Thursday 8 April 2010

Swordplay for writers

In my last post I wrote about attending Eastercon, a fantasy/sf/horror convention at Heathrow. I spent most of my time in the dealers room or drinking with old friends and new, but I did get a chance to attend some panels. The most interesting for a writer was one presented by Steve Kilbane titled "Swordplay for Writers".

Having written a fair number of sword fights myself, I found this interesting. I fenced in university, but poking someone with an epee doesn't teach you anything about slashing with a saber or cleaving with a claymore.

This is something Mr. Kilbane stressed throughout his talk, that different types of swords are used in very different ways, and different styles of fighting don't mesh well. Styles of fighting are very specific to location and place, and thus you won't have the huge variety of swords that you often see in bad fantasy fiction. One memorable quote was when he said, "The story defines the culture, which defines the types of fights, which defines the types of swords you have."

Think about that. If you are writing fantasy you have to decide what kinds of fights are the norm. Do regular people carry swords? If so, they are expected to be willing and able to use them. But in what contexts? Are tavern brawls a nightly occurrence, or do people engage in formal duels? Are a large percentage of civilians in the militia? Do people generally fight mounted or on foot? In the case of fantasy you get to make up the culture, but you still need to be specific about what kinds of swords there are, or even a superficially knowledgeable reader will see right through your world.

Historical fiction is easier, because there's source material you can use. Even here, though, you have to be careful. There are a lot of nice paintings of Civil War cavalry charges or hand-to-hand combat where people are using sabers, but in reality this occurred very rarely. Most cavalry raiders dispensed of the army-issued saber and carried more revolvers, which are much deadlier in close combat. In the British navy in the 18th century, men were supposed to fire their flintlock pistol, then drop it and draw their cutlass, until a wise officer realized that you could hold your cutlass in your right hand and fire your pistol with your left. Once fired, the pistol became a handy club. Some people objected to using their left hand since the shot wouldn't be as accurate, but on a closely packed deck, even if you didn't hit the person you aimed at, you would probably hit his buddy right behind him.

Training in swordsmanship was usually very specific, with soldiers getting a more general education than civilians, who only got what they paid for. Still, most trained fighters only knew one or at most a few styles, and if faced with someone of a different style would find himself at a loss. Mr. Kilbane made the point that one of the toughest opponents is a desperate untrained man, who is likely to do all sorts of strange things and end up hurting you before you killed him!

The talk also included a lot of demonstrations of particular weapons such as the longsword and a basket-hilted sword. The details of this go beyond the scope of this post, and would really need an accompanying video. The best thing to do if you want to truly understand swordsmanship is to A: do a lot of reading, and B: take it up as a sport!

The image is of a saber duel between German students, c. 1900, painting by Georg Mühlberg (1863-1925), copyright has expired. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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