Piece on gore in books (particularly Age of Iron) written as guest blog for Karen Miller

Gore in books

I’m going through the copy edit of Clash of Iron – Age of Iron book two – at the moment. The copy edit is the second last edit before publication, when an expert reads your book and says ‘this bit doesn’t work, that word’s wrong’ and so on, then you get to go through what they’ve said and lament how they just don’t understand you and change it all back…. Not really, my current copy editor, a man named Richard Collins, is excellent (the final edit is the proof edit – basically a spell check).

Anyway, reading this copy edit almost a year after I finished writing the book, I’m surprised to be surprised by the gore. It’s not wall to wall by any means – most of the book is humour-stuffed and more about the relationships between the main characters – but the battles are pretty visceral and there are some shocking episodes

I think there are two reasons that it’s gorier than I remember.

First, and most annoyingly, is that I’ve become a father since I wrote it. That’s annoying because everyone says that once you have a baby violence on telly, in books and so on becomes harder to stomach. ‘You won’t understand until you become a parent yourself’ they said, and I wanted to bite them. So I’m now incensed that they were absolutely right.

Second, sitting alone and typing, it’s easy to get carried away and write loads of individual words and sentences that mount up to have a stronger effect than you originally intended. I didn’t think it was particularly gory when I wrote it. Reading it back, there’s an argument that it does go too far and there are sure to be people who don’t like it.

So am I going to edit it to avoid complaints?

Fact was that the Romans, who feature heavily in book two, were horrible. They were not the noble men who were all blaring trumpets, marble buildings and manly American accents that we see in films, nor the weedy soldiers, bumbling bureaucrats and greedy merchants from Asterix books. Well some of them might have been, but an awful lot were keen torturers and murderers.

Crucifixion was a much, much nastier death than certainly I knew before I researched it, yet the Romans used it willy nilly. Ten years before the events in my book they crucified six thousand former slaves who’d revolted along with Spartacus. When Caesar conquered what’s now France he killed about a million people and enslaved many more. And why did he invade France and Britain? For adventure, wealth and glory, the same reasons the Romans conquered the rest of the world. They raped, pillaged, tortured and killed millions, simply because they could and they enjoyed it.

So, given that my trilogy is about the ancient Britons defeating Caesar and sending the Romans packing for a hundred years, I have to make clear the threat that our British heroes are dealing with. The stakes have to be so high that losing is simply not an option, despite the hardships, terrors and grief that they have to go through.

Plus, it’s really what happened. I’ve researched the colour of senators’ togas, and the legionaries’ weapons and tactics etc, so surely I should describe the battles accurately? The Roman sword was designed to gut people, to deliver a blow in an instant that would leave the enemy dying slowly. How can I leave that out if I’m being historically accurate?

Of course, I’m being a hypocrite. Everybody in the Roman world did poos, but I don’t describe that, so the argument that I have to describe everything is nonsense. The argument that the reader needs to understand just how much peril the heroes are in is possibly stronger, but I could probably have done that without describing the crucifixion of a kid…

Fact is, the book had some gory bits, which I’m not going to take out. It you really hate them, just skim over then or read them then abuse me on Twitter – @GusWatson. Thanks!



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2 Responses to Piece on gore in books (particularly Age of Iron) written as guest blog for Karen Miller

  1. Richard says:

    Completely agree re coming a father – must be antediluvian reaction programmed into a societal animal as homo sapiens sapiens are, to ensure the continuation of the species 😉

    Having researched extensively the effects that period weapons -(the type you whack people with) over the last five years or so from Roman to War of Roses and having experimented, worn, moved and sparred in various armour from across that period I can definitely say two things – 1/ the sort of wounds that things like gladius’s, billhooks, war axes and longswords cause are really – really – really nasty. 2/you only actually have to stick about 3 inches of a pointy thing into someone’s abdomen to incapacitate them from the battle and – in those days eventually kill them from infection 9/10 and 3/ armour – especially metal armour and especially plate armour is considerably more effective than most writers give it credit – especially the later you get in history. It’s also considerably heavier and more restrictive than most modern people consider. Maille is very, very heavy (the proper stuff that is) plate – you don’t even want to know about. Having clunked about in the sort of get up your average 15th C man at arms would have been wearing at Towton or Bosworth, I can tell you that I have nothing short of massive respect for the physical capabilities of the men who wore this for real. Modern semi-desk bound – occasional gym and a quick walk 47 something like me is utterly fxxxxx after wearing the said get up for 3 hours and plodding around the place – let alone using any of the fearsomely nasty weapons. Now obviously your average sojer of the period wasn’t 47 – they were 27 – but none the less.

    Lastly – ‘Leather Armour’ – never really existed – it’s a victorian fabrication – what they see as leather was actually leather with steel or iron plates stitched under it – a brigandine. The victorians saw illustrations of this and thought – ‘oh – that must be leather’ . What was far, far more common and very very effective from the Iron Age through until the early 1600s is padded armour made from linen. By 1300 this was called a ‘gambeson’ – think lots and lots of layers of thick/canvass type linen sewn together into a ruddy thick jacket that makes you look like Bibendum – it comes up to the neck and is secured by leather straps – so thick is it that the oxters are actually cut away to give you some possibility of actually moving your arms. Such a jacket was hugely popular – firstly against slashing weapons it is almost impossible to cut through, arrows, unless very sharp and powerful will have a strong chance of deflection and it will protect you – to a degree from some concussive bruising – but from cuts and slashes it is very difficult to penetrate – also broad bladed stabbing weapons – it weighs 1/20th of maille and provides excellent defence – you can see why so many soldiers of the period preferred it to maille or plate – the movement it gives you and the ability to run away are major plus points. It also explains why so many pokey weapons were used – think the point of a pilum or a bodkin arrow or the three sided spike that is the rondel dagger – the spikes on the top of pole axes. These are long, square or triangular and designed to punch through maille and gambeson armour – very unlikely to get through plate -especially of the carbon steel type.
    Helmets -yes they could be badly dented and crushed with massive force. Swords/ arrows/ axes – unlikely to get through a steel helmet unless it was poorly tempered – (note to Bernard Cornwell bascinet helmets of the Agincourt period do not ‘crumple like paper’ when whacked with the standard battlefield longsword of the period – bascinets – and I own a replica – of this period are made out of 12-12 gauge carbon steel.
    An interesting visit is to go to the Richard III centre in Leicester – there they have a replica suit of period armour and you can appreciate the weight and density of the steel. The most interesting – and gory thing is though, the replica cast they have made of Dicky’s skeleton and the analysis of the wounds on it. It took them quite a while to get him out of his armour – multiple wounds made by spikey things during this time – at the weak points (groin/shoulders/oxters/visor etc). When they eventually got his helmet off -someone whacked a four inch 4 sided spike like you find on a pole axe point or the spikey side of a war hammer or axe into the back of his skull about half way up and this was the killing blow.


    BTW – really enjoying the books, as an archaeology grad (Newcastle 1993) and aficionado of 1st and 2nd C Britain I throughly approve.

    yours aye


    • Richard says:

      oh – and if you find yourself near the Roman forts of Housteads or Vindolanda – I live within a mile – come and have a cup of tea and you can have a play with various bits of armour and swords etc!

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