Sometimes as a writer, the things we do in the name of research can raise eyebrows, and I write for boys so some of my research can be a little strange. But then it’s only by doing that we learn the little facts that we can mindful of when writing. Here’s a short list of some of things that I have done, all in the name of art.
Walked the Fugitives’ Trail in KwaZulu Natal.
I used to live in South Africa and I was researching the Anglo-Zulu War. This war is known primarily for the defence of Rorke’s Drift portrayed in the 1964 film “Zulu”. The battle of Rorke’s Drift was preceded by the massacre at Isandlwana that practically wiped out an entire British army battalion. The few that escaped the massacre used a route that became known as the Fugitives’ Trail. The word “trail” here is a misnomer -there is no trail. The route is unmarked and there is no path to follow. When I heard that the MOTHS (Men of the Old Tin Hats, similar to RSA) were organising a walk of this trail, I was keen to join. What followed was a two and half hour hike over rough terrain and a boggy swamp under a hot Africa sun with no shade in sight. I developed a huge blister on my right heel but I had to keep going because there was no way out other than walking that ‘trail’ – the one that didn’t exist. About two thirds in, I decided that if I was being chased by angry Zulus with big spears, I’d just lay down and die, such was my exhaustion. Of those that did survive the massacre, and very few did, most of them were on horseback. Virtually no one on foot made it and I can understand why. Several years later that experience inspired my book “Beneath a Blood Red Sky” (unpublished at this stage).
What I learned: it takes a certain amount of perseverance to make it through a difficult and arduous journey, and some don’t make it.
Fire a rifle similar to that used in the New Zealand Wars
As I was researching the New Zealand Wars, I decided I wanted to know about the rifles that were used at the time. So I met someone from the Antique Arms Association, alternatively known as Black Powder (Powder, not Power) Club at the shooting range at Waiuku. During the New Zealand Wars the rifles used a cartridge i.e. a lead ball wrapped in waxed paper with a measured powder charge enclosed within the paper. The procedure was to rip off the end of the paper with the teeth, pour the powder down the barrel, follow it with the paper and the lead ball, tamp it down with the ramrod, put a percussion cap on the nipple and fire. (Anyone who’s watched or read the Sharpe series will know the procedure) Result: a mouthful of saltpetre, which, as the name suggests, is salty, a big cloud of smoke through which you can see nothing and the smell of rotten eggs. I’ve never had so much fun!
What I learned: saltpetre makes you thirsty, gun smoke can blind you, the barrel gets very hot after a while which makes loading tricky, and you become covered in spent powder. And those guns are very, very heavy, especially after a few rounds of loading as above and firing!
Learnt Self Defense
I decided that my character had to know a few self defence moves so I did some research and settled on Krav Maga, a self defence system developed in Israel. I signed up for classes! Now my work colleagues comment on my bruises and want to know who beats me up – about twenty guys each class, although not all at the same time, some of whom are twice my size and half my age. But I can take them down! That’s empowering for a woman.
What I’ve learned: it’s not possible to continue a fight for a sustained period as it’s physically and mentally tiring. There’s a reason why boxers only go three minutes. In a fight, you strike fast and get out, like Jack Reacher! Now I know to be mindful of this if my character is in such a situation.
Now, my current book has sword fighting in it…mmmm…
So tell me, what have been some of the absurd things you have done for your art?