All posts by Michael Schwarz

Q&A: Conscription

How would military conscription work? Specifically wondering how the military would prevent/handle evasion of service, and the mental effects of getting signed on for a war you don’t want to fight.

How would it work, or how does it work?

Historically there have been many different forms of military conscription, ranging from press gangs, drafts and compulsory service.

Impressment was the practice of forcibly “recruiting” people into the military, usually via the use of a press gang. In most situations, they would simply go out, grab some civilians and drag them back. This was at it’s height in the 18th century, and is basically unheard of today in developed nations. In most cases, impressment was naval, so press gangs were looking for sailors.

Worth noting, impressment didn’t, necessarily, restrict itself to members of one’s own nation. For somewhat obvious reasons you wouldn’t want to forcibly conscript civilians from a hostile power, and then place them on your warship, but at the same time, there were a number of incidents where British press gangs picked up American sailors in British ports in the late 19th century, and even an incident where a British sailor was pressed into service on the U.S.S. Constitution.

Drafts are a form of conscription where military recruits are drawn from the general population. The exact method of selection varies, but again, if selected, off you go.

Mandatory service still exists and several countries including Switzerland and Israel require that every citizen serves at some point. Though, there are additional nuances to this. Such as, any civil service being eligible, or potential exemptions, such as medical conditions. (These also tend to exist with drafts.)

How does the military handle evasion of service? Well, they can lock you up, or kill you. That’s not an idle possibility. Under British rule the penalty for resisting impressment was execution by hanging. In the case of drafts and mandatory service, criminal penalties, either by the civilian courts, or military ones, exist. Attempting to avoid a draft could result in a warrant, arrest by police, and imprisonment.

Once you’re in the military’s hands, they have all sorts of creative forms of punishment available to them, not including actual Courts Martial for serious crimes such as desertion, or dereliction of duty. Also, remember, that desertion in wartime is frequently a capital offense. So, what can they do to make you comply? Well, they can lock you up, and or kill you.

As for the mental effects, historically it’s a grim picture. Until the last thirty to forty years, combat induced PTSD was viewed as cowardice. Not a psychological condition. Not something that needed to be addressed. Just cowardice. Called things like, “combat fatigue,” or “shell shock,” these weren’t regarded as psychological conditions that needed treatment. It was, simply, viewed as a soldier trying to shirk their duties, and would result in punishment.

But, I mean, we’re talking about a military that has no qualms about dragging someone off to die alone, on foreign soil, thousands of miles from anyone they ever knew or loved. Why do you think they’d give a moment’s consideration to anyone’s feelings?

Concern for a soldier’s psychological well being (regardless if they’re conscripts or volunteers), is shockingly recent, and there’s still a long way to go on that front. Some are doing better than others, but still.

-Starke

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Q&A: Large Swordbreakers

Would a swordbreaker that is scaled up to the size of a one or two handed sword be useful, or too situational?

I’m unsure if it would even be possible, or at the very least, useful.

The entire idea behind a swordbreaker is to have a parrying tool you can use to catch and lock up your opponent’s blade. So, you’d carry a sidearm in your main hand, this could be a sword, an axe, whatever, and you’d use the swordbreaker in your off hand, to parry with. These wouldn’t necessarily break the blade, but they would allow the user to torque it and keep hold of the blade, while retaliating with their own primary weapon.

A longer, sword sized, swordbreaker would much harder to produce, and much more fragile, which starts to undermine its intended use. The two designs that come to mind off hand were comb style blades, which could hook and catch a blade between the teeth, and two pronged, “forks.” (I’m including trident daggers under this, if anyone is wondering.) I suspect making a sword length comb would result in an unreasonably fragile item. Too fragile for use as a swordbreaker.

Extending a fork to sword lengths would be similarly pointless, because you’d still only be using the six inches near the grip, and the extended tines would just get in the way and slow you down. Someone could make one, but I doubt it could be used, at least not as a swordbreaker. I’m also not even considering the structural stability on a long fork, because, really, it wouldn’t be able to work as a swordbreaker.

There are examples of existing swords that include sword breaker features, such as tines designed to trap the opponent’s blade near the guard, though these features are more common on parrying daggers. You will also, sometimes, see heavier piercing blades, like the estoc described as swordbreakers. This is technically incorrect, as those weapons were designed to deal with armor, but the term is used that way sometimes.

So, no. It’s not even a situational consideration, just a practical use problem.

-Starke

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Q&A: Eagle Project

Hello I am a life scout in America and I was wondering what was your eagle project and the reason I am asking is because I am looking for things to do, and have a good idea of what I can do. Thank you

The actual answer might not be useful to you; I moved a library. More specifically, I recruited, and organized volunteers to move the stacks from the old library building, which had been in continual use for nearly a century and was in dire need of full renovations, into a new facility half a block away.

This may sound slightly strange, but good Eagle Projects are “opportunistic.” They depend on knowing what’s going on around you, in your community, and finding someplace where you can step in and facilitate something that needs to be done.

Repair or restoration of a city park is one common goal. More than one Scout camp is maintained by the joint efforts of Eagle Projects and OA events.

This may be as simple as repainting camp structures (though, depending on how much effort is involved, your board may want something a bit more ambitious), or it may be more extensive, like tearing up and renovating a trail. (I have participated in the latter.)

There’s a weird possibility that organizing a recruitment drive of new scouts might be something your Review Board would be willing to sign off on. Provided you can convincingly argue that it is to the benefit of your community.

Ultimately, all of this rests with your Eagle Board. Your project is a demonstration that you’re learning how to function as a leader. Sometimes that means asking for advice and help. Being a leader doesn’t mean having all the answers; it often requires knowing when you need to ask others for their input, and understanding where to fill in the blanks when those answers are incomplete.

Once you have a plan in mind, then you can go through the additional necessary steps.

One major change, from when I did my project, was the amount of required planning before the Board would sign off. I had to have an entire project detailed out, only to then find out if it was suitable, needed minor reworks, or was outright rejected.  That’s not longer true. You can present an overall plan of what you want to do, and get direct feedback, before you invest a lot of time into the project.

Ultimately, your Eagle Project is going to be a reflection of your community, and what you can do to contribute to it. That is part of what the project is testing.

-Starke

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Q&A: Diamond Swords

Hello! I was wondering if a sword with a diamond blade be of any use. I know that diamonds are often used for cutting things and are (to my knowledge) one of the hardest materials on Earth. Note: This is a fantasy story and a few people have the ability to manipulate diamonds like other metals so getting it the shape wouldn’t be a problem and there aren’t enough people with this ability to make it a weakness on the battlefield. Thank you!

I honestly thought I answered this ages ago, but apparently I never wrote the post.

Diamonds are usually presented as the hardest substance, but this is a little misleading.  In mineralogy, “hardness,” is not the same thing as “toughness.” Hardness is used to evaluate how well a substance resists scratching. In this regard, Diamonds are amazingly hard, and it’s almost impossible to scratch the surface. This also makes it difficult to selectively cut a diamond. They are not particularly tough, however. Toughness is the evaluation of how resistant a material is to fracturing.

So, your diamond sword will never be scratched; that’s kinda cool. However, your diamond sword will crack and shatter if you parry an incoming strike with a steel blade. Now, those shards won’t pick up a scratch but you’d be hard pressed to use the remains as a sword.

To be fair, I’m not certain if this will happen on the first blow, or if it’ll take a few hits before it breaks. I’m also fairly certain it could break after stabbing someone if the blade was torqued incorrectly on the way in or out. Dropping your diamond sword is also a bad idea, for the same reasons.

There’s probably some larger metaphor here for the entire idea of creating invincible forces, but not being able to shore up the actual system that supports them, or just the idea of having one unassailable defense, but nothing shoring it up, allowing your enemy to simply skirt around.

Okay, that’s the part where this doesn’t work. So, what does?

You could, potentially, use some kind of synthetic diamond coating over a blade. I may have a synthetic diamond knife sharpener around here somewhere, come to think of it.

You could have a blade where the primary core is steel (or some other material), but the blade itself is a thin diamond inset. For what it’s worth, there is some merit to this design, as the concept is somewhat similar to the real macuahuitl, from Mesoamerican civilizations. At that point it might not even matter if individual stones shatter in combat as they might be replaceable. It might also be possible to “coat” a steel core in diamond and use that. It would still crack, and eventually shatter, but it would probably see some use before that happened.

Steel weapons with carbon nanotube structures do exhibit extraordinary durability. Though those aren’t how we usually think about diamonds. This probably includes Damascus steel, and does include some other superalloys.

If your setting had the capacity to make diamond weapons, then you could reasonably see those as ceremonial pieces, or given as gifts. You might be able to come up with some other uses, such as medical tools. But, ultimately, the applications are severely limited.

However, if there’s magic in your fantasy setting with the ability to overcome the detriments of brought on by real diamonds then feel free to go hog wild.

-Starke

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Followup: Mafia and Children: The Camorra

lirenel

Interesting, since I was just reading an article in the Economist about Naples’ mafia, the Camorra, using kids as hitmen: https://www.economist.com/news/europe/21723865-camorra-turns-teenagers-enforce-its-rule-organised-crime-naples-hit-men-are

Okay, this is worth quickly talking about, and yes it is interesting. The very short version is that, the Neapolitan Mafia (called the Camorra) has been pushed to the edge of extinction in recent years by police.

The senior leadership of the Camorra are in prison, and command has passed to their children, literally. This means that at present, segments of the Camorra are being run by teenagers. In turn, they employ other teens, and we get the headline up there.

There’s another wrinkle in that, In Italy, children under 14 cannot be held criminally liable for their actions. At the extreme end, that (apparently) means they cannot be charged with murder if they kill someone.

So, what we have is equal parts desperation by the Camorra, an unintended consequence of successful policing, and a lack of adult supervision (in the organization itself.)

Now, one thing that is happening here is a kind of Lost Boys effect, where you have kids leading younger kids. This has never been a factor in the American mafia, but it does appear with street gangs. I think Michi wanted to do a full post on that, so I’ll let this sit there. This is a good find, though, lirenel.

-Starke

Q&A: The Mafia and Children

On the topic of child killers, would a child who was raised by people in the Italian Mafia (and joined at 16) be more like a Child Soldier or a Gladiator as you described in your last post? This person is young but would be expected to kill. He wants to be in the Mafia. He isn’t forced. I’m having trouble because some of your post say children/teens will immediately be negatively affected later in life but what if the MC didn’t see it as wrong? What would be realistic here?

At the same time, witnessing violence IS traumatic and anyone involved might have psychological problems or know someone who does, especially if they aren’t shown how to take care of themselves. Believing what you do is right and having other criminals to look up to wouldn’t completely erase psychological trauma for everyone. So I’m not sure how much trauma (or what kind of attitude toward violence) would be realistic.

Most criminal organizations aren’t going to use kids for killing people. They’re too useful in other roles. (The exception here are street gangs, which use violence or killing as a right of initiation. There’s more here, but it’s mostly unrelated to the question at hand.)

From what I understand, historically the Mafia, at least in the US, used kids as couriers, lookouts, and in other support positions where a child would draw less attention than an adult rather than directly exposing them to the violence early on.

In particular, they’d pull kids in by offering the kid respect and a place in the family. To be fair, I’m calling them children, but realistically we’re talking about teenagers.

As they got older, they’d gradually transition into more important responsibility in their crew.

Now, I’m not clear on exactly how much of this was pragmatic (such as keeping them away from information that could truly damage family operations), or how much was a result of cultural norms that the Mafia was paying lip service to. I’m also pretty sure the line between lookout, and helping shake down a business was fairly slim at times.

Generally speaking, kids that get into organized crime (including gangs), aren’t really forced into the life. They often come from broken or otherwise dysfunctional families, where the organization takes the place of their parents and normal support structures. This results in members that are exceedingly loyal to their organization, because The Family is their family.

The mistake you seem to be making is thinking that a teenager would be tasked out as a hitman. To the best of my knowledge, that didn’t really happen. If you’re running a massive criminal enterprise, you don’t want to trust a high school dropout with something as potentially explosive as a contract killing. Most Mafia hitmen I’m aware of started working as killers in their late 20s at the earliest. A few did start out running errands for the mob as teenagers, and gradually moved up the ranks, but giving a contract to a teen is a huge liability that no credible Family would want.

The only thing a teenager in the mob would be expected to do is keep their mouth shut. Now, a teenager who spent a few years in prison because they took the fall for a member of the family would probably be well regarded once they got out, and might even be on the path to becoming a hitman later in life, but it wouldn’t be where their career started.

The irony is, that someone who joined the Mafia as a teen probably wouldn’t view violence as wrong. In theory the Mafia maintained a code of honor, though in practice the actual members were extremely violent individuals, and any sense of honor was, at best, a pretext they followed, lest they end up on the wrong side of it. Meaning you’re very likely looking at someone with an extremely cavalier attitude about violence and death, with little to no empathy for anyone outside The Family.

Any trauma would probably derive from violence directed at their friends or (biological) family. Watching their buddy being killed by another outfit would leave a mark. Violence against random civilians, not so much.

However, there was an entirely different “career path” for kids in the mob, or, more accurately, outside of the mob. Some mob bosses, would perform “outreach,” exercises to troubled youths. (The most famous case I’m aware of is “Whitey” Bulger, though his example doesn’t exactly fit the behavior I’m describing.) The boss would continue to provide support and cultivate a patron/client relationship with some of the children as they aged. The entire idea was to create family members with no criminal background, allowing them to infiltrate organizations that would normally be impervious to the Mafia. Particularly law enforcement and Family lawyers were particularly desirable, though political office was another potential goal. It’s also not entirely clear how well these efforts actually worked out. (In the case of Bulger, it started a friendship with John Connolly, who would eventually become a member of the FBI, and provided protection for Bulger from the Boston PD, and federal scrutiny.)

So, no, your Mafia hitman probably didn’t start pulling the trigger until they were in their late 20s at the earliest. Using kids as soldiers and assassins is for street gangs and despotic warlords, not for criminal enterprise.

-Starke

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Q&A: Psychology and Exposition

So. I don’t know if you can help me, but I feel like a lot of the general public’s ideas about psychology are wrong. Should I spend time trying to explain in the book or just portray something more realistic knowing I’ll probably have someone saying it was wrong in a review? I have a psych degree and am working on a master’s.

The simple truth about criticism is, it’s only useful when it’s giving you information that can help you improve your work.

Someone saying, “you suck,” is not useful criticism. It’s something you can ignore. Someone saying, “you’re wrong,” is not useful, especially when you’re working in your chosen field. You have a BS in psychology, and managed to get into grad school. That is your field; you cannot expect to win an applause from someone on the toad licking end of a Dunning-Kruger continuum.

You know what you’re talking about; they don’t. At that point, their criticism will offer extremely limited value. It can tell you, that you may not have clarified enough, but ultimately, when someone goes off about how it doesn’t match what they learned from their favorite TV show, you can stop there. You don’t need to account for them, and you shouldn’t engage in self-censorship to appease idiots.

There’s a disturbing tendency to fetishize a wide range psychological conditions. It’s not okay. It’s extremely unhealthy to the people who deal with these on a regular basis. People consume that media and then expect reality to conform.

In the current climate, I’d actually say, “going with the flow,” is incompatible with your education, or at least the ethical responsibilities of someone who chooses to become a practicing psychologist. You can make the world a better place by taking your education and digging into the details. It won’t change overnight, but there is a real benefit to saying, “no, this is how this stuff actually works.” Especially when you’re talking about the human brain, and how people behave. Something that all of us have to deal with on a daily basis.

There is also real harm in simply accepting the image of a disorder as a fetishistic auteur, who’s “genius” is unimpeachable, and therefore all behavior is acceptable.

The other part of your question, is about exposition balance. You know you have enough exposition when your readers can follow the story, and the background information. You have too much if the story starts to drag. You don’t have enough if your readers are getting confused by what you’re doing. I’ve never discovered a shortcut to finding this balance; it simply takes practice.

There’s no universal truth to how much exposition you can use. Some writers handle it better than others, and can get away with chunky exposition dumps that would choke most.

The old writing advice, “be efficient with your language,” is in full effect. If you don’t need an explanation to keep your readers up to speed, don’t include it. If your audience reports confusion, then you may want to expand some explanations.

However, if your goal is to educate, then you’re also going to want to work as much information into your story as you can. You may want to consider burying exposition into events taking place, the insights of other characters, or even the environment  (when appropriate.)

To be fair, you should be doing most of those things anyway. You don’t need a character to tell you something if you can simply show it. You may need a throwaway line saying, “this is why,” but you can farm a lot of exposition onto the world, and move it out of dialog. This doesn’t specifically help you, but it’s good advice for dealing with exposition in general.

No, don’t worry about writing something that conflicts with, “common knowledge,” when it’s really just a harmful stereotype, or even a flat out myth. Having your preconceptions echoed back to you may be momentarily gratifying, but it’s intellectual junk food. This is your field, show people what you know.

-Starke

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Q&A: Cuirasses

So my characters wear armor like gladiators and Amazon warriors and I have no idea how to describe the things that they wear. All I can think of is “Chest plate” Please help me.

I think we’ve talked about Roman gladiators before. The short version is that most gladiators didn’t actually wear chest armor.

There was one exception, the Provocator wore a cardiophylax. The cardiophylax is a simple metal plate held in place with leather straps, and worn over the heart. Often they’re paired with a second plate that is worn over the back. This was the case with the Provocator, but it wasn’t universal for this style of armor.

The Provocator gladiator was specifically modeled on late republic military units. They would only be matched against each other. (There was an overt theme in the Roman arena where gladiators were designed to represent various defeated enemies of the state. Apparently, pairing someone designed to be a character of the standing Roman military against a defeated foe and losing would have been “off-message.”) Over time the designs apparently changed to reflect arena spectacle more than their original militaristic theme.

The formal name (or at least one of the formal names) for a full breastplate is the cuirass, (from the Latin: coriaceus). though there are other names. A cuirass is two seperate metal plates (usually Iron or Steel), designed to protect the torso, fastened to one another.

Worth noting that depending on the era, Roman Legionaries wore cardiophylaxes or coriaceus.

Moving over to the Amazons, we’re probably, effectively talking about Hellenistic civilization, here.

The Hellenic Greeks often used a bronze breastplate called a linothorax. Because they lacked standing professional militaries (with a notable exception in Sparta), instead favoring a volunteer system. Individuals were responsible for purchasing and maintaining their arms and armor. As a result, there was no uniform equipment for Greek soldiers, though the linothorax was apparently widely used, to the point that it’s discussed in passing by several writers without going into much detail.

You’ll sometimes see these presented as a metal breastplate with contoured abs molded in. This probably didn’t exist, or at least didn’t see battlefield use if it did. Primarily because you never want armor with a molded intent in the surface. That will lead strikes into the body, rather than deflecting them away. This is the primary problem with boob plate, incidentally. Actual Linothoraxes were bulky, with layers of cloth, leather, and other materials built up over the bronze.

That should be enough to get you started, also there’s a lot more information on Hellenistic era armor, and of course gladiators, if you want to do some digging online.

-Starke

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Q&A: Side Shooting

Is there actually any merit to pointing a gun sideways to shoot, or is that just more nonsense put in the “hood” movies just to look cool?

The short version would be to say, “mostly,” and leave it at that, though there’s a lot more information here that can be addressed if you want to dig in. There are a few rare circumstances where it is a valid grip for use in combat.

This is basically trivia, but the grip has been documented in fiction going back over a century, so it’s certainly not just a product of 90s films. That said, the modern use, and it’s place in modern American gang iconography can be traced back to films like Menace II Society.

Due to it’s use in films, and associated with American gang culture, it’s sometimes called, “gangsta style.” At this point the grip is almost exclusively associated with criminal elements, and is a pretty easy way to identify a shooter who doesn’t know what they’re doing.

There’s one big problem, and one myth, associated with it, so let’s take those in reverse order.

The myth is that firing sideways increases the chance of a jam. This doesn’t really make a lot of sense if you know anything about how firearms function. The theory is, that by holding the firearm horizontally, the shell will fail to eject properly, obstructing the ejection port, and causing a failure to feed. The idea behind this is that, somehow, gravity works differently if the gun is held at a 90 degree angle, instead of vertically. The problem with this is, shell casings go pretty much wherever they want. I’ve had off-brand M9 pattern pistols throw shell casings into my face. (I also, hate M9s as a result.) Because of how the case ejection system works in most handguns, you can fire them from pretty much any position without issues.

The problem is, most people side shooting will sight across the side of the slide. This, doesn’t work. Unless you’re standing next to the target, you need to use the sights to put a round where you want it.

There’s another accuracy factor, most competent shooters will brace their handgun with both hands. This stabilizes the pistol, and allows for far more accurate shooting. Side shooting will almost always result in the weapon, unsupported, at arm’s length. This results in greater barrel shake, and less recoil control. Even if you’re using the sights, it will be less accurate on the first shot, and recoil will be more severe.

So, I said there were some uses for this shooting position. I have a few specific examples, though there may be others.

Center Axis Relock is a modern Close Quarters Combat shooting stance popularized in films like John Wick, and video games like the Splinter Cell series.

CAR pulls the firearm closer to the body in comparison to a normal Weaver stance. This causes the user to raise their shooting arm’s elbow to partially protect their face, and rotates the firearm to a 45 degree angle. In some circumstances the user may raise their arm further, fully shielding their face on that side and rotating the firearm horizontal. Throughout all of this they will still be sighting using the handgun’s iron sights, additionally, they will keep their off hand on the firearm stabilizing it.

Worth noting, from a 45 degree angle, your shooting arm will not obstruct your vision on that side, raising it to horizontal will, making this less appealing unless necessary. For example: if there is a bright light shining in the user’s eyes from that direction, raising the arm will allow them to block that distraction.

The major advantage of CAR is that it’s incredibly difficult to safely disarm the user.

One of the few situations where someone will adopt a side shooting stance, basically without modification, is if they’re firing from behind a riot shield. These fully occupy one of the shooter’s hands, and partially obstruct their other hand. In most cases, the shield will include a transparent section to allow the user to see what’s on the other side without exposing themselves to incoming fire. In situations like this it is possible the operator will simply reach around the shield, line their sidearm up with the window, and fire. To be fair, a competent shooter in this situation will still attempt to use the firearm’s iron sights, however, because of the shield, and having to reach around it, the gun will be at a horizontal, or nearly horizontal, angle.

The third situation is far more contextual. In an emergency, a trained operator may aim and fire without adjusting their stance. Because of how your arm is put together, quickly firing to the left or right (depending on your firing arm) without adjusting your chest’s position, will result in the gun being at near horizontal. Also worth noting in situations like this, firing behind you will often result in the handgun being held upside down. This is less, precision shooting, and more, desperate reflexes, though. SWAT and similar groups will practice firing from these positions, however.

Note: You can correct the angle of your arm to keep the pistol vertical while adjusting, it is simply faster to pivot the entire arm, rotating the pistol.

There is a fourth situation which is particular to rifles. While firing from a prone position with a protruding box magazine (so, most assault rifles), some shooters will opt to rotate the firearm, rather than lift themselves up, exposing themselves to enemy fire. Depending on range there are a lot of factors to consider here, but in some situations, this is the best option available.

Another possible variant is operating a firearm in very tight spaces, such as cramped service passages, or those mythical air ducts that are large enough to allow a grown human to crawl around.

Usually, it’s either to look cool, and anyone who habitually draws their handgun in a side shooting stance is a pretty good indicator that they don’t know what they’re doing. For some writers, this stance is synonymous with criminals. An undercover cop may use a stance like this while protecting their cover, even though it runs contrary to their training.

Also, worth noting that it’s entirely possible to meet gang members who’ve had military firearms training, and as a result know exactly how to handle their firearms. At which point you wouldn’t see something like this.

Some writers may not realize that this stance doesn’t work, or is sub-optimal, and may imbue it with special characteristics. That’s, simply, not the case. There are good reasons that almost no one who knows what they’re doing would ever use this stance.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Assassin’s Journal

The chapters of my story are prefaced by short excerpts from the journal of the future assassin of the benevolent king my main character was welcomed into the court of. Since they are not dated, would it be confusing to readers if they were placed in reverse chronological order?

I realize this may sound like a non-answer, but, it depends.

Let’s break into two separate pieces. The use of journal and other epistolary elements, and non-linear storytelling.

Epistolary novels are constructed out of in-universe documents. Most often you’re reading correspondence between characters, their journal entries, and other various relevant documents. To a certain extent the genre assumes that the entire work will be constructed from documents. Though, nothing stops you from borrowing the format when it’s useful to you.

One of the major strengths of epistolary elements is that you can introduce information that would otherwise be unavailable to the reader without resorting to an omniscient narrator. If you’re working in first or third person limited, these can be very useful for breaking that format’s limitations without actually breaking the format.

If the journal is providing the reader with vital information, then that makes it useful. If it’s being used to tease them, I’d probably recommend restraint. That said, a lot of deciding whether or not to use epistolary elements comes down to execution and exactly what you have in mind.

For example: If the journal is a confession of sorts, or an attempt at justification, which runs parallel to the main narrative, with the assassin working through his reasoning, and reflecting on his actions, there’s certainly potential.

The journal could also be used to create a sense of unease and dread, as it gradually transitions from something innocuous into a more menacing document, as your assassin collects information for their plan.

Epistolary documents can also allow you to including background exposition that simply wouldn’t fit in the main narrative, particularly if it’s something your characters wouldn’t think about or aren’t aware of.

Your assassin may spend time writing about the politics, or economic situation that drove them to act, while the main characters remain completely oblivious to the events taking place outside of court.

If you have a use for the entries, they have a place in your writing. If you don’t, you may want to reconsider using them.

Non-linear storytelling can work, but it’s much harder. Even with date stamps, it’s entirely possible your readers would miss that the journal entries were out of order. This doesn’t mean you can’t do it, just that it is much more difficult to juggle these, and it will probably lead to some confusion among readers. Notice all the conditionals there. I am not saying you cannot do it; just that this is more difficult.

Also, a warning: when telling stories out of chronological order, you run a real risk of not having an interesting story when the audience finally parses out the chronology.

Some time-shifting is, almost, inevitable. If you have multiple characters, in different places, at the same time, and you intend to follow both, then you can put them in whichever order, and see the results play out. That’s fine, and most of the time the audience can be cued in to what you’re doing fairly elegantly.

When you’re writing a story in reverse, things get much trickier. (To be clear, if you’re telling the story of the assassin in his journals, parallel to the main novel, you are telling a story in reverse.) So, for the moment, let’s ignore that these are part of a conjoined book, and just focus on that story.

If you are getting something valuable from disrupting the chronology, then it becomes a question of execution.

Breaking the chronology means you need to reevaluate pacing, and how information is distributed. You’re constantly in a position where your characters are responding to prior events that the audience isn’t aware of yet. Then they make their discoveries, events happen, and that information drops from the story, leaving them with mysteries that the audience already knows the answer to.

Now, having said that, this is something the epistolary format lets you cheat your way around. You can have a conventional, linear, structure, where your character is recounting events, out of order as they pertain to their current topic. They may start by explaining their reasons for acting, then discuss how they actually carried out the act, before moving on to the way they gained access, or the actual motivation behind their actions later. If the purpose is to hold back a revelation for why your assassin chose to act, that can be shifted to later in their journal. They know why, they just haven’t bothered to record the event.

Also, worth remembering, you’re not going to start your journal saying, “so I’m here to kill the king.” That makes it a very dangerous document for the (in setting) author. They may even hold off on mentioning their motive for acting until it’s almost too late. This could be foreshadowed. For example: If their loved one was killed because they were part of a cult, or a traitor, they may mention the loved one, even that they’re dead, but not why they were killed, until much later.

They may make mundane notes that appear to be benign, but actually serve an operational purpose. For example, talking about meeting a member of the palace guard could appear innocuous, but that could also function as reconnaissance data for where the guards are deployed, and potentially even weaknesses which would allow your assassin to neutralize them effectively, without immediately tipping their hand to what they’re doing.

In particular, the journal could be useful to demonstrate the character’s social engineering skills, without ever needing to step back and say, “but, they’re very good at manipulating people to get information.”

If you think the journal will be useful, then you should include it. You don’t need to include the entries out of order if you don’t want to. You can probably shuffle the chronology far more elegantly by allowing the assassin to record their thoughts somewhat out of order, and handle the transitions there, rather than actually breaking sequence. Just, remember, your assassin is a unique point of view character, like your protagonist, so ration their information accordingly.

-Starke

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