On Researching Material For Your Bilious Lies

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while (or delved through the archives, for that matter) will know that I’m big on knowing things about the real world. Now I know at first that may seem ridiculous for a genre-fiction writer. “Cullen, why do you talk about reality so much? You hate reality!” Firstly, readers mine, I do not hate reality. We’re just estranged from each other and exploring other options. Second, and more importantly, I need to understand reality before I can desperately avoid all the bits of it I don’t like. Remember how you used to love paprika on your potato salad, and then you found out that drooling misanthrope Terry enjoyed the same food, and then you hated both of them and also yourself? Me too. And I want to make sure I don’t start liking things that reality likes. That’s where research comes in.

That entire example was a thicket of filthy, spike-lipped lies, by the way. Nonetheless, onwards! The first thing about being a genre fiction writer is that you don’t actually build your reality entirely from scratch. I know it can feel that way, but if we actually rewrote every aspect of existence we’d never finish a book. Also, how the hell do you write lore entries on how air molecules are made of spinach and retain your sanity? Going forward, you probably don’t write an entire fantasy language so you can then write your book in that language, but real world languages don’t technically exist in medieval fantasy worlds. Or if they do, you better have a decent explanation for it. If this is starting to sound like too much work, remember that you’re writing an entire world. You don’t have to change everything, but if you care about your writing (and why read this site if you don’t?) you owe it to your work and yourself to get educated.

Take a minute to guess what my first example’s going to be. Wait for it… 3… 2… 1… It’s swords. If you’re surprised that it’s swords, then I know you’re new here, and I’ll be watching you. You don’t need to know the individual Rockwell hardness for every steel on Earth, or the exact nature of the martensitic structures that give high carbon steel its bite and brightness. Depending on how much detail you like, you may not even need to know the difference between convex and concave grinds. For the record? First one’s meaty and splits well but can have issues with slicing, second one’s hollow and sacrifices some strength for sheer, erm, shearing. Think axe blades versus kitchen knives. But you do need to know that swords are built within a certain range of lengths and shapes which change depending on their use and the quality of their steel. And I’d argue you should know that not all swords are wielded the same way, nor is there one correct way of using any given type of sword. Possibly excepting rapiers, because rapiers just don’t cut very well. But of course, you still don’t want to get hit in the face by one. It’s still your face, after all.

On that note, one of the best lessons you’ll ever pick up from research is that very few rules are absolute. Are pikes better than crossbows? Not if you’re attacking a castle! Are swords the best weapon? Usually not, but occasionally yes! Does Cullen like to explain things in far too much detail? Of course, he’s a Maximalist! But sometimes he gets lazy, in which case… and that’s why you research! Jokes aside (implying I’m ever serious), there’s no getting around the need to research reality before you can escape it properly. For purposes of elaboration, here’s one of my prosey examples, soon vivisected to show what I needed to know before I could write it:


With the enemy’s own pikes unable to match his numbers, Count Durer sent his left flank forward to begin encircling them. As the pikemen drew even with the grey-rocked crest on the far left, Durer spotted rippling snowy fabric and gleaming swords rise from cover.
“Signals, turn the left flank! Enemy counter-charge!” he shouted, knowing it was ten minutes too late. Three thousand men couldn’t turn ninety degrees and be in any semblance of fighting formation. Even as trumpets blew and signal-banners whipped madly, the ambush was sprung. A swarm of soldiers bearing six-foot swords thundered forth from the rocks and hewed through the the wobbling thicket as if the pikes were not but reeds. With a rush and clatter the left flank buckled under the White-Coats’ charge. Already the center began to waver, and from the command post each backward glance from its sergeants shouted warning as loud as any horn. The right held firm, but if a general rout began the reward for their discipline would be pointless death. The enemy commander chose this moment to order fire from his ballista battery against the center. Ten gaps opened in the line as long bolts speared from the front rank through to the last. Durer couldn’t ignore that his men were slow in plugging the holes.
Durer frowned. “This is an unhelpful turn. I believe I ordered that ridge line scouted half an hour ago.”
“We rode within fifty feet of that ridge, and there was aught to see but scrub-brush!” Durer silenced the speaker with a glare.
“I did not ask explanations as to why my scouts failed. Such things are for after the battle.” If we survive, he thought. A general did not say his doubts aloud. “Send our heavy cavalry to the left. Signal the pikes to pull back to Oaken Corner.” To Durer’s great relief, nearly half the surviving pikemen of the left peeled off from the general chaos where their line had been. They merged with the leftmost ranks of the center line and reformed their line perpendicular to the main force, facing outward. The stragglers still grappled with the White-Coats.
“Charge the enemy’s flank. Try to avoid our pikes, but breaking the White-Coats is the priority. Charge en masse through them, then reform and repeat until they shatter. Do not engage them at length.” Durer ordered one of his underlings. With a clinking nod, the knight rode to the head of his column.
As lances dropped in line and horses broke into gallop, Durer’s heart eased, and he turned his gaze to the steadied center and stalwart right. The battle was salvageable. It remained thus for another ten beats. Then, rising from the rocks, another force White-Coats who hadn’t joined the fray laid bows and arbalests on target and unleashed a hissing torrent of black quarrels. Less than twenty yards from the main body of the foe, the neat lines of the charge broke in a bloody mess. Those knights who could charged on, swerving around the dead men and dying horses in their paths. Those who could not added to the mangle on the ground. Both the White-Coats in the rocks and those already in the field made yet another counter-charge, and Durer’s cavalry disappeared beneath a curtain of descending greatswords. Even then his infantry held. Then the ballista fired again.
The bolts tore right down the ranks of the Oaken Corner. Durer spat inside his helm. As he cursed himself for forgetting the ballista, he saw one final bolt swell enormously in size. Then he was on the ground, covered in blood but his armor intact. He had a split-second to notice that his left forearm held his shield at an impossible angle before the pain hit him.
“Count Durer is down!” one of his aides shouted, loud enough for the whole army to hear. Or at least, enough of it.
“Silence, idiot! You’ll-” Durer stopped himself. A pair of healers jostled him onto a replacement horse, and he saw the center falling inward beneath the enemy’s redoubled charge. The right was enveloped, and the survivors from the left had abandoned their posts. “Ihrman,” he hissed to the aide, “You are relieved from duty. Your shouting has lost the battle.”


Now then, here’s all the information that went into writing this piece. In late medieval and renaissance warfare, pikes- sixteen, twenty foot or longer spears- came to dominate the battle for the simple reason that pikemen were easy to train and equip and could counter almost any attack. That’s why both the main forces in the example have pikemen as the front line. Armies generally met in open terrain, and few good generals would be persuaded to move their flanks near uncharted forest even if it was present. When armies are drawn up in large formations, it understandably takes them a long time to realign themselves since the entire formation has to pivot around either one flank or the other. At the same time, formations attacked from the sides or behind have to be disciplined enough to recover from the morale shock, and that’s a rare thing indeed. The principle weapon for attacking a pike-wall head on (if you have to) is not another pike, but a greatsword. The greatswordsman has a pretty high chance of getting skewered on the way in, but if he makes it his shorter, heavier weapon gives him a massive advantage in leverage while completely outmatching the short sword a pikeman would have as a sidearm. Also, while pikes and other spears are sturdy enough to take a decent number of hits, they’re still wood and you’d still want a nice, solid bit of steel as a sidearm. There’s nothing as sad as getting cloven in twain at the Fifth Battle of the Ironwash because you thought an extra pound and a half of metal was too much.

And we go on in that vein until we’ve dredged up thousands of tidbits like that from the murkiest depths and mustiest libraries of human understanding. Now, thousands sounds like a lot, and that’s because it is. Just move from one teeny factoid to the next, though, and you’ll have a hoard of them in no time. History happens to be a special passion of mine, and you don’t have to go as far with researching it as I do. I understand you have things like “family” and “self-respect” that you need to keep in touch with. You don’t even need to research battles. That’s just something I end up doing a lot because I write so many of them. Also, I’m one of those horrible people who finds the large-scale death and maiming of a Feudal scrum makes for pleasant mood-lit reading. Are you writing about courts? Read about courts! Writing about sailors? Read about sailors! Writing about magic? Well, uh, in that case read what someone else wrote about magic, and then do your level best to come up with your own unique system. Or alternatively, rip-off one that you like and openly acknowledge that you ripped it off. As I’ve mentioned before, then it becomes inspiration, which is way more positive.

Don’t say that you don’t want this to feel too much like work. Writing is work. Stop demeaning yourself and other writers by saying otherwise, we get little enough credit as it is! Don’t be afraid that you’re going to just copy ideas wholesale. You may do it at first, but if you care about being original (or as close to as possible), you’ll figure it out along the way. If you forbid yourself from reading up on our world before you set to creating another, all you’re doing is missing out on a huge source of ideas. Once you’ve read up on how both Louis the XIII and Louis the XIV used dance to solidify their power in their awkwardly teenage years of kingship, you’ll have an easier time thinking of the other ways a monarch could turn something ordinary into a political tool. And if you find politics boring, then it doesn’t have to be political! You, as a person, are smart. Smarter than the millions upon millions of people who have made our current knowledge base what it is? You’re good, kid, but not that good. It’s okay to stand on the shoulders of giants, just make sure to spot something interesting while you’re up there.

Still, don’t worry about not knowing everything. As long as you understand not to invade Russia, discuss politics or religion outside the family home, or wear plaid shirts, you’ll do well in life.

Maybe. I’m still researching that last one.

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