Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Bows (And How to Use them in Your Fantasy Story)

Following up on the last post on Swords, I thought it might be helpful to provide a complementary guide on bows. Now, again, this is a simplification of a very complex subject, so this information is best used for aspiring writers who just need a quick fact-check or a source of inspiration.

Now then, to business. I’ll begin, as I did with the Swords post, by outlining a few of the various types of bows.

1. Training Bow
--This light bow is easy to draw and is thus ideal for training beginning archers. The bowstring can be tightened or loosened according to the level of ability. Because it’s so light and simple, it’s not intended as a fighting weapon; it could perhaps be used for hunting, but is mostly suited to target practice.

-- If your characters are in training (either as archers or rangers or other military/protection forces), than the training bow will be a good bet to start them off. Be sure to graduate them to an actual bow, though, after their muscles develop!

--The longbow is quite tall (roughly the height of the person who uses it) and fairly slender. It’s widest at the handle, where the archer grasps it. Historically, this bow came from the English Longbow used during the middle ages and made particularly famous by Robin Hood and by the success of various battles in the Hundred Years’ War. It is quite a strong bow with a large shooting range, so it functions well for both hunting and warfare.

--Among bows, the longbow is generally lighter, quicker to prepare for shooting, and quieter. Additionally, it is fairly simple in construction, so skilled carpenters (like Medieval bowyers) could construct the longbow in just a few hours. The longbow can be made from various woods, with yew being preferable and mulberry, elm, oak, ash, hazel, and maple being acceptable substitutes. Because of the simplicity of a longbow, it is ideal for a fantasy culture where there are large military forces of archers who must be armed quickly or where bows do not play a primary role in the action.

-- True to its name, the recurve bow has tips that curve away from the archer when the bow is strung. Because of its shape, the recurve bow stores and delivers energy more efficiently than a strait bow (e.g. a longbow), which gives the arrows greater speed. At the same time, the recurve bow is often a good deal shorter than a longbow, which makes it lighter and easier to transport. A version of this bow, the Mongolian bow, was the weapon of choice for the Mongol Horde during the Middle Ages, a force that conquered most of Europe and Asia.

-- Because of its practicality and range, the recurve bow is favored by mounted horsemen (like the Mongols). However, since it’s so intricate, it’s also much more difficult to make. Thus, the recurve bow would work best with a culture that hunts or wages war primarily on horseback and has a long history of skilled craftsmen.

-- A crossbow is a special kind of bow where the arrow is attached to a simple machine that holds it in a ready-to-fire position until the “trigger” is releases it. Crossbow construction ranges from a simple wooden mechanism to a much more complex weapon incorporating several pieces of metal. Typically, crossbows are made of a composite of wood, horn, and sinew that make them much stronger and more efficient.

-- You may think that, because a crossbow is a “simple machine,” that you can’t use it in your fantasy story. The earliest known crossbows, however, date back to 5th century B.C., during the time of the Ancient Greeks. Ancient Chinese also utilized this weapon. If the ancients were smart enough to discover this weapon, why not your fantasy cultures?

-- A longbow has a faster shooting rate and are more accurate, but crossbows release more kinetic energy (thus have greater speed and can penetrate harder surfaces, even armor). Additionally, crossbows can be used after a single week of training, while longbows may take years to build up the strength to draw and use it. It’s up to you to decide whether or how to include the crossbow in your fantasy!

Included is a picture of the components of a recurve bow. Generally, the parts labeled in that illustration may be applied to other bows, as well; I’ve found them useful myself when detailing the specific actions of an archer. 

If you are writing extensively about bows, archery, or any function thereof, get a good reference book from the library and be sure to do your research. After all, nobody wants to write a climactic battle scene in which the fate of the world hangs in the balance of one misshot inaccurate badly-made arrow!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Swords: Make it, Break it, or Fake it

What’s a good fantasy without a few sword-wielding heroes and heroines? That’s why, in today’s blog post, we’ll be looking at what exactly you need to know about swords (and, more importantly, what you don’t).

In fantasies, as in the great legends and epics of old, the primary weapon of choice is the sword. Soldiers stride around with giant broadswords dangling by their side, heroes defeat the villain with a clean swipe of their shining blade, and even Eowyn the shieldmaiden of Rohan (Lord of the Rings reference alert) had a sword to wield against the dreaded Nazgul witch-king.

Now, if you’re anything like me, swords don’t just confuse you. They frighten, intimidate, befuddle, and positively stupefy both you and your writing. Do you need to mention swordsmanship at all? If yes, how do you describe a sword, anyway? What do you do with a sword (besides swing it)?

Let’s start with an overview of the major types of swords.

1. Rapier
-- Basically, a fancy fencing sword that doesn’t do much damage. It’s quite long, so it keeps your opponent at a distance. However, it’s not durable and incapable of withstanding strong blows.
--This sword works best in situations like The Princess Bride, where fencing is a humorous way in which the hero and villain combat each other. Not for serious wounds, this one.

--This is a small knifelike sword that is sharp on both sides and comes to a deep point. The dagger is usually used for slashing at opponents in self-defense. In a variant on the dagger, the stiletto has an extremely sharply tapered the point and blunt sides, which make it ideal for stabbing (as opposed to slashing and hacking).
--Is your main character female in a dangerous, male-dominated society? Chances are, a full-on sword would be too obvious for her to have, but a dagger is just the trick to protect her from most attackers. The dagger doesn’t do enough damage for a soldier to use except as a backup weapon (or, if he’s the type that likes to show off, he may try to eat with it).  However, the stiletto in particular is easily hidden and perfect for assassination attempts.

--The sabre is especially distinctive for its curved, single-edged blade, which allows both slashing and stabbing. These swords are carried primarily by cavalry and are used when fighting on horseback. A cutlass is a variation on the saber that is used at sea by naval forces and pirates.
            --Got cavalry, navy, or pirates? Then here’s your ticket!

--As a historical sword used primarily in the Middle Ages, the longsword is often the weapon of choice in fantasy stories. The blade is slim yet strong and long, making it suitable for both slashing and stabbing. This is the weapon most used by infantry, as well as the knights-in-shining-armor of Camelot fame.
--If I’m allowed to be biased here, the longsword gets my vote for the ideal fantasy sword. Heavy enough to cause serious damage yet light enough for youths and less skilled soldiers to master, the longsword is excellent for battles and single combat alike.
--Note: the construction of the longsword changed with the introduction of plate armor in medieval times. If you’ll be featuring the longsword, it may be worth your while to consider the types of protection that your characters have available.

-- This sword is named for its particularly broad blade. It is slightly shorter than a longsword, mostly because of its great weight. The broadsword, while difficult to master and fight with, came into use after plate armor became widely used. It is particularly effective when using heavy blows to hack and slice. (Note that another sword named the broadsword is a heavy fencing blade, quite different from the broadsword I’m discussing here.)
-- Good for highly-trained muscled soldiers. Not so good for damsels in distress or your average worthy woodcutter’s son.

So there you have it. Of course, swords are a true art, and if you’re interested in them, you’ll find many more categories to study. I’ve included some pictures that have been very helpful to me for further observation. The first illustrates other types of swords, and the second details the different components of a generic longsword-like blade. The second picture is particularly helpful when trying to describe which portions of the sword the hero is grasping, swinging, sheathing, or cleaning.

Good luck and God bless in puzzling out the confusing world of swords in fantasy!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Hows and Whys of Naming God in Your Fantasy Story

As Christians, God plays the major role in most aspects of our lives. We may go to church, pray, and serve for God, but we should also extend our faith to our writing.

There are many ways to incorporate faith into writing. An allegory, like the Chronicles of Narnia (especially The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), entails an analogy or metaphor for Scripture. Pilgrim’s Progress also demonstrates this approach to writing. It’s very blatantly Christian, so in this style, God's name and presence will almost certainly be incorporated.

Another method of writing is much more subtle. As Christians, we incorporate our worldview into everything that we write. In this second method, the themes our work espouses are Biblical themes—loving our neighbor, sacrifice, service. This is the method J. R. R. Tolkien used in The Lord of the Rings. In this second method, God may or may not be mentioned, but either way, Christianity is upheld.

If God does come up in your book, then He must have a name.  Here are a few thoughts on the subject.

1. God
  • Pros: straight and to-the-point. There’s no confusion here about whether you’re really referring to the Christian God or not.
  • Cons: it’s very obvious and pushy if you’re writing for non-Christian market 

2. Biblical Name (e.g. Jehovah)
  • Pros: Not quite so obvious as saying “God.” Still incorporates God as He chooses to be called.
  • Cons: Again, can still be rather pushy. Non-Christians may be dissuaded by an overly “religious” tone.

3. An attribute (e.g. the One, Guide, Voice, Protector, etc.)
  • Pros: Not so obvious and definitely not so pushy as a direct Biblical name.
  • Cons: Often overused. More importantly, it’s impossible to sum up all that God is with only one word or one attribute. 

4. A made-up name (e.g. Illuvatar from Tolkien’s works, or Aslan in Narnia)
  • Pros: The least pushy of the lot. Creative and different. Can work better in the context of a different world.
  • Cons: Difficult to “create” a unique, powerful-sounding, beautiful name that is worthy of God’s majesty. Also, may or may not be associated with the Christian God.

Be sure to give this topic a whole lot of thought and prayer. One of our most important responsibilities as writers is to represent God as He is.  God bless as you embark on this most important decision!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The New Year in Fantasy

Happy New Year, everyone! Welcome to the year 2012!

That is, unless you're one of the many people around the world who celebrate the new year at other times. For example, Chinese New Year this year is not until January 23. In the Jewish calendar, the new year, Rosh Hashanah, was celebrated September 29th of 2011. And even in the Western world, up until about 1750 A.D., the new year was celebrated on March 25th. (If you're interested in finding out other dates of new year's celebrations, you may find this Wikipedia article on the New Year informative.)

In fact, a quick glance through all the new years around the world reveals that there have been celebrations in winter, in spring, in fall, and in summer to celebrate the coming of the "new year."

This brings us to an important point: there is no one right new year. This also means that, for your fantasy world, there's no reason to stick to January 1st as the time to usher in the next year.

Why is the particular date of the new year so important, though? Couldn't we just ignore it and move on with life? Well, the obvious answer is, yes. Certainly. But let me give you a few reasons to include--or at least think about--when the new year occurs in your fantasy world.

  • Very nearly all cultures in our world celebrate the new year at some time during the year. Why should a fantasy world be any different? It'll make your culture seem more true-to-life.
  • The new year is often a time to gather with family or close friends. If you need an excuse for your main character's slightly insane uncle to kidnap her, why not let the action happen during the new year celebrations, while the family is too busy toasting with rice wine to notice?
  • Also, the new year is a time to make new goals, change direction, and acquire a new purpose in life. You can use this time of year to have your character reflect on his or her past, and plan for the future.
  • Finally, the new year is often a time of romance. If your hero and heroine haven't quite got up the courage to have a sweet moment together, then the dancing and celebration of New Year's might be the perfect time to make a match.

So maybe, by now, you're convinced that a new year celebration might be helpful in your book. Well, how do you go about writing one? Actually, the process is quite simple.
  1. Decide on a season. Is this a harvest-time new year? A wintry, snowy, cold, and bleak new year? A spring new year, with new life and new growth in the air? A summer new year, with scorching heat and crops growing strong and tall under the sun? (Remember, too, that your world's calendar system will have an important impact on the new year. Does it celebrate lunar or solar months? How does it keep track of the passing of time?)
  2. Decide on particular customs. Is the new year a time for romance, or is it more for family? Is it a big party with lots of food or a small gathering with a few near and dear to your heart?
  3. Have your characters look back on the previous year. Any milestones?
  4. Have your characters look ahead at the new year. You could foreshadow difficulties and danger, you could give them a change of heart, or you could leave them in ignorant bliss about the path that lies ahead of them.
Whatever you do, and however you write, make sure it's consistent with your characters, your story, and your world. Enjoy!