Stealing a March (and the whole rest of the Battle)-Alma Boykin

  Stealing a March (and the whole rest of the Battle)-Alma Boykin

You need to write a convincing battle scene in your story. Convincing does not have to be “so accurate that it can be used as a teaching case at Sandhurst,” but it should be good enough that John Q Reader won’t wall the book from disbelief. A writer can do a great deal from off-stage, describing the lead up to the fight, and the aftermath, and skipping the middle bits. But there are times when your story requires a fight scene or battle. So where can a writer go for help?
History. And really good fiction, if you are exceedingly careful about how you handle the material and make a legitimate switch. Copying sections out of a Tom Kratman novel, changing the names a little, and tucking them into your book will get you (at best) a take down notice and a firm scolding. Worse, you might get a lawsuit served in person by Col. Kratman. Absolute worst case, a group of Col. Kratman’s fans will serve the lawsuit and then post the video at the Kratskeller. Instead, if you choose to lift from fiction, go back, way back, and read for pattern. David Weber did this with On Basilisk Station, admits freely that he did it, and it worked beautifully.
History may be a safer source. I grew up reading military history, mostly WWII stuff but other periods as well. One of my undergrad degrees centered on military history. I spent a goodly amount of my free time around military people and absorbed what I could. As a result, I feel pretty confident that I can avoid the absolutely worst, most basic mistakes of writing fights and battles. I also know when to 1) ask for an expert’s opinion and 2) leave the details off stage. I’ve also taken fencing classes, so I know a little about swordplay, and I shoot a little. So I have some background knowledge to draw from. For the Cat books, I tend to wing it, making up fights off the top of my head. The Colplatschki books required something else.
Here is where research came in. Lots and lots of research, because my knowledge is all modern warfare, not 17th century-ish. And I needed to know logistics as well as specific battles, which required a whole additional level of reading. Your world might allow you to use less detail, but as usual, I discovered that I’d bitten off more than I had the tools at hand to deal with. So off to the books I went. I read about the Thirty Years War, Ottoman Logistics, biographies of commanders, a history of explosives, books about Renaissance warfare, general histories of Europe, and books about the specific battles I wanted to borrow. I made notes, stuck flags into books, and let thing simmer in my hindbrain for a while.
Then I sat down and sketched out the fight. I used pen and paper to draw the terrain, the formations, how they would move, where they would encounter resistance, who would shift where, and so on. This served two purposes: first it made certain that I understood how the battle had and would work, and second it gave me a template to follow as I wrote so the Poloki heavy cavalry didn’t disappear from the northern flank and teleport to the southern flank between paragraphs.
Only then did I write out the story, allowing the characters to play their roles and trying to see the battle through their eyes, with all the smoke and chaos of their world. Then I went back and compared my battle to the original, made certain that the right units stayed in the right places, and moved on to the next scene.
I freely admit that it really, really helped that I’d walked the Real World analogues of two of the major Colplatschki battlefields in person. You may not have this luxury, but a good map can serve the same purpose. Do not forget the topography. You have to keep the topography in mind when you are dealing with a land battle. Even aviation can be affected by terrain. For example, let’s say that you are borrowing a Desert Storm engagement but set in a location like the Colorado Front Range, where Colorado Springs is. You set the story in winter, and have close air support drones swooping in from 300 meters above the ground. Depending on the weather, those drones may end up plastered all over the battlefield if they get into the very, very common mountain wave turbulence (hydraulic jumps and rotors) that Pikes Peak and the other Front Range mountains generate. Mount Rainier is another one famous for eating aircraft. That could ruin, or save, your story. And there are other examples from around the world. This is a place where I get to cheat, since most of my stories don’t include air resources. If yours do, keep things in mind. What is a nuisance to and F-15 driver might be lethal to a Sopwith Camel pilot. And vice versa: there are some things that small, light, piston and turboprop planes can get out of that eat airliners and heavy transports or pure jets.
OK, so back to “borrowing” battles. There might be some cases where you don’t know what things were like inside the actual fighting. The battle I used for Sigurney, in Circuits and Crises is one such case. I don’t read the languages of the few survivors’ accounts, and the one translation of the epic poem written by the fortress commander’s grandson is, well, an epic poem with a bit of a slant, and still not much about the actual siege. In this case I pulled from everything I’ve read about sieges (Thirty Years War), the accounts and depictions of the battle that I did find, and wove them into something that would make sense. And I picked a POV character that allowed me to not have to write in truly gory detail about what the fighting entailed.
Elizabeth’s battles came from the Earth analogue time in which she lived. But I also filched from other times as well. I discovered the material for one of the scenes in Blackbird in a book about the history of gunpowder and artillery in warfare prior to 1600. As I read, I flagged that paragraph and kept going, but returned to the tidbit later on. It had some potential, but not as it actually happened. So I kept it in mind and moved on. But as Blackbird unfolded, and characters developed, that little paragraph seemed more useful. So I went back, sketched it out as actually happened, then began tinkering. In the end I kept the artillery, the cavalry, the dirt, and one other detail (no spoilers, promise). Sketched out again, the battle now fit Charles Malatesta’s personality and his resources, and so into the book it went.
There are times I skip detail. For the WWI book, I did NOT go wading into the weapons used by the Russians, Austro-Hungarians, and Germans. For one, I didn’t need that level of detail and would rather gloss than fluff up. Second, it would be very easy to get bogged in that level of detail when the plot demands that I move on. There was one exception, and that played a major in real battles in parts of the Habsburg Empire, so I kept it in. However, when dealing with the major fortresses, the terrain, and to some extent the weather, I dug and incorporated what I turned up.
I am very fortunate to have a beta reader who is a military historian, former active duty, and also does alt-hist among other things. I’ve drawn on expert advice a few times, in one case to confirm that Rada Ni Drako was acting stupid, as in Col. Custer levels of stupid. (There was a reason, but she still came within an ace of getting her command slaughtered. Those of you who have read that story are nodding). My Beta Reader confirmed that yeah, she made plausible mistakes and flagged a few “hey, where’s her air support/artillery” moments that I needed to explain or else. If you can find this kind of beta reader, praise them lavishly, feed them well, and thank them (and your chosen deity) often.
Short version of this little essay: read everything, borrow intelligently, check your work, and if you don’t (or can’t) know some details, don’t sweat it so long as you can make up for the lack.


  1. Nothing wrong with stealing from history. David Drake has built his career on it. David Gemmell did it too. The Siege of Dros Delnoch in Legend is pretty much the Alamo, if the Texans had won. And his Rigante series has Celts vs. Romans, and the Celts win this time.

  2. I found the battle scenes in the Colplatschki series to be very well thought out and believable. While I certainly am not a trained military tactician, I think all readers have a certain B.S. detector that fires off when the tactics don’t follow logic or make sense. As your plotline required Elizabeth to be an above normal tactician, it greatly helped the credibility of her character. The emphasis or at least consideration of logistics was especially good and added to the overall credibility of the stories.

    1. Thank you. I had to rewrite chunks of _Donatello Bend_ and _Vindobona_ to allow much, much more transportation time. When you realize that, unlike North America, Europe turned into a marsh or swamp at the drop of a hat, all of a sudden moving men and supplies gets a lot more difficult.

      I’d like to think that most readers will look at 20 soldiers coming down the road all fat, dumb, and happy, read about the hill and bend that conceals a bunch of trees and a ravine, and start going, “ooohh, something bad’s about to happen.” And then wall the book if the soldiers manage to fight their way past 2000 of the enemy.

  3. The idea of stealing sections of Kratman seems absurd to me. It wouldn’t match, and it would only highlight the weakness of the inferior writer. Like taking a quarter to three quarters of one of Bujold’s Miles books, and trying fill in the rest with one’s own writing.

  4. “Do not forget the topography.”
    I went to a battle re-enactment several years ago, and I found that a very small rise in the ground, a very few inches at most, made a big difference in what I was able to see. The same rise would have made a nice place to hide behind, if I’d actually been in the battle.
    That sort of detail may not matter, if your story involves armies, but it does for the individual troop.
    Fences can make a difference. I’m embarrassed that I can’t remember the Civil War battle, but one of the main reasons the South lost a particular decisive battle was that in their pre-battle prep, they hadn’t removed enough sections of a fence, and the next day that formed a bottleneck.
    Some re-packaging of history works great. Personally, I find the ‘file the serial numbers off, switch the North and the South, call the slaves blondes’ style to be uninspired. The Belisarius books, on the other hand, had me bouncing from foot to foot as if I were waiting for an empty bathroom, when I was merely waiting for the final book in the series to be released. That’s a series I’ve read over and over, as well as the Raj off-planet version.

    1. If you are writing from a grunt’s-eye-view, those little lumps are phenomenally important. Several Indian vs. Indian or Indian vs. teamsters fights were decided by who could find a buffalo wallow/playa to hide in, and those buffalo wallows were only two-three feet deep at most, with a very shallow dip and rise.

      1. Yep. I never really appreciated what a nightmare New England was for the British until I lived there for a while.

        Little rock wall (of granite!) – a hundred feet or so of clear sight line – another little rock wall – repeat…

    2. I seem to recall the fences still being up during Pickett’s Charge. Every obstacle that increases your time in the fire / kill sack is all bad.

      It never ceased to amaze me how intervisibility (IV) lines could swallow an entire tank platoon. One second it looked like the area in front of you was a billards table, the next you’d have enemy in a dead zone of your defenses. That was when your FIST generally earned his pay.

      With infantry it was even worse. Go back and read about folks like SGT York whacking multiple MG nests, and all too often you’ll find it’s because the protagonist in question found a draw, ditch, or other terrain feature someone didn’t think to cover with either fire or a small force. That’s why things like terrain reading are a critical skill for characters to have.

  5. Reading terrain is a weird skill, too. I spent a lot of my childhood tramping around battlefields with my dad, and I honestly couldn’t picture a darned thing. But taking an archaeology class in college? For some reason, it made my brain get it.

    (Warning: I am not a spacial thinker in any way. I don’t think most people have to wait until college to be able to figure it out.)

  6. Terrain is very important. As is environment. Rhys has been watching a reality TV show on DVD called Manhunt, and the first episode talks about the preparations they did to do the show. The Philippine and Panama jungles kicked the collective asses of the people doing the show – well, the ones chasing them, not so much. Rhys’ summary of the way they described the Philippine jungle was “I eat cameras om nom nom~!”

    Pretty much if you have to hack your way through the jungle, you’re leaving behind a lovely ‘hey I went this way!’ path for your pursuers.

    I find myself more impressed with the cameramen, to be honest, in shows like that, and Man VS Wild. I don’t think they use GoPros (and in Manhunt, they showed that they weren’t.)

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