Monday, June 15, 2009

What Happened Next?

British viewers will probably be familiar with A Question of Sport, in which sportsmen and women submit themselves to thirty minutes of largely undemanding questions guessed it, sport. One of the most entertaining rounds is "what happened next?", in which a clip of sporting action is stopped just short of the generally unpredictable denouement (for instance, a seagull descends and abstracts the ball just as the golfer is about to take his putt).

"What happens next?" is the question which the writer has to address every day. Not "what is the thematic significance of my work?" (this question is valueless, or even meaningless, to the writer) or "how soon can I stop?" ("not yet" is usually the answer...). Writing fiction is the business of arranging one event after another in plausible sequence, which need not necessarily be chronological.

I may be leaking a writers' trade secret if I say that this is not always the most difficult part of writing. Some aspects of evolving the story may be sticky, but generally one piece of the story evolves into the next without too much coaxing. An exception to this area, for me at least, is battle scenes. These have to be as tightly choreographed as a ballet if they are to convince and to be comprehensible, and in The Dog of the North, the battle of Jehan's Steppe and the siege of Croad were the two "what happened next" segments which I found the most difficult to write.

I was delighted on my recent trip to America to discover, for only $15, a handsome hardback entitled Battles of the Medieval World 1000-1500: From Hastings to Constantinople. This unpretentious book takes twenty major battles of the period, briefly outlines the historical context before giving us a detailed account of the dispositions of the troops and the course of the battle. As a bonus, there are clear illustrations of the arms and equipment of the troops involved. For a writer like me, who needs to put the occasional battle on the page, this book is a godsend. I am completely shameless about recycling from historical sources in my fiction (much better writers have done it).

Battles of the Medieval World is a splendid demonstration of "what happened next" on the battlefield. It is likely to be a book with a limited audience--hence its place in Barnes and Noble's bargain bucket--but of its kind it's perfect.

Next time you come across a set-piece battle scene in one of my books, odds are Battles of the Medieval World will have been consulted intensively...
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Alis said...

I love finding books which I know are going to be totally indispensible, not only to the current work in progress but to others in the future. I have just discovered my analogue to your 'Battles...' in 'The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England' - a wonderfully entertaining 'through the keyhole' type experience!

Tim Stretton said...

Alis - just finished that one myself! I was almost equally enraptured by it. Absolutely packed with telling detail, and new words. (My favourites: galingale, alaunt. They will both appear in future).