Category Archives: Q&A

Q&A: Plastic Gun Myths

Apparently there seems to be a wild consensus about guns that don’t have enough metal in them and sneak past metal detectors. Yes, no, in between. It seems all the fictional stories I’ve seen with such guns seem to be stretching plausibility or have enough sci fi or magic in it to make someone gloss over accuracy for cool mechanic. But what is it really?

It’s a myth. Or at least, it used to be, and now that it’s less of one, it may not matter anymore.

The major origin for this seems to have been the early Glocks. The Glock was not the first handgun on the market with a polymer frame, but it was the first to try to make that a serious selling point.

This lead to panicked speculation that the Glock could be taken through metal detectors. You can even see the extreme version of this in Die Hard 2 (1990), where the scriptwriters had it in their head that the Glock was manufactured from “porcelain,” and was invisible to metal detectors. The entire, “Glock 7” dialog is downright painful for anyone with passing familiarity with firearms.

It’s worth noting that the polymer frame does make the Glock considerably lighter than a steel framed pistol of that size. The other major solution that was being used were aluminum frame pistols, (like the SIG P226.) We’ve said it before, but weight is an important consideration for any weapon, and use of lighter materials like aluminum and polymers can be beneficial.

Also, while I’m not an expert on polymers, it’s worth noting that the Glock, technically, isn’t plastic. It’s a high-impact polymer that’s more closely related to nylon. Now, plenty of people (myself included) do sometimes use polymer and plastic interchangeably, but that’s not accurate. All plastics are polymers, but there are many polymers (both naturally occurring and synthetic) which are not plastics.

By weight, the Glock is over 80% steel. That’s a little misleading, because the polymer components are quite light, and the steel isn’t, but when you remember that the foil in a pack of cigarettes, or even your belt buckle can set off a metal detector, it illustrates how misunderstood the early polymer frame pistols really were.

For the time, the steel components in a Glock were necessary. You couldn’t replace them with polymer components and get a firearm that performed to the desired specifications. In particular, trying to use a polymer barrel would have resulted in a gun that would explode when fired. Even today, creating a polymer barrel is an engineering challenge. Creating one that will survive regular use is (probably) not possible with current technology.

Now, what really does exist are polymer combat knives. These will hold an edge, can go through a metal detector, and you can buy them for less than 20USD. (Less than half of that if you shop around.) Which part of why you probably haven’t been through a metal detector in the last decade.

As a technology, metal detectors are on the way out. Like many pieces of security technology, the metal detector came with a shelf life. They were designed to prevent people bringing contemporary weapons into secured areas, which lead to people developing weapons that could circumvent them.

In the last 20 years, there’s been a steady shift towards full body scanner technology. The big two are X-Ray scanners (both backscatter and direct transmission), and Millimeter Wave Scanners. These will detect polymer weapons.

Supplementing them is the old standard of a pat down search. It doesn’t matter if you have a space age gun that can go through a metal detector when someone can find it with the back of their hand while checking you for weapons.

Similarly, even if you did have a space age plastic gun, bullets and shell casings are still metal. They’ll still set off a metal detector, and they’d still show up under backscatter.

This also leads to the Defense Distributed Liberator. The Liberator is a 3d printed, single shot, firearm, which takes it’s name from FP-45 Liberator.

So, some quick history: The FP-45 Liberator was a single shot firearm designed by the US Military in World War II. These were crudely stamped steel pistols. They were intended to be air dropped into occupied France, where members of the French Resistance could capture them. The entire goal was to provide Resistance members with a weapon that could be used to kill an enemy and take theirs. To best of my knowledge, actual deployment of the FP-45 was extremely limited, and the only confirmed use of one was to assassinate a German police officer.

The Defense Distributed Liberator was designed around the idea that if you had access to a 3D printer, you could make a gun. The gun’s existence was more of a political statement than an actual tool for rebellion or defense. The end result is a firearm that could, theoretically, get through a metal detector (though the ammunition can’t), but it is also only as reliable as the material you print it out of.

When the AFT was testing the Defense Distributed Liberator, they used a variety of materials. Their tests with ABS-M30. resulted in a gun that was successfully test fired eight times. At which point, they declared the Liberator a lethal weapon. Some of their other tests resulted in catastrophic failures on the first shot.

While considering the Liberator a lethal weapon entirely valid, firearms usually measure their lifespan in tens of thousands of rounds fired. Breaking in a gun frequently involves putting a thousand rounds down range. Right now, it’s not possible to make a polymer barrel that will stand up to that level of stress while also delivering an acceptable lifespan. A gun is not useful if it explodes in your hand before you can empty a magazine, and that’s the problem with polymer internals.

So, the short answer is, even though there are examples, the plastic gun is mostly a myth. Even if you have a plastic gun, the ammunition would still set off the metal detector. Even if you could get around that, the gun would still be found with a simple pat down, and would show up in Millimeter Wave or Backscatter scanner.

The myth is real only in the sense that people believed it. It started with a misunderstanding about the Glock’s engineering by people who didn’t understand guns (and weren’t willing to listen to those who did understand the engineering), and it all went downhill from there.

-Starke

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Q&A: Recap

This is going to be a little different. We’ve got three questions that are all asking for things we’ve already written, so, I’m going to compile some links.

Do you have any resources(websites, posts, blogs, etc.) for newer action writers? I’ve been a fantasy/romance/lgbtqa+ writer for some time now and just got into the genre, and I was hoping to get better at writing fight scenes since I, to be frank about it, am rubbish at it.

This might seem a bit glib or egocentric (especially if you’re viewing this on the website, instead of though Tumblr), but HowToFightWrite.com already has that. I realize that it can be a pain to search old posts on Tumblr. I’ve been digging through our archives as part of project recently and been living with the limitations of the system, so you have my sympathies. Tumblr was not designed around the idea that blogs would still be running seven years later, and it shows.

The first post Michi ever published here might be a good place to start. (And, yes, that’s the Tumblr link. The website link is here, if you prefer.)

There’s a lot of basic primers we covered in the early days, that we’ve never, really, revisited.

It’s also important to remember that the only way you’ll get better at writing is through practice. Try it. Experiment. See what works for you.

As always, one of my highest recommendations for violence in prose is the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard. Howard was an exceptional writer, though he doesn’t get a lot of recognition today. It’s easy to look at the version of Conan that exists in the Pop Culture gestalt, and miss how well written the original material was.

Personally, I’m fond of this collection from the early 2000s, but Conan is in the public domain, so you can find (at least some of) the short stories on Project Gutenberg if that’s your preference.

I realize you weren’t looking for fantasy, but this does carry over.

Also, in your defense, I realize we field a lot of fantasy and science fiction questions. It feels like that’s been especially true this year. But, we do cover contemporary violence, and if there’s something specific you’d like help with, we’d be happy to respond in more detail.

Resources for characters who wield guns, knives, and their mind?

Quite a bit.

Michi’s knife fighting primer had some formatting issues (it’s something we’ve been dealing with), so I just cleaned it up. You can find, Knife Fighting Do’s and Don’ts here, freshly scrubbed of weird line breaks.

For firearms we had someone asking about Gun Tropes earlier this year. There is a larger Firearms tag, and that probably has the information you want. It’s one of our more consistent tags, and dates back to 2013. I’ll be honest, simply asking, “about guns,” is a little tricky because it is a very expansive field.

Just tips for writing action and fight scenes in general. Guns and throwing knives are my biggest issue. Thanks for the seconds it took to read this.

ancientbruisesbrokenruses

Having just cited our fireams reference, the one thing that’s left are throwing knives.

Rachel Haimowitz reblogged one of Michi’s posts back in 2013 with some additional insights on throwing knives: You can find her thoughts here.

I hope this helps people. We’re working on a long term solution for making that old content more accessible, but it’s been slow going, and we’re not ready to make a formal announcement on that. The last couple months… or, hell, this entire year has been extremely stressful, and I’m sorry we haven’t been as consistent recently.

-Starke

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Q&A: Concealed Weapons

I have a character who always carries a knife concealed on her person. But where should she keep it? (In other words, where are the best places to wear a hidden knife and what factors might you consider in choosing between them?)

There are a couple considerations for concealed weapons. I know you’re asking about knives, but a lot of this also applies to concealing weapons in general.

Who your character is and where they operate has a huge influence on what they need to consider when deciding where, and how, to conceal a weapon.

Similarly, their clothes are a major factor in their options for concealment. A character with a lose fitting jacket, has a world of options that don’t exist for someone wearing, a restrictive formal dress.

For example, a mercenary or law enforcer wouldn’t need to worry about being seen with a small weapon in reserve, so they could settle for something that’s relatively visible, but might be missed at a glance.

If your character has a weapon hidden across the small of their back, that’s going to be very accessible, but it may be visible if someone knows to look. In this specific example, your character has an advantage in that she’s a woman. The curve of her spine at the back makes it easier to conceal a weapon there without it leaving a visible bulge while wearing a waist length jacket.

One of my favorite bad ideas for concealed weapons is the hidden blade from Assassin’s Creed. This is a retractable wrist blade which mount along the user’s inner forearm and extends into a punch dagger. It’s not a bad idea because it’s a poor place to hide a knife. In fact, it’s an excellent place to hide one. Hiding a weapon up your sleeve was an effective tactic and it led to practices such as the hand shake, which used to be a weapons check. You’d shake someone’s hand while gripping their forearm to make sure they didn’t have a knife hidden up there.

Hiding guns up your sleeve is a little less viable. There have been a number of experiments on the subject, but the results lacked both reliability and stopping power. If you’re going to hide a gun up your sleeve it’s going to be small, and your best option is to use it to kill an attacker and take their weapon. (Which was the intended use for the glove gun, incidentally.)

So, up to this point, I’ve been prioritizing access. Accessibility is an important consideration, because if you need the weapon quickly, it needs to be someplace you can reach easily. However, if their primary concern is hiding the weapon, then it’s possible they might have it concealed someplace far less obvious. She could hide a weapon against her leg, under a skirt, and it would be fairly difficult to spot, but getting to it could be quite awkward. Similarly, boot knives and ankle holsters are an option, but they do require you to have easy access to your shin. Those last two are easier to reach from a sitting position, rather than standing, so this can inform when you’d want to hide something there.

Another option, which runs contrary to what you’re looking for, is concealing the weapon in the environment ahead of time. This an option if your character will be searched for weapons on the way in. Any half-security team will do a cursory search for weapons ahead of time (if they can), but it’s possible there may be weaknesses that would allow someone to get a weapon into position for your character. (Obviously, this doesn’t work if they’re operating alone.)

Finally, there’s a very consideration with knives; folding knives are a real thing. It’s possible that your character would have a collapsible knife, or something similar. In a science fiction or fantasy setting, it’s entirely possible your character would have a device (or enchanted item) which creates the knife itself. So your character wouldn’t be hiding the weapon, she’d be wearing a piece of jewelry that creates the weapon in the moment. Of course, if we’re talking about fantasy, it’s entirely possible your character can outright conjure a blade from the aether, so that might be a possibility as well.

On a less fantastic note, there’s also tactical batons, and much like folding knives, these collapse into little more than a handle. These are pretty easy to hide in a pouch or pocket, so you have a lot of options for where she could conceal these.

I’m realizing now, some of the difficulty I have with this question is, the answer changes. I mean, I carry a knife (most of the time), but I don’t carry it in a single place. Sometimes it’s a pants/jeans pocket, sometimes it’s in my jacket. Sometimes it’s in a satchel on my person. There isn’t one answer here, and it can change whenever I’ve been using and put it away. Also, the knife itself changes, I’m a walking continuity error in that sense. I’ve got three lock-blade box cutters on my desk. I don’t carry them as self-defense weapons, I carry them as tools, and whichever one is most convenient is going to get picked up if I need it.

This is something that’s generally discouraged with characters, because it’s more chaotic, but it is true to life. If your character always has a knife, it’s entirely reasonable for her to have it hidden in different places at various times. It’s not like there’s only one possible place she could hide it. It’s also entirely possible that she has more than one.

You have a lot of options here, the major considerations are, “how easily can she get to it?” and, “how well hidden is it?” Once you have those two considerations in mind, the rest is going to be looking at the context.

-Starke

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The Mafia Gas Tax Skim

Didn’t the NY Mafia sort-of try this, I may have the details wrong but in the mid-late 70s they began operating “fake” gas stations. Something on the order of close to a billion dollars in unpaid taxes? Correct me please, it’s late and I’m too tired after work to be bothered googling

dumnhpy

You’re very close, and the details are pretty interesting. There have been multiple rounds of this, the one you’re talking about was the late 70s early 80s. It popped back up around the turn of the millennium, with Russian mobsters.

The issue wasn’t fake gas stations, it was fake gas distributors. These are the companies that sell gas to the stations themselves. At the time, they were responsible for collecting any sales taxes on the gasoline. So, a real station would buy gas from the distributor. The distributor would keep the 9 cents a gallon, to hand over to the IRS and any relevant state revenue services.

In the mid-70s, some people in the distribution industry realized that there was a potential loophole. If the distributor that collected the tax money no longer existed or was bankrupt by the time tax collectors came for their payout, there was no money to take.

There were (at least) four geographic areas where this scam started gaining traction, Southern California, Southern Florida, Houston, and New York City. I don’t have firm numbers on how long this continued undetected. By the late 70s, a couple of The Families had learned about this, and muscled their way in. At that point, the Mafia started skimming off the stolen tax money, so for roughly five years, the Mafia was getting one cent for every gallon of gas sold in the Tri-State area. (I’ve seen some conflicting numbers for how much money was taken, though estimates put this at a billion dollars over the life of the skim, though I’m unsure if that was the Mafia’s cut, or if that was the total skim.)

So, it wasn’t a Mafia plan, so much as the Mafia sniffed out corruption (which they are very adept at), and then inserted themselves into the processes. (It’s also worth noting that the operations in SoCal, Florida, and Texas never came under Mafia control. Those remained independent operations.)

It’s a little unclear whether Mafia involvement accelerated the skim’s discovery. There were already criminal investigations going back into the 70s, trying to figure out where the money was going. At the same time, the Mafia brought their signature degree of violence, and lack of subtly.

By the mid-to-late 80s, this was mostly exposed, and shut down. There were changes to make this kind of skimming operation more difficult. As mentioned earlier, it didn’t completely prevent this kind of skim, and there was a brief resurgence twenty years ago, again in the Tri-State area, but it failed to take hold and remain undetected.

It is an interesting footnote and worth digging up. As I mentioned, the Mafia had a real knack for sniffing out corruption or graft and then inserting themselves into the process.

-Starke

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Q&A: TVTropes: Nebulous Evil Organization

Are there good real-world justifications for what TVTropes calls “Nebulous Evil Organizations” [SPECTRE, Hydra, Cobra]? They’re invariably portrayed as people with enough status and resources to be running the societies they attack, but instead they keep confronting them directly with terrorism and low-level crime. They’re built like Bain Capital but behave like al-Qaeda. Are there realistic explanations for why they’d do this, instead of just using lawyers and lobbyists like a normal plutocrat?

Not really. The closest you’ll see is in the real world are organized crime (which TVTropes already bundles off as, “The Syndicate”), and state sponsored terrorists or intelligence operations. Though, things do get a little more complex, so, let’s pull this apart and talk about why this is so useful in fiction, because almost none of it translates to reality.

Every story needs an antagonist. This doesn’t need to be a distinct character, it can be an aspect of the protagonist’s psyche, or even just some existential anxiety, but you need something to press against.

A nebulous evil organization is a natural foe. You don’t need to have plan, or even any idea what they’re doing. They can simply be your bad guys while you work out the details. They will always remain a serious threat, no matter how much your protagonist learns and grows. For a buzzword, it’s “infinitely scalable” evil: The villain who will always fit your story, no matter how big or small.

These kinds of organizations exist, “beyond time,” in the sense that you can compact or twist the chronology as much want and the organization could still, credibly, be there. if you have normal mortal villains, you can’t simply ask them to sit down and wait for years while your protagonist goes and has an existential crisis, undergoes a training montage, or engages in three hundred filler adventures.

That last bit was supposed to be a joke, but it is someplace these antagonists fit very well. Nebulous evil organizations are a godsend for episodic stories. The antagonists can be custom tuned to the individual episode without worrying about whether it makes sense in the larger metafiction. They can even be disposed of if it fits the episode, without worrying about the long term consequences.

In extreme examples of the beyond time comment above, you have ancient conspiracies (which TVTropes categorizes separately) which allow you to have antagonists who can exist at any point in history. This can also allow you to coopt real historical events or figures and re-contextualize them into your story.

So, what’s real about all of this?

There are plenty of organizations which have been around for a long time. Depending on your job, it’s entirely plausible you work for a company or organization that’s older than you are, and in some cases you’ll still see family traditions going back a couple generations (though, this is not as common as it used to be.)

This does extend to criminal organizations, corporations, and NGOs. In every case, the organization will be more important than the individuals, so the basic structure of a nebulous entity has some real grounding.

One of the greatest challenges for law enforcement dealing with the Italian Mafia in the mid-20th century was that the organization as a whole was designed to insulate the leadership, while the street level, rank and file personnel were expendable.

The street level crime component is, entirely, a narrative conceit. It’s there to make to make it easier to introduce the organization into a story, and allow easier access for knowledgeable characters. In an episodic structure, it helps plug the organization into places where it, otherwise, wouldn’t fit.

Street level operations make sense in one context: organized crime. If your organization is engaging in racketeering, then that street level crime is their foundation. They need that or they cease to exist.

The problem is that street level crime is pocket change compared to what someone could achieve with the resources. Even just something like limited patent trolling could make the cashflow from city wide racketeering operations look downright anemic. There is so much more money to be made in white collar crime, it’s not funny.

The reason you don’t see a lot of this in fiction is because it’s hard to grasp. If you have concrete visible villains, that’s easy, but financial investigations are complex beasts.

Let’s use the example above: Patent trolling is about getting a patent issued specifically with the intention of carving out a chunk of existing technology and then collecting royalties from companies that depend on these systems. This can (and has) included things like basic CPU architecture, or even the use of a “shopping cart” system on retail websites. This can be further supplemented by the purchase of existing patent portfolios (collections of current patents), which are then used to leverage payments from other business, or protect against the same.

Now, which is easier to understand and more sympathetic? Exploiting intellectual property laws to extort massive corporations in a courtroom, or mobsters mugging people?

The irony in all of this is that these nebulous organizations pattern themselves off of organized crime, but when it comes to criminal activity, organized crime is picking at the crumbs. They’re built on a foundation of street level operations that will never generate the revenue streams of a corporate raider.

It would make far more sense for a nebulous evil organization to play the stock market, rather than starting from street level crime. However, that also makes the organization less accessible. From the perspective of a writer, it means you have fewer options for how to insert them into a story, and requires more creativity. To be clear, I don’t think requiring more creativity is a bad thing, but I do understand that will make the author’s job harder.

If you had an organization like this, it would make sense for them to have some street level operations, but not criminal ones. Petty crimes would open the organization up to law enforcement scrutiny for, again, pocket change. From a risk/benefit perspective it’s just not worth it.

Terrorism is a different situation. There’s a lot of money to be made in playing the stock market around a terrorist attack. If you knew it was coming you could manipulate the situation to your advantage. This also extends to things like construction or defense contracts. This kind of behavior already occurs opportunistically, so it’s not implausible to suggest a corporation would try to foment wars in order to boost their bottom line. Whether that’s selling weapons, supplying PMCs, or even just trying to get access to the natural resources of one of the countries in the aftermath of an invasion.

Sponsored terrorism has real potential for a sufficiently amoral group who wants to “kick the sandbox,” so they can exploit the resulting chaos.

I can’t cite any specific examples of someone backing terrorists for financial gain. (Though, the US backing of what would become the Talaban in the 80s does come close.) The closest example that come to mind is the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh in ’53. Mosaddegh was the Prime Minister of Iran from 1951 to ’53, when he was ousted in a coup backed by the CIA and MI6. This comes back to British Petroleum.

Prior to Mosaddegh’s rise to power, most oil production in Iran was controlled by foreign (mostly British) interests. To put it mildly, the contracts with the Iranian government were not particularly equitable. The newly elected Prime Minster set about nationalizing Iran’s oil production. This caused British Petroleum (at the time they were called the Anglo-Persian Oil Company) to go to the British government, and ultimately MI6. MI6 went to the CIA. The CIA had been looking for an opportunity to experiment with regime change, and dispatched Kermit Roosevelt Jr. (Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson) to Iran with the goal of finding someone they could install. Roosevelt chose to go with a monarch, Shah Palavi, and the ’79 revolution leading to the Islamic Republic was a direct consequence of BP’s greed.

I’m glazing over a lot of details here. There are entire books written on the ’53 coup and ’79 revolution. Short version, yes, terrorism or other forms of aggressive regime change can be very profitable. However, this can also be hard to follow, and doesn’t give your protagonist an easy entry point.

Okay, let me explain that last point: The value of a street level threat is it gives you a low stakes entry point. If you’ve got an organization that is simultaneously operating at street level and plotting to use weapons of mass destruction, you can transition from the low stakes conflict to the high stakes political intrigue. You can even do this naturally through a single investigation. This almost never happens, reason being, it’s incredibly dangerous for the organization to be operating in both worlds.

Again, I have a real world example, but I’m going to be very brief. In 1972, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were investigating a break in at the DNC’s offices in DC. What they discovered were connections that linked the burglary to Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign, and eventually lead to his downfall.

Like I said, this almost never happens, and here’s why. If you’re operating at street level and making political power plays, that street level exposure is a real vulnerability. It can be used against you, and can destroy your organization.

The other real world example is the Mafia (and other organized crime.) Again, street level exposure is their major vulnerability. They don’t tend to transition into more sophisticated criminal behavior, (like stock manipulation), and while I could speculate why, I don’t have a concrete answer. It probably comes from many different issues working together.

Having said all of that, even on the terrorism front, your organization is safer using lobbyists and lawyers to get what they want. Problem is, that’s not “exciting,” so many writers skim over that and go straight for the overt behavior that says, “hey, these are bad guys,” even if what they’re doing doesn’t make sense.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t use nebulous evil organizations. They’re a very effective and versatile tool for a writer. Saying they don’t make sense is only problem if your reader stops and thinks about it. At worst, I’d say, “get ahead of the curve,” and think about how they could achieve their goals in more subtle (or at least creative) ways. So long as your world is interesting enough, your readers are less likely to nitpick. The biggest danger is, simply, getting lazy, but that is always a risk.

-Starke

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Q&A: One Man Army

I wanted to ask about the One Man Army trope, where a (non superpowered) person with a diverse and accomplished enough skillset is sent into a high-risk situation alone or with minimal backup, for a job that you’d think would require a team or an even larger military unit. James Bond, MacGyver, Mr. Clark from the Jack Ryan books. Are there ever real world circumstances where you’d do this, or is it just a trope we accept because it’s fun?

Yes and no.

None of those characters are particularly good examples of One Man Armies. John Kelly is probably the most realistic example you gave, and from what I remember, the things he gets into in the books tends to be plausible. This includes things like infiltrating Tehran to laser designate a house for an airstrike, or working as part of various special operations groups. The character was a member of SOG, and a Navy SEAL, so that tracks.

In general, Kelly isn’t presented as a One Man Army, he’s mostly engaging in the kind of operations that you do task to small groups. Breaking in, stealing things, reconnaissance, espionage, and assassinations. Not, full on combat missions.

Now, I am going from memory, and haven’t touched any of Clancy’s novels in close to a decade, so I could be forgetting something egregious, but the stuff with his name that really gets into One Man Army territory are the later video games. (Splinter Cell, especially Conviction and Blacklist, Rainbow Six: Vegas and Vegas 2, The Division and it’s sequel (which are probably the most extreme and off-brand examples), and every Ghost Recon game starting with Future Soldier.)

Also, Kelly’s the only example you gave where the character doesn’t have superpowers. James Bond’s popularity kickstarted the superspy genre, and while Bond himself is more subtle than the imitators that followed, he is still superhuman. Even if you just go by descriptions in the books, he’s consuming enough alcohol and smoking so heavily that any, real human, would be barely functional. This is before you factor in the various gadgets of one variety or another, which really push him over the edge into superhero status. Even if he is also an amoral, misogynistic, asshole most of the time. (Yes, the literary version of Bond is a particularly unpleasant individual, and that’s something that frequently gets glossed over by the film versions.)

MacGuyver has a supernatural aptitude for jury-rigging solutions out of whatever’s left lying around. Again, as superpowers go, this is a subtle one, but it’s not something a real person could do, at least not with that degree of variety. (I’m just going to add, I haven’t seen any of the reboot, I’m strictly going off of Richard Dean Anderson’s version of the character.)

So, there reasons you’d send out small teams. In basic terms, these are situations where your operators need to remain undetected. The more people there are, the harder it is for them to avoid detection. The trade-off is that if these teams are detected, they’re dead. This is where that, “yes and no,” thing comes in. Yes, there are situations; no, they’re not One Man Armies.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but these are a few examples of where small teams are preferable.

Reconnaissance: You’re better off with a team of two to four. Their entire goal is to remain completely undetected and gather information on enemy deployment. Their job is to hang out, watch what the enemy does, and then pass that information back to the assault. This can involve spending days hunkered down observing an enemy position. This can frequently put the recon team inside the enemy’s perimeter, meaning they’re going to need to hide from the enemy’s perimeter patrols. Obviously, the more people you have, the harder this will be.

Snipers: Normally this is a sniper and a spotter. These teams will deploy behind enemy lines, get into position, and take their shot. Larger teams aren’t beneficial because it increases the chances of them being detected before they get to position and the extra people aren’t useful for completing the mission. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible for multiple snipers to be tasked to a specific objective, but if the job is to kill someone in particular, extra people will just get in the way.

It’s possibly worth considering that selective ambushes with hit and run tactics may be somewhat viable. A shooter or two might be able to wipe out a small patrol, and then disappear before anyone realizes something’s happened. However, this won’t work indefinitely, as the forces being ambushed would probably respond with better equipped, better coordinated, squads. So, your character might see some success initially, but a continued campaign would see them hunted down and eliminated (assuming they don’t have significant forces backing them up.)

Surgical strikes: This a little different because you’re probably talking about a full squad. This is the model for groups like the Navy SEALs, and other special forces. (So, these are the people John Kelly was based on.) In an assassination, sometimes you need people on site to confirm the kill, so taking the victim out at a 1.5km with a rifle won’t cut it. This frequently involves covertly deploying the team as close as possible, letting them do their job and extract. Similarly, if you need to capture someone, this is the preferred approach. There’s a kind of symmetry here. The more people you have, the more bullets are flying around, the greater the danger of one of those rounds hitting the person you’re trying to extract. This does end up being a balance between having enough operators on the ground to manage things if the situation gets out of control, while still keeping the number low enough that they’re unlikely to be detected. Though, again, in this case you’re talking about an army of twelve or more, not an army of one. Additionally, this kind of operation is very time sensitive. The longer the team stays, the more time hostile forces have to respond.

On a similar note, a lot of, “behind enemy lines,” resistance, and insurgent operations have similar considerations to the surgical strikes above.

Now, if you’re talking about, straight up, clearing out a fortified location alone or with a small team; that’s not happening. If it turns into open combat, they’ll be overwhelmed and eliminated. If they’re trying to operate covertly, that’s a ticking clock from the moment the first body drops. They would need to eliminate almost the entire garrison before anyone notices something odd. That’s feasible if your characters have superpowers, but it is (effectively) impossible when you’re talking about normal people. Even highly trained and well equipped, “normal people.”

There is one final situation, and this comes out of your use of Bond: Infiltrating. There’s a lot of extremely unrealistic elements to James Bond, and his practice of sneaking into places straddles the line. It’s both realistic and unrealistic at the same time. Realistic in the sense that this is something spies may need to do. Breaking and entering is one of the more dangerous activities a spy may need to engage in while pursuing their objective, and it can go horribly wrong very quickly. In that sense, there is a degree of realism when Bond gets caught while he’s sneaking around. This converts to a complete lack of realism when he shoots his way out with a Walther PPK.

To be clear, Walther has an excellent reputation for high quality firearms. The PPK is an excellent pistol in it’s intended role. It’s a compact semi-automatic designed for use by plainclothes German police. Between the low capacity and small cartridge, it’s not an ideal combat pistol. The size does make it a good choice for a spy or assassin, but they’re not going to be shooting their way out of a bad situation or blown cover with one. (While it is a combat pistol, this is still true in the films where he’s using a Walther P99.)

You can’t take a handgun and expect to shoot your way out when your foes are using automatic weapons. As a single combatant, you cannot win a gunfight against a dozen mercenaries. Bond does it all the time, because he is superhuman. Some of it is the gadgets, some is authorial cheating. Either way, that’s not how this works.

So, like I said at the beginning, “yes and no.” There are reasons to split off small teams and send them out, but the one man army is far more fiction than fact.

Having said that, there are a lot of real world examples that fit the trope. It’s not realistic, but that hasn’t stopped it from occurring. There’s plenty of examples of individual soldiers who got split off from (or were the last survivors of) their unit, and then went on rampages. There’s also a few examples of snipers getting pinned down somewhere, only for them to turn around and rack up kills in the double digits. Worth remembering that in almost of those cases, the decision to go in alone was made in the moment, or was an act of last recourse. It was not the original plan.

-Starke

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Writing Techniques: Fight Scenes and Clarity

kerzoro said to howtofightwrite:

What would you say at the writing techniques to write a fight? I’ve received (what I feel is valid) criticism that my action scenes need to be punchier and feel too passive, but I’m not 100% what that means, or how to translate that to paper.

What your critique partners are telling you is that you’ve got issues with passive voice which is a common problem for new writers. Passive voice is an overuse of the subject acting on the verb rather than the verb being acted upon.

Passive Voice 

She was chased.

Active Voice

He chased her.

Now, both passive and active voice have their uses in writing and can be applied to great effect under the right circumstances. Some writing advice will tell you to rid yourself of passive voice entirely, never use “was”, “were”, “felt”, “is”, etc. While the advice is useful in encouraging you to practice your active voice, it can result in your writing falling out of balance. Passive voice is excellent for framing within a scene while active voice is solid for action. Overuse of active voice can lead to reader fatigue. You want to find a balance between the two which creates a solid rhythm.

However, this is basic advice you can get from any writing blog. Many blogs will tell you that the key to writing a good action scene is to use active voice, make your sentences shorter, raise the tempo of your sentences so the pace quickens and tension increases. These are all good techniques and well worth the effort to develop. 

To really succeed at writing action sequences, you need to look beyond surface prose and dig deeper. This involves learning about both real world combat and action created for entertainment. Both have different purposes, but one informs the other by providing you with more options and ways to structure your scenes. 

The major failures of most action sequences revolve around lack of clarity.

Clarity of Understanding.

Clarity of Visual Image.

Clarity Setting Reader Expectations

How” and “Why” Create Worlds

If you don’t understand what’s happening in your narrative and why then you cannot write your story. Narratives are built on cause and effect. Actions happen and a result occurs, these actions large or small build your story. Fight scenes, down to individual actions, are the same way — action happens, result occurs.

If your critique partner is telling you that your fight scenes should be punchier, you’re not just lacking in sentence structure, your imagery and stakes are also suffering.

The problem for most writers when they sit down to write fight scenes is they don’t really understand the material they’re working with. Whether this involves the reasons and motivations for conflict (why does the bully start a fight with a male protagonist in a bar?), or the mechanics of violence itself (what happens when you punch someone?). Despite consuming violent media for most of your life, if you’ve never considered the mechanics of violence in depth, choreographing violence in your narrative is difficult.

Make no mistake. When you are crafting a fight scene in your narrative, you are choreographing a sequence like one would performance art. When a critic stresses the importance of realism, you shouldn’t chase the real world blindly. You failed to set appropriate expectations for your reader and abide by your own rules. No reader really cares about the real world, they care about suspension of disbelief. Learning how things work helps build suspension of disbelief.

For example: if your amazing military general understands nothing about troop movements, military structure, supplies lines, army bureaucracy, the role of spies, interaction with the ruling governing body, etc, then both your character and your world building will suffer. As a result, your suspension of disbelief also suffers.

The goal is not to mimic, duplicate, or import a real world individual or military wholesale, but rather to learn how and why different militaries throughout history (successful and unsuccessful) worked the way they did. From how and why, you can create. Your way doesn’t need to be the best way, the most perfect way, it can be the way that evolved because these individuals had access to these resources to create this culture.

If you’re wondering why I’m talking about world building on a post about writing techniques for fight scenes, the answer is: your character’s culture and the resources they have access to defines how they fight just as much as their personality. How they choose to fight defines their portion of your action sequence. Violence is an expression of identity.

The Parry, Parry, Thrust, Thrust Conundrum

Many fiction writers treat all swords as the same. In reality, less than half a centimeter of distance can be the difference between victory and defeat with bladed weapons.

Why is this piece of information important?

If your answer was: whoever has the longer weapon wins. Well, you’re wrong.

Understanding a weapon’s designated use, it’s strengths and limitations works as a means of setting reader expectations which builds your narrative’s stakes. 

A character taking a scimitar into a narrow alley is going to be different from a character taking a rapier into the same narrow alley. In fact, a character with a rapier might choose to lure the character with the scimitar into a narrow alley because they feel choice of terrain benefits them.

This one choice transforms a character from passive into active. The character makes decisions based on the information they have available. They may make the wrong choice, but the choice itself creates an active participant. You cannot make educated choices without knowledge. The more knowledge you have, the more information you have, the smarter and more interesting your setting becomes.

Take these two characters discussing the use of a specialty weapon — a lasbow, which shoots psychically generated lasers bolts.

Suits you, Nathan’s warm thoughts filled her. You could’ve killed that spino with a carefully constructed shot.

Yes, she grit her teeth, but lasbows require more concentration, expend more energy, and bolts fly only so far as imagination and focus allow. A plaspistol just needs a charge.

Here, we see the character lay out the strengths and drawbacks of a lasbow before we see the weapon in combat. We know a lasbow is different from a regular bow. While a lasbow can strike a target at any distance with devastating effect, it is not fire and forget. The wielder must maintain the shot from start to finish. This is a significant weakness in frantic melee if the wielder is not shooting from a defensive position. If the difference between life and death is losing concentration, that might be a little worrying.

Now, let’s see the lasbow in action.

Together, the rexes lumbered into the canyon. Humans perched on saddles atop their massive heads. The rexes were armored in saurohide and plasteel pieces reconfigured from ancient dragon and carno armor.

Leah raised her bow. The rexes’ large nasal cavity allowed them to locate prey from across great distances. Some bonded raiders learned to utilize this sense to locate caravans and other enemies. Probably how they found us. A sharp whine filled her ears, the buzz of electricity. And riding reconditioned fly-bikes. Six humans rode two per vehicle. One driver, one gunner, bikes with built-in weapons were difficult to come by without a technician. Surprise. Distract. Overwhelm. Simple tactics; terrify and distract with the tyrannosaurus while the bikes and raptors cut the enemy to pieces. Effective against the inexperienced.

Patterning the mental signature of the rex rider on the left, Leah generated her bolt by drawing two fingers through the air. The bolt burst to life in a crackling, snapping hiss of blazing yellow. She fired. The bolt shot through the trees, searing away fronds and leaves.

The rex rider sensed her touch. Their rifle raised, eyes scanning the canyon.

Female. She caged the woman’s mind. No alarms. The bolt pierced through the center of the rider’s helmeted forehead, sliced through the brain, and vanished.

The tyrannosaur’s rider slumped, corpse held in place by saddle straps.

The rex bellowed in agony.

Surprise shook the human minds. Too late. They were committed.

Leah smiled. Let’s go.

Multiple important details occur in this scene. 

  1. The enemy is defined and the main character, Leah, instructs the reader regarding the raiders’ intended tactics. This builds anticipation for the battle to come. 
  2. The preemptive strike with the lasbow is launched, but Leah also cages the mind of her target to keep them from psychically warning the others. Tactics.
  3. Strategy is also at play, Leah waits until the raiders advancing force is in too deep and cannot retreat when they realize their enemy’s strength. She kills the rex’s rider rather than the rex to create a battlefield wild card, cutting off the only easy escape route.
  4. Leah’s confidence at the end of the scene builds the reader’s sense of security for the coming battle.

A character’s actions can be multi-pronged while the effects of those actions have multiple outcomes. If the world you create is convincing and works off its own logic, you don’t have to worry about it matching reality. If you understand how different kinds of violence work, you can create clear images within your scene that are advanced beyond punches and kicks.

The reason why I generally suggest looking at films rather than novels for your action sequences is because films have the advantage of being choreographed by professionals. As a writer, you’ll never be able to really make use of the same visual spectacle, but the important point is a fight scene choreographer’s business is choreographing fight scenes for entertainment. Whether you’re watching Spiderman, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or Heat, you’re given the opportunity to see a martial artist’s mind at work constructing action in the service of a greater narrative. As a creative who lacks similar experience, you can review a lot of good and bad fight scenes from the famous to the unknown. You can see what worked and what didn’t. You’ve been consuming film fight scenes non-critically for most of your life, now it’s time for you to start learning about the choreographers who created them, figuring out how they work and why.

I’m not suggesting you mindlessly copy, but carefully consider. Each action sequence is an expression of all your characters.

– Michi

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Q&A: Modern Bows

How similar are traditional and modern bows with a ton of contraptions on it? Can someone who is used to using traditional bows use a modern bow? What problems would they likely encounter? Also can any draw be used on any bow or would some types mean a particular draw has a disadvantage?

The basic technology hasn’t changed in thousands of years. The biggest difference is that modern bows are more resilient. A fiberglass bow is more durable than a compound bow made from adhering multiple wood layers together with a water soluble glue.

The only modern invention likely to be even mildly confusing to someone in the past are mechanical compound bows. These are the bows with the cam and pully system. From a use perspective, the major difference is that the pully has a, “break,” sensation. You’ll draw to a certain weight and then the mechanical components will take over, meaning you’ll experience less draw weight as you continue to pull. Similarly, when easing off, you’ll feel the mechanical acceleration tugging until you get past that break point. This affects how you experience the draw, but all it really does is let you deliver more draw weight than you experience.

The thing about most modern mechanical compound bows is that their draw weight doesn’t exceed the weight from some historical longbows. A modern compound will have a 40lb – 80lb draw. It simply requires a fraction of that draw from the user. So the user may experience a 20lb draw, but the bow the will deliver 80lbs.

Modern archers sometimes use release systems, these are separate devices that hook and hold onto the string, instead of the user. They’re recommended for compound bows, but they’re never necessary. They can aid in accuracy.

One issue that can crop up with compound bows is pulling the string off the pully. This can happen when the archer twists the bow string while drawing. This is, generally, not a good idea, as twisting the bow string would adversely affect the nocked arrow. (I think this causes the arrow to wobble in flight, but I’m not 100% certain that’s the issue.) Either way, this is behavior your archer probably wouldn’t engage in, and is more an issue for inexperienced shooters. A release system mentioned above can prevent this prevent this from happening, but as said, they’re not necessary.

A metal shaft mounted on the limbs (usually the lower limb) facing away from the user is a stabilizer. These reduce the bow’s vibration after firing. They’re helpful, but there’s no element to their use that an archer needs to be actively conscious of.

Some modern bows can fit optics. These will provide sights to aid in seeing where you’ll fire. These are fairly self-explanatory except a user may not know where the sight has been zeroed. In the event of a graduated sight (one with markings indicating distance) the user would need to be familiar with Arabic numerals. These were introduced to Europe around the 12th century. Additionally, the user would need the ability to assess distance in the indicated units. The metric system dates back to the late 18th century, so a shooter from before that wouldn’t have any familiarity with what 50m looks like.

Modern bows sometimes offer a contoured grip. You put your hand around it. While the technology that went into creating it is somewhat sophisticated, its use is not. Similarly, the shielded rest to hold the arrow allowing any optics to function, and protecting the user from getting scraped by the fletching is self explanatory.

The biggest change with these kinds of grips is on the engineering side. Modern materials can support limbs that wouldn’t have been viable historically, so we have bows with more convenient grips, because that’s an option.

Arrows are a similar situation. Modern arrows are often made from aluminum shafts, with plastic fletching, plastic nocks, and heads that can be replaced in the field by unscrewing them. It’s still an arrow. The overall quality will be better than a historical archer would be familiar with, but it’s still an arrow.

Worth knowing that, while aluminum is a naturally occurring metal, it wasn’t possible to extract and refine it as a metal until the early nineteenth century. In the middle ages “alum,” (an aluminum salt) was used in the production of dyes, but use of it as a metal (and even recognizing that it was a metal) was a few centuries away. (While I singled out the shafts, aluminum is a common component in modern bows as well.)

Machined wooden arrow shafts are still produced. You’ll also find feather fletchings, though those are rarer. There is one major difference about modern wooden shafts, worth illustrating. They’re not better than the shafts a historical archer would have encountered. They are on par with what an extremely skilled fletcher could have produced, but an individual craftsman could not have replicated the scale of modern production. (This has implications across the board, ranging from weapons, to clothes, to basically any high quality product on the market.)

The bow’s been used in warfare for over five thousand years. It’s invention disappears back into prehistory. The engineering that goes into making them have changed, but the basic concept has been around for a long time, mostly unchanged.

-Starke

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Q&A: Damsels in Distress and Feminism

Can damsel in distress stories be feminist?

Yes, it’s been done many times before, but it requires you to think about what you’re doing.

In the shortest definition, feminist lit is writing which speaks to a women’s experiences. Often, this is in the way that women are treated socially, culturally and/or politically.

Damsels in distress, at their most basic, are plot coupons. They barely exist as characters, and are just another part of the prize hoard a hero receives on completing whatever story challenge they were sitting behind. There is an almost game-like reward logic to them: Your protagonist did something impressive, now he may have a cookie.

The practice of treating female characters as objects, rather than sapient individuals is, obviously, not feminist. As a result, it’s not a stretch to label the “default” damsel in distress as non-feminist; it’s not.

So, what do you need to do to change this? Your damsel needs to be an actual character. She needs to have an identity and presence in the story that expands beyond simply being reward sex for some random guy that murder-hobos his way to her doorstep.

An excellent example of a famous female character who fits the damsel in distress mold but transcends it without ever switching into Action Girl is Olivia de Havilland’s Maid Marian from The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Unlike other Maid Marians, she works within the confines of her role but remains an active character throughout the story, growing from a naïve, sheltered young maiden into a daring rebel spying on Prince John and Sir Guy from within the palace walls. I mean, just look at this penultimate speech she gives to Prince John before the finale.

The moment Marian becomes a damsel in distress is when she’s sentenced to death by Sir Guy for consorting with Robin Hood and betraying the Normans. Yet, her speech to John is filled with defiance as she exercises her convictions and her anger at the harm her people have done.

“Sorry? I’d do it again if you killed me for it.”

– Maid Marian, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

While Marian’s impending execution is a danger Robin needs to rescue her from, the outcome is the result of her decisions, of danger she understood, and, it’s only fair, as she comes up with the plan to rescue him after he’s captured by Sir Guy during the archery competition.

Olivia de Havilland’s Maid Marian is a masterclass in creating a female character challenging stereotypes while working within the boundaries of her role. She grows and changes. She bravely risks her own life to stand up for what she believes in. She stays in the midst of danger when given the opportunity to flee because she believes her continued access to Prince John’s inner circle is more valuable than her safety. Most importantly, she never needs to demonstrate incredible martial prowess to be legitimized by the narrative or respected by the men around her.

Now, strictly speaking, your damsel doesn’t even need much agency for the work to be feminist. She doesn’t even need to be a hero. Feminist Lit is an exploration of what it means to be a woman with many shapes and angles born from an individual’s experience. It can be as simple as an intelligent discussion on how she’s marginalized by society because of her sex or gender, and how that experience affects her. Not, uplifting, but a legitimate discussion on the experience of women being discounted by society simply on the grounds of, “being a woman.”

Having said that, agency is an enormous help. There are many examples of feminist characters who appear to be damsels in distress, because they’ve been captured, but when freed are revealed to be fully formed characters, who were simply having a very bad day.

The important question is: does the work, as a whole, treat the character like a person or a quest reward? Ironically, that answer is more important than their agency. (Though, agency can be a good indicator that a character is being treated like a person.)

There are some common (and less common) twists on the trope, which can also qualify as feminist lit. One obvious example would be where the protagonist and prisoner are both women. There’s also a real feminist critique in how damsels in distress are contrasted against captured male characters. One aspect of this is in the sexualization. As the damsel in distress is often a sexualized reward for the protagonist, you’ll be more drawn to sexualize her than a male character who has been captured. (Or even a female character. After all, not every captured female is automatically a damsel. The damsel in distress is a trope, not a default.) The chains move from literal to a metaphorically stripping of a woman’s agency and power, and it’s easy to play into these tropes without intending to. This extends to both how they’re viewed by the reader, and how they tend to be treated in their narratives.

One thing to warn you about: A feminist character can be an action hero, but she doesn’t need to be. However, frequently, female action heroes are prefaced with an attitude of, “not like other girls.” That last piece is not feminist. Women can, and do, learn how to fight. They can become skilled combatants. There’s a legitimate discussion in feminism about how society discourages that behavior in women, however, they have the same potential to become combatants as men. When an author decides that they need to give their female character super powers in order to justify her being able to fight, they are subtly undermining women at large. An artificially empowered female action hero can be part of your power fantasy, but it comes with a glass ceiling saying, “but you can’t do this.”

It is worth remembering that the female power fantasy is a legitimate part of feminist fiction. It exists in parallel to the overrepresented male power fantasy, and female action protagonists are frequently actually the latter, with added eye candy, rather than actual expressions of a women’s experiences. There is nothing wrong with having powerful women in your story. The critical thing about feminist literature is that the work speaks to your experiences as a women. Not how some random guy feels about it.

A good start is writing a damsel who doesn’t automatically owe their rescuer (male or female) anything.

-Starke

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Q&A: Breath of the Wild

Breath of the Wild has been on my mind and I’m wondering something. According to the game he’s been beating adults in combat (I assume it’s sword play) since the age of 4. Of course in universe there are many reasons and theories for his prowess, but from a real world standpoint exactly how ridiculous is this? And more importantly, how have you guys been doing? All the chaos right now is really concerning, and I hope you stay safe. Much love <3

bakahimesama

From a human perspective, it’s not even remotely plausible. Even with children who start training at very young ages, they’re not going to be anywhere near ready to fight adults.

Things are a little muddy, because Link isn’t human. Okay, so, this is a little more complicated than it sounds. As far as I know, the official statement is that the Hylians are “human.” Though, the race has a long history of magic users, to the point that it’s resulted in physiological changes. Nothing I know about them suggests that their physiological development should be that different from real humans, but it is an easy way to justify the game mechanics.

It’s also possible (though implausible) that the Hyrule calendar has much longer annual cycles. If you had a 1500 day year, for example, someone who was, “four years old,” would be roughly 16 years old by our calendar. Again, not something that’s relevant to the Zelda franchise, but it can result in something like a four year old who’s able to fight and win against adults. Granted, those adults might be “five to seven years old.”

So, that’s the fun part of the question. We’re hanging in here. Things have been pretty stable so far. We’re in the Seattle metro area, so things have been calm. That said, there’s a lot of ash in the air. Going outside right now can’t be healthy. I’m not just speculating there, we’ve both been fighting with brutal headaches since the smoke moved in. A couple days ago, there was a visible yellow/brown tinge to all of the sunlight. The sunlight has been mostly gray today, though, one of the cats found a patch of red sunlight this afternoon. So things aren’t great, but they could certainly be a lot worse.

If we’re lucky, we should be seeing rainfall in the next couple days, so hopefully that’ll clear the air, but until then, we’ll keep going through pain meds at an accelerated rate.

All of that said, things have been pretty stressful here over the last couple weeks. I’m hoping things will start to die down again, but we’ll try to keep you guys in the loop.

-Starke

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