Blood in the Water? Where does it come from?

Swords and sorcery. That’s one commonly-used way of describing what we write for those unfamiliar with the genre, especially when ‘adult fantasy’ conjures up entirely the wrong images. Swordplay has been central to tales of high heroics from The Iliad onwards. Conan cut a bloody swath through the Hyborian Age and Arthur gathered his knights around the table of Camelot. Great set-piece battles decided the fate of worlds and their peoples from Middle Earth onwards.

But where exactly does the modern writer, living in unparalleled peace and prosperity (certainly in historical terms) get inspiration for detailing the blood, sweat and tears of hand-to-hand combat as well as an understanding of the tactics and strategy of pre-gunpowder warfare? Because that stuff wasn’t any part of my historical education.

Don’t misunderstand me. Throughout school and university, I studied no end of wars. I can still wax lyrical on causes and consequences of World War I, on the rise of fascism in the 30’s, the defeat of Nazism and the post 1945 reconstruction of Europe. That was O Level. Then there was the English Civil War, with Edgehill, Marston Moor and all the rest, not forgetting the fighting in Scotland and Ireland (where, mind you, my Granny McKenna’s version of Cromwell’s exploits was significantly at variance with my history teacher’s). Add the War of the Spanish Succession over on the Continent, and the bloodshed culminating in the French Revolution and that was my A Level syllabus. Off to Oxford, I studied the Graeco-Persian wars, the Peloponnesian War and the internecine wars of the Roman Republic from Marius and Sulla onwards.

For every essay topic that included a battle, I’d diligently tackle the reading list to find out who was fighting, why they were fighting, who won and what that meant for whatever happened next. Only the details on precisely how these battles were won or lost were rarely considered important. There might be diagrams in the text books with arrows going this way and that, with those diagonal-slashed rectangles and the other ones with crosses in but no one paid them much attention. Granted, I recall my teacher deciding the discipline of the Parliamentarian cavalry at Marston Moor warranted a mention, compared with the failings of the Royalist horsemen, but I also remember spending as much time, if not more, discussing the tragic death of Prince Rupert’s beloved poodle ‘Boye’, given the dog’s role in Parliamentarian propaganda.

The deaths of the poor bloody infantry, of any age, were simply considered en masse, insofar as they affected one side or the other’s ability to continue the fighting. Or if they were funny, like the tendency of early musketeers to blow themselves up when their coil of burning match got caught up with their bandolier of gunpowder flasks. Seventeen year old girls can be very callous.

I got my first insights into the reality of warfare on a personal level through fiction. I read George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman books avidly as a teenager, and later, Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe stories (along with a few other insights which we need not discuss here). I got a particularly vivid introduction to the terrors and perils of innocent bystanders thanks to Georgette Heyer. Seriously. Her Peninsula War novel, ‘The Spanish Bride’, is based on a true story, that of Harry and Juana Smith, as detailed in his own autobiography. In her foreword to the book, Heyer mentions the various other Diarists of the Light Division as well as for instance, ‘Grattan’s Adventures with the Connaught Rangers’. Her Waterloo novel, ‘An Infamous Army’ has a two-page bibliography at the back. I can’t claim to have followed that up (yet) but discovering she had used such sources set me avidly reading historical biography and autobiography, a habit that persists to this day and which supplies me with all manner of useful and personal detail, crucial to conveying realism in fantasy fiction.

However, one thing I have learned from soldiers’ reminiscences is how little the rank and file sees of the bigger picture. This is a consistent theme, from ‘The Diary of a Napoleonic Footsoldier’, through Spike Milligan’s memoirs and Stephen Ambrose’s Second World War books, to the autobiographies of H Norman Schwartzkopf and Colin Powell, and most recently ‘Generation Kill’. I can even add something of my own experience here. A good few years of live-roleplaying showed me just how little one can know of some magic-user’s cunning plan ten feet behind you. All your attention is on the orc at the other end of your sword, so you skewer him before he kills you.

But if I was to write a novel detailing a military campaign, I knew I had to convey the bigger picture to the reader. I also needed to find ways to vary the narrative of battle after battle, to avoid repetitive depictions of the fog of war. To do any of that, I needed to have a thorough understanding of the strategic, operational and tactical issues that all the armies would face, embroiled in this Lescari Revolution. As with so many aspects of fantasy writing, only a tenth of that detail might actually make it into the narrative but the remaining nine-tenths is still essential to supporting it.

Fortunately, I knew I had an invaluable resource to hand, in my husband Steve. We had first met through our mutual interests in martial arts and wargaming. I had become interested in military wargaming through fantasy tabletop gaming while he had travelled in the other direction, from years of playing Squad Leader and re-fighting Napoleonic battles with little lead soldiers.

When one of my university essays had been on the Battle of Thermopylae, my tutor had specifically tasked us with unpicking the various contradictory primary and secondary sources. After the reading material simply deepened my confusion I had turned to Steve and his pal from the wargames club, Mark. They didn’t bother with academic analyses. They wanted to know the terrain, the forces on both sides, naval and infantry and the objectives of the respective commanders. The only reports they were interested in were the specifics offered by Herodotus. Given this information, they were able to explain exactly who did what and why and how it all fitted together. Professor Lintott was hugely impressed with my subsequent essay and keen to know what additional reference material I had discovered, compared to my floundering fellow students. He was lost for words when I explained the key contribution of two tool-design engineers from the Cowley car plant.

So as I prepared to embark on this second Chronicle of the Lescari Revolution, I sat down with Steve, plenty of blank paper and coloured pens and asked him to comment and advise on the battles I had sketched out to shape the plot I’d envisaged. As it turned out, I got an awful lot more than I’d bargained for. We analysed the terrain, the costs and logistics involved for each side raising an army, the time of year and the weather, the time taken to get troops from any given point on the map to a necessary destination, and in particular, the personalities of their commanders. Yes, we did draw up maps with those rectangles with crosses and diagonal lines. We ended up with spreadsheets detailing each units fighting strength and casualties; dead, wounded and captured, and factored all those considerations into what must happen next.

As we did so, these battles became very different affairs. Precisely how these victories were won, or defeats sustained, by the men and women on the ground, became central to the unfolding story. That was true both in terms of the bigger picture and in the individual tales of particular characters. Deaths that I hadn’t planned on became inescapable amid the wider carnage that we calculated in painful detail. Other survivals surprised me, presenting me and the individuals concerned with a whole new set of challenges. Several characters were presented with choices where their only logical course of action ran directly counter to my original intent. I had to jettison my outline on more than once occasion to maintain the internal coherence of the story.

Most important of all, it became inexorably more and more evident that this really was going to be a damn close run thing, or as Wellington actually said of Waterloo, “the nearest run thing you ever saw…”. Even then, once the fighting was done, the surprises weren’t over.