Thursday, 23 October 2014

Virtual FantasyCon 2014: How to write sword fights, and authors that keep attacking each other

Writers who also happen to be swordfighters discuss the myths and realities of the sword in fiction – and demonstrate their skills with the blade!
Marc Aplin (m), Fran Terminiello, Juliet E McKenna, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Clifford Beale [with Megan's interjections - here, obviously, not just yelling out during the panel]

The first thing we teach beginners, says Juliet McKenna, is not to cut off their own ears. One of her bugbears is the notion that a beginner can just pick up a sword and fight; another is sword fights that last ages. Adrian Tchaikovsky's pet hate is the dramatic pose of having the sword away behind your ear in the first place - the sword needs to be between you and the enemy. [That is the point of the sword. ]  Swords are heavier than people expect, but armour is not as heavy and unwieldy as generally thought. Tourney armour, yes, but battle armour, that you'd wear into an actual war, was like a second skin. McKenna compares chainmail to wearing a well-fitting heavy rucksack - you get used to it and only notice the weight when you take it off. It does sap your stamina, though, which is why you train in it.  It's important to remember that armour and shields aren't just protection: they're also weapons. Fran Terminiello shows a little hand-shield, known as a buckler, and declares it "the world's biggest shield - in instalments." This is featured in the oldest fencing texts, with pictures of monks, priests and women being trained.

Another common misconception is the blade-against-blade battle-of strength bollocks so popular on film and TV.  One simply doesn't do that. The basis of sword fighting, says McKenna, is very simple: the sword has a safe end, and a dangerous end; get to the safe end.

Clifford Beale points out that knowing this stuff, when you're writing, isn't just a matter of not pissing off the experts - it also helps build the cadence of a fight. You can bring these details in and use them in your writing, drawing on a much expanded repertoire. For instance, someone standing three rows back from the battle edge can be killed by someone with a ten-foot pike. For instance, being hit on the head when you're wearing a helmet is extraordinarily noisy and can even cause a contre-coup (a brain injury). The knowledge opens up new battle-writing possibilities.

A surprising amount of battle is simply moving about, as you try to manoeuvre troops into place. The effect of weather is hugely exacerbated by armour. One panellist recalls a battle re-enactment held in August, with the two armies hanging around as they were manoeuvred, and hearing sudden loud clanks - had the battle begun? Nope; people were passing out from the heat, inside their metal armour, and collapsing.  Chain mail is also quite difficult to take off - it's not a sweater; you can't pull it over your head. One very realistic scene in Game of Thrones showed Jamie leaning over from his hips with his arms out, to slide it off. [And I think we can all take a moment to appreciate that image.] Tchaikovsky points out that when you take part in such battles, there's a part of you that doesn't understand LARP (Live Action Role Play) and thinks it's real. That sense is invaluable, for writing: the sense of actually being in battle.

Terminiello explains some of the history of sword fashions. The rapier was very much a fashion accessory; people had fine collections and many never left their scabbards. They were simply "dress swords".  By Regency times, with more seating in theatres and at concerts, people realised one couldn't sit down in such shows with a long sword, hence a smaller sword developed. Again, not everyone knew how to use them. Sword-fighting takes much practice.

McKenna reflects on how rarely that day-in day-out practice is actually represented. In aikido (in which she trains), that is the practice of doing a thousand cuts of each of the seven basic forms, even as much as 3000 cuts before breakfast. [A bit like music practice, perhaps, in terms of dedication and time?] Again, this wears you out, which in turn teaches you to use the sword correctly - correctly is always with the minimum effort necessary.

Such skills vanish fast. Technological change happens very quickly and a skill will be lost 2.5 generations. For example, slide-rules were still used by the crew of Apollo 13. McKenna's husband was trained in them, but never had to use them, and no-one younger than him in the office has ever even seen one. The same thing happened with European martial arts: they were simply lost. The few manuals that were written preceeded movable type, so were handwritten. We have scant sources left, though one extant source is the fourteenth-century German manual, "Rules for Divorce by Combat"!

When you're writing a sword-fighting passage, context is key, says Terminiello: whether it's a battle, a skirmish, a duel, or a fight for your life, will change the style of fighting completely. This is also cultural: one Italian writer was astonished that the Japanese would only draw a sword to kill someone - never to merely threaten. McKenna advises that less is more, with fighting detail. She might walk through a scene with her husband and write two-thirds of a page, but will then cut out half the detail. Excessive detail obscures the significant events. Tchaikovsky says it's best if structure and pacing are dictated by the personality of the fighters - especially if you need the weaker fighter to win, as one often does in writing! You can achieve that through character defeat - the stronger fighter being baited just too much to bear.

We need more accuracy in fight-scenes and swords being used as defence, not just attack. We also need fights with other weapons - use a mix of styles, weapons, training, and expertise. With all this veracity, we also need the context: the choice of weaponry determines much.  Other weapons one could use are staffs, spears, short axes, knives - swords are actually a weapon of last resort. Fighting on horseback is also a completely different skill. There are excellent books on the subject, such as Terry Brown's English Martial Arts.

The panellists then demonstrated their sword-fighting skills and a variety of other misconceptions: it turns out that a small nifty fighter can easily overpower a tall heavyset fighter, and that much of what you're doing is a) getting away from the enemy's pointy end, and b) taking their sword away. Now I don't know all the technical terms, but if you do, feel free to chime in and correct my captions!

Greatswords [corrected from broadsword - thanks, Fran!]: don't draw them from behind your back. The enemy can stab you while you're still trying to get the thing out. Also, these aren't really tools for the nobility - they're more for crowd control, or for slashing away at pikes. (Those long poles with spears at the end.) The people who took on the job of slashing at pikes were paid double for their extra risk.

McKenna then repeatedly attacks Terminiello (though to be fair, Terminiello keeps coming back for more), each time taking her sword or knife away.

"And I have the knife," says McKenna.

"And I have the knife," says McKenna.

"And I have the knife," says McKenna.

At this point, I'm a tad concerned for Terminiello, my sympathies are definitely lying with her, but then she goes on the offensive and shows all the different ways she could kill Tchaikovsky:

That's how a little person with a knife can kill a big person with a broadsword. It does look like Tchaikovsky started it, though, so I'm not sure anyone really has the moral high ground anymore.

McKenna and Tchaikovsky go head to head next - I believe he attacks her with a staff, she takes it away and beats him around the head with it.

The moral of the story?

a) Big, intimidating fighters are not necessarily going to win - they're just a bigger target and often slower on their feet.

b) Beware of fantasy authors. You NEVER KNOW when they're going to attack you.

[UPDATE: A few people have queried the little-people-winning thing, so a bit of clarification. The "fights" shown here weren't fights or staged fights - they were demonstrating particular moves which could be used. I'm not a swords expert myself at all, but Fran Terminiello knows considerably more about it, so I checked with her on Twitter. She said, "There's a lot of answers to this. But essentially being small is rarely an advantage. You have to work harder, be sneakier. But to quote the Dobringer manuscript 'If it were not an art the strong would always win.'" So your protagonist doesn't have to be the biggest and the strongest to win the fight (which is handy, as protagonists rarely are!), but they do need to put the practice in and be sneaky.]


You can read more of the Virtual FantasyCon, including yesterday's super panel on world-building, and have a flick through last year's excellent World Fantasy Con.

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