Living Your Book: Doing Battle

Maybe I’m presuming far too much, but in my experience, most writers tend not to be very physical people.  It seems like the doers of society are often too busy doing to take the time to write and the authors are often too busy authorizing to do!  Perhaps the best of us are those who find time for both.  🙂

This month we’ll be taking a look at something that it is difficult to get on without:  real life experience.  Want to find a way to really spice up your prose?  Here is a key question: Are you just satisfied with living inside your comfortable shell, only venturing out by proxy through your characters?  If so, I doubt your writing is as vivid and powerful as it otherwise could be.  You can unlock your potential, but it will be harder than you ever imagined…but also perhaps more rewarding!


That’s me on the left.

Conflict:  It is something that no good book can do without.  Even my friends who desperately avoid it and are made uncomfortable when there is even the slightest hint of disagreement look for it in their fiction.  As modern authors, we all have generally experienced some kind of emotional conflict, but relatively few of us have ever had anything to do with physical conflict–fighting.  I find this very ironic since so many of us write it into our stories with a tone of complete authority.

My experience with fighting has thankfully been a choice so far and not a necessity. For ten years, off and on, I studied the Japanese art of kendo and, later, its Korean descendant, kumdo.  I have also practiced and tested a bit in a non-traditional form of aikido-jujitsu.  What I learned, particularly from kendo and kumdo, literally changed the way I look at the world, and it certainly changed the way I approach conflict.  After all, there is nothing like standing in front of a person you know could literally kill you and refusing to back down.  When you’ve done that enough, “normal” people just aren’t that intimidating any more!

A year or so ago I did a whole series on “Swordsmanship for Dummies,” (the run of which you can find listed at the bottom of this post), so I’ll focus here on some of the more general themes I’ve learned that might be of use as we write.  In any case, I certainly don’t want to overstate my experience–in kendo or in combat in general.  I am–and hopefully will always be–an amateur, no matter how many “black belts” I accumulate (I have one).

Practicing with the lovely Ahrum Han.  For the record, she was attacking me! 🙂

As we begin, it is also worth saying that martial arts are a very cultural phenomenon.  There is always more than one “good” way to do anything.  While I do believe that there are some martial arts that are better at some things than others, one of the first and most important points to remember is that different cultures develop their warfighting and personal combat traditions along separate paths.  In all cases, cultures take the routes they do for one simple, clear reason:  Doing it that way works for them in their situation.  The people who use techniques that don’t work die, pure and simple.  So, European knights tended to use bigger, slower, heavier weapons because that is what it took to penetrate their opponents’ armor.  The samurai of Japan never had to deal with a massive invasion of the islands, and therefore they generally focused on single combat between two honorable opponents.  Korea, given its location, was constantly being invaded by someone and its defenders were usually out numbered, so it’s martial arts tended toward techniques where a single fighter faced multiple opponents.  Capoeira can look a little strange, until you learn that it was originally developed by slaves who weren’t allowed to learn to fight at all (for obvious reasons); so, they disguised their fighting arts as “dancing.”  In all cases, the fighting styles, weapons, tactics and strategy result from a combination of culture and circumstance.

Here are some other things to bear in mind:

  • Brutal Efficiency:  While we like to think of fighting as flashy and impressive, most serious warriors and the techniques they use are simple, brutal, and efficient.  On the battlefield, martial arts are about one thing–killing your opponent in the quickest way possible (before he kills you).
  • Martial arts (eastern or western) often operate under a complex set of rules or expectations:  Kendo, for instance, has a very strict etiquette that practioners must follow.  Medieval knights had the laws of chivalry.  Even in less developed societies and systems, you generally tend to see some set of expectations that warriors believe they should be able to assume about each other.  When someone violates that code of conduct, it is often (not always) seen as a violation of a significant trust.
  • Conflict takes a toll, physically and emotionally:  Since I started practicing kendo, I’ve had to have two shoulder surgeries because of the damage that the repetitive motions did to my body.  One of my first senseis has had his knee replaced because of what tae kwon do and kendo did to him.  That, of course, was with blunt weapons and full protective gear.  Imagine what being in real fight after real fight would do to you!  I always find it funny when I see an “experienced” character in a story with no obvious injuries.
  • Conflict requires mental toughness:  As I progressed in kendo in particular, I was surprised to see how intellectual it really was.  The best fighters were the ones who could think as well as they could move.  Much of it has to do with your ability to control yourself, think ahead of the fight, and then impress your will on your opponent. As one sensei I worked under said, “You should sweat buckets, and 90% of that sweat should be from mental effort.  Kendo is chess with swords.”  While again this will look different between cultures, it is very often a similar over arching theme between them.
  • The need to overcome nature:  Standing in front of someone who wants to kill you isn’t “natural.”  Your body will choose “flight” over “fight” if you give it a chance.  Most martial arts have one answer to this problem–practice and discipline.  You literally ingrain your techniques into yourself so thoroughly that you can overcome your more basic urges (which never go away entirely).  In short, the greatest warriors take time to create.

Hip tosses are fun! Unfortunately, I seriously damaged my shoulder–eventually leading to surgery–when I failed to roll properly about ten minutes after this was taken.

If you would like to get some firsthand experience, it is easier than you might think: there are plenty of martial arts instructors out there willing to take money from just about anybody in any state of training so long as they have no outstanding medical conditions.  The main question you need to ask yourself is, “How serious am I?”  In my experience, the vast majority of Western instructors tend to teach a toned down form of their art, one that is pitched to a consumer who is unwilling to pay money to be put through the annoyance, pain, and suffering that more traditional arts will demand (and they certainly wouldn’t pay to see that happen to their precious children!).  If you’re out to understand what a “warrior” knows, that may actually mislead you.  If you are willing and able, I would suggest looking into those forms that are as historic an original as possible. On the other hand, you’ll probably find any experience in any real martial art valuable as an author.

Whatever you decide, look into your proposed instructor’s credentials. There are many people out there–particularly the “ninjas”–who will create their own “style,” declare themselves the grandmaster of that style, and then they start opening schools as fast as they can.  It’s always good to know who you’re dealing with.

Anyway, I can say that I do not regret my years learning martial arts.  It made me into a much stronger person with a clearer sense of purpose.  It gave an idea of what it means to fight and how to prepare for it.  If you take the time yourself, I think you’ll also find it well worth your while.

Next Week:  The last installment of “Living Your Book” (for now)–Terrain and How to Understand it.

Other Posts in the “Living Your Book” Series

The Swordsmanship for Dummies Series


About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on October 26, 2012, in Brian Melton, Characters, Fantasy, Kendo, Speculative Fiction, Swordsmanship for Dummies, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. It would be great if we could bring Kendo to Central VA.

    • We had it for a while there…but then everyone moved on. Its hard to find really qualified instructors (not so hard to find people who think they are). It will probably cycle through again, give the number of colleges and universities in the area!

  1. Pingback: Living Your Book: Terrain and Experiencing It | Lantern Hollow Press

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: