I’ve been working on a fantasy romance novella featuring two magical archers competing against one another in a tournament, and also solving a mystery involving a poisoned racehorse. I wrote several of the introductory scenes, and then I got to the first tournament scene where they were shooting for the first time, and I drew a blank.
I knew what the results of that round of competition were supposed to be. But I needed to fill out that scene with all kinds of physical and emotional details about the actual shooting. I ended up putting in a bracket note “[tournament scene here!]” and moving on the next scene, because I didn’t know what to write.
Book learning helps a lot. I’d purchased and read The Crooked Stick: A History of the Longbow and Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs for research, and both had taught me a lot about the capabilities of bows and arrows, the materials they were made of, the techniques that were employed with them, etc. But none of them had taught me what it felt like to nock an arrow and release it, or any of the tactile, physical details I needed in order to bring my novella to life.
So it was off to archery class! I have two sons, so I brought them both with me.
Some archery classes are focused on target shooting for the Olympics, while others are more for bow hunters. This one is the latter type. We don’t just learn how to shoot, we also learn how to make our own bows and arrows (REALLY USEFUL for my novel research). Did you know it’s hard to get yew wood for bows these days because the pharmaceutical industry hogs it all to make Taxol?
I have a bad shoulder, so though I’m right handed, I’m shooting left handed to avoid aggravating the old injury. We start class by shooting at stationary targets, focusing on form and especially on our release of the arrow (this is the hard part). Then the instructor starts throwing pizza boxes in the air, and we shoot at moving targets. Moving targets are super fun! Last class, I put an arrow right through one of those pizza boxes! My older son is a slightly better shot. He nailed two of them.
Archery, like horsebackriding, is the type of sport where the more calm and relaxed you are while performing it, the better. I like that kind of sport. After a couple more months of this class, I’ll be ready to write that archery tournament scene, and the details should be spot on.
This isn’t the first time I’ve done hands-on research for a book. I took sailing classes one summer so I could better write the sailing scenes in a novel. So much fun! And I’ll be able to write sailing scenes with confidence for the rest of my life.
Lots of fantasy writers join the SCA or take martial arts so they can write better fight scenes. I haven’t done this yet, but I totally support the idea. And I still want to go to a firing range and practice shooting a gun, since some of my novels are set in the gunpowder age, and my characters do use firearms.
If I’m being 100% honest, I don’t do these things just for research. I do them because they’re fun, and you only get to live once, right? That they help me write better novels helps me justify the investment of time and money. Fantasy readers (and writers) have, I think, a natural curiosity about the world. We love adventure. We love to explore. So if your life circumstances permit, take that archery class, that martial arts class, that sailing class. Book learning is great. Learning by doing? Even better.