same hotheaded, emotional decisions, lieutenants that are kissing up, people who have more authority than they should and less knowledge than they should, all of those things existed in that environment. I got lucky when I extrapolated them out to the military setting that I had built. But ultimately, I come back to this idea that at least if we’re writing about human beings, the more you know about human beings, the more you’ve seen human beings do human being things, when you write about them in a situation that is not entirely unlike something you’ve seen before, the odds are you’re going to get a lot of it right.
[Brandon] One of the things I wanted to bring up in this podcast was talking about fantasy and Science Fiction extrapolation. Something you were talking about there reminded me of it. You mentioned you don’t make a joke out of getting things wrong. One of the things I do intentionally is kind of along those lines, in that when I am building a situation in my fantasy books that… Even my science fiction book that just came out, Skyward, I am looking to have some elements of science fiction or fantasy technology or combat that will change the way the game plays out dramatically. To the point that it removes it far enough from the experience of a lot of the really historical readers, so that they can suspend their disbelief and say, “Well, maybe this sort of situation could never exist in our world, but we didn’t have shard blades and shard plate and we were crossing these impossible chasms to try and reach this one goal.” In that situation, taking what I know of warfare, applying it, and then adding some wildcards that make it completely into my control, really has been helpful for me. I know with Skyward, which is kind of based on starship fighter pilot stuff, that taking it a few steps away from the way that we fight by letting the starships have technology that we don’t have allowed some of the fighter pilots that I gave it to to read to say, “You know what, this works for me, even though you’re doing things we could never do. The fact that I haven’t done this thing lets me just have fun with the story.” Then, of course, they gave me the things that they had done that I was doing that I was doing wrong, so I could get those details right. But that mix is really handy for science fiction and fantasy in specific. Anything…
[Mahtab] There’s just one thing I’d like to say, and I’m going to refer to a movie right here, which is the recent one, Crimes of Grindelwald, which there was a battle between good and evil, but when there is just too much happening, when there is no focus on a character, the readers or the audience do not know who to identify with, who to empathize with. I think that is a mistake, especially in war, because it’s huge, there are many people in there. You may take the lens so far back that the audience is not left with anyone to care about. That makes it… For me, this did not work. So I would say that some of the things that you have to remember is although the landscape may be extremely wide, try and focus on at least a couple of characters. Make it personal so that readers can feel that, “Okay, this is something that I want, I care about this character, and hence, I want to go forward.” Just coming back to the book that I had recommended, which is The Girl with All the Gifts. Melanie is a Hungry. At first, she’s viewed with suspicion. You don’t empathize with her. But, as the story goes on and the lens pulls back, you’re still… It’s very much still focused on Melanie and a person who was viewed with suspicion all of a sudden has to be viewed with trust. That little tip makes the story works so much better. So I would say even if you have a wide landscape, give us someone to care about.
[Dan] Another author that does this really well, particularly with warfare, is Django Wexler. He writes historical fantasy, very Napoleonic era, with cavalry and infantry forming a square and all these things. I remember one battle in particular where we were in one infantry person’s head. When they all started firing, that kind of weapon reproduces so much smoke that all of a sudden, they couldn’t see what was going on in the rest of the battle. He didn’t change perspective, he didn’t give us the Broadview, he stayed in the middle of that infantry square that was fully blind, just trying to listen. Are the horses getting close? It was really effective. Because it had that one single focus that we could stay with and empathize with.
[Brandon] All right. I’m going to call it here and give you guys some homework. I would like you to invent a powerful weapon that is not based on technology. I want you to take this to the side of technology. In fact, make it more powerful than technology in your setting could exist… The technology people understand, this is something completely un-understand… Non-understandable. I want you to invent this weapon, and see how society adapts to it. Try to build a battlefield around the idea of a weapon that no one even really knows what it can do. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.