I’ve been getting asked about how to write fight scenes a fair amount these days so let me start with a first principle:
During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, England saw the rise of itinerant judges – travelling magistrates who would go through counties and shires hearing cases and enforcing the King’s laws. I imagined what might happen to one of these judges when they arrived in some small town where the facts of a case might be hard to uncover and where wealthy and powerful individuals could muster as many soldiers as they needed to avoid justice. Would anyone really be foolish enough to try and enforce the King’s law in a highly corrupted county hundreds of miles away from any royal support? As it turns out, Falcio, Kest, and Brasti are exactly that foolish.
Heroic Fantasy / Dark Fantasy
I loved heroic fantasy growing up – reading about flawed yet noble human beings struggling to do the right things for the right reasons. These days more of what I read leans towards dark fantasy, where heroes are products oft heir world – meaner, tougher, and full of moral ambiguity. With Traitor’s Blade, I set out to explore what would happen to the types of heroic characters I admired as a kid if they lived in a darker, more cynical world. Would the character change and become corrupted by their environment until for them, as for most dark fantasy heroes, the end justified the means? Or would the world around them be forced to change through their influence. In book 1 of the Greatcoats series, Falcio has seen his king deposed as a tyrant and the ideals he fought for rejected by nobles and commoners alike. Even Falcio’s closest friends, Kest and Brasti, begin to question whether it’s time to set aside their beliefs for the greater good. At the darkest point of his life, Falcio is forced to choose between abandoning his principles or seeing the country fall into tyranny.
Well, this will sound a bit strange, but American politics figures prominently in the cultural backdrop of Traitor’s Blade. In North America it’s now commonplace for political operatives to take the most noble and remarkable sacrifices of their enemies and twist them into evidence of inner corruption and moral perversion. Part of this can be blamed on the political machinery of the modern era, but much of it falls on an electorate that has become so cynical that every virtue is seen as evidence of a deeper vice.
Although the Greatcoats series takes place in a world that most closely parallels our own fifteenth century, I wanted to see how that kind of political intrigue and cynicism would impact my heroes. In Traitor’s Blade, the Greatcoats have spent a decade fighting to bring some small measure of justice to those living under the feckless rule of lords and dukes. But as soon as the nobles reassert their power by deposing the king, the populace turns against the Greatcoats, calling them Trattari, or ‘tattered cloaks’, a name used for traitors.
The idea for the coats themselves came from an actual greatcoat that my brother bought me one year. When I was working as an actor I found I’d always bring this coat because no matter how cold it got or how long I had to wait before filming a scene, I could pretty much carry everything I needed in it and stay warm and ready to go. Alas, mine doesn’t have secret bone plates to protect from being hit by swords nor does it have the various tricks, traps, and potions that the characters in Traitor’s Blade rely on.
Note: I originally wrote this for OpenBookOntario.com back in 2014.
How do you keep your plot moving forward?
This question tends to hit writers in the second act of their novels. The challenge isn’t so much about adding events to the story as it is about creating a sense of forward momentum and increasing urgency. With each plot thread the reader needs to feel that they are moving inexorably towards an end that will answer the questions posed by the book’s first act.
In my own writing this happens through two concurrent forces: the protagonist’s gradual loss of control over their world and the reader’s increasing understanding of it.
In the second act of Traitor’s Blade, Falcio struggles harder and harder to find a way to stop the conspirators who are destroying his country, but his efforts only seem to push victory farther and farther away. This isn’t just about ratcheting up the action or throwing more bodies (figuratively or literally) on the ground – it’s about slowly breaking down Falcio’s sense that he can ever win. At the same time, the reader is coming to understand why things are the way they are; why the conspirators are succeeding.
Plotting this way allows the two forces to work together until it finally becomes apparent to the reader that your protagonist’s goal – whether victory, or love, or even survival – is forever beyond their grasp. For me, as a writer, that’s the end of the second act.
The third act is about a fundamental change in the main characters – they become aware of what the reader has already figured out – and they find it within themselves to make the sacrifice that will heal the world around them, even if it means their own physical or emotional destruction. The climax of the story may be happy or sad, redeeming or damning, but however it ends, the book answers those questions that made you want to write the book in the first place.
Remember back (way back) to before you could find anything you’d ever seen or heard on the Internet? You know, when you listened to a song on the radio and had to hunt high and low to find the album in a store? Or when you found a new series of books but couldn’t the third one in the series? I first read Keith Taylor’s book Bard when I was a teenager heading on an ill-advised solo camping trip (wearing a rather uncomfortable leather jacket and carrying a tent with holes in the roof and missing pegs.) A number of things went wrong on that trip that resulted in being cold, wet, tired, and huddling in the dark to avoid a group of drunk and stoned teenagers. But from the moment I started reading Bard all of that disappeared and I was transported into a world of music, magic, and swashbuckling. Tailor’s love and depth of knowledge about his subject was remarkable and the chronicles of Felimid Mac Fal soon became some of my favourite stories. So, happy ending to my camping trip, right? Not so fast…
Flash forward a few years and I’d found and read Bard II, III, and IV. It looked like the series was over and though I wasn’t happy about it, I could live with it. But the series wasn’t over–Keith Tailor had written a fifth book! Joy and jubilation! The only problem was that I soon discovered the book was only published in the United Kingdom. Okay, fine, now I have to order from the Brits. No problem – they like Canadians. Unfortunately, the book went out of print too quickly and no one had copies. I couldn’t find any North American library with a copy and it wasn’t feasible to borrow one from across the Atlantic.
The Internet is supposed to fix all these things, isn’t it? Everything accessible all the time? An endless cornucopia of delights waiting to be purchased by anyone with a credit card and a web browser. So I start searching and, sure enough, eventually I find someone’s dog-eared copy of the book available for purchase for only $125. That’s right, they wanted one-hundred-and-twenty-five dollars and shipping. Part of me wanted to buy it anyway, but the thought of rewarding someone’s needless greed (none of the money would have gone to the author) prevented me.
Of course, an obvious solution presented itself: who needs to actually buy and ship a physical book? I mean, that’s so 2010. These days it’s all about the e-book, right? Wrong. None of Keith Taylor’s books are available in digital editions. I actually wrote Mr. Taylor himself and he kindly checked to see if he had a copy around but alas, no luck there either.
A couple of weeks ago, the literary gods finally smiled on me and a copy appeared at a very reasonable of $15 USD plus shipping. The day I came back from my vacation it was right there waiting for me in a Trans-Atlantic shipping envelope. Finally, after all these years I’m reading Bard V and learning the final fate of Felimid Mac Fal. The funny thing is, after all these years, my tastes have changed and it’s not the type of book I’d buy anymore, but there’s something wonderful about searching for a lost book and one day finding it.
Nothing matters until you’ve finished your first book. Anyone who gets you there is a hero. The single most important tool I ever found for learning to write was a series of twelve double-sided tapes called “Let’s Write A Mystery” by a guy named Ralph McKinerny. His whole process was to tell you the basics while writing a book right alongside you on his tapes (all of which sounded like 1950’s science teacher lectures.)
The book that Ralph writes during the process is included in the box with the tapes. To my tastes it’s maybe the shitiest book I’ve ever read. If he’d wanted to, he could have shown off the talents that helped him write dozens of successful novels. And yet, somehow, his willingness to write crap right there in front of you, all the while telling you to stop worrying about whether your stuff is good or not but just get your damned pages out, somehow that’s what helped me write my first novel and prove to myself that I could be a writer.
Ralph McInerny was a theologian who wrote books I never bothered to read and who had largely opposite values to me (he once wrote a screed protesting Barack Obama speaking at Notre Dame.) He died in 2010 and I never met him. He was the best writing teacher I ever had.