A pair of interesting articles got my attention recently, mostly because they are somewhat related to my writing. And maybe yours too.
The first was this story about the forensic evidence concerning the death of Richard III. As you probably remember, they discovered the monarch's disfigured body two years ago under a parking lot in Leicester, England. That alone is just mind boggling, given he died over five hundred years ago.
But now researchers are able to describe in detail the wounds that likely killed Richard III (the last English monarch to die on the battlefield), based on the marks found on his skeleton. Apparently the final death blows involved a pair of hits to the back of the head, though he was also stabbed in the face a few times, had his scalp nearly taken off by a sharp blade more than once, and had a rondel dagger driven into the top of his skull that left a key-hole-shaped puncture wound. Someone had also allegedly stabbed him in the backside, post-mortem, as a final insult after his body armor was removed.
Battle is a grim, violent business I never wish to experience. And yet I choose to write about it often, putting my character into the thick of it.
Which leads me to the second article I found in The Independent about women who write about war. Here's the opening quote from the article:
"When we reflect on the greatest war stories in the literary canon, they are tales of horror and heroism that have erupted across history's front lines. They are also – invariably –imagined by men, from The Iliad to Slaughterhouse 5. The assumption, when it comes to war fiction, has been that women can't write about battle because they haven't been there, on the front line."
I'm happy to say the article goes on to try and disprove that opening statement, giving examples of stories written by women about war. Though most are offerings that skew more toward the effects of war on people outside of actual battle.
Historically, women haven't tackled the subject of battle often in their stories, but the idea that we can't because we never experienced it isn't an argument that sits well with me. Certainly there are men writing war stories who have never been in battle either. But to assert a writer can't describe a subject adequately because they've never experienced it, and especially because of their gender, seems a petty attitude. I've never cast a magic spell, fought a dragon, or flown a space ship either, but I'm pretty sure I could craft a story about any one of those scenarios. In that case my credibility would probably be enhanced by the fact that none of you have done those things either. But because people have gone to war and do know what it's really like, I do understand how a lack of experience is a pitfall for writers to beware of, I just don't accept it as an absolute. And I hope you don't either.
I'm a competent thinker. I can interpret the trauma of nine head wounds taken by a king who has fallen off his horse and imagine the terror and brutality of that moment. I can understand the anger behind the stab wound issued after the dead body was slung over a saddle and carted off for an ignoble burial. As a writer my job isn't to depict battle through a documentary-type lens but to render a dramatized version of it so I can show how it affects the characters and the story's outcome. I may not always get this part right on the first, second, or even third try, but it doesn't mean I need to shy away from writing about war because I haven't experienced it first-hand.
And I'd argue it's the same with any subject we choose to write about, including depictions of race, gender, and sexual orientation other than our own. We want to bring as much authenticity to a scene as we can. Doesn't mean we have to have lived it ourselves. A fiction writers responsibility is to tell the story in the most compelling way we know how, relying on research, gut instinct, and our emotional intelligence. And a healthy dose of a good imagination helps too.
Have you ever felt like there was a story you wanted to write but didn't because you were intimidated by the subject matter? What's something you're writing about now that you never experienced first-hand? Did you know the dagger wound to the top of the head wasn't one of the fatal blows??? Whaaaat?
* Top illustration of the Battle of Bosworth Field via Britannica