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Spence book coverMaster Thomas Spence Colby recently published a book called The Roving Archery Course: A guide for course planning, construction, and appreciation that’s available for purchase on Amazon. Mistress Arianna of Wynthrope caught up with Spence and coerced him into answering a few questions.

Being Spence, of course, he had to start with some humor. And continue with more humor. And end with even more humor…

The status of the manual… I wrote the bloody thing to be cheap so I could hand them out at archery events — it was intended to be handbook, not the next great American novel. Perhaps I was seduced by the thought of fame and glory (although it’s been so long since I’ve been seduced it might have just been acid reflux, who knows?), but the book stands as it is. It will serve the purpose it was intended to serve. It won’t serve any porpoises, however. I didn’t use waterproof paper.

Please tell us about your persona and a little bit about your SCA career.

I was named Thomas at my christening, for St. Thomas à Beckett, in the year of Our Lord 1300, but my mother always called me Spence. She was a frail and sickly maid from Brittany and soon retired to a convent to pray and meditate, leaving me to follow my father, Donald of Colby, to the wars. He was a sworn archer to the Crown and fought and garrisoned throughout the Scottish lands and across France. He taught me to pull a true bow from an early age, but before I could join the archery company, I carried arrows to the ranks of archers. Later, I got to stand beside those sturdy men and learned the art of battle in action.

I was in command of a Company of my own when my father was struck and badly wounded during battle at a small village named Crecy. He lingered for years before he finally departed this veil of tears. By then, I had accrued enough honors and treasure to buy a small farm and retire with a wife and raise my son.

My other life is remarkably the same (it makes it easier to remember the details…) My mother didn’t name me Spence, but short of that, everything else basically the same. Okay, I didn’t shoot too many Frenchmen or Scots, but I did follow my dad to many archery shoots and learned the art from him. We shot many ‘field courses’ and spent many hours ridding the woods behind our house of invading stumps. I learned much about roving courses from him.

Spence and Spooki

Master Thomas Spence Colby with his cartoon alter ego, Spooki

As far as the SCA career… I had a career? Huh! Where do I look for my 401(k) earnings? I started out as a fighter. Okay, I started out as a pell for the fighters. The fractured skull should have told me two things – one, never block a shot with your head, and two, it’s time to hang up the armor. But it took a broken collar bone six months later to pound the lesson home. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the broken bone as much as the fact that I won the archery competition right afterward (I only won because I refused to go to the ER and every time I pulled the bow back I tended to scream piercingly and distract the other archers… DON’T shoot with a busted collarbone, it stings a bit!) That was when I realized that even with flinging arrows into the next country and sobbing like a baby with each shot, I wasn’t too bad at this shooting thing. Don’t know why I never thought about it before… guess I just had my heart set on being a fighter.

Once I decided to forgo the sword and take up the string, I discovered the art I learned from my father was something I was fairly good at…. not the shooting bit; I still suck at shooting, but the art of setting up a course and crafting targets that were different from the standard. I started to offer my services as an archery marshal for local events and set up the first few ‘roaming ranges’ most folk had ever seen or shot. They proved to be a huge hit. Why fight it? Sure beats getting hammered by bigger guys in smelly armor – I could offer something I was good at and not go home after the weekend covered in bruises and limping badly.

The roving courses got attention – I first was asked to be a local marshal, then Shire Captain, Regional Marshal, and for a while, the first Archery Commander of the new Kingdom of Aethelmearc. I was the principle of the new Order of the Scarlet Guard and I’m proud to say, holder of the East Kingdom’s vaunted Order of the Sagittarius. I had more respect and honors that I ever did as a corpse on the list field. I think I made the right choice, there.

What prompted you to write a book about roving archery courses?

Well, I can say it wasn’t greed – I cut the profit margin so I could offer this book to people without much coin of the realm in their pouch. I spent over four decades pulling a bow and pulling arrows from trees, the ground, the neighbor’s car, and I realized that I had acquired a decent amount of understanding of the skills required to set and run a course… why make someone else go through the trial and error period if I could ease the trip? Besides, there might be marshals willing to try a roving course but unsure how to start. This was a service I could provide to the SCA – much of what I learned about the fun roving course I picked up doing them in the Society’s good grace. This was a way to give something back.

There’s a story I like to tell about how I got started with making roving courses in the SCA. When I buried the armor and picked up the bow everyone was shooting Royal Rounds. I find them boring… great practice, but we were losing archers from sheer boredom. I suggested that I set up a roving course and offer that at the next event. We had a blast. I was asked to do more courses.

In due time, I attracted the notice of archers from distant shires and far baronies, and they started to travel the long distances to come and shoot one of my courses. This made me a bit nervous… remember that no one was doing these courses in the SCA except me as far as I knew.

I had agreed to set up a course for a local event and just before the event weekend I found out that the Big Man himself was coming to see this roving course thing. The Principality Archery Captain!A Grand Master Bowman and in charge of all the archery activities in the area. Yoicks! I’d never met the man, but I knew if I screwed up in his sight, I’d never marshal another course and I might even have my birthday taken away. Sweaty palms time.

If I remember correctly, the course was some dumb thing, ‘Smurfin’ Safari’… yup, we were shooting at blue-skinned wee folk, and I’m not talking Picts here. I figured that was the first strike against me, right there. Lawdy, Spence…smurfs?

Robert the Grey turned out to a wonderful, soft-spoken gentle who put me at ease very quickly, a truer gentleman I’d be hard pressed to find. He shot the course, seemed to be having fun, and didn’t rip away my warrant or anything. But there was a problem…

While Robert certainly shot up to his reputation, he didn’t place first… he was beaten out by a mere Bowmen with an Royal Round average of 32. Oops! I expected the roof to come down hard on me for that! I expected him to blame the course, the weird shooting situations, the targets, me….
Robert approached me and asked the scores, and I confessed he didn’t win… and his true honorable spirit immediately showed. He grinned in that easy way he has and told me that he deserved to lose – he hadn’t shot well and the Bowman was obviously a better shot at unmarked ranges and shooting through trees and brush – which are markedly absent on most Royal Round ranges. Robert slapped me on the back and told me to keep doing these courses; it had pointed out a flaw in his ability and in his opinion, more gentles could benefit by becoming a more well-rounded archers and shooting at something other than Royal Rounds’ concentric circles on flat, clear ground.

I vowed to do just that, and this book is a direct outgrowth of that promise.

How do you design a good archery target?

Oh, sure, I tell YOU and you tell someone else, and soon no one will need to BUY the book! I’m tempted to say “Just buy the bloody manual, oy?” but I guess it’s a fair question, albeit one that begs a long and involved answer. (Like a BOOK length answer…)

Okay, the secret I can share is this, and I can share this because I was constantly saying it to marshals… This ain’t the bloody Louvre, it’s an archery range! Art we don’t need – EVERYONE is creative or artistic enough to whip up a target that will more than serve the purpose. It needs only to be large enough for archers shooting at it to stand a chance to hit it, it needs to stop arrows, and have clearly defined scoring zones. I devote much of the book to making the targets for the course – lots of hints and help. I was known for making very fancy and elaborate targets but that’s not the real key to the best roving course.

What are the most important principles for creating a good roving range?

If I keep giving stuff away for free, why ask anyone to buy the book?! Sigh… okay, I mentioned it, so fair question. I compare designing and planning a good roving course to making a good stew. You need a good hearty broth that permeates the entire dish and flavors everything. In the roving course, the broth is safety. It is foremost and constant. Of all the wonderful activities we do in the SCA, this is the one that uses not only real weapons, but weaponry designed to reach out and touch someone further than an axe throw away! Safety is a constant concern and flavors EVERY decision.

A good stew needs a good mix of vegetables. This corresponds to the actual planning and lay-out of the course. The mix and variety of the targets, ranges, and shooting situations make the course interesting and challenging. Too many peas and the stew is unbalanced – too many shots from the same distance, and the course is boring. This section of the design is the real key to a good course.

NOT the meat! Meat being the targets… I can show you a course that will dazzle the most veteran archer and not use a single ‘flashy’ target. Ever hear of a vegetable soup? The targets are simply something to use to build the course and add depth – after all, while I can do a crackerjack course shooting at tree stumps or plastic bags stuffed with dead leaves, who wouldn’t whether be shooting French knights or dragons? I diagram the ways in the book to make a good target to dress the course with flair.

And last, but not least, a good stew would be edible without seasonings and spices, but flat, plain. The roving course is the same. I mention in the book some of the little things that boost the appeal of the course for the archers, like a water stop, scoring systems, signs, games and stories. This is the finishing touch for a course that can be quite a wonder for the gentles shooting it.

All these things need to plotted and planned, but it is easier than you might think.

What do you think most roving archery courses get wrong?

Seriously, I think the fact that many roving courses never happen is the biggest wrong thing. I’ve seen some poor courses, and one or two that were borderline unsafe (none of these are SCA – we have a great record for doing that right) but even a lousy course can a ton of fun. If I had to pick the most common boo-boos, I’d pick lack of variety in the course, shaky attention to safety, and lack of imagination and daring. ‘Lack of vision’ can apply to some courses I’ve shot – so many missed opportunities on the course, I want to cry! I restrain myself quite often from begging the people in charge to please allow me to help them set the course… didn’t you see that GREAT shot through the dead tree, across the swamp, and over the big pile of rocks?! Okay, granted, that’s not getting it wrong, but it is to weep for lost chances!

Do SCA archery roving ranges differ much from mundane ones? If so, how?

Yup, and how! The basic set-ups are the same, more or less, but the fact that the SCA has the Marshal running the course is a GREAT bonus and an opportunity that yields some excellent courses for us. The mundane courses are set up for a group of archers to wander through on their own. That can limit the possibilities for both course concept and target ideas. The SCA courses can really flower with a guide to the course tagging along – story courses, special scoring, theme related activities, and of course, let’s not forget… the SCA can shoot at Frenchmen! The mundane courses tend to stick with hunting animals as the concept and even there they can be strange and lack some sense of purpose – I swear I’ve shot at a deer, followed in succession by a deer, a turkey, another turkey, a deer, a turkey, a turkey, ahh! Look! Another turkey!, and finally a ‘beer’… a standing black bear that they replaced the head with a buck. They’re known to travel in six-packs. Okay, that showed some imagination (or the fact they were running out of targets and were scraping the bottom of the barrel) but in the SCA? Oh my! We can hunt mythical critters, save the princess, pretend to be Robin Hood, or re-fight the battle of Agincourt. WE can re-enact, be an actor in the story, live our wildest fantasies (the ones about archery, at least) and shoot for the sky! (Not literally, it’s tough to find the arrows again and the scoring rubric is the pits).We can be so much more creative and wonderful!

Did you plan to market the book toward a general audience? The description on its Amazon page has a lot of SCA references; are you expecting that most of the buyers will be Scadians?

Expecting? Perhaps hoping is the better term! I spent many wonderful years perfecting my abilities with setting up courses at events; it is only reasonable to draw on that experience. But the book is aimed at anyone that is looking to set up a course – at an event, a demo, a Boy Scout camp, local shooting club, or in the back yard. I tried to not be too oriented towards one group and stick with the core concepts. Which proved rather tricky, actually… a high speed machine with training wheels is a completely different weapon from my old stick and string and offering hints on set-up can be frustrating. The tricks that will dazzle a traditional archer will pose no concerns at all for someone using a laser rangefinder and a lighted four-power scope on a precision arrow-projecting machine. But I tried to make this manual useful for everyone that uses arrows. Except road sign painters.

I hope that every Archery Marshal gets a copy – it will help them plan better courses, I think. It is a neat and beneficial thing to offer a roving course at an event and fun to run as well. Okay, tiring… but very satisfying in the long run. And every archer should read the book and should learn the tricks as well – if for no other reason than to learn to appreciate a well-founded course when they shoot it. Or to beat one that isn’t….

The book is available on Amazon.com. It is a Print-on-Demand book, which means that it might require a week to get a copy in the mail (yes, THAT fast!). It is a trade paper 6X9”, 108 pages, crammed full of B&W illustrations, diagrams, and cartoons, and includes a helpful (sorta) glossary of archery terms. It is also a good read for anyone that’s not really interested in setting up a course but loves archery. I tell secrets.

Thank you for the opportunity to present my book.

I live in service,
Master Spence Colby