Friday, April 19, 2013

BRAWL BABY: The Harsh Realities of a Punch in the Beak---- By Marc Cameron

I proposed to my child bride under the guise of an artistic and sensitive soul. We were going to own a dinner theater and write books, for crying out loud.  What could be more artsy than that? I worked in Texas that summer and she went home to Calgary to plan the wedding—believing all was right with her world. About a month later, in a fit of unbridled honesty, I stretched the telephone cord out my parents’ back door and sat on the steps while I broke the news that I was not nearly as sensitive and artsy as I’d led her to believe.
I wanted to be a lawman.

For some reason, she didn’t hock the ring and shortly after we married I got a job with the PD in a little town outside of Fort Worth. We were cheap-fishstick poor but somehow she found the money to buy me two gifts—a ballistic vest (the department didn’t provide them back then) and, assuming I hadn’t given up on my dream of writing books, an electric typewriter. In those early days, the body armor got a lot more use than the Smith Corona. But I like to think I was learning something along the way that eventually seeped into my stories.

Among other things, I saw the brutality of violent confrontation.

Meg Mims already sparked a lively discussion over harsh language and sex in writing. For whatever reason, even some of us that demure from too much bad talk or inappropriate skin don’t mind describing a rape or blowing some bad guy’s brains all over the back wall in our stories. I once got an email from a fan that says she reads parts of my books peeking between splayed fingers. Frankly, that’s the intensity I’m going for.

For now, I’ll keep the discussion of violence to hand-to-hand fighting.
I suspect most of us love writing a good fight scene.  I’m certain there are those reading this who have seen their fair share of bloody noses and cauliflower ears. That’s not a market I want to corner. I welcome and will surely learn from your insight. Every fight is different and, as they say, “results may vary.”

That said, here are a few observations about the nitty-gritty world of the brawl as I have experienced it.

Most of us think we know what we’d do if we found ourselves in a fight. In the martial arts we say: “Everybody has a plan… until they get punched in the beak.”

receiving the bitter end of a throw
In our civilized world, what we see as fights are, more often than not, contests with rules the make them easier to score or film.  But an honest-to-goodness street fight, where you’re standing in the middle of it, can be more like an attack of killer bees—think: a car wreck that lasts for a minute and a half. Violence can come lightning-fast on fist or blade or bullet—seemingly from every direction and all at once. Fairness, rules and linear time fly out the window.

Considering this—and the fact that I have been hit in the beak (and noggin, kidney, spleen, ribs…etc.) I am pretty particular about cause and effect when I work up a fight scene.          

I try to keep the Chinese proverb in mind when writing about battle:
When two tigers fight, one is injured beyond repair. The other one is dead.”
Not that my heroes don’t win. They are tough men and women who know how to scrap—and generally put a whoopin’ on the bad guy by the end of the story.  More importantly though, they are willing to fight when they are fully aware of the physical toll it takes on their body.  In my thrillers, the main character gets in three or four hellacious fights per book—and his injuries pile up. By now, in book #4 of the series, he’s just 36 years old but has a broken nose, a trick knee, is missing a toe and part of an ear, can’t hear as well as he used to and wakes up in the middle of the night peeing blood.  And yet, he fights on, because he’s good at what he does.

I’ve not read it, but I understand the author of Fifty Shades of Gray would call in her husband to ‘walk’ her through some of the more…intricate… scenes so she could get the mechanics correct.
I often do something similar when I’m writing a fight. My wife and kids all know what’s about to happen when I come out of my office and say: “Here, pretend this rolled magazine is a knife…” I’ve gone so far as to set up multiple friends in the mat room and choreograph a fight step by step to see if what I have in my mind is even physically possible.  I talk all the big fights through with my friend and jujitsu master, Ty Cunningham.  I talk punch combinations with boxers and run arrest techniques by other law dogs. My writer friend, Nicholas Hughes spent time in the French Foreign Legion and now teaches Krav Maga. That guy knows conflict so I refer to his book quite a bit as well. I’ve seen my share of scraps but it’s good to get other perspectives.

One of the things that intrigues me about most fight scenes I read is how tidy they are.  People bleed when they’re hurt, but they also wet their pants and throw up more than civilized folks realize, depending on their level of terror and nature of injury. More than once, I have my characters stop off to take a “combat pee” before they engage the bad guys. I once saw a female officer take a brutal kick to the groin that caused her to throw up her pizza-buffet lunch.  She got back in the fight though—and boy, I’d hate to have been that bad guy.
Of course, readers don’t want to see that sort of thing in every good old Western saloon brawl. But I think it is important to know what could happen and then scale it back if we choose to be more delicate in our butt-kicking descriptions.

—Hit a guy in the back of the head with a glass bottle and he’s likely to end up with drain bamage. Maybe not, but it could happen. Somebody attacks me with a beer bottle and I’d likely shoot him. I know how much damage something like that could do. As a doc, I’m sure Keith does too.
—Hit a man in the head with your fist and you could break your own finger or wrist bones. Maybe not, but even if you don’t break anything, it hurts like heck unless you have meathooks for hands—which I do not. I stopped hitting people with anything other than an open paw (or a flashlight) about two months into the job.  There is a reason old salts say “I’m going to slap the $&*# out of you” instead of “I’m going to punch you in the hard bones of your face.”
—Real fights don’t often last very long—a matter of seconds. It’s too physically taxing to keep going for most people that don’t train like an MMA fighter. When they do go longer, physiology can limit the ability to do maximum damage as time drags on. Other than in training, my longest fight was probably around four and a half minutes (judging from dispatch tapes and times)—but much of that was on the ground in a clench trying to catch our breath. My jaw was out of place at least once, both of us threw up in the middle of it (I learned I am a sympathetic vomiter when someone throws up in my face) and the other guy ended up…well, I’ll leave the rest of that story for another post.
Training US Probation officers in defensive tactics
—Grown men’s voices often go up an octave during deadly confrontations. Even the brave ones. It doesn’t sound cool, and you’d never hear Marshal Dillon talking all high-pitched when he’s putting the smack down on someone. But it happens to the best of us and we don’t even realize it until some smart guy plays back the dash cam…
—There are different levels of fighting. Lest I make it seem like I’ve been in hundreds of scraps—most of what we call fights in law enforcement aren’t really fights at all, but someone trying to get away.  In a twenty-nine year LE career I have probably been in ten or twelve really good knock down drag out scraps where someone truly wanted to hurt me—and would have hung around to keep hurting me had I stopped fighting back. On the other hand, I had an arrestee once tell me when I was on patrol: “I can’t just go in peacefully. What would the guys in jail think if I came in without blood on my shirt?”  If Tasers would have been invented he might have thought differently, but remember, I looked like Opie Taylor back in the day. So, the fight, as they say, was on. He got the requested blood on his shirt, probably from both of us, and then went to jail. His honor and mine remained intact. I honestly believe that if my sidearm would have fallen out during the fight, he would have kicked it aside. He wasn’t looking to kill me.
—And, fights happen at inopportune times. A couple of books ago, Jericho Quinn was attacked by three thugs while standing at the urinal in the small bathroom of a Cuban restaurant.  Made for an interesting wrinkle that was fun to write.

I’m moving directly from this post to work on a sword showdown set in Japan between a beautiful but evil female assassin and Jericho Quinn.  She’s covered in traditional tattoos so I can describe that for sensuality (hopefully) without mentioning her naughty bits. Both are professionals, too bent on killing each other to spew nasty invective during the fight.
But, there will be blood.

I started writing what I considered people-killin’ men’s adventure books.  Surprisingly, about half my readership turns out to be made up of women over forty-five. Maybe they like the blood and guts too…or, heck, maybe they see my sensitive, artsy side….

Here’s a sneak-peek snippet of a fight scene from STATE OF EMERGENCY out April 30th from Kensington.
Jericho Quinn has just ‘rescued’ a beautiful Russian agent in a garden behind the bad guy’s swimming pool—and she is nyet too happy about it.  It’s not a Western, but hey, fight dynamics are fight dynamics.

Quinn exhaled through is nose, feeling the white heat of conflict subside in his belly. He reached for the woman’s outstretched hand and helped her to her feet. She had a strong grip and was amazingly solid for such a small woman. What little light filtered through the tangle of leaves and palm fronds revealed a thin trickle of blood from her nose. Quinn pulled a blue bandana from his back pocket and dabbed at the wound.
Chert poberi!” She jerked away, slapping him hard across the left ear in the process. Before he could move, she delivered a savage snap-kick to his groin.
Quinn exhaled fast, fighting nausea. He advanced immediately, giving the woman a straight jab to the nose. Evidently used to being punched, she let her head snap back to absorb the impact, then moved quickly to counter with a double palm strike to Quinn’s ears.
“Hey!” Quinn warded off the blow and grabbed a wrist, chiding himself for allowing the woman to surprise him. He brought her hand up and over her head, spinning her like a dancer to cross her arms and pull her in snug against his chest. Her skin was slick and still wet from the swimming pool. Holding on, he couldn’t help but feel he’d grabbed a live electric wire. He had to lift her off the ground so she couldn’t stomp his feet and arch his back to avoid a series of vicious head butts to his nose. Chlorinated water dripped from her hair, soaking through the chest of his shirt with the warmth of her body. In all his years of fighting, he had little experience holding onto a wet, half-naked woman—at least one who seemed intent on clawing his eyes out.
“They might have killed you,” Quinn groaned in her ear, still waiting for the nausea to pass.
“And you allowed him to escape.” She squirmed against his grip. The edges of her bare feet raked his shins. Whoever she was, this one knew a thing or two about scrapping.
Quinn stomped his foot to help relieve the pain in his groin and tightened his grip around the woman, trying to decide what to do with her. “Who are you?”
“None of your affair,” she groaned. “Let me go. You are…breaking…my ribs…”
Quinn let his grip relax a notch, expecting another attack for the favor.
“You fool,” the woman spat. “I had him and you allowed him to slip aw—”
A crunch of footfalls on the path behind him made Quinn release the woman and spin on his heels.
It was Valentine Zamora with Ronnie Garcia tucked in close to his side. The goon, Monagas followed directly behind him. Crickets chirped in the bushes. A lizard scuttled along the branch of a tree directly overhead, rustling the leaves.
The Venezuelan grinned broadly, nodding at the debris-covered woman and the dampened front of Jericho’s khaki slacks and polo shirt.
“I see you have made yourself quite at home, Mister Quinn…”

Marc Cameron is a retired Chief Deputy US Marshal and 29-year law enforcement veteran. His short stories have appeared in BOYS’ LIFE Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. He has published nine novels, six of them Westerns (several as a ghost writer and two under his pen name, Mark Henry).  His present Jericho Quinn series—NATIONAL SECURITY, ACT OF TERROR and STATE OF EMERGENCY (available in April 2013)— features an adventure motorcyclist, Air Force OSI agent and renaissance man who spends his days sorting out his life and kicking terrorist butt.   Marc lives in Alaska with his beautiful bride and BMW motorcycle.
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  1. Thank you, Marc! I'm struggling with a fight scene right now.

    For the record, I'd much rather cuss than fight. And I really hate getting hit in the nose! I just spent a couple hours talking to my nephew's friend to find out about street fighting. He grew up as a gangster so has been in his fare share. His advice was to stay calm no matter what. Anger clouds your judgment. I wanted to talk about punching and he always brought it back to the thinking. That surprised me--would have thought as much in competition fighting but not in a street brawl.

  2. Hey, Jacquie,
    Your nephew's friend has a good point. Anger does cloud your judgement. But there is not a lot of thinking that happens once the fight has started. Leading up to it--during the posturing phase--yes. But, once the smacking starts, most people revert to gross motor skills. I was teaching an expandable baton (ASP) class to a bunch of deputy marshals in our Witness Security Division. One of the girls in the class thought it would be fun to rush me and see how I reacted. Though I was teaching a class on the use of a baton, when caught off guard, I dropped the foam baton on the ground and dealt with the surprise attack without thinking, the way I'd practiced over and over and over in jujitsu... Gained some points as an instructor though.

  3. Um, they did find out how you reacted. I guess there weren't many questions after that.

  4. Some great tips Marc, thank you. Marshal Dillon high pitched . . . that's just wrong. You know that's going to be in my head the next time I watch Gunsmoke, Dad's favorite.

  5. Marc Cameron

    There is quite a brilliance to your article and to your writing. A very well written and genuinely informative piece. Liked it very much.

    Charlie Steel

  6. Marc,
    As always, a wonderful blog post. Fight scenes are hard to write--probably harder for a woman to write than for a man to write. But, there is a reason why most MEN don't write ROMANCE novels either--most love scenes are easier for a woman to write than a man. LOL I really enjoyed your excerpt too. Reading these posts of yours of actual accounts really help me add realism in my writing. I have these saved so I can refer back to them. Thanks for all the great information!

  7. When I was a 20-year-old police officer I had the misfortune to tangle with a professional heavyweight prizefighter who didn't want top be arrested.
    The result:
    Joe...three broken ribs, broken nose, fractured cheekbone and my right eye was dislodged and hung out of the socket.
    Prizefighter: Unhurt. I didn't lay a glove on him.
    The whole affair was a very unpleasant experience and I never forgave the guy for putting in the boot when I was down.
    I did get even three months later when I ended his professional boxing career...but that's a violent story and not for gentlefolk.

  8. When I was a 20-year-old police officer I had the misfortune to tangle with a professional heavyweight prizefighter who didn't want top be arrested.
    The result:
    Joe...three broken ribs, broken nose, fractured cheekbone and my right eye was dislodged and hung out of the socket.
    Prizefighter: Unhurt. I didn't lay a glove on him.
    The whole affair was a very unpleasant experience and I never forgave the guy for putting in the boot when I was down.
    I did get even three months later when I ended his professional boxing career...but that's a violent story and not for gentlefolk.

  9. Wonderful post. I can relate to it - sort of - as I have researched the flip side of Marc's post, having been whupped by more than my fair share of opponents and have that to fall back on in my writing. I just have Our Hero do that stuff to the baddy. It adds a certain verisimilitude.

  10. Excellent article, Marc. I absolutely agree about bottle injuries to the head. Brain damage would be a real possibility. Fatality is also possible. Even if someone had a 'thick skull,' as you may see it written, brain injury is still possible both at the site of impact and as a contrecoup injury on the other side of the brain. This is because the brain is a jelly-like organ and a sudden blow can cause it to impact on the other side of the skull to cause bruising as it hits the bone. You don't have to have a skull fracture to cause brain damage.


  11. Thanks, Livia. Hope I didn't ruin Gunsmoke for you.
    Thank you or the kind words, Charlie.
    Cheryl, I've met many more violent women than romantic men...
    Frank and Joseph (can't write that without thinking of the Hardy Boys) I've had my tail kicked plenty of times. I remember calling my wife from the hospital twice. The second time I learned to tell her I was okay before I told her where I was.
    And, Joseph, I'd be interested in hearing more about your days in police work. Your story reminds me of why I'm glad we have Tasers now. Equalizes things almost as well as Colt did back in the day.
    Contrecoup--I like that word. I'm pretty sure I've had that jelly-like organ between my ears rattled front to back and side to side. . LIke i said, drain bamage.

  12. Be interested to see Jericho in Japan, Marc. I'm nowhere near LE, so not the best person to comment on violence. My scenes are lily white compared to yours. Good post.

  13. Fights are something so intriguing and you wander how it will turn out. At the same time, they usually don't reflect real life. Appreciate the time you take to 'make it right'. Doris

  14. Thanks, Doris.
    Chuck, I've read your writing. Pretty gritty stuff. Not lily-white at all. Hope i don't disappoint you with the Japanese parts. I had a long talk with the detectives that helped me out over there and let them know the book was going to be for American audiences. Someday I'll write one with a more Japanese-centric character.
    I sure enjoyed the research though.