I was asked to take part in a panel session at a Historical Novel Society Conference in the USA. About writing great battle scenes. And I was privileged to share the platform with three superb authors, Glen Craney, Charlene Newcomb and Jack Hight.
The session was actually billed as Landscapes Turned Red: The Pacifist’s Guide to Writing Authentic Battle Scenes. I guess I was invited to take part because I’ve written battle scenes set in 6th Century Britain (The Song-Sayer’s Lament), during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 (The Kraals of Ulundi) and various other periods, but for the panel session I chose to focus on the Waterloo battlefield scenes I’d written for The Last Campaign of Marianne Tambour.
Most of us, I guess, would much rather be writing almost anything else, and I know lots of authors who absolutely dread taking their characters onto the battlefield even more than into the bedroom. And I share that trepidation. So what in heaven’s name possessed me to even think about writing a novel so thick with gore and conflict as this one. After all, the Waterloo Campaign saw Napoleon Bonaparte’s French army having to fight six battles over just four days – or seven battles over five days, depending on how you count (Charleroi, Gilly, Ligny, Quatre Bras, Genappe, Waterloo itself, and Wavre.
And just to make this even more challenging, I decided to tell the story of the campaign from a French perspective – specifically to tell it from the point of view of characters based on two real-life women in the French army (cantinière Madeleine Kintelberger and Dragoon trooper Marie-Thérèse Figueur). In addition, I didn’t want this to be another boys’ own adventure story and I wanted to cover lots of the “stranger than fiction” facts about these women. For example, there were probably as many as five hundred cantinières on the battlefield of Waterloo, all of them in the front ranks, in the thick of the fighting, often with their kids alongside, and many of those women died there. The final challenge? That everybody knows how the story ends – but I still wanted to keep readers in suspense.
Whether I met those challenges is for the reader to decide, but this is how I generally tried to make them work…
Writing Great Battle Scenes, Tip One. Keep your own set of rules for writing battle scenes.
Over the years I’ve compiled simple notes that I always keep at my side. Some of them are drawn from advice I’ve picked up from other online blogs on the subject. Others come from time I’ve spent studying the “masters” of this arcane art – Patrick O’Brian, Rosemary Sutcliff, Bernard Cornwell, Michael and Jeff Shaara, Georgette Heyer etc). Most of these notes appear in the tips below.
Tip Two. Always try to read first-hand accounts of the battle you’re wanting to portray.
If it’s a historical battle, of course – but always with caution since (and there’s a real lesson here) there are countless examples of first-hand accounts from Gettysburg, Waterloo and many others, which turn out to be entirely inaccurate.
Tip Three. It’s all about writing convincing protagonists.
If your characters are convincing enough, and they themselves are convinced that this battle cannot be lost, your readers might just be convinced of that also. The greatest compliments I’ve had from readers of The Last Campaign is that they genuinely thought this time the French might win at Waterloo. This is a trick that Michael Shaara pulls off stunningly in his Gettysburg epic, The Killer Angels.
To get down to specifics, one of the most common questions about writing battle scenes is how to describe it when the “fog of war” must make your character’s view very limited indeed. On Napoleonic battlefields, that fog was physical – enormous clouds of acrid, blinding smoke that often made it impossible to tell friend from foe. Those who took part in the colossal 2015 re-enactment of Waterloo all repeated that after the first volleys they could see and hear almost nothing, units literally got lost – and that was just 6,000 taking part rather than the almost 200,000 involved in the chaos of 1815. So…
Writing Great Battle Scenes, Tip Four. Be honest and realistic about your character’s Point Of View (POV) and its limitations.
Make it clear that our “witnesses” may be unreliable. Through the fog of war, she thought she saw… and so on. In first person narratives, This is how I remember it… or similar. If it’s third person, stick to the principle of “show, don’t tell!” John Le Carré said we need to visualise through economical narrative from the character’s POV and feel through their reactions. If you want to show battles on a larger scale you have to split up your characters (Michael and Jeff Shaara do this superbly) so that the various stages can make sense.
In The Last Campaign, the cantinière’s unit of the Old Guard either observes chunks of the battles (but only as they realistically could have done on the day) from the sidelines, or physically takes part in others, when the ability of protagonists to see beyond their own immediate space becomes impossible. The real-life Dragoon unit in which the fictional Liberté Dumont served genuinely took part in actions on several other parts of the battlefield and, for even wider perspectives, I used that old device of having Liberté carry dispatches from place to place so she could get a better (but still imperfect) view of what was happening.
Then there’s the conundrum of how to find a perfect story structure within the battle itself. After all, fight or battle scenes must follow the same rules as all other scenes. If they don’t, they’re likely to be tedious and irrelevant. Readers will simply skip over them. Why? Because battle scenes are hard work. Movie audiences don’t have to put effort into watching battles on the big screen, but readers have to absorb a huge amount of detail. Solutions?
Tip Five: For each battle scene list clear objectives.
What are the involved characters’ short, medium and long-term goals from this battle? (Why is she fighting at all? Who will she save or kill, and how? How will she dodge that bullet, climb out of that trench? And so on.) What are the conflicts within the battle and how are they developed? (Will her enemy succeed in killing her? Might her conflicted relationships with other characters change? Can her internal conflicts be resolved or made worse?)
What are the disasters/triumphs that come out of this battle for the character? How high are the stakes for each character? (What MIGHT they gain or lose from this battle?) And what are the aftermaths, the character’s reflections on the battle? (Are you satisfied that you’ve shown something new about the character’s soul, and not just their fighting skills?) This cannot just be a meaningless bloodfest – the battle must advance the various characters’ journeys.
Tip Six: Work out what this battle changes for your fictional/historical state of the world between its start and its finish.
Waterloo is easy and from Allies’ side – but what did defeat (or possible victory) mean for the French?
Writing Great Battle Scenes, Tip Seven: When editing, be brave and (at least temporarily) delete the entire battle scene.
If skipping it honestly only makes a marginal difference to the book’s flow, to the storyline, or to the characters’ development, be even more valiant and leave it out permanently, maybe replace it with a short “aftermath” account of what happened.
Each era of history presents its own specific challenges, and authors need to get to grips with those if our battle scenes are going to be believable. Many battlefield sites – perhaps with the exception of those many wonderfully preserved and protected locations in the USA, like Gettysburg – are now almost unrecognisable so we need to re-create them somehow, as they were. And in addition to the scenery, each era’s battlefields may have had their own cultural differences.
In Napoleonic battles, for instance, soldiers’ courage was usually fuelled with copious amounts of alcohol – gin for the British, rotgut brandy for the French. This brings yet another meaning to the “fog of war” and what happens when the effects start wearing off? Then, in many Napoleonic battles, there are those huge cavalry fights that make Game of Thrones look like a walk in the park. At Waterloo, those late-afternoon French attacks on the British squares – 9,000 horsemen, 67 squadrons. These are BIG horses. Twelve successive charges. An earthquake. And the noise of 9,000 snorting, neighing, screaming, galloping beasts. How to capture all this?
Tip Eight: Specifically research those aspects of battles in your particular era that make them distinct from other periods of warfare and highlight these.
For example, at the end of those twelve “charges” by the French cavalry, those who took part confirm that their horses could barely stand, let alone trot or gallop. There are reports from sections of the battlefield to show French troopers weeping with frustration because they can’t get their horses to move. They are literally feet away from the British squares, completely impotent. And their enemies aren’t even shooting back any more because they’re almost out of powder and shot. It’s not our usual image of the scene. It’s unique so play it for all it’s worth.
Tip Nine: Wherever possible, walk the battlefield. Feel it. Research what it was like at the time.
“See” the battle through the character’s eyes, draw maps etc. After all, real battles are all about terrain. Many of the French accounts focus FAR more on the physical trials of slogging through that mud, sweating up that slope, pushing through those fields of crops than ever they do about the bullets. So how do characters get from A to B, and what are the “hurdles” they have to cross realistically in that period?
Writing Great Battle Scenes, Tip Ten: Focus on the emotions.
That point in the attack on the squares. The charges themselves are dramatic. But it’s the closing bit. Horses dying of exhaustion. The Allies unable to fire. The stand-off. The frustration. The hangover.
The panel session during the HNS Conference posed an interesting question about the critical use of war’s pomp and preparation in setting up battle scenes, and whether the stakes can be heightened and the coming battle itself explained through clever use of planning scenes and the rituals of combatants. It reminded me that, while Waterloo was a muddy, filthy, noisy, smoke-filled campaign, there WAS also pomp. There is that famous incident of Bonaparte on Marengo displaying himself to the troops before the final battle began. Crucial. Wellington may have been respected by his men but he was never loved. Bonaparte was adored! The re-enactment in 2015 captured this brilliantly. The crowd went wild for “Napoleon”, even most of the English spectators, while the reception for “Wellington” was polite but lukewarm by comparison.
Tip Eleven: Set the same rule for pomp and glory scenes as for the battle itself – unless it adds significantly to the storyline, plots or character developments, leave it out.
So, nice as a bit of glitter but FAR more important to get inside the character of the soldiers who fought for Bonaparte. For the French, this raises the stakes significantly if we can capture it on the page. Then there are the rest periods, the breathing spaces between the action. In The Last Campaign, this is usually the banter or conflicts between the characters on the march or in camp. Or in Marianne’s case, delivering babies or treating wounds. But the same rules. How do these scenes help develop the characters?? They can’t just be bits of extra colour.
Next, there’s the vexed question of how to present the gore of battle without revolting the average reader. Most readers, I believe, simply don’t like gratuitous violence. But it’s sometimes necessary. And we’re not going to create very realistic characters if they don’t react to the awful horrors of their surroundings. So use the graphic violence sparingly? I only had one reviewer who thought there was too much violence in The Last Campaign even though Waterloo was one of the bloodiest battles in history. Techniques?
Tip Twelve: Let the reader’s imagination do the work for you when it comes to depicting violence.
The Last Campaign has lots of bits like this: ‘Oh, Saints preserve us,’ muttered Fabrizio, as he saw what the ball had done to the man’s face. I was happy that my readers would fill in the gore. And it’s like we said before. On the movie screen, viewers don’t have to work very hard. Close your eyes for a minute and it’s all over. But working your way through page after page of entrail details is a different kettle of fish unless you’re a true horror fanatic.
But we have to recognise that battlefields are extremely alien territory for our readers and we need to find innovative ways of getting them there smoothly. My favourite novel about Waterloo is still Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army. It’s two books really. The first half a typical Regency romance but one that draws us into really caring about the main characters, men and women, and the way they’re affected by the preparations they must make for the battle they know is to come.
The second half an account of the battle itself that was so well-drawn that the novel became compulsory reading for cadets at Britain’s Sandhurst Officer Training College. Heyer used all those back stories to get us there. In The Last Campaign, it was all about trying to raise the stakes so that, by the time the battle starts, we’re already worked up around whether the two women will survive their personal enemies’ attacks; about whether they’ll work out whatever it is that seems to bind them; about whether Marianne’s daughter Poppy and husband Fronsac will survive – in a way that only the final battle itself can resolve.
Writing Great Battle Scenes, Tip Thirteen: Make sure you’ve thought about how to transport your readers smoothly to the battlefield scenes.
Starting in the middle of a battle is a risky business so it’s the home front that helps us ease readers into the carnage. Marianne begins with a knife fight as it happens, but it’s a fight that’s actually all to do with her personal home front. For Marianne and Liberté, the army IS the home front. Marianne is a child of the French Revolution, and cut her teeth as a child marching with the revolutionary armies. But the back story of her childhood forms a sub-plot that gives us respite from the blood and guts. It’s the home front that gives us the stakes to make battles REALLY exciting for readers – the family conflicts; deadly rivalries; revenge; the meeting or parting of loved ones, etc.
Tip Fourteen. Using easily recognisable historical characters can sometimes help readers travel more easily in their minds to the battlefield scenes.
The Last Campaign isn’t about the powerful and famous. But they provide neat points of reference for readers who don’t want to think too heavily about the historical background. So Bonaparte, Wellington, Blücher and several others have strategic cameo appearances for that purpose. Yet always in a way that helps develop the plot. Well, that was the intention. As a bit of a gimmick, and for similar reasons, I decided to use French literary characters in the same way. So part of the inspiration for Marianne herself was the nameless cantinière in Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma. It now turns out (in my novel) that this cantinière was Marianne Tambour and hence Stendhal’s Waterloo hero, Fabrizio del Dongo, appears here too. And from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, that wretched inn-keeper Thénardier also has a part in Marianne’s story. As I say, just a gimmick!
Last, but not least, how do we set our prose pacing and sentence length to mimic the action of battle?
Tip Fifteen: Battle scenes must not slow the pace of the storytelling – if anything, they should speed it up.
Writing Great Battle Scenes, Tip Sixteen: Think like a screenwriter. Make it as visual as possible.
Show don’t tell is maybe more important in battle scenes than anywhere else. Draw it. Act it out. Sketch story boards as though it were a graphic novel. Use ANY technique to get this visual feel.
Tip Seventeen: Shorter sentences speed up action and make battle scenes easier to digest. Dialogue mixed with action does the same. And simplify the grammar.
This is not the place to show off flowery prose.
Tip Eighteen: Remember that introspection only happens before/after the fighting so only activate the immediate senses. But activate them a lot.
The sight, sound, smell, taste and touch of the battle, plus the immediate reactive emotions (frenzy and fear, etc).