How do Crossbows Work? So Glad You Asked!

It’s a simple thing, but also a tedious, and gory sort of thing. Here’s four essential facts about this simple, but often misunderstood, weapon.

1 – They’re Easy

Firing a good ol’ bow and arrow is pretty tough. You have to master knocking the arrow on the inside (which doesn’t feel natural at first), learn how far to pull back the string, and then spend the rest of your life perfecting the art of making the arrow arc just right so it hits the target.

The crossbow, by comparison, is child’s play. The extra power sends the bolt in more of a straight line, so you just point the crossbow and pull the trigger. (Rifles wouldn’t achieve this accuracy until the 19th century.) You could mount crossbows on a castle wall and tell just about anyone to sit there to fire at an oncoming horde of invaders. Easy.

2 – But They’re Also Really Hard451px-armborst_42c_nordisk_familjebok

Stories rarely show the hard part of using a crossbow. All that power comes from a string that’s pulled back with more tension that most people can manage, so crossbows usually require a crank or some other tool to use between shots.

Also, you’ve got to place the bolt just right, and it can tumble off if you aren’t holding the crossbow correctly.

3 – They’re Powerful

Where an arrow would bounce off of a suit of armor, a crossbow bolt might punch right through it. And if didn’t do that it could still knock you from the saddle. When no armor is involved the bolt can even pass through a few people before stopping. Sometime you might read a book where a character shrugs off a crossbow attack, and now you know why that’s silly.

4 – They’re Slow

Because of the loading issues and the tools needed to pull back the string, it takes a while to reload and fire a crossbow. A trained archer could let out countless arrows in that time, which meant that the man with the crossbow really wanted to hit his target on the first try, or have some really good cover.

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Note the crossbowmen losing in close quarters to the traditional bowmen. I’m guessing this painting was commissioned by a guy who sold bows and arrows.

A fascinating and more in-depth account of how crossbows were problematic in the field can be read here. I was going to quote from that post, but it’s too good not to read the whole thing.

BONUS – Yes, they can be automatic

Many cultures pioneered a self-reloading crossbow. For the most part, these turned out to be expensive and impractical, but a raiding party certainly thought twice about approaching a keep if they knew a mounted crossbow inside could spit a dozen bolts at them.

Oddly enough, even though these were very real, seeing a self-loading crossbow in a historical or fantasy novel would probably feel far-fetched.

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Conversations in My Head: Waiting for Old Navy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAId: “Our new jeans left El Paso but won’t arrive until…Friday? They could be here today! It’s possible to get here in one day from El Paso.”

Ego: “Don’t be ridiculous, Id. You know it takes time for a bureaucracy to do simple things like deliver your jeans. Settle down.”

Id: “What if I met the driver and took them from his truck? We could meet them halfway.”

Ego: “You’d have to leave work and drive all day, and somehow find that one truck on the highway. And for what? It’s just jeans. Our inner stoic would say–”

Id: “We wouldn’t need an inner stoic if we had jeans with stretchy waist bands!”

Ego: “We wouldn’t need jeans with stretchy waist bands if you wouldn’t hog tamales like it’s the end of the world.”

Superego: “I told you morons on Sunday to opt for quick delivery or you’d be stuck in this conversation all week! But does anyone listen? No…no one listens to Superego…”

Id: “…”

Ego: “…”

Id: “Who let him out?”

Ego: *puts fingers in ears* “Not listening. La, la, la…”

The Historical Mystery of a Strange Spanish Building: Santa María la Blanca

I traveled to Toledo with the job of lecturing my colleagues on Santa María la Blanca, surely one of the oddest buildings in Spain.

Plaques and encyclopedias tell you Santa María la Blanca is a synagogue owned by the Catholic church. Nothing too weird about that, but it begs a few questions. “Why does the Catholic church own synagogue?” comes to mind.fde13-espana252520621

But trying to learn about the history of this building becomes immediately frustrating.

Older history books tell different stories about the building’s origins, but as time went on those descriptions stopped being printed. I kept digging and discovered these stories were either 1) being conflated with the histories of another nearby synagogue, or 2) that they relied heavily on unreliable stories or documents we have lost. To sum up my research: there doesn’t appear to be a single document that explains where the building came from.

But I was in for a real shock when I arrived and saw it in person. Somehow, none of the books mentioned that the Synagogue of Santa María la Blanca is shaped like a mosque, complete with the niche used for Muslim prayers. (Some of us, scratching our heads, wondered if we had wandered into the wrong building and went back out to double-check the sign.) Despite the design, there’s no record of the place being used as a mosque.

All relevant scholarship claims that Muslims built Santa María la Blanca, even though we can’t identify the patron. Did these Muslim builders, being unfamiliar with synagogues, design Santa María la Blanca to be similar to their own places of worship? That’s one theory, but no one knows.

Disappointingly, none of the books I read explored the idea of medieval Jews worshiping in a mosque-shaped building, but it paints a fascinating picture.

It’s been used by nuns for centuries, and they use it for training younger nuns and selling hand-made crafts.

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Another oddity: no one’s fighting over the building’s origins. Every other old building in Toledo comes with a mountain of scholarship explaining why it belongs to one group or another, and there’s usually an ongoing academic battle over which culture should claim it. But Santa María la Blanca somehow avoids this mess, even though it contains a piece of every part of a medieval Iberia. No one could explain to my why this building alone escapes that academic contest.

I think Iberian scholarship has long accepted Santa María la Blanca as an outlier; as an newcomer to the subject, I found myself asking questions that researchers had long give up on answering.

I had to content myself with appreciating the miracle of a Christian building that was once a synagogue built by Muslims. There was a time when these three great faiths lived together in medieval Spain, maintaining an impressive, if sometimes troublesome, alliance. Santa María la Blanca reminded me that peace is not a hopeless pursuit if I’ll just remember to love my neighbor.

17 Things I Saw in Roswell

Just finished a trip to Roswell, NM, and I know there’s nothing more interesting than vacation pictures from the desert.

So, here they are:

1 – Alien-Themed Stuff

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It starts well outside of town, so as you’re driving through endless southwest desert (and trying not to pee in the car) you begin to notice a theme…

 

 

2 – Unintentionally Funny Signs

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If you can trust your stuff with Billy the Kid, then who can you trust?

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Someone call Mulder and Scully–we saw a Blockbuster sign.

I couldn’t (from the road) see a big dome made from Ramen, but that image will live on in my dreams.

 

3 – A Newspaper about a UFO

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I think this is gonna be a big story.

 

4 – Those UFOs under my eyes.

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Dear goodness, someone call a bellhop to help me check these bags.

 

5 – A Spot Where the Enola Gay Once Parked

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6 – Emilie de Ravin Making Out

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Okay, that might be something I remember from the show. It’s hard to keep it all straight. Who knows?

 

7 – Aleins. Everywhere.

 

 

 

8 – Aliens Who Have Given up on Life

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9 – Emilie de Ravin Moving Stuff with her Mindtumblr_ok1scvvlow1rerzc4o1_400Full disclosure: This also could be something I remember from the TV show.

 

10 – UFO Research

The UFO museum is a fun slice of Americana, but take a look around back and you’ll find a serious research library with every document a UFO researcher could need.

 

 

11 – The Iron Cross of Germany Embedded in a Creek

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Interesting story. Some German POWs were kept in Roswell during WWII, because it’s the middle of a desert and there’s no where to run. They built lots of stuff before being returned to Germany after the war…but these prisoners found that their homeland was not in good shape (for obvious reasons) and came back, sometimes with their families, to live in the New Mexico desert.

There’s also a lot of German culture in Texas (where I’m from), and most of it predates WWII. It’s a part of southwestern culture most people don’t know about.

 

12 – This Donut Shop with a Happy Alien Landing

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Yes, I prefer the Donut spelling. “Doughnut” takes longer to type and life is short.

 

13 – A Magical Mountain Community

 

Less than 90 minutes from the dry, empty desert of Roswell is a lush mountain community called Ruidoso, where it’s cool in the summer and often rains. (When we first got to Roswell, the temperature was 113 degrees. Ruidoso was in the 60s.) There is endless shopping and excellent coffee, so we felt like hobbits stumbling into Bombadil’s house.

It’s surreal to see such different climates right next to each other, with almost no transition between the two. You’re in the desert, then you blink and it’s the rain forest.

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This dog stood in the doorway of a candle shop. He stared and panted expectantly until we drew near, and then he retreated into the store. We followed him in and he ran to the back to join his owner at the register, apparently proud of bringing in some potential customers. I told you, it’s a magic village. The dogs work the shops.

 

14 – The local TV station and the Live and Amplified Show

Live and Amplified is a podcast run mostly out of Roswell, and since my wife’s a songwriter they asked us to play a few songs for them. I didn’t expect a podcast to have such a technically impressive setup, but these guys really know what they’re doing.

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(The episode isn’t out yet. I’ll let you know.)

 

15 – The Abandoned Air Force Hangar Where (I’m Told) they Kept the Alien Bodies

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16 – Emilie de Ravin was there Posing as Air Force Personnel

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This one I’m pretty sure happened for real.

 

17 – A…Protest Horse?

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This horse is covered in newspaper articles in an effort to combat the official Roswell UFO story. I don’t understand any part of that sentence I just wrote, but apparently there was once a tradition of doing this sort of thing in the Southwest. This country is so huge that lots of American culture seems foreign to me.

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Just a weather balloon? Naaayyyy!

These Four Books Will Knock Your Writing up a Notch

I’ve read a lot of how-to books for writers. They tend to have grandiose titles, like How to Write the Next Big Book Everyone Talks About, and dispense obvious advice from writers who, curiously, are almost completely unknown. But a few have earned a spot on my desk, always within arm’s reach.

1 – Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace, by Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup

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If you read one book about writing, make sure it’s this one. Style explains everything you need to know about making your words sound cool. Managing long sentences. Describing actions. Lyrical paragraphs. (Even successive sentence fragments.) Every chapter felt like a mystery being unlocked, showing me how to use writing techniques that had previously been out of my grasp. This book is the key to good writing, and older editions are so cheap they’re practically free. [Buy it.]

2 – The Elements of Style, by Strunk & White

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A little obvious, but it’s surprising how many people haven’t heard of this classic (and remarkably brief) set of English lessons. It’s in the public domain, so read it online. It will only take a few minutes. Even though it is novice-level stuff that you’re supposed to already know, many authors produce poor writing because they never bother to brush up on the basics. Don’t be like that. Spend a few minutes with this book to make sure you’re not writing with a huge blind spot.

Still sounds lame? Well, I first heard about The Elements of Style from…

3 – On Writing, by Stephen King

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That’s right. Strunk & White’s plain book about grammar is championed by the Schlockmeister himself. King has a reputation for being edgy, but this memoir  is all about the discipline of the writing craft, like learning grammar rules and making time to write every day. He almost succeeds in making it sound boring, but this book is a must for anyone who wants to know how a writer should get things done. Stephen King is one of the most prolific authors ever, so his advice on getting through drafts and completing projects is invaluable. [Buy it.]

4 – Write Like the Masters, by William Cane.

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This one’s my favorite. I was skeptical about the title, but this little book, written by a rhetoric professor, will take your writing to the next level. William Cane explains the rhetorical devices of famous writers in such a simple, straightforward manner that you’ll soon be impersonating Dickens or Melville with ease. Write Like the Masters also explores the lifestyles and writing habits of these authors to demonstrate different approaches to the creative process. (Balzac’s use of coffee might feel familiar, while Faulkner’s absolute concentration on his projects will make you question your dedication.) Professor William Cane is a very encouraging teacher, and any writer who reads through to the end will feel a surge of energy compelling them to write, write, write like there’s no tomorrow! [Buy it.]

Gaiman’s ‘Norse Mythology’ Shows Us a Better Way to Write Folklore

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Who doesn’t have fond memories of curling up with an old copy of Bullfinch’s Mythology, curled at the edges and filled with countless (but brief) adventures of the world’s most famous heroes? Legendary stories don’t really get old, but Neil Gaiman has shown us how they can be re-told better than ever. With Norse Mythology, Gaiman has perfected—or at least advanced—the art of writing fables.

Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is bound with a common theme, a continuing story, and all of the Nordic fables in his book point to the same place: Ragnarök. The end of times. The apocalypse.

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It’s different than the film (which appears to share the plot of Mortal Kombat).

From the very start, we are told about Loki’s children who will fight on the wrong side in the last war. It’s charming to hear about the origin of Thor’s hammer, but the tale ends with a stark reminder of that weapon’s final use. Loki’s pranks are enchanting and hilarious, but each a bit darker than the other, and eventually the reader cannot escape the conclusion that this trickster will be the architect of a tragedy.

I studied a bit of Norse literature in grad school (a bit, mind you), and I was impressed at how well Gaiman told his stories in the style of the Norse storytellers, with all of the unexpected cleverness and depth hiding behind short sentences and simple dialog. It’s quite a challenge for a writer to make a story come alive while embracing older narrative styles, but Gaiman nails it.

It would be great to see more mythology reinterpreted with a theme. Imagine a collection of Greek myths where the gods fear they will be forgotten as they watch society advance without them, until Zeus and his children quietly climb down from Mt. Olympus to live as men. Or a book of Native American folklore beginning with many faces staring out to sea for inspiration and ending with the arrival of strange ships. Perhaps the simple inclusion of a coherent narrative could make any mythological collection into an unforgettable experience.

Sherlock Holmes is not Quite Dead!

It all started when I saw a cool haircut on Twitter. I didn’t know Lyndsay Faye (shame on me, as I was about to discover), but when her picture appeared on my feed I couldn’t help but comment on her amazing hair. I went on to lament that my own locks would never meet such majesty.

Then I discovered she is a writer…of Sherlock Holmes tales.

And her name isn’t Doyle.

I’m a bit of a snob about Mr. Holmes. No literary character has given me such inspiration and solace as Sherlock; I think of him as a kindred spirit. I don’t like to hear any discussion of the world’s greatest detective from people who don’t know the deerstalker doesn’t actually show up in the books or from the troglodytes who don’t recognize the name Sindey Paget. (Go sit in the corner–especially if you’re still asking yourself what a deerstalker is.)

So, I’m a little touchy about Holmes. As a result, I hadn’t read any of the non-original Holmes stories. Pop-culture’s interpretations of Holmes tend to be irritating, mostly because they center around the most boring aspect of the tales: his sexuality. Honestly, people, you can get more water out of a stone.

I planned to live my entire life without reading from the multitude of “new” Holmes stories, until Lyndsay Faye, the woman with incredible hair, responded to me on Twitter. “You look slammin’,” she said, in an attempt to mitigate my previous lamentation.

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You can see why I considered this a compliment.

I swooned, hit the floor, and blacked out.

When I awoke, I rushed to my local library (I still do that) and grabbed a book with her name in it: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories.

The table of contents boasted familiar names. Some of my favorites, in fact. Stephen King. Michael Moorcock. Neil Gaiman. But did any of them ever compliment my hair? No.

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And, seriously, why not?

I poured some coffee into a cup, waited for it to find the right temperature, and then poured myself into The Case of Colonel Warburton’s Madness.

If you’re a Holmes fan, the opening line will blow you away with it’s familiarity and humor. Faye’s yarn contains the Watsonian lexicon of obscure English words that makes Watson such a charming storyteller, and every paragraph is brimming with the warm (but always peculiar) friendship between him and Sherlock. The mystery is a very good one and, just like I often did with Doyle’s work, I found myself stopping to lean back in my chair to go over the details of the case in an effort to solve it on my own. (I got close.) Flipping through those pages was like stepping back into the old stories for the first time, and I experienced a familiar elation I never expected to know again so intimately.

I’ve shed my prejudice. There are dozens more Sherlock Holmes stories in this little book and plenty more on the bookshelves. It’s time I quit avoiding them.

I might even write one myself.