Back when I was podcasting, my father-in-law suggested a bunch of topics. A lot of them had to do with research, for example, how I handle research of a medical nature, or how I handle the military aspects of my writing.
I’ve written a bit about the medical resources I use over on Skolion’s blog—there are some fabulous resources in that post, by the way—but I’ll elaborate on my research methods today.
Firstly, a disclaimer. I’m not affiliated with any of the resources or YouTube channels mentioned in this post. I’ve tried and loved all of them, and am not being reimbursed for mentioning them.
And secondly, this is a trigger warning. If medical content like surgery and related topics, or talk of war and death would trigger you in any way, please stop reading now.
So, shall we get to it?
Since my father-in-law suggested these topics, I thought I’d start with him.
As things are now, there haven’t been all that many battle scenes in Fall of the Mantle, but the first trilogy I wrote was heavy on military content. There’s fighting all the way from the prologue to the epilogue, and a body count to rival Game of Thrones. Which makes total sense, considering how many unnecessary characters those books contained, but okay.
I don’t know anything about warfare, only what I’ve read in books or seen in movies, and if we’re honest, the stuff the entertainment industry offers isn’t usually all that feasible. With the exception of a few historic retellings, like Band of Brothers and so on, the silver screen takes many liberties with what is and is not possible in war.
Then there’s the other thing. I don’t like historic retellings. I can watch Downton Abbey if I have to, but I’m not mad about the warfare stuff. Yes, I just admitted to not liking Saving Private Ryan. Don’t hate me.
But put that same battle in a fantasy setting, and I’ll devour it. I think it’s because real-world war retellings are just that—too real-world. Fantasy is fantasy, and though I do get attached to the characters and will weep about their deaths for ages, I can separate myself from the story and reality. That’s how escapism works, right?
But, as a gaslamp fantasy writer of a story set in the middle of a long war, I have no other choice than to include military elements to the mix.
I’m really lucky to have a father-in-law who is always willing to help me when it comes to my crazy schemes and also happens to know bucketloads about the military and warfare. He was in the military for a great chunk of his life and worked in different divisions along the way. From teaching troops to driving heavy vehicles to handling intelligence, he has a wide range of really useful experiences.
I cannot tell you how many hours the two of us sat at the kitchen table, nursing coffee and chowing some of my mother-in-law’s homemade biscuits while discussing strategy. We drew diagrams to illustrate troop movements and meticulously planned every phase of each battle (all of which ended up on the wall in front of my computer).
I won’t say I was good at writing action scenes, especially not back then, but I will say that the combat scenes were airtight. Everything made sense, all 5 million characters had a purpose, and every action had a consequence. And this is all thanks to my father-in-law.
Of course, we immigrated. Due to time zone differences and life in general, there are some difficulties when it comes to skyping, and that has complicated talking warfare. Though I’m sure my father-in-law would make time to help me figure out the issues that might pop up in the battle scenes of Fall of the Mantle, I often find myself needing an answer now.
So, I’ve discovered a few extremely useful resources to help me with that. Besides the quick internet search.
The most helpful of these has been the Kings and Generals YouTube channel. Each video covers a historic battle. They show how the troops moved, explain why the generals acted and reacted the way they did, and share details about the terrain, equipment, and weather. All the details you might need to make sense of why skirmishes went the way they did.
I’ve learned book loads from this channel, about battles big and small, and have based some of the instances in my third book on historical wars.
But I am me, so I obviously fell into the hyper-focus trap when Kings and Generals reached Napoleon’s story. That gobbled up about a month of my life, but on the plus side, I can tell you all kinds of random facts about Napoleon that you didn’t need to know.
The other tool I’ve been using for combat scenes is a silly one, but it’s quite effective. Some of the characters in A Curse of Venom & Scales fight with katanas and practise with bokkens. I know nothing about the fighting styles or techniques (though I am lucky enough to have some friends who practise kendo and have been able to answer many of my questions) but I don’t need to know each technical term to describe these fights to the reader. Most readers don’t know the technical terms either.
I just need to describe the battle scenes in such a way that the reader will understand what I mean. So, I’ve been watching fight scenes from various movies or shows on Netflix or YouTube. If the battle in question features Vikings, I search through all of the Viking content I can find, and watch battle after battle, taking notes along the way. Having visual aides to guide my descriptive writing has helped me more than I can explain.
The most helpful of all have been old kung fu movies, especially for the one on one fights, and scenes from Vikings and The Last Kingdom. They tend to show the gritty parts of battle, the fast in, fast out methodology used in history, and not the ‘look at me twirling my sword’ stuff Hollywood staple feeds us.
Even scenes as simple as waltzes have improved tenfold because I watched a bunch of ballroom dance footage to help me get the movements right in the novel.
So it should come as no surprise that I’ve reached the point where I default to YouTube for all my research needs. This might be a neurodivergent thing, but I learn so much better when I learn visually, and watching instead of reading up on stuff can easily halve my research time.
I’ve spoken about this before, but the Tube has also been my best friend where my medical research is concerned.
This isn’t for everyone, I know. While blood freaks me the hell out in real life, I have no problem watching bloody content in film. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it has something to do with my fascination with special effects make-up. What makes even less sense is the fact that most of the medically natured YouTube videos feature real people and therefore real blood, but that doesn’t bother me either? Yeah, I don’t know.
The point is, there are some fantastic medical resources available on YouTube. Geeky Medics is my favourite educational channel. There’s literally everything on there, all recorded in such a way that it’s child-friendly and minimally triggering.
The blogs mentioned in that post I wrote for the Skolion blog are also chock-full of information. One of those is actually written by a trauma surgeon, which means it also covers the mental state of the medical personnel. Since so many of my characters are medical people, the insights found there have been endlessly helpful. There is another written by a crime scene investigator, who specifically answers the questions writers might have about the medical content in their stories. He debunks many common misconceptions and candidly talks about the things writers typically don’t know to ask—another fantastic resource.
Beside the odd photo here and there, these blogs are text based, so they’re safe to forget open on your computer screen while the kids are home.
In terms of non-PG, there are quite a few YouTube channels that show actual operations on real people. I’ve watched a huge assortment of these, and use these as references for the medical scenes in my work.
Just being able to see the little things, like how real surgeons move their wrists during surgery, or how the surgical team chats while working, has helped me better illustrate these moments.
My research doesn’t stop after the medical scene has been written, though. So many entertainment avenues gloss over or completely omit the mental and physical repercussions of trauma. I don’t ever want to do this. The truth is, if your hero took an arrow to the knee, he’s probably going to walk funny for the rest of his life. Sadly, chances are, he winced a bit while the heroine dressed his wound, but brushed off the whole thing by the end of the chapter.
I don’t want to write that book.
So, I spend a lot of time researching aftercare on sites like Quora and reddit. You just have to learn how to phrase your questions before going on there, otherwise some weird stuff might pop out at you. But reading how folks experienced recovery after surgery, how their bodies reacted to the medication, or how the experience impacted their mental health also really helps to set a realistic medical timeline.
It doesn’t help if a character is up and running three days after an abdominal laceration, but it’s equally bad when they stubbed their little toe and end up bedridden for a year because of it. It’s important to know that if your character is of this age and build, and is typically in this state of health, how long they need to mend.
And, for the love of pie, if your character is shot in the stomach, please consider the repercussions. Many of the important organs are all housed in pretty close quarters in the abdominal cavity. The angle and velocity of a bullet entering the abdomen would have to be pretty magical for it to not puncture any of the organs or get lodged in the hipbone. I mean, it happens, of course, but not as often as Hollywood would have you believe.
In fact, if you’re writing a period drama, an abdominal wound would most probably have been fatal.
I will say this, though. I’ve learned that anything is possible in the world of medicine. Some people just survive more physical trauma than others, sometimes without any scientific explanation. My advice to people writing medical scenes will always just be to handle them with care and to do their homework. Anything can be plausible with the right justification.
As a final point, I want to talk about the other real-life resources. I mentioned my father-in-law, but I also have friends and family members who are medical personnel, doctors of science, and practitioners of martial arts. Once I’ve researched and planned a medical scene, I always run them by my team of medical gurus.
This is really important to me because I want the medical scenes to be completely believable. I don’t want readers who are doctors to quit my books because the characters used the wrong suturing technique.
Fine, I’m joking. I don’t ever include that level of detail in my work, because no matter how realistic the medical scenes might be, the book is still fantasy set in a different world and time. But I do want the wound and the steps taken by the medical people to be believable. And more often than not, my meticulous plan doesn’t account for certain things real medical people take for granted. Their insights have altered the wounds inflicted on characters more often than not, have changed the surgical procedures, or have helped me pick the treatment plan that best suited the character.
Anyway, it’s always great to have a sounding board for ideas. So, even when my medical plan was flawless, talking the surgery through with an actual doctor gave me deeper insight into the scene.
The point? Where possible, always try to tap the experience of skilled people. Even if you don’t learn anything about technique or trade-talk, you’ll still gain insight into how another human being thinks, which will always help you write better characters.
Okay, I think I’ve covered everything I can think of!
Have anything you’d like to add? Let’s meet in the comment section!