It’s not easy writing battle scenes (as Kermit might sing). They are a crisis in the story; possibly the piece of history that inspired the book; the climactic moment of danger for the characters I’ve sent into the breach. I’ve reached this point once more while writing Tigers in Blue, my hands held anxiously above my keyboard, like a soldier with an itchy trigger-finger before the charge. Well, sort of.
There’s a danger as a writer when you hit the action button. It’s as true of suspense or horror genres as well as historical fiction. You’ve spent fifty-thousand words crafting your characters and their story arcs, intertwining their lives, getting the reader to love them or hate them or both. You’ve even managed to set up the visuals, subtly familiarising the reader with the setting where it’s all about to kick-off. The tension is at breaking point. Then you describe one googly-eyed monster or get lost in the blood and guts and everything dissipates in the unreality you’ve just described.
At a line-by-line level it’s hard to portray an epic battle without falling back on the same descriptions. There’s only so many ways you can say bang. The tenth time you talk about ‘sheets of flame’ or the ‘thunder of cannon’ it ceases to have an impact. A good thesaurus helps. I spill words onto my whiteboard from historical accounts to fit in as and when they suit. And I’m constantly reaching for a new way to describe using emotion that will connect, or detail that will engage, the reader.
You might think the solution is to describe it as it really was, and certainly that’s always been my intent. But there are problems there too. For a start, how the hell would I know? I’ve done my best. Flown to battlefields, dressed up in Union blue, camped under the stars, learned to load and fire a Civil War rifle, chased Rebels through the woods. I got pretty excited in a twelve-year-old sort of way. But I never feared for life or limb, never watched my friends bleed out. And there were only a few dozen of us… Also, if described how it really was, I’m pretty sure my main character Private Shire would have next to no idea what was going on, not in the smoke and the chaos and the hand to hand fighting where his universe is the man in front who’s trying to kill him. If you attempt and give a broader view of events, some level of detachment can sneak in. You have to be inventive. Find moments for characters where the big picture is on show and then zoom back in to their immediate world.
I’ve read no end of personal accounts but annoyingly, when it comes to the real nitty-gritty, they often use words like ‘indescribable’, or say that the ‘vivid impressions and terrifying scenes were indelibly stamped on the minds of the participants.’ It’s understandable why their minds may shy from the detail, but it doesn’t help me get to the reality. Do readers even want the true reality or would they rather look away or watch with one eye closed?
Ethically, you can tie yourself in knots. I’m writing about real events, sometimes using characters who lived through these extreme moments in history and a fair number who never made it to the other side. Do I know how they felt when they got up for breakfast that day, as they got into line, as they killed or were killed? In some cases, I’ve spent years with the ghosts of these people. I’ve visited their homes and their graves. I owe them a debt of respect. I want to get this right.
In the end it comes down to best endeavours and trusting my imagination. If I’ve done all I can as a life-long civilian – removed from the time I’m writing about by a century and a half – then I’m as prepared as I can be to step off into my personal writing battle. You have to turn it around. I’ll likely get some things wrong, but by entering their world, portraying the sort of challenges they faced, trying to reach for their possible emotions, I am honouring them, becoming a part of the collective effort to understand.
I must go. The trumpet has sounded, the flags are unfurled and waving high. The first cannon has boomed!
Shire’s Union, books 1 and 2.
Battle Town (short story)