Sword Fighting and Fiction

Today author Katharine Ashe  and Olympic fencer Leslie Marx discuss sword fighting in fiction.  Welcome Katharine and Leslie!

Katharine Ashe lives in the wonderfully warm Southeast with her husband, son, two dogs, and a garden she likes to call romantic rather than unkempt. A professor of European history, she has made her home in California, Italy, France, and the northern US. RT Book Reviews awarded Katharine’s debut historical romance, SWEPT AWAY BY A KISS, a “TOP PICK!” review, calling it “a page-turner and a keeper. Please visit her at www.katharineashe.com.

Leslie Marx enters her sixth season as an assistant coach at Duke. A 1989 graduate of Duke, Marx is the most celebrated Blue Devil fencer, having won the 1995 Pan American Championship as well as finishing 16th in women’s epee at the 1996 Olympics. While at Duke, the former Leslie McFarland competed in the NCAA Regionals, while also earning Academic All-America honors.  Following graduation at Duke with a degree in mathematics, she went on to get her Ph.D. in economics from Northwestern. Marx returned to Duke in 2002 as an Associate Professor of Economics at the Fuqua School of Business.

Katharine:

I know much less about swordplay than the hero of my debut historical romance, SWEPT AWAY BY A KISS. Steven Ashford, a nobleman in George III’s England, learned the feel of a hilt in his palm at age five. I first gripped cold steel during college PE. As a youth Steven fled to Paris during the French Revolution, where he sought to assassinate a smarmy politician who also happened to be an expert swordsman. I invariably retreated before the larger, more aggressive, male fencers in my class. Steven soon took up life as a sea captain, growing accustomed to the heft of a cutlass in addition to developing a handy expertise with saber and epee, not to mention pistol and musket (crack shot, don’t you know). At the end of my PE semester, I pilfered from my locker a pair of well-worn gym sweats and a t-shirt but gladly deposited my pointy weapon upon the rack for good.

Steven and I, you see, have precious little in common in terms of martial arts training. Yet he required me to write a scene during which he sword fights to within an inch of his life with a skilled adversary. What begins as a friendly bout of fencing ends with a sharp tip of metal pressed against a naked throat.

So, as a Responsible Historical Novelist, I did all the book learnin’ I could upon the subject. And I dredged my memory for every detail from those months of college fencing class. I even watched The Princess Bride and The Three Musketeers a few times. I wrote the scene. Then I worried. What if I’d gotten it wrong?

Enter Dr. Leslie Marx, Professor of Economics at Duke University, Olympic fencer, Volunteer Assistant Coach to the Duke University Fencing Team, and my good friend. Leslie kindly agreed to read my scene.

Bless all those who teach with both knowledge and grace. Leslie let me know very gently that I’d gotten a lot wrong. Foremost, I had written the fencing bout like a sword fighting scene in a movie. Tournament fencing is not what Hollywood makes it. And it is not dueling. My characters began their play as just that—play. Their fight had to look like a fencing bout, with rules and all the rest. This included making that final, life threatening maneuver something that really could happen in a formal fencing contest.

How did I learn to do that? I’ll let Leslie tell you that part…

Leslie:

I am always so excited whenever someone asks me about fencing. I love to talk about my sport. The students in my economics classes discover very quickly that they can get a break from demand-and-supply calculations by referring to the headgear as a “helmet” (it is a “mask”) or the sword as a “stick.” Generically, fencers usually refer to the swords as “weapons,” as in “Don’t forget to leave a spare weapon at the end of the strip in case your favorite one breaks” or “You don’t need your weapons for this footwork drill.” More specifically, they are “foils,” “epees,” or “sabers.”

The obvious differences among the weapons are the bell guards. The foil guard looks like a disk, the epee guard looks like a bowl (protecting the hand), and the saber guard connects to the end of the weapon, covering one side of the hand. The epee is heavier and stiffer than the other two. All have blades that are ninety centimeters long. In competition the target area differs. Foil fencers can score only on the torso and saber fencers only above the waist (arms and head included), but epee fencers can score anywhere (head, hands, and feet included).

See, I got distracted.

When Katharine said she was writing a fencing scene, I found her some of my favorite fencing scenes from books, including some from Arturo Perez-Reverte’s THE FENCING MASTER. I also invited her to attend a practice of the Duke Varsity Fencing Team for a sense of the noise, smell, and fun of the fencing gym.

For many people, their first reaction to seeing a fencing practice or competition is surprise that we are actually hitting each other – hard. That’s part of the fun of it. Your opponent is trying to hit you, so you better find a way to hit him first while defending yourself in the meantime. There’s a certain thrill when you see how you can score against your opponent. Maybe he or she gives something away in a movement of an arm, or you see the footwork following a particular pattern. In a competition, that’s the moment you know you’re going to win the bout.

Fencing gear makes the hard hits bearable. Most women wear a plastic chest protector that looks like the front of a Barbie doll. (Fencers have been known to jump up a size or two for photo sessions.) Recently, some men wear plastic chest protectors as well, although theirs are flat. Having the hard plastic under the fabric of the jacket makes it a little tougher for the point of a foil to “stick” enough for the touch to register on the machine. So there can be an advantage to wearing one. I’ve never heard a man admit to wearing one simply so that getting hit doesn’t hurt as much. Interestingly, although women are required to wear a chest protector, men are not required to wear a cup. (ouch!)

Coaches can have an interesting effect on a fencer during a bout. For example, coaches may tell their fencers what to do (attack to the leg, attack high, retreat and then duck and counter attack, etc.) either verbally or with signals. Sometimes it doesn’t really matter what the coach tells the fencer to do; it’s the fact of telling that helps. The fencer then has something to focus on. Energy comes from having a mission to accomplish.

Of course, there are bad coaches as well. Coaches can be really good at giving lessons and training fencers, but not so good at coaching stripside. I was once on an international team with an American team coach who wasn’t the strongest strip coach. Another American, an excellent strip coach, served as a referee. I fell behind in the final bout. The two coaches were positioned in the stands with the bad coach in front of and below the good coach. It was comical because after each touch, I would look over and the two of them would be gesturing in exactly opposite ways. I would nod to the American team coach and then continue do what the other coach indicated. I don’t think the team coach ever knew.

You see? I love to talk about fencing. Fencing scenes make any book better!

Katharine:

So you see, I soaked up Leslie’s knowledge, I asked her pointed questions (bad pun intended), and she gave me ideas about how a dangerous accident might actually occur during a fencing bout. Voila, my hero’s expertise! Thank heavens for fabulous research consultants.

What questions do you have about tournament fencing or equipment? Have you ever sought advice from an expert on a fighting scene you’re writing? How did that work out?

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26 responses to “Sword Fighting and Fiction

  1. This is a interesting post! My (unfortunately unpublished) novels are set in 16th century Japan, so I have samurai fights. I write my fight scenes based on both studies in books as well as samurai sword fights from movies. (I have a copy of The Princess Bride and also Robin Hood and should look at those, though Basil Rathbone was suposedly the worst fencer in Hollywood.) I hope you won’t mind a few questions.

    1) What are the biggest problems with using movie fight scenes as an inspiration for your own material? (From the movies you’ve watched, what part of a fight scene is usually gotten wrong?)

    2) I have a hero in one of my manuscripts who is limp in his left leg. How wouls he have to adjust his style to fight with a sword?

    3) In another manuscript, I have a hero who faces mulitple opponents. If one person is fighting two or three people at the same time, how would the fighting style change as opposed to fighting a single opponent?

  2. Great blog! I learned a lot about fencing and sword fighting while reading it although certainly not enough to write a scene.
    I thought Katharine’s point (pun, again, intended) that she’d read books, taken a class in college and wrote what originally she thought was a very accurate fencing scene was well made. As writers we often delve into an area for our characters about which we know very little and we think the book research and a bit of experience will be enough to make it accurate. The fact that Katharine was “confident” enough to send her scenes off to Leslie, a true expert, to get critiqued is so important. The majority of the readers wouldn’t recognize the inaccuracies in the fencing scene, present company included, however, the author would lose credibility with a reader who would recognize it.
    I had to seek advice on several fireFIGHTING scenes, but alas, that’s a whole different kind of fight, and I live with that expert. So, although this topic probably won’t have a direct impact on me, the reminder to always consult the experts on a topic did. To me, that’s just as important. Thanks for the column.

  3. Hi, Walt. Thanks for your questions! I’m going to let the expert answer them. But in the meantime when Leslie and I were working together on this she made a point of telling me that movie fencing isn’t at all like actual sword fighting, or even like tournament fencing. I’ll be interested to hear what she has to say to you too!

  4. Thanks, Laurie! I write a lot about ships, too, and my second book in particular (CAPTURED BY A ROGUE LORD, out next April) has several big ship scenes in it. When I took it to an expert — and I’m talking a serious expert, the historical maritime archeology curator at a major US museum — I was amazed to discover where I’d misstepped. The thing was, it wasn’t so much in the material I’d researched in books in this case, but the supposed knowledge I’d brought to the topic via movies, especially. Movies so deeply color our perception of reality if we’ve watched enough of them, I think we don’t even know when we’re incorporating what we’ve learned from them into our books. It’s so essential to run this sort of thing past experts!

  5. Who is at a greater disadvantage if a lefty and a righty get into a sword fight? (match?) Good heavens, I am out of my comfort zone here 🙂

  6. Great post. I am a self-proclaimed Medievalist and write post-Camelot novels, so I have had to do some research on sword fighting.

    Fencing is an art and I love with watch it. Once, when I was a lot younger, I thought I’d try it.

    But fortunately for my research, I have members of a fencing club livingnext door. Some of the participants practice in their backyard, so I watch and try to remember every move.

  7. Hi Walt, Stage fighting is a lot of fun, and it is surprisingly easy to make it look good. An important difference between stage/movie fencing and competitive fencing is the amount of blade contact. Lots of blade contact makes for an exciting scene. It helps the audience follow the action and makes a satisfying sound. In competitive fencing, you are generally trying to avoid your opponent’s blade, not strike it. Some stage fencing is correographed by having a leader and a follower, where the leader puts his or her blade in various positions and then the follower responds by hitting the blade. (This is fun and easy to make look good.) In many cases, a competitive fencer would respond to seeing an opponent with his or her blade in some dramatic positing by hitting the person, not the blade.

    The left leg limp is an interesting question. I assume your hero is right handed. After limping around my office for a moment, it seems to me that it would throw a lot more weight onto his front (right) leg. Good form requires balanced weight so you can easily move forward or backward. So his mobility would be affected. Also, I think he would be awkward and slow recovering from a lunge, so he would want to make certain he was going to score before attacking. A failed effort would probably leave him in a very vulnerable place. He could perhaps compensate by having a very skilled hand.

    I don’t have a lot of experience with fighting multiple opponents. In modern fencing competition, the mask does not protect the back of your head, so the rules are set up so that you have to stay face-to-face with your opponent. Unless you had some structures to work with (walls, tables, rocks, etc.) to offer you some protection, I think it would be very difficult. As soon as your sword penetrated one opponent, you would be stuck there for a moment and extremely vulnerable.

    I hope this helps and is interesting.

    Best,
    Leslie

  8. Hi Margaret,

    Lefties tend to have an advantage because righties spend more of their time practicing against other righties than against lefties.

    It makes a substantial difference. Imagine you are a righty facing another righy. Your swords are on opposite sides, so if you attack your opponent’s left flank, it can be defended with a powerful parry across the body (parry 4). Now imagine you are facing a lefty. Your swords are on the same side. If you attack your lefty opponent low on the left flank, he or she will have to use a different downward parry (parry 8). This attack to a lefty’s left flank can be very effective, but if you always fence righties you never get to practice, and that is a problem. At the same time, the lefties practice clever attacks to righties’ flanks almost every bout they fence.

    Lefty fencers make up much more than the standard 10% of the people at high-level fencing competitions. Some people think that left-handed kids tend to have more success early on and so are more likely to continue with the sport.

    I am left handed, and I myself prefer not to fence other lefties.

    Best,
    Leslie

  9. Dear Kathye Quick,

    That is fun that you get to watch your neighbors practicing. I have tried fencing outside a few time, but there is something about how sunlight hits the mesh of a fencing mask that makes it very difficult to see. It can also be a problem indoors if sunlight is coming through a window. I fenced a competition in Italy once where there were beams of sunlight hitting some of the strips, and some fencers used it strategically, forcing their opponents into the sunlight and then attacking when their opponents could not see.

    Best,
    Leslie

  10. Hi Katharine and Leslie. Welcome to our blog. You’ve both given us some wonderful insights on fencing in fiction, all of which went into making the fencing scenes in Swept Away by a Kiss very realistic. As a martial artist, I appreciate the attention to detail that makes a good scene great.

    Leslie, could you recommend some resources that would help authors with research on fencing?

    Katharine, what was your greatest challenge in making Leslie’s advice come alive on the page?

  11. Dear Melinda,

    There is probably little substitute for a visit to your local fencing club to get a feel for the speed of fencing actions as well as the sounds and smells (it’s a sweaty sport and some equipment is difficult to wash) of fencing competition.

    The website of the U.S. Fencing Association (http://usfencing.org/) has a listing of clubs at http://usfencing.org/resources/find-a-club-where-you-can-fence. You would want to find out when their “competition night” is or when they have “open fencing.” That would be more helpful than watching a class that might involve lots of footwork and bladework drills. I expect any club would be excited to host an observer.

    Best,
    Leslie

  12. Margaret, what a great question! Thanks for dropping in.

    Leslie, your responses make me want to come to more practices and write more fencing scenes!!

    Kathye, I’m impressed with your covert research operations. 🙂 I’m a medievalist by training, and it’s what I teach at university too, especially knights. I love all that broadsword action!

  13. How very interesting. Thanks for the insightful post. I write sword fights in my manuscripts and someday I would like to learn to fence. Participating is the best research.

    Jenn!

  14. Hi, Melinda. Thanks for inviting us here today! It’s so fun to blog with Leslie. I learn something with everything she says. Thanks too for your kind praise of the scene in Swept Away By A Kiss. 🙂

    Honestly, the hardest part about writing that fencing scene was my uncertainty before I consulted with Leslie. Afterward, it all made a lot more sense. I had the big advantage of writing an actual fencing bout, not a duel or free fight. The gentlemen were supposed to be playing by a strict set of rules. I mingled what Leslie taught me about the sport now and in the past with what I’d been reading in books about historical fencing (the Georgian period in England). Leslie gave me ideas for mishaps that might occur and cause danger to one or both opponents in a bout, and I used that advice to turn the game into deadly play.

    Another choice I made was to write the scene from the point of view of the heroine watching from the sidelines. This meant I didn’t have to write too technically about the fencing maneuvers. For some technical flare, I threw in a couple of gentleman bystanders watching and commenting. But the heroine’s point of view allowed me to amp up the emotion while staying lean with terminology, which is what I wanted most from the scene.

  15. Jenn, I couldn’t agree with you more! Doing is the best way to learn. Last year at a medieval festival (of the Society for Creative Anachronism) I tried archery for the first time in thirty years. Wow! It takes incredible strength and concentration. The next time I write a Regency lady out upon a lawn shooting at targets–lightweight lady’s bow or not–I’m giving her the respect she deserves! 🙂

  16. Thanks for a wonderful blog – which brought back memories! Katharine, like you, I also took a fencing course in college. I definitely enjoyed it – but just for the length of the semester, I have to admit.

    What I most remember about that experience is being surprised at how many different muscles fencing used. Just the stance itself is so different from our usual posture!

    Katharine, you mention that your hero first picks up a sword at age 5. Is that standard for a Georgian/Regency era aristocratic male? (I think I read somewhere else that children started with wooden swords…)

    Could you also recommend some of the reference books you found most useful in your research?

    Thanks!

    • Hi, Kristian. Absolutely, young children practiced with wooden weapons before handling real swords. Leslie taught me, in fact, that the foil was originally designed for boys learning swordcraft, so that they could bear an actual weapon but not be weighed down by the heavy epee. My hero–precocious in all things–started early with the real thing. 😉

      Unfortunately I didn’t keep a bibliography of my research sources when I wrote Swept Away By A Kiss (I’ve suffered great regret from that error!). I do remember reading Richard Cohen’s By The Sword and loving it.

  17. Leslie and Katharine, thanks so much for sharing with us today. The post and comments were so interesting, I’ve put fencing lessons on my wish list!

  18. Katharine and Leslie,

    Thanks for a lively discussion! So glad to have you on the blog. Katharine – I read SWEPT AWAY BY A KISS. Loved it !! 🙂

  19. Thanks for the recommendation, Katharine – I’ll look for Cohen’s “By the Sword.”

    And I’m looking forward to reading your book!

  20. Kathrine and Leslie,

    Thanks so much to taking the time to join us. It’s been fun and I learned a great deal.

    Rayna

  21. Hi Kristian,

    Another resource for you might be “The History of Fencing: Foundations of Modern European Swordplay” by William M Gaugler, published by Laureate Press.

    I appreciate the opportunity to share fencing stories.

    Sincerely,
    Lesile

  22. Thanks so much for the recommendation, Leslie. I will definitely check that one out!

  23. Hi I just discovered you (Leslie) recently. I am a novice fencer (leftie foil). I am a rarity in that I actually love fencing other lefties. The trick is to learn what righties would use against a righthander then to reverse it. I discovered your name while looking for vegan fencers.

  24. You can earn some additional $$ from your website, i see couple
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