Monday, November 17, 2008

Hands-On Research

Working Stiffs welcomes guest blogger Jeri Westerson today. Jeri tells us about some very, um, interesting research she did in her own backyard!

Hands-On Research

by Jeri Westerson

There's nothing like a little hands on investigating. For the most part, I do my research for my medieval mystery, VEIL OF LIES, in books and in the papers I can dig up in archives. But sometimes this just won't do.

I am very interested in medieval weapons. I own a few at home. Some are fairly authentic and some not so much. It's just fun to have them around. For instance, I own a sword. This is a pretty authentic piece in terms of weight and length. I doubt it was forged (not for what I paid for it), but more likely cut out of a piece of steel and then finished, polished, and sharpened by hand. A sword is a wonderful thing. It speaks of the Middle Ages to me, for all it represents: knighthood, chivalry, the movement of troops across Europe, borders changing, religion, class levels in society. It's only about 40 inches long and weighs three pounds, and yet this single object has moved mountains and populations.

I also own a small battleaxe. It's about the size of a hammer and can do some damage if you sliced someone over the head or across their neck. Likewise the flail I own. It is a metal ball with spikes hooked to a chain which in turn is fastened to a wooden handle. Swing that around and smite someone in the face with it and they stay smote.

I also have a dagger. A small, but very sharp dagger. Too small to use in a sword fight, it would be for closer association. Perhaps a sinister woman using it to kill her unfaithful lover.

All great stuff. And there would be plenty of opportunity for my villains to use such instruments to dispatch their victims. But then I began to wonder, with my sharpened objects, what it would be like to actually stab someone. Oddly enough, I couldn't get any volunteers for this. So I went to Costco.

Now it's not easy picking out your victim, although it's a little easier when you look for him in the meat section. I got myself the biggest slab of beef I could get. I couldn't get one with ribs, so I bought those separately and planned to make my own Frankenstein's monster.

I chose my victim who was already conveniently encased in plastic and hauled him home. I wanted ribs so I could get a sense of what it felt like for the steel blade to glance off bone and I also wanted to see what it would be like to take my sword to it.

When I brought it home, my victim's body was already prone, lying there innocently on the butcher block. How to attack it properly? There was no help for it. I needed the fellow to be upright and the only way to do this was to take him outside and nail him to the wooden post of my son's swing set.

I first must explain that my son wasn't home. No one was home but me and my meat victim. I only hoped that the neighbors weren't peering out of their windows into my yard when I decided to get all CSI out there.

First thing I did was attack it with the dagger. It is so sharp a blade it went in cleanly. I tried the fattier parts because at this point, we aren't going through skin, so I was trying to mimic as closely as I could what my characters might be experiencing. Of course, Sir Loin of Beef was not struggling, but that was okay. I could extrapolate the rest. Next I wanted to feel the blade against the bone. The ribs were nailed up behind the slab. I lunged. Very hard. Lots of spine chilling scraping there. Yes, very tough if you had a small blade like this and managed to catch a rib.

After stabbing it a few more times at a few more angles, it was time for the sword!

Now I had used the sword before to slice off the scalps of pumpkins. You see, the blade isn't sharp at all and I thought it best to keep it that way with the sword hanging on the wall in the living room. When my son was a teenager and had his friends over the thing was a boy magnet, to be sure. I never thought I would hear myself say, in my best Mom voice, "A sword is not a toy!" But there you have it. So I wanted to see what kind of power it took to use a dull blade to lop off the scalps of something head-like, even though our pumpkins didn't have skulls inside of them (but that would be way cool if they did!) and I also wanted to get the feel of really swinging the thing (because broadswords are not rapiers or foils. You generally do not use them for stabbing. You used them for chopping and swinging). It didn't take much to do it to the pumpkins. It was pretty easy, in fact, even with a dull blade.

But now it was time for Sir Beef.

I cocked back the sword one-handed and gave it a good whack. Right through the bone on the first go and into the wooden post. Wow. That was fun. Another! Yup. This guy was dead. Really dead. Really most sincerely dead.

It was a good day.

What happened to my hapless victim after I hosed off the post? I had to hide the body, after all.

So we ate him.

Jeri Westerson grew up on the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles and so always had a thing for noir. She also always had a thing for the middle ages. It was a natural fit. She tried her hand at acting but real life auditions were too brutal. She turned her attention to her other interest of art and design and became a successful graphic artist in L.A. and Pasadena in the mid '80s and early '90s. After becoming a mom, she directed her passion again to writing and embarked on the long, slow goal of publishing her growing body of historical fiction. But when she switched to writing historical mystery, she found success. Veil of Lies; A Medieval Noir is her debut novel. Jeri has had various careers in the meantime: a luggage salesperson, winetasting host and tour guide for a winery, choir director, travel insurance agent, secretary, ceramic studio manager, and journalist.

She is married to a commercial photographer, has a son in college, and herds two cats and a tortoise at her home in southern California.


Annette said...

Welcome to Working Stiffs, Jeri. I wanna come play at YOUR house! You must keep the neighbors entertained. ;-)

Joyce said...

Yeah, I want to play, too! Maybe this could be an activity for the next conference...

I have some replica medieval weapons on the stone wall in my gameroom. There's a sword, a shield, a battle axe and a flail. When my youngest was about ten, he and his friends broke a piece off the handle of the sword--after they were told not to touch it, of course.

Jeri Westerson said...

I forgot to mention that when you whack meat with a sword, you get some on you. Imagine this with innards. Battle is a messy thing.

Joyce said...

I guess that's why butchers wear aprons.

Did you ever notice that on TV you rarely see a murderer covered in blood and guts? They'll sever someone's carotid and not even get a drop on themselves!

Jennie Bentley said...

Gosh, I can't believe I missed this yesterday! What fun!

Jeri, if you don't know her already, you have to meet Kelli Stanley. She lives out your way - San Francisco - she's also a former actress who found the audition process difficult (as did I. As did a lot of us...) and she's writing a new series of what she calls Roman Noir. You two sound like a natural fit!

Thanks for visiting the Stiffs, and sorry I wasn't around yesterday, when you might actually have gotten this...!

Jeri Westerson said...

I do know Kelli. We've been conspiring to get on a panel together but so far the gods are against us. :(

Susan D said...

So glad you ate up the evidence (à la Barbara Bel Geddes in "Lamb to the Slaughter"). As a vegetarian, I'd hate to think of Sir Loin of the Short Ribs as having died in vain.