All posts by Michael Schwarz

Q&A: Drafting Edits

To what extent is it applicable to not edit the first draft as one goes along? I started to write Act 1 of my book. I keep going between scenes as I get stuck and have to add to the barebones writing ifvmine that is 90% dialogue.

queen-of-pinkskull

It’s about finding a creative process that works for you. Most of the time, you want to be moving forward, maintain the momentum, and complete the story before going back and reworking things. This also has a benefit of foreknowledge, so when you go back and start cleaning things up, you’ll have a better idea what things are building to. You can trim out details that were abandoned, and play up (or add) details that foreshadow where you’re going.

A lot of, “you must write this way,” advice comes from a good place, but may not be applicable for you, personally. Some writers, I used to be one of them, will start with nothing but dialog, then go back through and start fleshing out the scene. There’s still elements of that in my rough drafts. Lost of dialog, light on description. There’s nothing wrong with this, and no rule that your rough draft must take a specific form. If it’s useful to you as a stepping stone, your rough draft has done its job. If your rough draft becomes an impediment to your writing, it’s not doing its job.

The advice against editing your rough draft is for your benefit. It’s very easy to start redrafting pieces as you go along, get caught cleaning up one segment, and lose the bigger picture. By the same measure, you might work better writing the dialog and then immediately going back and writing the rest of the scene. If it works for you, it’s not wrong. If you find yourself writing scenes in random order, and later sort that out, clean it up, and turn it into a coherent story, you’re not wrong. If you write in segments, go back, redraft them until you’re done with them, and move forward creating a serialized story, you’re not wrong.

If your method works for you, it’s not a problem. No one cares how you got to your final draft if it’s good.

If your method does not work for you, trips you up, causes problems, distracts you, and prevents you from getting to your final draft, that’s a problem. That’s where advice like this can be very helpful.

Personally, from where I’m at today, I’d say, don’t go back unless you need to. There’s nothing wrong with a rough draft that reads like a script.

Sometimes you may need to go back and make notes for future revisions. If that’s the case, keep it short and simple, it’s problem for future-you to deal with. There’s wrong with simply inserting notes into your rough draft, and getting back to the content at hand.

Above all else, I strongly recommend not sacrificing what you’re working on at the moment to go back and build for it. You can do that at your leisure. But, I’m not you. If working on that foundation helps you put the later scenes together, then that’s the right choice for you, and the wrong choice for me.

Remember: you’re not being graded on your rough draft. It can be as messy as you’re willing to tolerate. Getting stuff down, being able to clean up and build on that foundation is critical. No one else has to see your drafts until you’re comfortable with them.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Hatchets and Knives

Are axes and hatchets useful for anything? It seems like knives are just better by any measure but I would like one of my characters to use a hatchet/small axe instead

Hatchets are great for clearing brush, and making camp. They’re useful in situations where you need to rapidly sever a line under tension. Switch between a blade and a hammer.

Knives give you more fine control, hatchets give you more force on point of impact. This doesn’t you can’t whittle with a hatchet if you want, people do, but it’s not going to be as easy.

So, why use a hatchet? Because it’s the right tool for the job.

I know we sometimes stress that weapons are tools. This is, usually, a little semantic, when we’re talking about a rifle as a tool, it’s because this is a piece of equipment designed to do a specific job. In this case, that, “tool” distinction is really important because, both knives and hatchets are non-combat tools first, which have combat applications.

“Why would your character use a hatchet?” Because they carry one for utility, and are in a situation where it is available and they need a weapon.

Both the knife and the hatchet occupy a strange space, they’re not improvised weapons, but they are still, primarily, utility tools. I don’t carry a knife to have a weapon, I carry one because sometimes I need a knife.

The knife is a more versatile tool. It’s an eating utensil, medical tool, has precision cutting applications. You can do a lot with a decent knife. In that regard, hatchets are more limited.

Given options, a character in the wilderness would probably carry both in addition to actual weapons. In a modern setting that might a handgun, and a rifle or shotgun. In a fantasy setting, you’re probably looking at a sword or larger axe as a sidearm, and a specialized weapon like the bow, or a primary polearm of some sort.

If a character already has a combat axe, they might not carry a hatchet. They don’t need another axe that will do most of the same things. Similarly, if they carry throwing axes, a separate hatchet will be redundant.

If you’re running with the idea of some kind ranger type character, the axe is a natural fit. It’s a good weapon, because it does double as a tool that will be vital in their environment. They’ll probably also have a knife, because it’s useful.

If you want them using a hand axe or hatchet as their primary weapon, that’s going to be a situation where, “this is what I could get,” probably not, “this is my weapon of choice.”

Also worth remembering, the knife is an excellent ambush weapon. It’s very easy to conceal. If you just need to stab someone without warning and vanish, you want a knife. If you’re getting into an actual fight, the knife will rapidly lose out to anything with a longer reach.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: One-eyed MMA

How would having one eye affect a trained combatant in what amounts to an MMA match?

ohgodhesloose

It’ll kneecap their depth perception, limit their peripheral vision on that side, and if any harm comes to their remaining eye they’ll be blinded. The loss of peripheral vision is less important in MMA, though not entirely irrelevant. Getting accidentally poked in the good eye could take them out of a fight, but that’d be true if they still had both eyes. Remember, unlike live combat, getting injured in a sports bout means the fight is (probably) over.

The loss of depth perception is brutal. Combat relies on being able to connect with your foe. Being able to connect requires you to know exactly how far away they are. In situations where you’re already in direct contact with your opponent (ex: grappling and wrestling), the loss of an eye is a pretty minor consideration. In most situations, such as boxing, kicks, and other directed strikes, you need your eyes.

We’ve got an example here. UFC fighter, Michael Bisping took a blow to the head during a bout with Vitor Belfort in January 2013. The blow caused a corneal detachment in his right eye, ultimately leaving him blind in that eye.

Without shelling out to review Bisping’s fights, the overall pattern was an increase in defeats after the injury. His win rate was around 85% going into the match with Belfort, and by the time he retired in 2017, it had dropped to around 75%.

Can we attribute this to the eye injury? Well, no. At least, not confidently. Bisping was 34 when he fought Belfort, and was 38 when he retired. His last fight was with someone who was over 10 years his junior, and decided by a KO, 2m30s into the first round. I’m not going to blame him for walking away at that point.

I know we’ve said this before, but fighting takes a serious toll on the body, and Bisping’s record from 2013 to 2017 can easily be attributed to the fact that he was in his late 30s, and his body is wearing down.

I have a lot of respect for anyone who’s willing to keep fighting after suffering an injury like that. And he did keep going in the ring over the next four years.

(I have a lot less respect for the part where he didn’t see a doctor about the injury until after another fight three months later. I understand why he didn’t want to; he was afraid he’d never be allowed to fight again. But, it was a poor decision.)

He is also instructive as an example. Like I said, losing depth perception is a brutal disadvantage. Not an insurmountable one. You’ll have to work much harder to compete, but it is possible.

(Assuming you have two functioning eyes) Michi’s advice on writing one-eyed characters stands: Get an eyepatch. Live with it for a bit. No cheating. Go around with it. If anyone questions your choice in writing accessories, just be weirder than they can handle, and go on with your day. Get a feel for what it’s like to be missing an eye. Get an understanding of how this really limits you. Though, do remember to be careful.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Catharsis and Agression

What do you think of putting aggressive kids in dojos to ‘let off steam’? Does this happen? Does it help kids be more aggressive or less, or does it depend on age? I read that the Catharsis thing is actually a myth but do you have any thoughts about it? Does it not actually involve catharsis at all?

That doesn’t happen. At least, not exactly. So two things:

First: Can you stick an aggressive kid in martial arts and see an improvement in their behavior? Yes, that works. It’s not “blowing off steam,” though.

Second: Can you find catharsis in violence? No. “Blowing off steam,” through actual violence isn’t cathartic. It’s not even going to really work out the aggression.

Martial arts training can provide structure to a kid. Again, that’s not something I personally experienced, but I was already in Scouts when I first encountered martial arts. So, discipline and structure were not new concepts to me.

Martial arts training can significantly boost your self-confidence. This I can testify to. If a kid is being aggressive because they feel threatened, and are trying to use violence to create a safe space around themselves, martial arts training can do wonders for tempering those impulses. This may sound counter-intuitive, but if you’re acting out because you’re afraid someone will hurt you, having the ability to actually defend yourself from unwanted aggression is a panacea.

Catharsis is real, at least in some contexts. If you’ve been (figuratively) pounding you head against an obstacle for an extended period, and you finally overcome it, the feeling is amazing. That’s catharsis.

Can you experience catharsis in the dojo? Yeah. I haven’t, but it’s certainly possible. Nail that kata you’ve been working on, finally pull of something particularly difficult that you’ve struggled with, and you could definitely experience some catharsis from that.

Does catharsis purge all your ills? No. It’s the experience of overcoming a challenge. It’s the release of that tension. It can help your overall mental state. It won’t magically dispell psychological issues, but it might help you deal with them.

Where the myth comes in is the belief that you can achieve catharsis through violence. “Blowing off steam.” That doesn’t work. At least not with real violence. You might experience some catharsis from a video game, but that is a game. The challenges are delineated in a concrete way, which doesn’t reflect real violence.

Real violence is numbing. It doesn’t feel good. There’s no cathartic release from it. Indulging in aggressive impulses won’t really sate anything. You’ll get the adrenaline rush in the moment, but that’s not catharsis. That said, violence is addictive. (Or, at least, adrenaline rushes can be.) If you’re trying to work out your issues through aggression, it will create a pattern of escalation. That kind of behavior will not fly in any competently run dojo.

It’s really important to understand, the dojo is not Fight Club. You do not throw kids at one another and let them beat each other senseless. If you’ve got a kid in a dojo with aggression issues who cannot reign it in, they’re not going to be put in situations where they can express that aggression against anyone else. You do not simply let kids “work it out” through violence. It’s a terrible lesson, a liability issue, and simply doesn’t work.

Take this into a larger context, you don’t want kids fighting one another. I don’t care if you’re in the perspective of, “boys will be boys,” encouraging violence as a problem solving tool will teach them that violence can solve problems. It can’t. It can only lead to further escalation.

So, yes, if you have a kid with aggression issues, martial arts classes are a good option for dealing with that, but it’s not about “working out their aggression.” You’re giving them self-confidence so that they do not feel the need to resort to violence to “solve” with their problems.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Amnesia

re: concussion types: you mentioned global amnesia being incredibly rare as a side effect of head trauma, so i was wondering, how bad would the trauma have to be to induce “i can’t remember anything” amnesia? most info i found relates to memory loss around the time of the trauma, not on total memory loss which really speaks to uncommon it is, but if you have any insight i would love to know! (also from what i gather, you’d lose not only memories but physical skills as well, reading, walking etc)

So, the correct term for what we’re talking about is Retrograde Amnesia. This is the loss of previously created memories. There’s a lot of potential causes, but as with concussions, it’s not about how hard you’re hit, it’s what your brain is doing.

In a lot of cases, it’s not even about an injury; simply, something in your brain doesn’t work right. Your brain stores and recovers a lot of information on a regular bases, and whenever something goes wrong, whether that’s due injury, illness, chemicals, electroshock “therapy,” or psychological factors, it’s amnesia.

The term itself, is a bit misleading, because it’s describing a wide range of similar symptoms under a single header. The term itself is basically just, “can’t remember.” So, technically, if you forgot where you left your keys, and wanted to be overly dramatic, you could call that amnesia. No one else would be likely to agree, but you wouldn’t be completely wrong.

Complete Retrograde Amnesia is incredibly rare. I don’t have a number for this, the rate of incidence is that low. It’s a bit confused, because things like dementia are forms of retrograde amnesia. So, this can become a question of severity.

The one I do have numbers for is Transient Global Amnesia. I’ve actually had the privilege of watching an entire TGA event from start to finish. The rate of incidence there is about 5:100,000, and events usually last for less than a day.

TGA is complete anterograde amnesia, with mild retrograde amnesia. In this case, the patient was unable to form new long term memories for about six to eight hours, and while the event persisted they were unable to recall events in the previous nine months to a year. This lead to some remarkably repetitive conversations. After the event completed they were unable to recall events from roughly six hours before the event started until after it’s conclusion, and my understanding is they never recovered those memories.

During initial onset, the immediate fear was that the patient was experiencing a stroke. Given the symptoms, that was a reasonable concern.

Lit says that the patient should be able to remember, roughly, the last five minutes during the event. That sounds consistent with what I saw, but I didn’t time it.

So, there’s a term up there, “anterograde.” Let’s describe these. Retrograde simply means, “moving backwards.” Outside of amnesia, you’ll most often encounter this regarding the movement of celestial bodies. Under the geocentric model of the solar system, planets which appeared to reverse course were a serious puzzle, and the phenomena was described as, “retrograde motion.” When you add the fact that planets orbit around the sun, and not the earth, it makes perfect sense. They’re not reversing course, it’s simply a function of the planets’ orbits creating the illusion of reverse motion. Planets are still described as being “in retrograde,” to indicate that their apparent motion has reversed from the perspective of earth, even though we now understand why this happens.

Similarly, anterograde simply means “moving forward.” (Worth knowing that, while retrograde derives from Latin, and has been around since, at least, Middle English, anterograde is a modern word.) When dealing with amnesia, anterograde is the inability to form new memories. IE: “Without memories moving forward.”

As with any other form, anterograde amnesia can be there result of a number of different causes, including some illnesses, chemical reactions, brain tumors, injuries, and stroke.

Anterograde amnesia can also be experienced as a result of being put under general anesthesia. This means, I’ve probably experienced this first hand, but have no recollection of it.

A concussion can result in either anterograde, retrograde, or a combination of both forms of amnesia. Usually associated with damage to the medial temporal lobe. Note: this part of your brain does a bit more than just store memories. It’s also responsible for spacial cognition. If I remember correctly, but I can’d find reference to verify right now, damage to the medial temporal lobe also result in epileptic seizures, and loss (or at least impairment) of emotional control.

Since we’re talking about neural structure, and way out of my depth already, let’s talk a little more about memory. You have at least two distinct types of memories. Episodic memories are things you experience. If you stop and think back to something that happened, that’s an Episodic memory. Semantic memories are skills, and abstract knowledge. While knowledge derives from episodic experiences, you actually store this stuff differently. (I’m not clear on the exact, chemical or biological distinction here.) This is important to understand when talking about amnesia, because what you have seen and what you know are different kinds of memories. So, the idea that someone can’t remember who they are, but still has all their knowledge and skills, isn’t that far fetched. Except for the part where they can’t remember anything about who they are.

I’m going to stick a note in here: You asked about walking, that’s not a memory. Your brain is pretty well hardwired to do that. There’s actually a number of basic actions and functions of fine motor control, that have nothing to do with memory. Some of this stuff will atrophy if you don’t use it, but you’re not going to forget it. One of the more interesting ones is swimming, as infants are born with a reflexive ability to (attempt to) swim. This atrophies pretty quickly, but, it’s interesting.

One form of amnesia we’ve all experienced is infantile amnesia. This just discusses the phenomena where people do not (generally) remember the first three to five years of their lives. (There are exceptions, but those are rare.) This is simply a function of neural development, and may be tied to development of language skills.

There is one last variety you should familiarize yourself with: Dissociative amnesia. This a psychologically derived. It includes things like repressed memories and fugue states. The patient decides (at a sub-conscious level) not to remember something. This can be because the event is so traumatic they refuse to acknowledged it, or any number of other factors. In some extreme cases, the patient rejects themselves. They forget everything. Technically the memories are still intact, it’s not they put their brain on a bulk eraser and nuked it. They simply will not interface with those memories. In some ways can be pretty, “laser guided,” because the patient is trying to protect themselves, and are the best suited to know if something’s going to cause problems.

As a therapist, there a fairly decent argument not to probe someone with dissociative amnesia too deeply, unless they really are asking you to. We don’t talk about this much, but when it comes to psychology and the Hippocratic oath, if the patient is not being harmed by their issues, or harming others, you don’t mess with them. A patient with a dissociative amnesia who is happy with who they are, is not someone who “needs to be dragged back to face themselves.” Chances are, there were really good reasons their mind went, “nope,” duct taped the whole thing in a box, and chucked in the back of a closet. If the patient comes to you distressed because they can’t remember who they were, that’s different. If the patient simply can’t remember who they were, but is fine who they are, do no harm.

Okay, that’s amnesia, let’s talk about why you should never use this stuff in your writing.

The amnesiac point of view character is a very, very, useful trope. It’s too useful. This is why it has become cliche.

When you create a new world, you as the writer, know the rules, you know players, you know all the moving pieces. Your audience knows nothing. At this point, you have to decide how to introduce your audience to your world. What better way than picking a PoV character who remembers nothing and needs to be spoon fed the backstory as they go along? The audience, and the character, will acquire information at the same rate as they progress through the story.

Amnesiac characters can also justify a lot of exposition. If they know nothing, then they’ll have to have all of this explained to them. But, you might have just noticed a problem, that’s not how amnesia works (in most cases.)

Someone might not remember that the person they’re talking to killed their sister, but they are going to remember the factions and other political considerations that govern the other character’s motivations. Some details will be missing, but the abstract knowledge should be intact.

Many amnesiac PoV characters aren’t really amnesiac, they’re simply audience proxies who are unfamiliar with the backstory, blundering around, as the world is gradually filled in.

Now, having just picked at this a bit, it works very well. Especially if you, (as the writer) are not yet comfortable with the setting. The problem, and the reason I said, “don’t use this,” is because it has become cliche, due to overuse. You can’t pick a fantasy novel off the shelf without accidentally knocking over eighteen more about edgy amnesiac heroes wandering around someone’s home brew D&D campaign. It gets worse when you get into other media.

There are some other good uses. One is an amnesiac character investigating themselves. There’s a lot of this in the thriller genre. Much like the case above, this is a bit cliche, but is also a situation with some unique options. Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity comes to mind as an interesting variant of this. Though the amnesiac spy has been done to death since.

Amnesia is a very useful, very potent, tool for a writer. It’s one you do not want to abuse, because, when misused, it will deprive your story of its uniqueness. If you have to chose between an amnesiac PoV, or committing to a PoV character that’s up to speed, pick the latter. It may not seem as easy, but it gives you more control than your realize.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Cleaning up the Cleaner

Hi! I really enjoy your blog and it’s always useful for my WIPs! I stumbled upon your assassins posts recently and I’m wondering, what is the way to kill an assassin, realistically? Maybe intentionally, or by accident? Thank you so much for all your helpful posts!

The good news is, your assassin is basically just another person. When it comes to accidental deaths, they’re as vulnerable as anyone else. A previously unknown food allergy, an auto accident, or any number of other things that could kill a random person will also end them.

If you’re talking about engineering an “accident,” then, the same rules apply, but this stuff is a lot harder to pull off in the real world, so it’s less of a consideration. Though, your characters who were hired to kill the assassin could start by engineering a car crash, to soften them up. Then, when they’re recovering from their airbag going off, execute them and leave.

As for the best way to kill an assassin? A rifle at long range. Preferably on a semi-auto with the ability for quick follow up shots, and a shooter who knows how to use it. That’s a lot of options.

Note, I didn’t say “suppressed,” up there. Even a block away, firing from a window, the sniper’s going to have time to vacate before anyone comes looking. So, the suppressor just buys time they don’t need, and messes with the ballistics. A couple clean shots and they’re done. Maybe have a support team on the ground closer to the target to finish them off if the sniper doesn’t get the job done.

I mean, ultimately, assassins aren’t superhuman. Even when we’re talking about the mythical master assassins that may not even exists, they survive because no one knows who they are. If you strip that anonymity, they’re as vulnerable anyone else to being killed.

So, let’s step back from tactics, you need an assassin dead. You have options. First, you need to know who’s hunting your assassin, this sets the ground rules that will determine how effective your assassin’s tradecraft will be. Second, your hunters need to ID your assassin. Finally, once you have those two pieces of information, your hunters need a plan.

There’s a lot of people who could want an assassin dead. Who they are will determine what they can bring to the table.

Private citizens are, probably, the least dangerous over all. If your assassin is no longer in the same zip code, their options are going to be limited.

A cop (corrupt or not) is a little more dangerous. If your assassin is operating in their jurisdiction, they can probably call in a SWAT team, or something similar. They’re also dangerous because they’re specifically trained to investigate crimes. They have the best training and skills to track down your assassin after the kill. They may also have the training to kill your assassin, but if they don’t they can make a phone call and get people who do, and they will. Police don’t operate alone. A stray detective figures out who your assassin is, and next thing you know, every cop in the city will be aware of this, and keeping an eye out.

Finally, while a cop can’t hunt your assassin around the globe, they can share their information with other police agencies. In some cases, they may even be able to travel and explain the situation to others in person. They won’t have enforcement authority, but when it comes to investigating your assassin, they don’t really need that if they can cultivate a good working relationship with the locals.

Also, since we’re talking about globe hopping, it’s worth remembering, INTERPOL agents are not an international version of the FBI, they’re liaisons between national police agencies. They have no arrest or enforcement authority. Their job is simply to alert and inform police about criminal actives that have jumped borders. They’re a recognized organ of the UN, but they are administrative, not enforcement.

Ironically, organized crime figures have similar limitations to the police. If the assassin stays out of areas they have influence over, they’re (basically) out of reach. They’re not as well trained to investigate an assassin, and they don’t have the same resources. The difference is, that organized crime figures may have access to corrupt cops. How much control may vary, but it’s possible they could point the police at your assassin, just to make things messier. They’d benefit from some of that investigation, and might be able to turn that into useful information.

A spy with access to their agency’s intelligence resources is probably one of the most dangerous foes to have hunting your assassin. They will have access to highly trained specialists, their investigative skills are probably on par with the local police. In some cases they may even be able to direct local law enforcement or military responses. Worse, these guys can go (pretty much) wherever they want to pursue your assassin. Your assassin hops a flight out of the country, and for most cops, that’s the end. An intelligence officer has people on the ground there already.

An intelligence agency also has the resources to start putting together the entire picture. If your assassin’s been flying under a dozen assumed identities, given time, and resources, an analysis team can blow your assassin’s covers, and find out where they’re going before they get there.

For an agency to get involved, two things need to happen. The assassin needs to target someone that warrants the agency to look into the killing. (Or attempted killing.) We’re probably outside of the range of simple political hits, or witness cleanup here. The assassin was paid to kill someone who was important, whether they succeeded or not. Also, the assassin needs to be exposed as an assassin. This might sound obvious, but when we’re talking about “master-class assassins” in the real world, there’s significant debate whether they’re even real. So, to get an intelligence agency hunting them, their existence needs to become credible, at least to the spy and the people they report to. (This second part isn’t a particularly high bar to hit, but it’s worth remembering this stuff, “doesn’t happen,” in the real world.)

Once you know who’s hunting them, you can start evaluating how hard it will be to ID them. The reason is because people hunting your assassin will have radically different resources and skill sets at their disposal. Much like the above groups, the kind of assassin we’re dealing with will determine how well protected they are.

I’m using the classifications from that UK article in 2014, (which was paywalled sometime in the last five years.) You can find an article we wrote on the subject here.

A lot of amateurs (both Novice and Dilettantes if you’ve read the link), don’t really hide their identity. You want them dead, you can just find and kill them. This includes most hitters working for organized crime. They’re only interested in hiding from the police, not from their own community. So, if you’ve got someone who was hired to kill a mobster without family approval, finding them is going to be relatively easy if you have mob connections. Ironically, in a case like that, the hard part would be getting to them before the cops.

Because they don’t travel, Journeymen are also pretty easy to track down and eliminate. If someone has a reputation as an assassin, you’re in the know, and recognize their work, you know where to find them and who to kill. These guys are legitimately dangerous, as they likely have a military background, but there’s not much one person can do against an organized squad with similar training, sent to kill them.

And before someone asks, yes, I’m entirely familiar with the cliche where one person picks off an entire squad of assailants. That’s mostly fantasy. A squad that actually behaves and moves like a squad, will be able to outmaneuver and eliminate any a single foe who lacks superpowers.

I’m guessing we’re talking about someone more insulated. If your assassin is one of these master-class types, who’s working through cutout connections, they may be pretty well protected. Your people never meet the assassin, they meet a representative somewhere. That representative passes the contract to the assassin, and there’s never any direct connections between them. IDing them later could be tricky. You can’t take a city like New York or London and scrutinize everyone that came and went on a given day.

You need a plan to find out who this is. There are options here. Luring the assassin into a situation where you might be able to collect evidence on them, leading to their identity. Trying to use them multiple times, in different places, while trying to collect evidence on people who were in all of those places. (Problem here is, like I mentioned, it’s hard to filter individuals out the mass of people moving around the globe at any given moment.

I’m making this more complicated than it needs to be, though. If you’re wanting to burn an assassin, all you need to do is make sure your people are there, and can respond, to take out them out when they strike. Put a hit on your friend, warn their security detail, beef it up, give them the time frame. Assassinating someone who’s well protected is dangerous work to begin with. A trapped contract is an entirely legitimate danger, and one that will be hard to account for before hand. Bonus points if you’re supplying the means to get through the security cordon, because at that point you can rig “silent alarms” to their access, letting security know that the assassin is on the premises, and it’s time to start clearing the place.

Another solution is to pull them out of their comfort zone, sabotage their exit strategy, and hunt them down. With enough corruption or the right incentives, this may be possible in some metro areas around the world. Though, the “standard” answer would be someplace isolated, in the wilderness. Send them out there to kill someone, then hunt them down using advanced technology.

Of course, you could just hire someone that knows them. Though, that could get tricky when you’re evaluating their loyalties. Will they kill for you, or will they just warn their buddy?

So, when I listed intelligence agencies earlier, this is the only kind of assassin they’re likely to be facing. Even journeymen can be dealt with by local law enforcement, someone operating at this level may warrant that kind of attention. This kind of a threat can bypass a lot of basic tradecraft that an assassin may employ. That whole cutout thing might not work if the people hunting them can set up a Stingray without oversight or pull their all of the cutout’s satphone data via a National Security Letter. The kind of security necessary to prepare for this kind of scrutiny would directly interfere with your assassin being able to do their job.

As for a plan to kill the assassin once you know who they are and where they live, that’s the easy part. They’re just human. Find them, put a bullet in them. Maybe put a few more in just “to make sure.” I mean, you can get more creative, but the efficient methods will, usually, be more reliable.

So, goals are to look for places where the assassin will be unprotected (basically outside of their home, and familiar haunts.) Hitting them on the road is a good way to achieve that, as everyone has to go somewhere sometime. You can also exploit this, if you have enforcement authority over a zone that normally prohibits weapons. For example: An airport; you can lock the place down, and hunt them in an environment where they’re not normally able to arm themselves, and they cannot flee.

Like I said, they’re not superheroes, you can gun them down like anyone else. The only hard part is finding the assassin, not the actual killing.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Concussion Types

in my story, for plot reasons, my character is in recovery for three weeks from a concussion. there’s no memory loss, but she passes out for 10 seconds and when she wakes up she’s nauseous and has slurred speech + ringing ears. how hard would she have to get hit in the head to have a concussion that is that severe?

This is going to be a bit nitpicky, and it’s not going to give you the answer you’re looking for, so, before we start, sorry about that.

Being knocked unconscious is a Type 3 Concussion (minimum). Nausea, slurred speech, and ringing in the ears are consistent with a concussion. For a Type 3, a recovery time between a week and a month is reasonable.

The rating for types work as follows:

Type 1 Concussions do not result in a loss of consciousness, and symptoms (or, at least, most symptoms) subside within ~15 minutes of the injury.

Type 2 Concussions do not result in a loss of consciousness, and symptoms persist beyond 15 minutes. Recovery usually occurs within 10 days of the injury.

Before we keep going, the symptom list is a bit longer than what you listed above. It can include: Confusion, impaired fine motor control, headache, nausea, vomiting, vertigo, sensitivity to light and/or sound (I think the other senses too, but I’m not 100% certain), difficulty with concentration and thinking, irritability, amnesia. (Also missing a few. This is brain damage we’re talking about, and it can scramble a lot.) (Also note, Type 1 Concussions usually only have mild symptoms, such as headaches and mild nausea. The more severe symptoms will, usually, push it into a Type 2 because they don’t go away.)

Also, before we keep going, worth singling out amnesia for a second. This one gets seriously misrepresented in pop culture. Realistically we’re talking about someone losing some time around the concussion. They may not remember what lead up to the injury, or missing a couple hours after it, and never will. Global, “I can’t remember anything,” amnesia is incredibly rare.

Type 3 Concussions get to pick off the full symptom list above (it won’t have everything, but it’s not limited the way a Type 1 is.) It also comes with less than 60 seconds of unconsciousness. Full recovery usually takes between 10 and 30 days. This is what you’re describing.

Type 4 Concussions involve being unconscious for more than 60 seconds, and recovery time can range from a couple weeks to more than a month.

With all of that said, what you’re asking is, “how hard does she have to be hit in the head?” The answer is, “hard enough.”

Concussions, and most brain injuries, aren’t about how hard you’re hit, it’s about what happens to your brain after you’re struck. A concussion is a bruise on the brain itself. Usually, the head is jostled, and the brain bounces off the interior of the skull, causing injury. This is just like any other bruise except the tissue being damaged is responsible for regulating the rest of your body. A relatively light hit to the head can cause a Type 4 Concussion and kill you. Conversely, you can take some horrific abuse to the head, and not suffer a concussion at all.

If you’ve been digging through medical write ups on websites and trying to figure out how hard someone needs to be hit, the answer is there’s no concrete rule. From a medical standpoint, concussions are about where you ended up, not how you got there.

Finally, recovery times are directly related to how well someone follows medical advice on recovering. There’s a lot of things that are personal to the individual and their concussion. Ex: you may not have trouble watching TV, but others will, and with a future concussion, you might.

Also, further muddying things, multiple concussions are cumulative, even over a long period of time. So, if you’ve suffered a concussion, you’re at greater risk of suffering future concussions from head trauma. Something to keep in mind if your character’s recovering from one.

Concussions are very serious injuries. If you suffer one, even a Type 1, you really should see a doctor, and follow their advice while your brain heals.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Ship to Ship Combat

Hi, I don’t know if you answered this ask already, but how would you write a ship fight? Like a navy and pirate ship are fighting and people are also fighting on the decks? Thank you!

I’d take some time to brush up on the appropriate terminology, and the contemporary strategies. With ship combat, I’d also take some time to familiarize myself with the kinds of damage combat inflicted on ships of that era. I’m guessing you mean golden age of piracy, which runs from 1650 to 1730 (roughly), but pirates have been a factor in sea trade for as long as humans have been transporting goods by sea.

One bit of trivia that’s probably knowing is the difference between a pirate and a privateer.

Pirates are the bandits of the seas. They harass shipping lanes, stealing whatever cargo they can obtain, and commandeering ships. They may kill the crews, or bring them into their service. Worth knowing that during the golden age of piracy, pirate ships were mini-democracies, their captains were voted in, and could be replaced by vote. Additionally, the ship’s quartermaster had the authority to countermand the captain’s orders.

Privateers harassed shipping lanes, stealing cargo and capturing ships. However, they acted as proxies for a government. A privateer would carry a letter of marque from one of the European powers. These letters of marque protected the crew from prosecution (read: execution) by that power, so long as they were not acting against them.

Also worth remembering that, while the majority of pirates were men, many women became pirates, and even rose to command their own ships or fleets. Some disguised their gender, while others did not. There’s nothing anachronistic about a woman commanding a pirate ship. Notably, this includes Cheng I Sao, who, at her height, commanded somewhere around 70k pirates, across 1200 ships.

That should cue you into a major consideration. Is this a pair of lone ships dueling on the seas, or is it a full fleet action?

If it’s a duel, you’re looking at, roughly, Three phases. Encounter, Open Combat and Boarding.

The Encounter phase can shift dramatically depending on circumstances, and what the commanders choose to do. The pirate’s goal is, probably, to close into range without coming under fire. They may use landmasses or other natural phenomena to mask their presence, or they may fly a false flag in order to trick the other ship into believing they’re friendly.

Open combat is going to depend heavily on the classes of the ships. This is something you’re going to familiarize yourself with when you’re writing about naval engagements. There’s a world of difference between a sloop, and a frigate. This can also result in design limitations. For example, some first rate ships could not fire on small ships at point blank range because their cannons were too far above the water line. The trade off was, they could deliver that firepower at superior ranges. Suddenly the reason a pirate might want to get in close, should become apparent.

In the simplest sense, the open combat phase only applies when dealing with armed opponents, and prioritizes firing arcs, and broadside fire. If you’re in line with your foe’s guns, you’re in for a bad time unless your hull can take the hit.

Given the pirate’s goal is to take the ship’s cargo, they’re not going to want to stay in open combat any longer than necessary. They’ll want to close to board. At this point, the pirates will move to engage the hostile ship’s crew. How they get over may vary. Also worth remembering that most sailors in the Golden Age did not know how to swim. It simply wasn’t a skill they learned. So, they’d be going directly from their ship to the enemy. In the case of larger capital ships, they may be doing via smaller launches, or they may be grappling onto the ship and pulling along side it and boarding directly.

Let’s talk about crew for a second. If you’re worried about being boarded, and you have the option, you’ll include a contingent of marines on your ship. In the naval sense, any infantry fighter attached to a ship’s crew is a marine. It doesn’t matter if they’re fighting to defend the ship, fighting to board an enemy vessel, or if they’re being sent from the ship, on a combat mission elsewhere. If they’re part of the crew, they’re a marine. (I don’t usually think of applying this term to pirates, because of how their crews were structured.)

Once you’re talking about pirates getting on deck, it’s going to be a messy close quarters melee.

If you’re talking about a larger fleet action, during the Golden Age of Piracy, the dominant combat doctrine was to line up Ship of the Line class vessels in two columns, and unload on each others broadsides. You wouldn’t usually see Ships of the Line operating independently, because they were too valuable. Though, pirates might deliberately try to subvert that doctrine, or are more likely to avoid these kinds of engagements to being with.

The introduction of powered drive and ironside frigates would completely alter large fleet engagements, and the kinds of ships that nations favored for fleet operations.

Obviously, if you’re deviating off the real world with fantasy elements, some of this stuff might change dramatically. A lot of this might translate to science fiction settings, with adjustments.

Also, worth remembering, piracy is still a thing. Granted, now it’s more about small motorboats and small arms boarding super-freighters with small arms and RPGs. There’s no real ship to ship combat, just straight to the boarding actions.

So, like I said, some more research is probably warranted. This is a fun topic, and there is a lot of literature on the Golden Age of Piracy. It’s an interesting time, with a lot of weird quirks you probably will benefit from investigating.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Raising a Militia

What do you think of the plot that goes the bad guys announce they’ll come back to fight soon but the majority of the good guys have no clue how to fight and it’s up to a couple of people to train everyone asap?

I’m not wild about villains who announce their presence, and then wander off and give people time to get ready. I’m fully aware there are legitimate, character, and story reasons a villain might do this, it’s just something I just have a hard time buying that structure. The reasoning being, if your villain announces their intentions, someone will try to stop them. So, either they should keep their mouth shut until their ready to act, or they should act to suppress any resistance before they can finally enact their grand plan.

Should this matter to you? Probably not. This is just my personal taste. There’s certainly room for Saturday Morning Cartoon villainy that requires someone to announce their intentions. There’s even real world examples of this. Monty Python taught us that, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.” However, as it turns out, that was a lie, the Spanish Inquisition would file notice a month in advance, to give the accused the opportunity to secure testimony and other exculpatory evidence, (or put their affairs in order.)

So, it’s fine, just not to my taste. That doesn’t reflect on you, and shouldn’t impact your decision to write it.

The good news is, if you have a few characters with similar training backgrounds and a willingness to work together, you have everything you need to set up a combat training class. What, exactly, this will look like depends on the technology involved, and the combat doctrine the characters are following. They’ll need improvised training weapons, and (somewhat obviously) live weapons. (From a logistical standpoint, if your characters are using firearms, they’ll need at least roughly one thousand rounds per weapon to train the recruits, and then equip them. This is a factor that a lot of people overlook when trying to equip untrained militias.)

For melee weapons, you can begin walking the recruits through basic techniques, then moving to group drills. For some techniques, you’ll need to pair trainees against one another. In these cases having assistants who’ve already undergone training can work wonders for making sure that everyone is doing what they’re supposed to. For melee combat, the purpose is to drill the movements until they become rote. This means if someone is training incorrectly, they’ll be committing those errors to muscle memory. Assistants can be invaluable for finding and assisting recruits before these mistakes become ingrained. At this stage, the use of training weapons is preferable.

If you’re dealing with ranged weapons, then you’re going to need to commit time to training them on those weapons, in order to be able to operate them under the stress of combat. To a certain degree, some of this is the same. You’re getting them to commit acts like aiming, firing, and reloading to muscle memory. That said, they also need to learn how to fire accurately.

Beyond basic combat training, you’ll need to instruct them in basic battlefield tactics. This includes things like how to move through an area safely without exposing themselves to enemy attack. This will look radically different depending on the technology in use.

Your militia will need a coherent chain of command. This is really important when things start going sideways. The priority will probably be a simple structure where the most experienced combatants are spread out and can direct the recruits.

Parallel to this, the experienced combatants need to identify useful skills in the local population. This includes things like medical training, hunters, engineers, and someone can manufacture weapons and armor. Skills that can be useful. If a specific role isn’t available, the next best thing may have to suffice. For example, if you don’t have access to a doctor or nurse, a veterinarian can do the job in an emergency.

Specialists are useful for a number of specific functions. Some are self-explanatory (you’ll need medics to help treat the wounded), you’ll need builders to help fortify their location (aided by whatever materials are nearby, which may also involve miners or lumberjacks), you’ll need hunters as skirmishers, for reconnaissance, and possibly as trappers. Just because the villain said they’d come back doesn’t mean you should hold them to their word, stay vigilant and prepare. A smith can be useful for aiding in the fortifications, or assisting in arming the militia.

While having a well trained force is important for winning a battle, taking control of the battlefield, restricting how, and where, your opponent can attack, and using every resource at your disposal to undermine them is vital to victory. How your characters do that will depend on their ability to tilt the odds in their favor.

Your villain said he’d come back. That doesn’t mean your characters should just sit around waiting for the inevitable. They have time to prepare, dig in, and make sure that by the time the villain arrives he never had a chance.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Bailing OUt

I’m not really sure if this is your specialty or not, but I was wondering about the plausibility of jumping from a moving train (think an older steam engine, not the almost too fast modern Asian trains). I think if it’s rounding a bend, it’ll have to slow down and make the jump easier, no?

There’s a number of factors here, but this should be survivable under, at least some, circumstances. Some of this stuff also applies for bailing out of a modern car, or any other vehicle really.

From what I know, the maximum survivable speed you can bail out at is around 25-35mph. More than that, and you’re going to be suffering some pretty serious injuries on impact, even if you do this perfectly, simply because of the relative speeds. 35mph is also the lower end of the cruising speed of a 19th century steam locomotive. So, these do barely intersect.

Leaping from a vehicle safely depends on a couple additional factors. A soft landing point is ideal, and really anything that can blunt the initial impact is important. (Padded clothing is a huge boon here.) Leaping away from the vehicle so that you’re not clipped (or crushed) is vital. Keeping your limbs close to your body, so that you don’t break them on impact is also important. This means resisting the instinct to use your arms to break your fall. Obviously if the vehicle is above 30mph, trying to find a way to slow it is also on the list.

Depending on the train and tracks, sharper bends will force a train to slow down, so, that part does work in your favor. Note that phrase: “Depending on the train and tracks.” It’s entirely possible to have a bend in the rails designed to be taken at cruising speed. The relevant factor is how much the train has to turn. The maximum speed for a given bend is dependent on a lot of factors including: The weight and length of the cars, and the train as a whole, the coupling used, the width of the track, the track’s grade, and adverse weather conditions. For example, heavy cargo cars cannot take bends as easily as lighter passenger cars. Even then, on a sharp curve, the train will have to slow down. Depending on the rails and the cars, it’s possible it could slow down to as low as 5 to 10mph. Jumping off at those speeds would be completely survivable, assuming nothing horrific happened.

You’re also correct, you can’t jump from a bullet train and live. These are, specifically, designed to keep their speed up, even while turning. Technically, they will bleed speed to turn, but it’s still several times above survivable thresholds.

In the US and Candada, diesel passenger trains run around 80-90mph outside of urban areas. (Amusingly, the Canadian train system never converted to metric, so miles is correct.) I know there’s reduced speed limits in urban areas, but don’t know what that is exactly. Additionally, different tracks may have their own posted speed limits, and those limits can be affected by severe weather, or other temporary factors. This puts the train’s velocity well above survivable bail out speeds, even on most curves.

One problem that does come to mind is the idea of bailing from a runaway train. That’s not going to be survivable in most circumstances. A character who’s being held captive on a train with an engineer who’s being mostly responsible has options, however a train careening out control will, almost certainly, be going too fast to safely bail out of.

Incidentally, trains in the New York City subway system move at an average of around 17mph. While jumping out of one is still an incredibly bad idea, because of all the risks associated with being around a moving train, that is a survivable speed. NYC’s transit system is infamous for how slow it is, however. Some other metros will be slow enough to allow someone to bail, but you’d need to look up the city in question if you’re wanting a specific answer.

So, yes, you can jump from a moving train and live, if you know what you’re doing, and it’s not going too fast.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.