Thursday, 22 August 2013

Violence for Writers by Mark Chisnell

If nothing else it’s an eye-catchingly counter-intuitive title... and after all that baby-talk last month, I probably needed something gritty and thriller-ish to get back on message. It’s always a popular question when I tell people that I write thrillers; how do you know about the fighting and violence? I’ve had a stock reply for many years; the mostly middle-class reading audience only experiences violence through books, films and video games anyway, so as long as a story sticks to the conventions of the genre, no one is going to have much of a problem.

Most people seemed happy with the answer, but I was never entirely happy with that as the end of the research process. So I used to email questions to a friend who’s an ex-Royal Marine – what kind of weapons and strategy would you use to attack the bridge of a container ship? It turns out that that’s just the kind of simple question that gets you flagged on NSA and GCHQ watchlists...

Still, my friend’s answers were always helpful. I hope they gave the action-set pieces in my books a reasonable amount of authenticity – and the replies often came with entertaining holiday snaps of my friend; the one of him driving around Baghdad in a beaten-up sedan with an inflatable shark on the roof, and a semi-automatic dangling out of the window was particularly memorable...

I’m always on the look-out for ways to improve my writing though, and as the research is the best part of the job, I don’t need much of an incentive to read a book that might help. So when I saw this recommendation from Barry Eisler – a thriller-writer whose work I admire for its authenticity – I went straight out and bought it; ‘Violence: A Writer's Guide’ by Rory Miller.

Rory Miller is the author of several books on the impact and reality of violence, and speaks from lots of personal experience as a prisoner officer and martial artist – this is his blog. I wouldn’t be writing about the book if I wasn’t about to endorse and pass on the recommendation.

Miller starts his book by taking apart many of the assumptions that we writers, readers and movie-watches make about violence. We’ve all seen and know about the magazines that never run out - magically refilling with bullets every time the hero gets into trouble - but even movies heralded for their realism get it wrong somewhere. Everyone, says Miller, dies screaming for their mother. No exceptions. Well, maybe just Tom Hanks at the end of Saving Private Ryan (unlike the rest of the cast).


Did you know that ‘a man with a knife could consistently close a distance of seven yards and stab or slash faster than an officer could draw his firearm. This means that within seven yards, a knife is an immediate deadly threat.’ No, neither did I, but I have a feeling that it’s going to have an impact on an action-set piece that I write one day. I was finishing up my latest story (a short called The Sniper) when I came across Miller’s book, and so I went back through it to test its assumptions against my new knowledge. I didn’t do too badly, it’s a Vietnam War story and I had researched that conflict quite heavily before I started writing. Nevertheless, I still added and changed a few details, but I’m going to leave you to find them...


Connect with Mark Chisnell online at:



5 comments:

Die Booth said...

This is really fascinating. The right research absolutely makes a piece and yeah, if you know someone who you can ask, first hand, about a subject I reckon that's always the most valuable kind of research (second only to being involved in the violence yourself, which I don't think most people would be up for!!)

"Everyone, says Miller, dies screaming for their mother. No exceptions."
Chilling - really brings home the reality of the situation. Details like that make it much more real.

Susan Price said...

I second what Die says. I'll be looking up that blog and book, Mark. I have my own source of advice too - an ex-paratrooper, who advised me how to take a pele-tower by storm with modern weapons. But he's not always around when needed. Another source of sound advice would be very useful!

Lydia Bennet said...

yes very valuable post. most of my research (years of pretty much hands-on residencies) has been in the pathology/science of dying line so it's more the biomedical effects of violence I know about! and I know a lot about death and dead bodies. Not so much about fighting etc. I did know that about people dying calling for their mothers, as a mother I find it quite moving! I know that people with dementia who've eventually forgotten their partners, even their children, always seem to remember and want their mothers up to as near the end as they can express it. If your kids are driving you nuts you can console yourself with the knowledge they'll appreciate you in the end! :)

Roz Morris aka NailYourNovel said...

This made me chuckle, Mark - especially your remark about GCHQ bristling. I'm sure when I was ghosting thrillers, my many phone calls to my 'author' got me keenly watched. Our phone started to make odd clicking noises at all hours,

Mark Chisnell said...

I agree with Die that first-hand research is always best - Miller actually makes the point that the criminal fraternity is particularly untrustworthy, and all sources (including, states Miller, himself) should be checked.

So I'd be interested to hear what you make of Miller's biomedical material, Lydia - can he be trusted?! The bits I did know about all rang true.. so I hope he's a good second source for you, Susan.

And I'm always listening for the second click on the phone, Roz, and now I take the 'power' position in cafes and restaurants (or at least check to see who has got that seat), and watch who's behind me in every reflective surface... etc!!