Writing Battles

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Battles do not occur frequently in my books, but when they do, they are pivotal scenes. I have no personal interest in warfare, in strategy and tactics or in battlefield recreations, or in the choreography of fighting. How then do I write the scenes?

I’ll use the final battle in Empire’s Exile, the third book of my Empire’s Legacy trilogy, as the focus of this discussion. Briefly, the battle is taking place between Viking-like invaders to a country with similarities with England. There is no magic, and both sides have relatively small numbers.

I begin as I do with all battle scenes: what needs to happen here?  Is there a particular topography or geographic feature I want to include? Is the weather important?  Is there a concept—betrayal, a specific act of heroism or selflessness, overwhelming odds—that must be included? Are particular weapons important?

Once I have those defined, Google and my long years of research into my particular time period become my friends. Quite simply, I go looking for a battle I can—not quite copy, but base mine upon.

What did I need for the battle in Exile?  Small numbers, as I’ve already said. Because I wanted to reference a battle described in Empire’s Hostage, Book II of the series, it needed to be on a river. A vague memory surfaced, something learned many long years earlier for the language it was written in, not the actual battle. A 10th Century poem…

I couldn’t remember more than that, but a quick search was all it took: The Battle of Maldon. I read the poem again, and as many interpretations of it I could find, both on-line and in my university library, but for ease of access, I’ll reference Wikipedia.  The italics indicate the parts I drew inspiration from.

The Vikings sailed up the Blackwater (then called the Panta), and Byrhtnoth called out his levy. The poem begins with him ordering his men to stand and to hold weapons. His troops, except for personal household guards, were local farmers and villagers of the Essex Fyrd militia. He ordered them to “send steed away and stride forwards”: they arrived on horses but fought on foot. The Vikings sailed up to a small island in the river. At low tide, the river leaves a land bridge from this island to the shore; the description seems to have matched the Northey Island causeway at that time. This would place the site of the battle about two miles southeast of Maldon. Olaf addressed the Saxons, promising to sail away if he was paid with gold and armour from the lord. Byrhtnoth replied, “We will pay you with spear tips and sword blades.”

With the ebb of the tide, Olaf’s forces began an assault across the small land bridge. Three Anglo-Saxon warriors… blocked the bridge, successfully engaging any Vikings who pressed forward. The Viking commander requested that Byrhtnoth allow his troops onto the shore for formal battle. Byrhtnoth let the enemy force cross to the mainland. Battle was joined, but an Englishman called Godrīc fled riding Byrhtnoth’s horse. Godrīc’s brothers Godwine and Godwīg followed him….Then many English fled, recognizing the horse and thinking that its rider was Byrhtnoth fleeing. The Vikings overcame the Saxons after losing many men, killing Byrhtnoth. After the battle Byrhtnoth’s body was found with its head missing, but his gold-hilted sword was still with his body.”

In Exile, the Emperor manipulates his enemy to fighting at a location based on the river and its islands and causeway, almost exactly as described in The Battle of Maldon. In a different source, I discovered that if the Viking ships had sailed into the mouth of the river at high tide, a sandbank at the mouth would prevent them from leaving until the next high tide, about 12 hours later. So I included that, too.

I put the confrontation between the two leaders into my battle, and Brythnoth’s words about ‘spear tips and sword blades’ are repeated by the Emperor. I used the blocking of the causeway. I used Godwin and the horse in a different way, a tactic by the enemy, but with similar results.  And at the end of the battle, the Emperor, like Brythnoth, is dead.

I wrote an outline of the scene, just the action. I drew pictures of what happened. Then I wrote the first version of it, through the eyes of my protagonist. I write in first-person, so the reader knows only what the protagonist knows, but also sees and hears and feels what she feels, including her interior thoughts. (Video comes in useful here, any good medieval battle scene, for the sounds and sights.) Smells need imagination —the metallic scent of blood; the pong of river mud, the stench of a disembowelled horse, the tang of sweat. Feelings—the horse underneath you, the sweat on your hands as grasp your weapon, wind in your face. Thoughts—fear, calculation, unnatural calmness, regret, anger, joy: however your protagonist would react.

Then I gave the scene to my critique partner, who does know a bit about battles and tactics, and he gave it back with a lot of suggestions, and after three rounds of that, I had my battle.  If you happen to be either a scholar of Old English poetry or 10th C English history, you might recognize its source. Its derivation adds verisimilitude to my fictional, analogue world, and it’s in keeping with how I do most of my world-building.

As for who wins…well, for that, you’ll have to read the book.

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9 thoughts on “Writing Battles

  1. What a great method for writing battles! I feel like I always underestimate them–I mean, fight scenes wouldn’t last that long in the real world, right? But then I think about how the Iliad is basically one big fight scene and it’s still so long…

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  2. I really like your process – it makes a lot of sense and sounds like it got you right where you needed to go. I love the inspiration from historical battles that fit some of your parameters – it sounds really authentic. Thank you for sharing!

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  3. I have never even thought about what it would be like to conceive of something fictional like this! What an eye-opener. And how clever are you to use a poem from another era to make it authentic.

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