Category Archives: Research

Savvy Saturday – Ancient Treasures

Today I got to do something very exciting and relevant for world-building – I got to see the Dead Sea scrolls! For those of you who aren’t aware, the Dead Sea scrolls have been labeled as the most important archeological find of the 20th century. They are the oldest known copies of portions of the Old Testament, including the Psalms, Job, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah. They survived in clay jars in a cave for over 2000 years before being discovered and preserved by archaeologists. Seeing them, and other ancient Israeli artifacts, today and learning about historic artifact preservation definitely gave me appreciation for ancient workmanship and modern science. As a fantasy novelist, it also gave me good source material for how to make a culture feel old and have a sense of history. Here are three things that you might incorporate into your next fantasy world…

1. Clay and stone last a long time and are relatively common artifacts to find, though not always intact.

Plain clay pots, bowls, and jars were used by nearly everyone in the days before mass production of metal containers. If you’re writing in an ancient fantasy setting, your middle class and lower class individuals will most likely have a plethora of clay objects. If you’re writing about a newer civilization, any artifacts they uncover will probably be surrounded by broken pottery the way that you find discarded styrofoam plates and cups in trashcans today. Further, building stones rarely get moved far from where they were torn down by invading armies. They might get used to build other things, or they might be piled over with new dirt and rock and a new building set atop the ruins of the former, but they can remain for thousands of years with little visible change. Further, old stones used for building walls and common houses may not have been smoothed or finished on all sides; they may look and feel relatively rough, even if they were exposed to weather for many centuries

2. Ancient coins can be very intricate and artistic – and tiny!

Some coins that we saw were millennia old, with faint raised lines in them that spoke of emperors and the year and place in which the coins were created. In so doing, the coins spoke to the skill and craftsmanship of ancient gold- and silversmiths who created tiny, detailed molds without the aid of modern machinery or magnification. A coin no bigger than a thumbnail could bear an etching of an animal or bird or other symbol, and words around the edge and on the back that wished an emperor eternal reign and happiness. Coins were also used in ancient times that were roughly half the size of a modern dime. (Better not have any holes in your pockets!) They weren’t worth much, but they can and did exist as part of a monetary system.

3. It is difficult to preserve writing – but worth it!

Primitive societies tend to write on organic matter such as animal skins or reed paper, which decomposes relatively quickly. Ink also fades over time, and parchment crumbles at the touch when it gets old. All of this makes it very difficult for societies to learn from the original written documents of ancient societies. This makes the rare documents that do survive that much more valuable to historians and anyone else who cares about the veracity of what has been attested to for hundreds of years. One thing I was surprised by upon seeing fragments of the Dead Sea scrolls was how neat and clear the writing on the fragments was. It was faded and often very hard to distinguish the black ink from the dark brown of the scroll on which it was written, but the letters themselves were clearly penned in tight, even rows with a precise script that looked almost as though it could have been printed by computer. When ink and writing materials are expensive and a mistake in a holy book could mean error, confusion, or blasphemy passed down to future generations, it makes sense that writers would be careful. But even so, the level of precision maintained by these preservers of history and tradition was remarkable and impressive even by today’s standards.

New technology has also been useful for preserving these ancient documents. Imaging software now checks for decay in scrolls by photographing them every month at a large set of wavelengths, then comparing images month to month to see if there is any change that could necessitate adjustments to humidity, light, temperature, and so forth. Other modern tools can detect the chemical and slight differences between ink and the material on which it was written, so that even ink tracings that faded to the point that they cannot be seen by the human eye can be recorded, processed, and studied. What might future technology be able to do to preserve and record history? How might artifacts from a world you create be treated and viewed by your main characters? Are the cities they live in built on the ruins of others? Do they have museums or ancient holy sites? If not, why not? If so, what types of artifacts are housed there?

Savvy Saturday – Conference Insights on Identity

Academic conferences are great things: they give you free food (well, okay, REALLY EXPENSIVE food when you take into account the price of registration), unlimited coffee (whee!), and hours (and hours!) of exposure to cutting-edge knowledge. As an author as well as an academic, this last point is the really exciting part of conference. What’s most exciting is when the research that is presented has obvious and direct implications for story settings or character arcs. And today, for your reading pleasure, I’m going to share with you two of the latest insights from academia about racial identity and consumption that might affect the stories we tell as authors.

Identity changes due to physical moves

In the United States, much of our identity is based on skin color. White, African American, Hispanic, Asian – these things signal to people around us things about our stereotypical background, interests, and social class. Non-white individuals are “minorities” in the U.S., and tend to have minority status as part of their identity. What happens, then, when an individual moves to the United States from a country which has a very different ethnic/racial breakdown? If one is a member of the tribe in power in an African country, and is therefore used to being part of the majority, coming to the U.S. will be a big culture shock. Someone who, on the outside, looks like part of the majority culture (e.g. a white immigrant from Europe) will have a different cultural experience than someone who looks like part of a minority culture (e.g. a black immigrant from Africa) even if both of them grew up as part of their majority culture back home.

How might this play out in a novel? Consider having a hero who travels to a different culture and 1) is visibly different from the majority of individuals in that culture, 2) is not perceived as a rarity or high-status individual because of those visual differences, but 3) is attributed to have a different – and potentially problematic – cultural background than the character actually does because of those visible characteristics. What kinds of character developments or story problems might take place? That’s up for you to decide – but it could be fascinating!

The presence of scripts and rare identity signaling

Imagine that you are writing a fantasy story about two ethnic groups that are visibly distinguishable from each other. One (call it Group X) has historically had power and privilege, and the other (Group Y) has typically been subjugated. While there is a simple upper- and lower-class system based purely on race, it is unlikely that people from Group Y could ever escape from their structurally imposed status. However, if a middle class arises based on wealth, education, ability, etc. rather than ancestry, it might be possible for certain members of the historically low-status group to join it. If people from Group Y are still typically part of the lower class, however, and only certain elite members are able to join a middle class, it becomes important for those middle class members to outwardly signal their new group membership or risk being stereotyped as lower class based on their Group Y status.

The question is, how can the elite members of Group Y do this? The easiest way is to imitate Group X style – to identify a “script” of what middle or high-class people stereotypically do, and make sure to do it even more than members of Group X do. Following scripts means that conspicuous consumption becomes very important. Wearing the right types of clothing and accessories signals others that a person not only has the money to be able to afford higher-class material possessions, but that he or she also has the cultural capital (knowledge) to buy and enjoy the “right” types of possessions. Whereas people from Group X might be able to not follow their group’s script and still be ascribed high-class status, people from Group Y who don’t want to be perceived as low-class have to always follow the rules, always outperform, and to some extent, always consume more (and consume more “correctly”) to maintain their hard-earned status. Of course, this seeming obsession with outward appearance can lead people from Group X to disdainfully say that people from Group Y are shallow, materialistic, and that they try too hard – but if the alternative for members of a stereotypically lower-class racial group is to be perceived as an outsider, as poor and uneducated, or even as a potential criminal, it’s no wonder that signaling their true identity and achievements is a conscious part of their life.

In your stories, then, consider how the dynamics of history, class, and race/ethnicity intersect. The past impacts the present, sociological forces impact individuals’ stories, and consumption matters.

What stories have you read that have thoughtfully and carefully portrayed issues of identity and consumption? How might you incorporate these issues into your works?

Savvy Saturday – The Power of Psychology

As authors, we want to have our characters be real to life as much as possible. This means that we not only have to tell a good story, but we have to understand how and why people behave the way they do. Sometimes this is easy – sometimes people behave logically and in ways that make sense. Other times, however, people’s behaviors are driven by psychological realities that aren’t obvious on their surface. The more we understand the sociology and psychology of human behavior as authors, the more nuanced and realistic the characters we can write. Today’s blog post, then, gives an introduction to two psychological effects that can impact our characters: mere exposure effect, and the effect of cognitive dissonance.

Mere Exposure Effect

First identified by Zajonc in 1963, the mere exposure effect identifies the strange fact that as humans, we prefer things we are familiar with to things we are unfamiliar with. His original psychological experiments found that people liked nonsense words or pseudo-Chinese symbols that they had heard before in the lab better than nonsense words or pseudo-Chinese symbols they had not heard before. The same has been found to hold true for sounds, images of faces, tastes, and so forth.

What does this finding mean for novelists? Well, first, perhaps that people tend to “rather bear those ills we have, Than fly to others that we know not of,” to quote Hamlet. The man enslaved to the evil king may resist freedom simply because he knows he can bear the life he has now, as miserable as it is, and does not know what freedom will hold. Similarly, if a character is thrown together “randomly” with a stranger several times, the character will tend to like and trust that stranger more than he/she will trust a “real” stranger, no matter how actually trustworthy either of those individuals might be. Characters that see their friends trying and eating a particular foreign dish, even if it seems strange at first, will probably find that particular dish less strange after a while than they would a different unfamiliar dish, even if they are equivalent in terms of objective foreignness. Of course, this effect can also lead to xenophobia: what we know is good, and what we don’t know is bad. Characters raised in metropolitan areas where they have been exposed to a large number of cultures and practices are likely to be more tolerant and accepting than characters raised in a single, limited cultural context. This also means that the more than a character is exposed to a behavior or belief – even if there is never an argument made for it and even if it is never actually brought up in conversation – the more the character will come to accept it implicitly.

Cognitive Dissonance

We all know that attitudes and beliefs drive behavior. But can behavior drive attitudes and beliefs? People who haven’t studied social psychology tend to say no. Surely our minds control our actions, and we don’t do things that we don’t agree with, right? Actually, science shows us that far more often than we’d think, our attitudes and beliefs are shaped by the things that we do. One of the things that humans are hard-wired to hate is hypocrisy – when people (and especially ourselves) say or believe one thing and do another. If we find ourselves doing something that conflicts with our beliefs, we tend to find ourselves justifying our actions, explaining them away, and actually changing what we feel and believe to make our actions make sense to ourselves. In other words, when a character helps someone, that helping behavior actually causes the character to like the helped person more, and conversely, if a character acts toward someone in a way that is not helpful, that action also tends to drive beliefs that the victim deserved what they got.

Dictators know very well the power of cognitive dissonance. Convince people that it’s okay in one particular instance to do something that conflicts with their belief system – for instance, bow to a statue just once, or on one particular day attend a rally that “everyone” is going to be at – and people’s wills will start to crumble. “It must be okay to bow to a statue at least sometimes,” people will think to themselves, “because I did it, and I wouldn’t do something that I don’t think is okay.” The next time the dictator orders them to do something similar, or even more extreme, the action doesn’t present as big as a threat to the individual’s self-image. “Just showing up to a rally” becomes “just saying the pledge of loyalty once” becomes “just putting one’s name on the roll of the loyalist party.” And if you’ve actually joined the loyalist party, then surely you must agree with at least some of what they believe in – mustn’t you? Psychologists tell us yes.

How might you use the mere exposure or cognitive dissonance effects in your stories? What stories have you seen with use them well to explain character motivations? Leave a comment below!

Savvy Saturday – Narratives and Numbers

As I continue to study at the Ph.D. level, I become ever increasingly struck by the power of story and narrative on the human psyche. Academics and scientists like to pretend that facts and numbers drive society forward. If we can find statistically significant results, they say, we can change the way the world views important issues! We can eliminate disease and poverty; we can make people happy, wealthy, and wise! Surely, they say, if people just knew the facts, they would change their behavior and the way they think.

Surely, novelists say to academics, surely you jest. There is a huge difference between knowing a fact and having that fact impact your life. There is a vast chasm between reading a scientific paper and actually believing that scientific paper if it says something that you don’t already agree with. Emotion, narrative, and the personal experience of real or fictional others, far more than cold, hard numbers, are what sway people’s opinions.

Here’s an example for you. Suppose you were interested in purchasing a new television. You might go to Consumer Reports, where teams of experts rate different televisions on a number of objective measures and tell you which is the “best” quality for the money. Let’s say that you pick the one you like, and then go to your best friend and ask her opinion of the matter. “Oh, don’t get that one!” she says. “My cousin got that brand of television last month, and he’s had nothing but problems with it!” What do you do? If you’re like most people, that one personal review from a friend – passing along information from someone you don’t even know – will carry as much or more weight than the scientific tests as conducted by experts in the Consumer Reports magazine, whose jobs depend on making accurate comparisons between products.

Why? People are relational beings. We value experience. We value story. Facts and science are useful tools, and can provide a much-needed check on incorrect thinking, but even well-trained scientists have to work hard to overcome their natural urge to believe concrete narrative at the expense of abstract science.

As storytellers, then, it is our privilege as well as our duty to remember that the stories we tell may have a greater likelihood of impacting people’s perceptions than do the cold, hard facts of reality. On the positive side, we can tell a story that illustrates truths about life in a way that argues for the worldview that we believe is real and right and will result in positive outcomes. (Of course, we must make sure not to be didactic – narrative has the power to persuade only when people are swept up in the seeming reality of said narrative.) We need fairy tales, as Neil Gaiman put it, not because they say that dragons are real, but because they teach us that dragons can be beaten.

Charles Dickens exposed the social ills of his day by writing the character of Oliver Twist, who readers pitied and empathized with to such an extent that they changed their opinions of the way England treated its orphans. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was credited with influencing public opinion of the horrors of slavery in the Deep South to such an extent that individuals were willing to go to war to end it. Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game gives an example of a brilliant child who is able to think on an adult level, take command of military forces, and save the world when adults cannot – inspiring adults to change what they believe about the abilities of children, and children to believe that they don’t have to wait until they grow up to do something important and heroic. More recently, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy gives us a concrete picture of the power of media to shape public perception, and the risks, rewards, and terrible costs of standing up to an oppressive regime. The fact that certain individuals in Thailand adopted the Hunger Games’ three-finger salute as a form of silent rebellion against their country’s oppressive regime (an action they were arrested for) just emphasizes the power of fiction, narrative, and personal example to shape our world.

Of course, like any power, the power of narrative comes with responsibility. When writers do sloppy research, or support a position that is harmful to our readers’ wellbeing, our work has the power to stick in people’s minds for years and actually keep them from changing unhealthful behaviors or beliefs. Works that glorify violence, fail to show the ramifications and natural consequences of illegal or rash behavior, or more subtly affirm stereotypes or beliefs that are untrue can have pernicious effects on the public consciousness.

For instance, the idea of “love at first sight” is a dangerous myth that psychologists, religious leaders, and academics have combated for generations. While individuals may be physically attracted to each other in an instant, enduring love is only built through work, self-sacrifice, purposeful choices, and a decision to continue to love when the other individual seems unlovable. But this true type of love isn’t what’s shown in our culture’s stories. Our fairy tales, YA books, and romance novels imagine an unrealistic narrative of two people meeting by chance, being swept off their feet, and living happily ever after. Though there is no way of quantifying the damage that this narrative causes to young men and women who are seeking examples of what it looks like to have healthy, happy relationships, it would be fair to say that the effect isn’t positive.

As storytellers, then, we need to both embrace and be cautious of the power of the words that we weave. We need to think critically about the issues that we deal with in our stories and the messages that we overtly or covertly share. We need to use our stories to accurately portray truths about the world we live in, to give faces to the facts and build our readers up rather than tear them down. We need to be thoughtful writers, and also thoughtful readers, doing the hard work of evaluating the stories we are exposed to and the facts in question rather than just accepting them. It is in this way that we truly can change the world, one heart, one mind, one narrative at a time.

Savvy Saturday: Language and Meaning

Have you ever considered how language itself influences the way we think? As a fantasy writer and sociologist, I am fascinated by how our perceptions of reality as a society are influenced by the words we use, and the way in which we use them. I came across several interesting articles this week that speak to various ways in which language has shaped the way we see our world – and that can give interesting ideas to writers who are looking for other worlds to create.

First, our language shapes the way in which we view color. While all languages distinguish between colors to a certain extent, there are many colors we have words for today that were not so distinguished in other times and lands. The color blue, for instance, was wholly unknown and unrecognized in many ancient cultures, including ancient Greece ( Further, when we don’t have words to distinguish between colors, those differences are harder for our eyes to process. A different study found that in Russia, where the language has different words for light blue and dark blue (as opposed to English, where nearly every shade is just “blue”), Russian speakers found it easier to distinguish between colors that fell into different “official” shades than colors that fell within a given “official” shade, whereas English speakers found it equally difficult to tell all of the colors apart (

As a writer, what would it look like if a culture didn’t distinguish between green and blue? What would it look like if a traveler from a land that did distinguish between more colors came to a land that did not? Little touches such as color use or non-use might help give your work a strange, other-worldly type of feel that would draw readers in with fascination.

Second, our language shapes the way in which we view direction. English speakers tend to use the self as the reference point for directions – we tell people to turn right, go straight, and turn around if they’ve gone too far. Other languages use absolute directions: north, south, east, and west. Interestingly, individuals who speak these languages have a much better sense of direction than English speakers do. They are always subtly aware of what direction they are facing, as they align themselves to an absolute grid rather than a relative one (

As a writer, think about what advantages and disadvantages seeing the world in absolute directions would bring to a society. Individuals from this society would probably make excellent tracking and hunting parties, as their direction sense would help them not get lost and communicate and work efficiently and effectively with their fellows. If a society like this grew more developed, it would be likely that all towns/cities would need to be laid out in the same simple directional grid to avoid confusion. Rules such as “drive on the right hand side of the road” are easier for us to apply in an English context, as they equally apply on roads pointed north/south, east/west, or that curve around rivers and mountains. Written instructions in that kind of language would need to include initial orienting directions; before one could be told which pedal in a car is the brake, for instance, one would need to be told that one should make sure one’s car is facing north. (The east pedal, then, is the gas, and the one immediately to the west of it is the brake.)

Third, our language shapes the way in which we see numbers. Some societies only distinguish between one, two, and many, and some don’t have a concept of zero. A society that groups numbers by tens has a different conception of space and time and mathematics than societies that group numbers by sixties, as did ancient Babylon. The groupings that we find to be natural lead us to break up the world into those groupings, and to try to use those groupings in our daily lives. What would it look like if a society’s mathematical system were based in root 2 or root 15? The first is binary, which is computer language. A system based on it might lead, for instance, to a strong cultural norm of either-or answers: one or zero, yes or no, on or off, right or wrong.

These are only a few examples of how language affects the way in which we see reality. Other more subtle ones include passive versus active voice (for instance, Spanish tends to grammatically deflect responsibility for negative actions – “el plato se me rompió=the dish broke itself to me” instead of “I broke the dish”), and formality of language based on whether one is addressing an older or younger person, someone of a different social class, or someone of the same or different gender.

Of course, as a writer, you aren’t constrained by the grammar choices of Earth’s languages. What types of grammatical rules and quirks might you insert into a culture that would subtly affect the way in which its speakers view the world?

Savvy Saturday – Pipe Dreams

This week I’ve been researching medieval wind instruments – especially reed instruments (like the oboe). Reed instruments have been used since ancient times, in places as diverse as Egypt, the Middle East, and Rome.


Rome_pipes As you might notice in the picture above, it was actually fairly common for individuals to play two pipes at the same time. While this isn’t a common feature of Western music (except for bagpipes), it is often seen in music around the world. One pipe plays a “drone” pitch, and the other pipe plays the melody. Here’s some examples with very different sound qualities:

Native American (hollow flute-like sound)


Egyptian (buzzing sound)


Bagpipes (piercing sound)


Of course, single-pipe instruments are also common around the world. Here are some examples:


Persian ney (focused sound, but breathy undertone)


Chinese ocarina (clear, mellow sound)


One especially interesting instrument, a direct ancestor of the oboe, is known as a shawm. It is a single-pipe reed instrument, rather than the double-pipe instruments above, that was popular in the Middle Ages. Interested? Take a look!


For those of you who are more academically or musically minded, here is an interesting 8-minute video from a USC professor who demonstrates and discusses the recorder, bagpipes, and the shawm. Fascinating stuff!



So how am I going to use this information in my writing? My setting is going to be inspired by various cultures of the Middle Ages, but with far greater importance placed on music than is found in our world. As such, many of my characters are going to be accomplished musicians using the types of instruments demonstrated above, as well as string instruments such as the lute and fiddle. It should be fun!

Savvy Saturday – Playing with Fire

There’s something about fire that fascinates us as a species.

It’s unlike anything else on Earth – a visible force that can be controlled and tamed for good, yet when unleashed, destructive beyond imagining. It’s the foundation of civilization, a source of light in the darkness, so precious that ancient stories say that it came from the gods, and yet also a symbol of wildness that threatens to engulf mankind. It can be seen and its heat felt, yet no one can hold it or explain its shape. It is red, yellow, blue, white – a myriad of colors that can be expanded even further depending on what is being burned.

Fire has been part of ritual and ceremony for millennia. The ancient Jewish leader Moses saw God in a bush that was on fire yet was not consumed. When the Hebrew people constructed their tabernacle for God, they were commanded to keep candles lit in the holy place at all times. Sacrifices were burned, consumed in flames whose smoke rose to heaven. Other cultures also viewed fire as holy. Ancient Hindu ceremonies name Fire as the mediator between men and the gods, and some ancient Indo-European cultures worshiped fire itself as divine.

In modern America, while few people actually worship fire, we still make heavy symbolic use of it. If you think back to this past Friday evening – the 4th of July – I’m sure one instance will come immediately to mind.

You guessed it. Fireworks. From little crackers that pop and flash, to gigantic balls of colored flame that turn different colors in the sky, to golden showers of sparks that gently rain down from the heavens to vanish before they reach Earth, fireworks are the most obvious way in which Americans celebrate their independence.


But there are other types of modern rituals and art forms that make use of fire. For instance:


Light painting with fire. In this art form, individuals use long-exposure photography to create “lines of light” by moving sparklers or other small, controlled fire sources.


Taking this concept a step further, fire-twirling involves taking long exposure photography of sparking flame-sources that get twirled at the end of a rope. For instance:


Given these real-life examples, the ritualistic use of fire practically begs to be incorporated into whatever fantasy world you’re writing. For instance, the deaths of famous warriors or kings might be marked with a series of controlled explosions to ensure that the gods take note of the individual’s passing. Alternatively, fires might be lit and kept burning before the night of a great battle, so that darkness cannot touch the camp and bring evil luck. Perhaps individuals worry that the evil fire-spirits will inhabit their hearths, and the only way to keep them from being attracted to one’s fire is to light every new fire from the established fire of the temple, which has been lit in a certain way and blessed to keep other spirits away.

Fire-dancers could also be given a prominent place in a society’s hierarchy. Perhaps fire-dancing with lit torches, or fire-spinning as pictured above, is a show of valor, or of control, or of faithful perseverance. Perhaps only one or two children every year are selected to be raised as fire-dancers, and their skill with their flaming instruments is linked to their people’s victories or defeats in battle. Or perhaps the fire-dance is performed by every young warrior upon his/her first victory, in thanks to the powers of light that helped him/her overcome the foe. There are a thousand more options, each depending on the specific world and culture that an author has created. (Perhaps different cultures in a single world have slightly different fire-rituals, and each is amazed and shocked at what the others do!)

In sum, next time you think about fire’s role in a fantasy world, think beyond traditional “fireball” weapons that mages throw at each other. Instead, imagine a world more like our own, where controlled fire is a mystical and powerful force to be incorporated into the stories and ceremonies of the people – and see where your “spark” of creativity takes you.

Savvy Saturday – Stunt Fighting

Today I got to watch people pretend to punch and kick each other for three hours. It was delightful. I took lots of notes.

Jessie_graff_stuntsI hadn’t planned on doing research for my writing today when I went to campus; I had planned on cleaning my office, working on a paper, and categorizing citations on my computer. But when I saw that a Hollywood stuntwoman and alumna of the university (Jessie Graff, credits include Live Free or Die Hard and X-Men: First Class) was going to be giving a “master class” this afternoon in the theater department – “Free and open to the public!” – I figured that the citations could wait. Even though I’m not writing anything right now either involving martial arts or the stunt profession, learning about both of them in the context of a workshop class was a fantastic opportunity.

In my experience with martial arts and rapier, the instruction is aimed at giving individuals a deep knowledge of the sport. History, proper mindset, technique, solid footwork and grounding, all is important before you start getting to the parts that “look good” to an audience. A three-hour theater workshop in stunt fighting, however, is completely different. There, it’s all about what your actions look like. In other words, perfect for a novelist. The class also moved quickly: the instructor took the class through basic punches, rolls, and kicks, as well as how to “properly” respond to them.

“To learn how to properly react to being hit in the side of the face,” Graff said, “place your hand on your chin, push your head to one side, and let it go limp.” Note how your head swivels, but it doesn’t lean to one side. Further, it doesn’t just turn and stay there as if you’re purposefully looking over your shoulder. Instead, it “bounces” slightly, rebounding/jiggling in reaction to the sharp movement. (Try it and you’ll see what I mean.) Graff said that she likes to think of the reaction in a “1-2-3” pattern – side, forward, side, all happening very quickly. If you’ve been “hit” especially hard, blow air into your mouth, inflating your cheeks and exhaling quickly.

Camera angles are also a much larger part of stunt fighting than I had ever thought about before. Good stunt doubles and actors will see where the camera is pointed, draw a line from the camera to the actor’s face, and know from that both what height to hit at and when the actor should respond to the hit. For instance, the instructor said that she once had to throw her punches at triceps height for an actor she was supposed to be hitting in the face, because the camera was shooting up from the level of their feet. A bit strange, she said, to be aiming punches at his arm and having his head respond to her “blows.”

Being ten feet away from a skilled stuntwoman, watching her demonstrate attacks and blocks over and over again, was a fantastic experience for me as a writer. While I don’t need to be able to do the things that fighters can, I do need to be able to write them in a way that others can picture them. In a way, then, writing is like being a stunt person. You don’t need to be able to actually throw a punch, you just need to be able to fake it well enough that the people who are enjoying the entertainment you produce think it’s real.

With that in mind, here are some mechanics I learned today about how various types of attacks and blocks work. These aren’t going to give you enough detail to become the next superhero, but they should help you write about one.


How to stand like a fighter:

–          Always shift, and stay on the balls of your feet. Don’t let your heels touch the ground.

–          Your feet should be shoulder width apart, with your off-foot (left, if you’re right handed) forward and your primary foot at between a ninety degree and forty-five degree angle.

–          Keep your elbows in and your hands up in closed fists, with your thumbs on the outside of your fists.

–          Keep a straight line going from your arms up the back of your hands: if you want to practice, you can rubber-band a chopstick to the back of your hand and your wrist. If you let this get sloppy, you can break your hand if you hit wrong.

–          Stay low: imagine that you have a bar placed over the top of your head, and if you stand up, you’ll smack into it.


How to block a punch

–          The block comes from your hip, shoulder, and arm. If someone punches toward you, twist your hip and shoulder so that you’re almost showing your back to the attacker. This should result in your back heel lifting off the floor.

–          At the same time, lift your elbow up against your ear, so that your hand is behind your shoulder. This is almost a “combing your hair” type of motion.

–          Keep your arm tight against your head; this presents a flat surface (that isn’t your head) to the attacker.

–          During all of this, keep looking at the person you’re fighting so you don’t miss anything that happens.


How to throw a punch

–          The motion of your hip initiates the movement, whether you’re throwing a jab, cross, or hook.

–          Keep your muscles taut all the time.

–          If you’re jabbing, turn your body to the right as you punch with your left. It’s opposite for a cross.

–          Keep your arms straight, but slightly bent: don’t hyper-extend your arms or you’ll hurt yourself.

–          For a hook punch: turn your hips, extend your arm, then come in from the side. All of this should be on one horizontal plane: no punching upward or downward.


How to duck a hook punch:

–          Keep your eyes on your opponent

–          Bend your entire upper body forward in a u-shaped motion toward the direction of the punch, by twisting your hips. (So if the person is swinging with his right, you duck from your right to your left and come up again.)

–          This presents the small of your back as the target, rather than your head.

–          Keep your fists by your face to block.


How to roll into a fighting stance:

–          Imagine a line that goes from your right pinky down your arm, then across your back in a diagonal line to your left hip and down your left ankle. This is how you land in a roll to be able to come up fighting.

–          Once your back is on the ground, tuck your left foot behind your right knee, in the shape of a four. This allows you to push up on your right leg and be in fighting position.

–          Once you know what you’re doing, you can do things like grab a sword on the ground as you go into a roll, then come up out of it holding the sword and ready to fight.


Two other ways of using rolls:

  1. Dive roll. In this roll, Person 1 flips Person 2 over Person 1’s shoulder. Person 2 goes into a roll and comes up fighting. To do this: Person 1 is standing in front of Person 2, facing the same direction. Person 1 holds the wrist of Person 2 with his left hand across his body, and reaches behind him to grab Person 2’s shoulder with his right hand. Using his hips, Person 1 throws Person 2 forward and into a roll.
  2. Back roll. In this roll, Person 1 is facing Person 2. Person 1 grabs Person 2’s shirt and falls backward on purpose, with his left leg straight and his right leg bent to his chest. As Person 1 falls, he places his right foot on Person 2’s lower abdomen and pushes, sending Person 2 flying over Person 1’s head and onto the ground. Person 2 lands in a roll.

In addition to learning this information, I had a blast watching the theater students get into the acting portion of the workshop. From the right angle, you could almost believe that these students were actually knocking each other silly. And then one or the other of them would laugh and the spell would be broken. All in all, it was a remarkable afternoon: both enjoyable for its own sake, and hopefully profitable for later writing. A perfect way to celebrate being done with the semester.



Savvy Saturday – Research Fun

“Why are you researching how long it takes someone to die from gangrene?”

“Why are you at a cultural event for Native Americans?”

“What brings you to this recreation of a Civil War campsite? Are you interested in history?”


The correct answer to all of these questions, of course, is a bright-eyed smile and the reply, “I’m a novelist, and I’m doing research! Can you tell me more about [topic]?”


Today’s Savvy Saturday post is a compilation of some of the fun random things I’ve learned and seen recently as part of my research. Not all of these have to do with the same work-in-progress – and some don’t have anything at all to do with things I’m currently writing – but I am certain that any bit of trivia or interesting experience I can acquire now will add to the quality of my writing at some point in the future. So without further ado, here are some things I’ve researched recently:


1. How to rappel down a cliff face with nothing but a length of rope. Useful for escaping from towers and such.

2. Civil War campsites. Sharpshooters wore green uniforms, while others wore blue. However, sharpshooters didn’t necessarily have rifles that were any more accurate than their fellow soldiers; they might just have guns that could just shoot more times a minute. At top speeds, normal guns could be fired 3 to 5 times a minute. However, in the heat of battle, soldiers often forgot to fire their guns and just went through the loading and aiming routine over and over again, until four or five balls and powder for them would be rammed down the barrel of the gun. What happens then? Two words: not good.


On the left, a sharpshooter in uniform
A Union soldier (reenactor) demonstrating how to load a rifle.

3. Scottish accents are beautiful, but can be almost incomprensible at times. If you’re trying to write a character with this accent, you might use the words “nae” instead of “no” and “wee” instead of “little.” But to really get the sound and pattern in your head, you could try listening to someone from Scotland give a lecture:

Or, listen to a voice coach explaining the distinctive features of a Scottish accent.


4. How to knap arrowheads. It turns out that there are two methods that are used in shaping flint: percussion chipping, and pressure chipping (flaking). You can see a website with diagrams here:, watch an example of percussion chipping here:, then an example of pressure chipping here.

It turns out that some arrowheads were made just through percussion chipping (you can see an example of a percussion chipped edge here):

Percussion edges (on the right)

While others are made through pressure chipping (note the more jagged edges):

Pressure edges (on top)

This is actually two edges of the same piece of flint – it was given to me by this knapper as an example of both types of techniques, once he found out that I was a novelist and doing research.

WP_20131012_042 (1)

What can I say? Being a novelist is a great job.


Have you ever researched anything strange for a book? Post your favorite trivia or experiences in the comments!