Searching for inspiration 3 – in unlikely places

English: Battle of Bosworth Field

English: Battle of Bosworth Field (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As anyone who’s read my previous posts will know, I’ve been trying to develop my battle writing skills (we’re talking swords, bows & pitchforks here…) I’ve got a whole list of books visitors to my blog have very kindly suggested – most of them yet to be read and I also rediscovered Shakespeare’s Henry V (and intend to read through more of the great man’s work for other nuggets).

In my quest for inspiration (and because I am a Richard III fan) I visited the Battle of Bosworth re-enactment near Sutton Cheney recently. I was hoping to really feel the spirit of the late medieval era flood through, and I did get glimpses of it. I watched armour clad men clinging to their horses, the arcing flight of many arrows being released at once, horse-riders charging a quintain (which unfortunately was never in any danger of unseating riders….health and safety you know). There were blacksmiths making armour which added clinking hammers and smoke from the fires to the mix and proper canon fire; given their small size they made an impressive amount of noise. So, I suppose I did glean something from it, but the problem with such re-enactments is you already know the outcome, so there goes any tension. The crowd seemed particularly lacklustre in supporting either side – and I think that wasn’t because they didn’t appreciate the effort of fighting on such a hot day and (for some at least) the fighting skills on display, it was just they knew what would happen. Poor Richard would cop it again. Perhaps for just one year they could let him win? – I imagine that would cause proper civil war in the re-enactment camp! Also there was no blood (I’m not braying for real blood but let’s have some ketchup or red hankies!) no one even hit the deck.

I’m willing to admit however, it’s possible my inability to really get much writing fodder out of the day, might have been down to my self-conscious feeling at the contrivance of it all.

So, I went somewhere I thought perfect for inspiration and didn’t quite find it, yet two places I have visited recently provided some quite unexpectedly.

The first was a recent (and my first for many, many years) camping trip. It just so happened, unbeknownst to us, a bikers convention linked to the British army, was taking place in the field we’d booked to camp in. Within a few minutes of unpacking our tents, the field was full of big, hairy bikers. I must stress me and my sister were doing very well putting our massive nine man tent up (I need my space!) but the bikers were so eager to help, we felt it would be rude to refuse them.

Over the weekend we witnessed – and were a part of  – the camaraderie between this band of (mainly) men. And at night? Well we had the wonderful experience of listening to the late night drunken banter, followed by a cacophony of snoring the like of which I have never experienced. Added to this, (as I cannot sleep on air beds) I went old-style and slept on a thin mat on the floor. When I awoke the next morning – after greatly interrupted sleep, hungry, thirsty and sore, it struck me – soldiers on a campaign would wake for a dawn battle in much the same state . The idea of doing anything even slightly physical on that little sleep was an awful thought. I would really have to love my King big time.

The second was my visit to the Reading festival. I had a great day sitting with a load of friends in hot field, listening to some great bands and people-watching. Again there was the atmosphere you only get when you put that many people in a field together – every group with their own territory, but generally very friendly and happy to help each other out. There were the eccentrics and the wonderfully childish characters – Men dressed as Umpa Lumpas, mario brothers, teletubbies, gimps to name just a few. There was the stench of the campsite – a truly sickly sweet odour and the carnage that is the porta-loos (toilets).

None of this has much to do with actual battle – except if you count the idiotic ‘mosh pits’. I was standing on the less populated section of a dense crowd, yet one started right next to me. It’s surprising how quickly the adrenalin and aggressive traits manifest. I found myself utterly determined to stand my ground and  found myself tripping, pushing (and I shamefully admit, punching) the sweaty men back into their pit of pointless violence. I finally came to my senses, having locked eyes with my sister looking just as abnormally aggressive on the other sit of the ‘pit’ and retreated to a safer distance. But there it is, the stupid fights humans will have over almost nothing – and for fun.

Would love to hear about any inspiration that has struck you in unlikely places?

A little touch of Harry in the night

Sorry, no X-rated photos here of our lovely Prince Harry!! Instead a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry V.

The BBC recently produced a beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, version of this play as part of their Hollow Crown series. Unlike the old ‘televised play’ versions or the modern setting/Shakespearean language treatments, the Hollow Crown managed to combine  faithfulness to his written word  and historical accuracy with powerfully delivered scenes. Such scenes did not require you understand every one of Shakespeare’s carefully chosen and very poetic stanzas. From the voices, accents, actions and scenery you can really feel Shakespeare’s meaning bursting through. All of sudden certain lines or verses capture your imagination and stick with you.

Having been struggling to get my battle scenes just right, I don’t know why I didn’t think of accessing Shakespeare earlier. He is the master of summing up in very few words so much of the emotion of war – and really, however much detail you want to add of the mechanics of war, it is the emotions you want to engage in the reader.

I’ve included an extract below, of one the passage, as I heard them delivered by John Hurt in the Hollow Crown version, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up on end.

 

Now entertain conjecture of a time

When creeping murmur and the poring dark

Fills the wide vessel of the universe.

From camp to camp through the foul womb of night

The hum of either army stilly sounds,

That the fixed sentinels almost receive

The secret whispers of each other’s watch:

Fire answers fire, and through their paly flames

Each battle sees the other’s umber’d face;

Steed threatens steed, in high and boastful neighs

Piercing the night’s dull ear, and from the tents

The armourers, accomplishing the knights,

With busy hammers closing rivets up,

Give dreadful note of preparation:

The country cocks do crow, the clocks do toll,

And the third hour of drowsy morning name.

Proud of their numbers and secure in soul,

The confident and over-lusty French

Do the low-rated English play at dice;

And chide the cripple tardy-gaited night

Who, like a foul and ugly witch, doth limp

So tediously away. The poor condemned English,

Like sacrifices, by their watchful fires

Sit patiently and inly ruminate

The morning’s danger, and their gesture sad

Investing lank-lean; cheeks and war-worn coats

Presenteth them unto the gazing moon

So many horrid ghosts. O now, who will behold

The royal captain of this ruin’d band

Walking from watch to watch, from tent to tent,

Let him cry ‘Praise and glory on his head!’

For forth he goes and visits all his host.

Bids them good morrow with a modest smile

And calls them brothers, friends and countrymen.

Upon his royal face there is no note

How dread an army hath enrounded him;

Nor doth he dedicate one jot of colour

Unto the weary and all-watched night,

But freshly looks and over-bears attaint

With cheerful semblance and sweet majesty;

That every wretch, pining and pale before,

Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks:

A largess universal like the sun

His liberal eye doth give to every one,

Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all,

Behold, as may unworthiness define,

A little touch of Harry in the night.

And so our scene must to the battle fly;

Where–O for pity!–we shall much disgrace

With four or five most vile and ragged foils,

Right ill-disposed in brawl ridiculous,

The name of Agincourt. Yet sit and see,

Minding true things by what their mockeries be.

Oh and in case you’re wondering, yes Henry V was a Plantagenet.

The rest-less king

Apparently Richard III is the only English monarch with no known resting place. Well, that could all change very soon. Leicester University are leading an archeological search for the bones of Richard III under a council car park – thought to be the site of the old Greyfriars Church. The church was demolished by that jolly Tudor monarch, Henry VIII, after he broke with Rome to get a divorce and top up his own coffers with the church’s wealth.

I’m not getting my hopes up, I’ve seen enough episodes of Time Team, back in the day, to know it’s unlikely anything will be found – and even if something is found, proving beyond all doubt these really are the bones of the last Plantagenet king, Richard III is going to be tricky.

There is of course the old rumour that his body was thrown into the River Soar, during the ransacking of the church, by an unknown rabble – apparently a body was found when they drained the river, I don’t know what happened to these remains – so if anyone knows, feel free to comment.

http://www2.le.ac.uk/news/blog/2012/august/searching-for-richard-iii

Richard III’s demise was particularly gruesome. Having been betrayed by those he expected to aid him, and literally stabbed in the back by others, he was stripped naked, flung on his back over a horse and paraded through the town. Finally he was taken to the church to be put on display for three days. Unlike the portrayals in Shakespearean plays, he was not an old hunchback but a strong, 32 year old soldier.

Searching for inspiration 2: the parameters of magic

In Searching for inspiration 1 – I got some great feedback on the issue of creating great battle scenes in novels. I’ve not yet had time to read the books you all suggested, but I will –  after that and a bit more thinking time I’m going to tackle the re-write of my own battle scenes. The second major issue – which I need to solve before I can tackle my battle scenes, is getting the magical elements of my book just right.

For a fantasy writer the use of magic is a major issue.

I’m currently mid-way through an old fantasy novel written sometime in the 1980’s. Let’s just say it’s probably ‘of its time’. In many ways the book is well written, but the novel’s hero has the ability to summon and command powerful gods. So, whenever he’s in a bit of a tight spot he utters some spell and conjures a god who sorts it out. I’m going to plough through to the end because I hate to leave a book unfinished and am hoping its all grist to the mill, but there’s very little tension for me in seeing him facing any enemy.

If magic can conquer all, then it would, end of story. So, without trying to put fetters on our imaginations, I think fantasy writers need to come up with some ‘rules’.

Now I’ve read some blogs which firmly disagree with this. I can see where they are coming from too – after all, this is fantasy it is supposed to be fantastical.  There are some great books where magic is an unknowable force, even for the most knowledgable characters in the novel; where magic can be conjured but its effects never be accurately predicted. But this is a ‘rule’ in itself – this creates the tension. You don’t know what will happen when someone casts a spell, it could depend on their mood, their ingredients, the words they use etc.

One pitfall (I don’t think I’ve fallen into), is to use magic to get myself out of a writing dead-end. As with the novel I’m reading right now, using magic to solve every problem is just boring after a while. It smacks of lazy writing, even if the manifestations of the magic are amazing and awesome (I hate that word) it’s still a cop out.

Despite knowing what I like and dislike about other fantasy novels, I have found myself needing to take a step back from my own writing to make sure I’m on the right track. I’m not going to go away and draft some intricate magical system, I think it’s a fools errand. I’ve written some random notes about vaguely where I think the magic comes from and how it manifests in my world and what it can and cannot do. My major issue is the use of magic in combat. I want to have a lot of proper medieval style battles – just ‘cos that’s what I like 😛  – so there’s no way I want my magic making such battles irrelevant. I’m still undecided, however as to whether magic should have some place in it.

For me the magic isn’t the key to holding the novel together. It runs through it, helps to create the texture of the world but is only one element weaving through the story.

Once again any recommendations for books with subtle or well-crafted magical elements would be great. Also I’d love to hear about how other fantasy writers tackle this issue.

Planning ahead

Having spent some time lost in a bit of a whirl of confusion, I’ve finally imposed some order on my life.

It’s strange having always been such an ordered person at work it’s taken me this long to get to grips with my novel’s structure. I think, from the beginning, my novel was the place I could escape to, a place that could expand to accommodate my every whim – being fantasy there are less barriers than perhaps in other genres. After the first deluge of words had tumbled out of my mind and onto the page my focus switched to ensuring the writing itself was of good quality; it took many rewrites and culls for me to move closer to achieving this aim. Subsequent rewrites and even more culls have pulled together chapters and narrative themes, but to me they feel like something tacked together, rather than a flowing whole.

I have finally broken through my own strange resistance, (I call it strange because I’ve been aware of it and have observed it almost impassively for some time). I’ve striped my novel down into themes, chapter lists and character outlines and stuck them up on my wall. (Though looking at the picture I still feel a little hint of madness in the number of pieces of paper there!) I am probably still searching for a ‘way’ that works, but I’m hoping as I progress pages will be removed from the wall, as the problems with the novel are resolved.

I’d love to hear your strange, mad or sane methods for structuring your novel.