Monday, March 14, 2011

Things that Aren't Real. And Cannons.

Maybe it's a sign that, until the reenacting season gets into full swing next month and I can spend weekends steeped in the eighteenth century and weeks washing and repairing all the accoutrements damaged by eighteenth-century steepage, I have too much time on my hands. Maybe, too, because we plan to dig our cannon out of the trailer this weekend and give it a paint touch-up. But I've been thinking. About what's real and what's not. And about our cannon. And reading, and, by extension, writing.

Our cannon is real. We get asked that a lot. Yes, it's real in that it's solid matter, a dedicated reproduction of an original, and could in fact kill you. It's a common three-pounder, to be more accurate. It's made of cast iron, as many eighteenth century cannons were, and has a barrel in which to load rounds and a touchhole by which to fire them off. It's set on a wooden carriage so we can cart it from here to there. It would, if we wanted, fire a three-pound solid shot--or any variation of ammunition thereof.

What we do with it, of course, is not real. We don't fire real ammunition, just rounds of black powder packed at the end with a little cornmeal to give back-pressure enough to effect a big boom. In essence, the cannon is nothing but a noisemaker when we have it on the field at a tactical demonstration, just as all the other muskets and rifles do no more harm than the drums.


Except when you're standing at the mouth of the gun, waiting for the next round to be brought from the ammunition box, and the infantry is advancing and their volleys are persistent and heavy, and the round takes too long in coming. Your heart begins to beat a little faster, and when the round comes you move like clockwork, grounding the piece with a firmly laid hand and setting the round resolutely inside the barrel. You step off, clap your hands over your ears when the sergeant bellows to give fire, but watch for the telltale flame that says the gun has fired successfully. Then you step through the cloud of sulpher smoke back to your position and damn it all but the infantry haven't fallen back, and in fact their muskets are now levelling in your general direction.

You begin your rote task of cleaning the debris from the barrel of the gun, the tool scraping the bits still stuck inside, but they won't come out. You try again. Brisk motions that usually work fail to catch the pieces of unburned cartridge inside the gun. The infantry fires another volley. It sounds bloody close, but you don't turn to look. That's your officer's job. You try again, give a curt nod to your fellow artilleryman standing at the touchhole, let him know to try that last-resort trick you learned. You shove the pieces to the back of the barrel, he sticks his pick down the touchhole to hold them in place, and you twist the junk onto your tool.

Drums in the background rattle off the command to prime and load as you yank the debris from the gun. Stubbornly, you shove your hand to the side, asking for the next round. You feel it land in your hand.

And none of this is real. But it's crazy, in the moment of a smoke-clogged (fake) battlefield, with (fake) muskets advancing toward you and (fake) cannon rounds your only (fake) salvation, how things begin to feel...not at all fake.

Fiction isn't real, either. Those characters, those places, those problems--all fake. Made-up. Just black powder plots with some cornmeal prose wizardry to give enough meat to the story. So why is it that, while you're sitting in a perfectly safe chair, turning pages like your life depends on it, it feels so real?

Because the writer put you there. Dumped you right in the middle of a smoke-clogged battlefield and gave you enough tactile detail and emotional heft to make it feel real to you. Now, I will argue though it's not currently in vogue that there are times to keep the reader at a distance. But it should be a deliberate choice, with carefully crafted walls. In most cases, you as the writer want to plop your reader into a minefield of experience and let them feel they might blow something up at any moment.

Thoughts? What books have felt especially immediate and real to you? What techniques made them so--or what techniques do you use? Any questions on cannons? Should I do a full-length cannon post sometime?


anachronist said...

How much does a cannon cost nowadays? Does it require some special powder? Is it difficult to service it?

Books have always been real to me, well, most of them. If the story rings true I feel sucked inside and I can't stop reading. On the other hands I am almost always at odds with movie versions of my fav books.

Manon Eileen said...

I'm not easily sucked into books, I admit. It's because I'm extremely critical of a story and have very many other things I have to do, so I read before I go to bed.

However, on vacation, out on a beach with nothing to do except for reading... That's when a book can grab me. I absolutely adore reading fantasy and sci-fi, because they're the most creative fiction there is, in my opinion. The writers create worlds that have basically nothing to do with our own (although I like those that still do, too, like Harry Potter, as a simple example). It gives you kind of an escape from reality.
I'm a huge fan of Brandon Sanderson's work. He creates such beautiful, complex worlds and his characters are amazing. I'm aspiring to become a great writer, like he is.

I love how you described your "fake" battlefield, I can imagine how that must feel! Thanks :)

Carrie C said...

One downside of writing (and growing up) is that I find it harder to completely give myself over to a book's created world. I still love reading but those spells are harder to cast. The last book that did so was Sea of Poppies, by Amitov Ghosh.

I definitely vote for a cannon post! My question - do you need a license to own one? And are injuries a risk with your blank ammo?

Kat Zhang said...

Really loved this post, Rowenna. Brought me back to when I was a kid and got so deeply lost in books that I didn't react to people in the same room calling my name.

Rowenna said...

Anachronist--I LOVE that feeling of immersion with a book! you're right--it's rarer with movies.

Manon--great points about escapist lit--and a beach is the perfect place to do it!

Carrie--I know what you mean--sometimes I find myself analyzing instead of letting go.

Kat--It was so much easier as a kid, wasn't it?

All--I think I will do a cannon post, soon, and will answer all your questions then! :)