Friday, July 1, 2011

Battle Ass

The armies lay encamped on the low slope of a wide, open hillside. Two thousand men, the force my father could muster from his three cities, were joined by King Odovakar’s equal host of Romans. Even with such a multitude, it was nearly silent in the darkness. My breath came hushed, a dangerous secret I needed to keep.

This is the easy part.

This is the part where a boy is waiting.

And this is my opening sequence. Clovis, fourteen, is still a prince in waiting ... and he awaits an enormity even his clear ambition can't encompass. Clovis enters the field of battle for the first time.


I don't pretend to know what it is to be a boy, fourteen years old. I don't pretend to know war - or battle, as war once was - nor even its strategies, competently. But this is my job. I set myself the task, and Clovis had expectations of me (the character ... if not the real ghost of a king), and the task was clear, cut-and-dried.

My first opening sequence was meant to introduce the story of Clovis and his wife, (the later Saint) Clotilde. I wanted to tell an epistolary romance. I was having one of my own. I felt I had special understanding.

What I did instead was nothing of the kind. Clovis and Clotilde didn't come to know each other by letter. Her persuasion of him into the Faith was not managed so tidily, nor so progressively. She fought him, and he fought back.

And Clovis' life was fighting.

There was nothing for it. I was going to have to write the whole damned thing. Even - especially - the battle parts.


My premise for the first scene was that life consists of waiting. The waiting before the fray begins was the obvious place to start. Yet even once battle is met, Clovis waits. He is held, he sees, by a strategy not putting him at the fore. He is hemmed in, too, by an enemy less obviously strategic. The strain is one of heat, one of anticipation not met. The intensity of expectation, the most powerful thing of all, in any of the great events of our lives.

Steel cleaves bone - even Clovis' flesh is hit - but much of this battle scene is spent on the struggle of *unmet* struggle; the drain, the intensity of frustration.

It seems right thematically - yet also it seems right at this place in his career, in the book itself. We are in chapter one, so the setpiece is a big one - and yet it doesn't lead to glory. It mires in the banality of learning the unknown, the immediacy of baffling losses and the distraction of oppressive heat, the power of accumulated mundanity piled into doses so massive nothing is clear, nothing is victorious - and nothing feels much like defeat, either.

I may be no boy, but I know what it is to wait. I know endurance. I know the shock of coming to understand the profound, or the hideous.

And I knew what my job was. To put down words which would be believable.

It can't be apparent from reading my blog, but I have an eminent capacity to learn my characters. Kent Dixon taught me that I had to divest myself of feminine skin and try on someone else's. He also taught me I was the one who had to teach myself HOW to do that. The most crucial piece of writing advice I ever had, shedding myself, was that, "A guy is not going to describe a girl's sweater. He's going to be looking at her ass."

I re-wrote the story. And he used it up to retirement (which should be coming soon). I wrote that twenty-three years ago, or more.

I take my lessons well.

I also read.

Reading Mary Stewart's Arthurian novels taught me the first fundamentals of battle, and I learned and learned.

It came to my attention, around the age of thirty or so: I am an excellent learner - when I care.

I have cared for little, in my capacity as a writer, more than I did about inhabiting Clovis.

(My companion)’s was the armor I clashed with most, and all our action merely jostling in the press of men and horses. There were more allied haunches than enemy weapons at hand, jostling and turning in a dizzying sea of motion.

Out of the cold darkness of earliest morning and the stark brightness as we’d begun fighting, a humid red mist of blood, clay and battle sweat grew and enveloped the field in smoke, stink and heat. The light rose and grew wider above us, and finally the thicket of horses and men loosened. The miasma grew thicker, almost choking, the only air there was to breathe. As our mobility loosened, the way before us bristled with a profusion of steel; weapons in every direction, thicker even than the density of flesh had been in the beginning. Visibility was challenged in one way or another throughout the rest of the long day.

I began, too, to know the heat of battle. Every pore of my skin perspired, and I was glad of the clot of fabric rimming the inside of the helmet. Even with it, my eyes were full of stinging sweat, and inside the gloves protecting my hands and wrists, my palms were slippery, my grasp unsteady and touch frustrated.

As our lines loosened into dozens of individual brawling combats, cohesion in the flanks was giving way altogether: the center was spreading.

I hacked, and moved forward; hacked, and moved forward.

I wrote, I edited, I moved forward. I focused.

I learned that I don't need to have my uncle the Army Man read me for accuracy. I learned that I produce good product. I had readers read, and learned that their trust is more important than my education. *Authenticity* is the key, and the magic of that is that I managed to find it. You have to find your own; and you will know it when you have, when you read it back to yourself (out loud).

This post seems like I should be offering some sort of step-by-step on that, but I don't believe in steps for myself, and would be suspect of any attempt I could make to offer them to anybody else. All I can say is this:

The guy wouldn't be describing the girl's sweater.

Look at her ass. That is where the truth is to be found.

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