Writing Battle Scenes: Example 1

This is the first example in Diana Gabaldon's explanation of how she writes battle scenes. This scene is from the Battle of Monmouth section of WRITTEN IN MY OWN HEART'S BLOOD.
The first shot took them by surprise, a muffled boom from the cider orchard and a slow roll of smoke. They didn’t run, but they stiffened, looking to him for direction. Jamie said to those near him, “Good lads,” then raised his voice. “To my left, now! Mr. Craddock, Reverend Woodsworth--circle them; come into the orchard from behind. The rest--scatter to the right and fire as ye can--” The second crash drowned his words, and Craddock jerked like a puppet with his strings cut and dropped to the ground, blood spraying from the blackened hole in his chest. Jamie’s horse shied violently, nearly unseating him.

“Go with the reverend!” he shouted at Craddock’s men, standing there drop-jawed, staring at their captain’s body. “Go now!” One of the men shook himself, grabbed the sleeve of another, pulled him away, and then they all began to move in a body. Woodsworth, bless him, raised his musket overhead and roared, “To me! Follow me!” and broke into the stork-legged shamble that passed with him for running--but they followed him.

The gelding had settled, but was moving uneasily. He was--supposedly--used to the sound of guns, but he didn’t like the strong smell of blood. Jamie didn’t like it either.

“Shouldn’t we...bury Mr. Craddock?” a timid voice suggested behind him.

“He’s not dead, lackbrain!”

Jamie glanced down. He wasn’t--but it wouldn’t be more than a few seconds longer.

“Go with God, man,” he said quietly. Craddock didn’t blink; his eyes were fixed on the sky, not yet dull but sightless.

“Go wi’ your fellows,” he said to the two lingerers, then saw that they were Craddock’s two sons, maybe thirteen and fourteen, white-faced and staring as sheep. “Say farewell to him,” he said abruptly. “He’ll still hear ye. Then…go.” He thought for a moment to send them to La Fayette, but they’d be no safer there. “Run!”

They ran--they were a deal safer running--and with a gesture to Lieutenants Orden and Bixby, he wheeled his horse to the right, following Guthrie’s company. The cannon were firing more regularly from the orchard. He saw a ball bounce past, ten feet away, and the air was thickening with smoke. He could still smell Craddock’s blood.

He found Captain Moxley and sent him with a full company to look at the farmhouse on the far side of the orchard.

“At a distance, mind. I want to know if the redcoats are in it, or if the family’s still there. If the family’s there, surround the house; go inside if they’ll let ye, but don’t force your way. If there are soldiers inside and they come out after you, engage them and take the house if ye think ye can. If they stay inside, don’t stir them up; send someone back to tell me. I’ll be at the back o’ the orchard, the north side.”

Guthrie was waiting for him, the men lying flat in the long grass behind the orchard. He left the two lieutenants with his horse, which he tied to a fence-rail well out of range of the orchard, and scrambled along to the company, keeping low. He dropped to his belly by Bob Guthrie.

“I need to know where the cannon are--exactly where they are, and how many. Send three or four men in from different directions, goin’ canny--ye know what I mean? Aye. They’re not to do anything; see what they can and come out again, fast.”

Guthrie was panting like a dog, stubbled face awash with sweat, but he grinned and nodded, and wormed his way off through the grass.

The meadow was dry, brown and brittle in the summer heat; Jamie’s stockings prickled with foxtails, and the warm sharp scent of ripe hay was stronger than that of black powder.

He gulped water from his canteen; it was nearly empty. It wasn’t yet noon, but the sun was coming down on them like a flatiron. He turned to tell one of the lieutenants who’d been following him to go and find the nearest water, but nothing moved in the grass behind him save hundreds of grasshoppers, whirring up like sparks. Gritting his teeth against the stiffness in his knees, he scrambled up onto hands and feet and scuttled back toward his horse.

Orden was lying ten feet away, shot through one eye. Jamie froze for an instant, and something whirred close past his cheek. It might be a grasshopper and it might not. He was flat to the earth beside the dead lieutenant, heart pounding in his ears before the thought had fully formed.

(From WRITTEN IN MY OWN HEART'S BLOOD by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 75, "The Cider Orchard". Copyright© 2014 by Diana Gabaldon. All rights reserved.)

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