There are different kinds of waiting games that writer’s play and none of them are fun. Well, for me most are painful, mixed occasionally with moments of pleasure, but not fun. Definitely not fun. What do writer’s wait for? Here’s four to start with.
- a response from an editor -This is painful because it means potential rejection and the more neurotic you are the more you focus on this part. Raise your hand if you are in the more rather than less. Also it creates more anxiety the longer it goes on and it can take weeks, months, and yes, sometimes years for them to get back to you. Some never get back to you. Some get back to you with foul language in a long letter with a large coffee stain on the center of it. Okay that only happened once. What’s good about waiting for a response? Your work is being considered and there are short bouts of hope. Hope, hope, hope. Got to have hope.
- a response from an agent – see editor above. This one holds even if the agent is your agent. Actually it’s worse in some ways if it’s your agent because they’re supposed to be responsive to you. How many emails should it take to get your agent to respond? How long should you have to wait? One day? One week? One month? One year? Should you ever call? Can you text? How about face time? Is it okay to visit the office? Mind you I don’t have the answers to these questions. I use to, but then all my answers were proved wrong. I will say though, that stalking is right out wrong. If you’re at that point you should probably be looking for another agent.
- a response from a reader of your manuscript. If it’s a friend, partner, spouse, writer’s group colleague, or family member, and you’ve given them a time limit (reasonable, be reasonable!), and they’re kind (only ask them if they’re kind), then waiting should be shorter and easier. It helps if they’ve read your manuscripts before – or any manuscript before and it helps if they owe you money.
I’ve written about this before. I must have. Unless I haven’t and it’s all been in my mind. I do a lot of talking in my mind but not out loud. I think writer’s do this a lot.
The third piece of the story.
My best friend, Joe DePalmo, was hit by a train when I was 13. We were the kind of friends who saw each other every single day. Living on the same block helped. He left school on a day filled with rain and thunderstorms. I don’t know why he left. No one does. He wore thick glasses. He crossed a railroad track and was hit by the LIRR. They announced it over the loudspeaker in 8th period while I sat next to his empty seat in math class.
Write what you know.
I wrote about it in 10th grade for an essay competition in school. I didn’t win because my spelling was so terrible – seriously I placed but didn’t win. I’m so grateful for spell-check now. The piece of writing is gone. I never got it back. I’ve tried to rewrite the essay a few times but just can’t do it. So it worked its way through my subconscious, into my conscious, and after 42 years into the life of Illya Kuryakin Cruz-Archer – IC for short. IC’s 16. He plays a tabletop miniatures game called 40-K and he practices yoga and his parents are HIV positve and Brad Sologashvilles just gave him the Mark of Zorro.
The hit was one of the ideas to start the novel I’m working on, but not the only one.
Four years ago Evelyn Fazio, WestSide Books Editor and all around wonderful person (she did publish my first novel Open Wounds!), told me to write about my HIV/AIDS work. We’d just had lunch and I’d told her about my day job. “Write about it,” she said. Her suggestion stuck with me.
About a year later I wrote this line:
Did you ever wish you could be invisible, like The Invisible Man from that H.G. Wells book? He wrote that in 1897. Unfucking believable, my uncle Hatch would say. Both Wells and Hatch knew something about the need to disappear.
Then I wrote ten pages about a boy named IC whose parents were living with HIV. Then I found the hit tucked away in an electronic file. Maybe it found me. Something told me to put it in front of IC. It came first. I started at the end. Then I wrote two hundred pages – forward up to the opening scene, finished it, and kept going into act 3.
I wanted to write about HIV but not about someone who had HIV. HIV is much more a chronic illness today than it ever was and there’s a whole generation of long term survivors who are in their fifties and sixties who are dealing more with old age, albeit accelerated by their HIV, than HIV. They’re also dealing with AIDS Survivor Syndrome and loneliness and depression, and … It truly is a time when we can end the epidemic. Inhale exhale.
I’ve worked in the public health field of HIV/AIDS for over 25 years.
Write what you know. There’s a third element. I forgot about it. It’s unpleasant so I forgot about it even though it happened in reality before the hit did. It’s another expedition into the wormhole. I didn’t realize until now it was these three things that begged to be written about that came together into one story. I’ve kept them separated in my head where all the work it partitioned off. I’ll get to the third part because they all tie together under the write what you know label. Just not right now. I need to circle around just a little more.
I wrote ‘the end’ yesterday. A lot of writer’s talk about it, the feeling they have when they write ‘the end.’ I find a bit of sadness and a bit of anxiety and a bit of satisfaction as in. It’s not a first draft but it’s not a last. It’s a draft that says to me,
I wrote ‘the end’ yesterday. A lot of writer’s talk about it, the feeling they have when they write ‘the end.’ I find a bit of sadness and a bit of anxiety and a bit of satisfaction as in I can’t get no. It’s not a first draft but it’s not a last. It’s a draft that says to me, I need to be read and validated and edited now.
Overall it’s a pretty good feeling.
It weighs in at 301 pages and about 70,000 words in courier font because courier reminds me of a manual typewriter. It’s taken two and a half years to get here and a couple of wormholes and a few false starts – though I wrote the opening page about nine years ago. It’s funny how that works.
My first reader is my wife, Karen. Always.
She asks me, “Am I going to get upset?” I nod. Of course. She knew the answer before she asked. I could tell you about the plot but it doesn’t matter because it’s really about my friend who died when I was twelve. His name was Joe, same as me, and I still, 42 years later, think about him.
I’ve been working hard on this book, pushing, since June. Since June I wrote the last act, some 80 pages, and read through/edited three times – lunch-time when I could. Some late nights. Some weekends. I made time. I gave up some other things instead. I found a good rhythm – one that, as a novelist, I haven’t been able to find in a while. It feels really good to find it again.
Now I don’t know quite what to do with myself except wait and try not to ask Karen, “Did you start reading yet?” I asked her this morning. I have no impulse control about this. Really, I don’t – never have.
Bethany Hegedus (author of Between us Baxters and Grandfather Gandhi) asked me to write a blog post for her series Rejecting Rejection at www.thewritingbarn.com. Bethany was the reader who read Open Wounds for Westside Books and told them they should buy it. She helped me break the rejection streak and I’ll be forever grateful. Check out the other posts on Rejection. They are inspirational, some funny, and overall give me the feeling of being in good company. Everybody deals with the big R. Everybody.
Also take a look at The Writing Barn. What an awesome place to go on a writer’s retreat…/
Here’s my second set of five. Make of them what you will, but in no particular order:
Spartacus by Howard Fast is a great book and a great piece of literature. I read this about fifteen years ago and was blown away by how evocative it was and how many layers it carried on it’s scarred shoulders. I loved the movie Spartacus (I’m Spartacus! The watches on the Roman soldier’s wrists in the big battle. The crucifiction after the horrific fight between Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis who still sounds like he’s in Brooklyn) and only saw the novel while digging for gold at a used bookstore on 19th street near 5th avenue. I couldn’t put this down. As a piece of historical and political fiction (yes and swords and sandals action – though less than you’d think) it blew me away. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy writing historical fiction. Note I’ve also seen the first season of the TV show and had a hard time watching it as the violence was incredibly intense and the story so upsetting. But then when was slavery ever anything but? This is the only novel I’ve read by Fast and it’s a keeper.
The Stand by Stephen King is wonderful. I’ve read it twice, once when I was a teenager when it struck me as the ultimate teenage angsty end of the world story. I loved the characters, was terrified and caught up in the story, and completely satisfied with the ending. This is King at his best. Then I read it again some twenty years later when he reissued it with an additional 400 pages in the “uncut” version and I loved it even more. This had one of the most gripping opening 50 pages ever. I can still picture the guys at the gas station watching the car with the… and the guy waking up at the hospital…
Captail Blood by Rafael Sabatini surprised me when I read it. I had seen the Errol Flynn film of the book when I was a kid about a dozen times and knew it by heart. When I wrote my novel Open Wounds I used the movie and the book as key plot points. The first half of the book Captain Blood, is almost word for word the screenplay of the movie. But, and here’s the good part, the second half of the book takes Captain Peter Blood to the edge of madness and home again. You’ve missed out on a terrific read if you haven’t taken this step past what is already a great movie story. I’m a sucker for a good pirate story.
Make Room, Make Room by Harry Harrison is absolutely brutal. The movie Soylent Green (Soylent Green is people food! says Chuck Heston from his stretcher) was made from a small piece of this massive, thought-provoking, and yes, depressing and dark science fiction novel. I picked the book up because it said, “Movie based on…” and because I’d read and liked Harry Harrison (Bill the Galactic Hero is a favorite). This is a gritty and powerful and cautionary tale all wrapped up into a crowded, unable to breathe in, novel.
I’ve been reading A.S. King and learning how to write. Every one of her books is a meditation on the art and craft of the novel. She is wonderful. I just finished her first book, Dust of 100 Dogs, and her latest, Reality Boy – back to back. I’ve read all of her books inbetween also.
Dust is part pirate tale (female protagonist), part coming of age story, part love story, part dog story, part modern and part historical. How would you take being born aware that you were a pirate and then, because of a curse, forced to the live the lives of 100 dogs, before you were again born into present day remembering each of your previous iterations fully?
The pirate story and the modern story are told in parallel as are a number of dog stories. You know the ending at the beginning but it doesn’t matter because you still don’t know how exactly King will get you there. This is a great technique and very hard to pull off yet she did this with her first novel and in such an engaging way. I was so caught up in the story I kept thinking to myself, maybe it won’t end the way she said. I knew the way the story ended. She’s cursed and lives the lives of 100 dogs. But still… I knew how it ended in general, guessed the specifics, and still felt a lump in my throat when I got to the last page.
Reality Boy is so different and so visceral. You can read the synopsis on Goodreads. I’m not going to give it to you. It’s still too fresh for me. A good book will do that to me. It has to settle. I found tears on my cheeks a few times reading Reality Boy, and not because I felt manipulated but because the authenticity of Gerald’s (the protagonist) situation made me – feel. King is expert at capturing what it’s like to be in late adolescence (17). As an example. Gerald has a developmental insight at one point (he sees the world from someone elses point of view). I know this sounds mundane, but it’s hard to explain this kind of world view to adults and for me, King really puts us inside Gerald’s head and shows us his realization in such a painful and amazing way. And it is amazing, in a story telling world accustomed to cartloads of over-the-top action, explosions, and gun-play, how powerful a single moment of genuine insight from a character we care about can be.
What will she write about next?
Then a little while later he says, “If I write two pages a day – only two pages a day – I’ll write a novel in… ” I can see him doing the math in his head, “half a year.”
I nod. “It’s cool isn’t it?”
He shows me his new page(s) every night. He doesn’t usually show me his writing for school so this is a new thing for me. When I’ve ask to see his school work in the past he’s usually said, “No.” I’ve had to search for his stories and essays in his work folders after it’s been handed back to him and placed somewhere in his overstocked and overflowing backpack. Or my wife has had to tell me where it was. She knows. She almost always gets to read his work.
He’s finding real joy in putting his pencil to his page. He sits at the table at night staring out the window with his pencil eraser between his teeth, chewing and thinking. Every once in a while his pencil moves down and across the page leaving text behind. I sit with my back to him at my computer doing my version of the exact same thing with electronic text. I don’t chew on an eraser – though I’m not against it if it helps to think. I usually sip tea.
When he’s finished he wants me to read it, “Right now.”
He stands next to me and places his book in my lap. He points at it. “Now.” He watches while I read it, his hands together in front of him. He cracks his knuckles one after the other rolling from one finger and hand to the next. I laugh out loud when the story is funny. He smiles when I do that.
“Who should I kill off?” he asks, placing his hand on my shoulder.
“Let me finish reading,” I say.
“I’m not going to kill off anyone,” he says. “Maybe just have one of them lose a foot or a hand.”
“Shh,” I say.
“Read it,” he responds.
It reminds me of so many writer’s that I know, including myself. “Tell me what you think?” He asks and I have to tell him now. When I give my work to someone to read I want the same thing, now, only as an adult trying to show that I have impulse control, that I can be patient, that time is of no importance to me – I say instead, “When you get the chance.” Or worse, “There’s no rush.” What that really means is, “Now.” Trust me. it means, “Pick up the manuscript and start reading now. And don’t stop until you’ve finished. Because I want to know what you think – if it’s any good and I want to know now. I’ve been inside my own head for over a year, written 235 pages, and need to know it’s been worth the effort so I can write another 100-200 pages more of my epic – though it’s not really an epic I just think of it that way. And if you make me wait a day or a week or – God help you – a month to get back to me I’ll have to exist in silent scream torture mode as every day I check me email to see if you’ve sent me a note that says, “I’m done.” ”
My son is quiet while I read the rest of the page. He sits on the arm of my work-chair, reading over my shoulder. He asks me, what do I think, with raised eyebrows when I close the book and look up.
What the hell is a xiphoid? Let me tell you. Even my spell check doesn’t recognize it as a word… but it is. I had to dig deep for this one. Because really, there are not a lot of X-words out there and how many could really have anything to do with fencing?
Today could be about the volte (evasion from opponents blade by moving the back foot to the right (for righty) or left (for lefty) displacing the body away from the line of attack and creating a new attack line for yourself)… but it’s not. Voltes are cool. But so is Varvarinski.
Nikolai Varvarinski is a fencing master in my book, Open Wounds. Here’s how he describes his philosophy of fencing to the protagonist, Cid Wymann:
“In war I lose count. It is what happen in war.”
“How many in duels?”
“In first duel I place my point in other boy’s chest”— he pointed to the center of his chest—“here. Into heart, I think. Blade go into body—go into body far. I let go of blade—stare at boy. He stare back at me but does not die. I think, why does boy not die? While I think, he put blade in my side and almost kill me.” He lifted up his shirt and showed me a thick puckered scar above his hip.
“You don’t remember?”
“There are many things I not remember.”
“What happened to your fencing school?”
He did not answer for a while, then his hand trembled a moment and he clenched it into a fist. “Enough talk. Now back to work!”
is one of my favorite fencing terms.
It means to attack and attack again. If your first attack misses or is blocked you do not retreat or recover. You attack again without pause. That is a remise.
It requires great confidence and nerve, sometimes leg strength for a double or triple lunge. If you pause after missing the first time and hesitate, even for a second, you lose the initiative. The remise is finished. So don’t pause. Keep going forward and attacking until you touch your point to his chest (or wrist, or arm, or head, or, or, or…). It is thrilling to do and a bit frightening to have done to you.
To defend against the remise you retreat, parry, stop thrust, or some combination of these three in order to stop the juggernaut. Cut into his attack. Get out of distance. Make him pause and hesitate, so that you can take the initiative from him.
My books original title was Remise. My publisher said it had to be changed. “It is a French word,” she said. “Nobody will know what it means.”
Open Wounds is more brutal but Remise is elegant violence.
Here’s my main character, Cid Wymann learning about the remise from his old Russian fencing master, Nikolai Varvarinksi.
Open Wounds, by Joseph Lunievicz, Chapter 17
“Aldo Nadi says—”
“I am not Nadi,” Varvarinksi shouted and threw his glove onto the ground. “You want to take lesson from Nadi you find Nadi!”
“I didn’t mean—”
“Kónchit’! No more questions. You learn. I teach! Remise is attack, then attack.”
“What do you mean?” We had been working on parry-riposté drills, Nikolai pushing me to parry later and later, and to riposté faster and faster.
Nikolai picked up his glove and épée. He cinched his leather wrist strap tight and secured the grip against his palm. “With foil you extend arm before attack. Da?”
I nodded and rolled my eyes, having heard his explanation of foil what seemed like a thousand times before.
“Good,” he said, ignoring me. “You know difference between foil and épée?”
“Yes, yes,” I said, nodding and mouthing the words with him.
“If you parry, I withdraw arm, extend again before I attack in redoublement,” he said, showing me with his blade in quick, sharply etched movements.
“That sounds French,” I said.
“Quiet!” he shouted and launched an attack at my chest so quickly I barely had time to parry. Only instead of relaxing his arm back into en garde he kept his arm extended and attacked again to my hip. I stumbled back just in time to parry his strike in seconde and retreated again, now off balance, parrying another attack to my shoulder in sixte, only the third time I was too slow and his point touched my upper arm. Nikolai didn’t stop. His momentum threw him forward and pushed his point into my flesh. I tripped over my feet and fell to the ground. My arm felt as though it had been pierced.
“Remise!” he said, looking down at me, anger seething out of his lips.
“Remise,” I repeated, my own anger building in return. I touched the bruised skin of my arm. There was some blood where the point had hit. It was sore and would be black and blue in the morning. “Remise,” I said again, quietly. The world slowed down and my senses expanded. I heard the rasping sound of gravel shifting beneath Nikolai’s front foot and the dull thudding of my heart. His breath was ragged. A high-pitched buzzing floated by one of my ears and passed around to the other.
It seemed impossible for such a large and out-of-shape man to move that fast. In drills he pushed me with his own attacks, but they were timed and rhythmic, beautiful in their own way and mesmerizing in their patterns, but never blinding in speed. I’d thought he was fast enough to touch me only if I made a mistake. Now, watching him walk awkwardly away from me, his shoulders slumping forward, his belly hanging again over his pants, my anger grew. “Why don’t you try that again?” I said, the words seeming to elongate out in front of me as if in a dream.
Nikolai stopped in his tracks, then turned to face me. “You want to fight me?” His words were crisp, dangerous.
“Yes,” I said.
->— Open Wounds, by Joseph Lunievicz
The guard that protects the high inside line. Each of the guards – or ways you stand when you’re in on guard position leaves open some areas and closes off others. Terza is the most common guard and protects the high and low outside but as long as you stand sideways with your left shoulder back leaves little open. Quarta protects the torso strongest. It also looks cool. In the image to the left imaging his palm is up and swung a little to the left…
According to Camillo Agrippa’s Trattato Di Scienzia d’ Armes’ (Milanese fencing master from 1550s also a mathematician) the ward/guard is most useful against adversaries who prefer cutting attacks to your left side. The guard position is more defensive in nature although it is also used to engage your opponent’s blade and set up for gliding type attacks (glissades).
French for little apple. It is the metal fixture that locks together the different parts of the weapon and acts as a counterbalance to the blade. It also means to strike, beat, bash, hit with the pommel.
If you want to see how well-balanced a weapon is try to find the place you can rest the weapon on two extended fingers. It should balance a little past the hilt and the ricasso (the part of the blade just past the hilt that is not sharp and begins the forte). A well-balanced sword will swing easily and be controlled easily. It will feel right, not tip-heavy.
Pommels can be plain or ornate, or somewhere in-between – just like your characters.
Open Invitation is a deliberate placement of the blade which exposes the entire body, intended to draw an attack from an opponent. This is a tactic a more experienced fencer usually takes against an opponent to throw them off their game or to try and make them make a mistake by making an obvious or rash move.
For example, I was fencing Coach Wrak (that’s really his name) in his backyard salle (fencing studio) where swords of all sorts hang from the walls in addition to his wife’s clothing, luggage, various exercise machines in various modes of disrepair, ancient torture devises (a cement brick with a rope tied to it and attached to a dowel that you hold in your hands and using wrist and forearm power tried to roll up), books (of which mine is one), stacks of fencing equipment, and a greenhouse looking ceiling and three walls, one of which is painted as a school mural with now curling strips of paint hanging off it. So… I was fencing Coach Wrak last Friday night and I was doing well, getting touches off his wrist and arm (we were fencing épée and the whole body is a target), scoring twice on straight attacks and once off of a deceive – and then there was the stop-thrust to the head that always cashes in for morale points. I was feeling cocky and he was getting a little frustrated – at least that’s how I’m reading it looking back. Then he gave me the open invitation – he relaxed a little in his on guard, opened his arms to show me his whole body was unprotected, and smiled at me, inviting me to attack.
I got nervous.
I attacked and stopped half-way into the thrust at his chest, which he’d left open. He waited, didn’t even defend – nerves of steel. The corner of his lip curled up. “What are you going to do now?” he asked, his Polish accent thick.
“Good question,” I answered and lunged straight for his chest.
He parried four.
I deceived to three.
He brought his blade back and caught me in three, riposte to my chest – touché.
This happened three more times. He left himself open but he was far from defenseless. I did not score touches again until he changed his guard.
He got into my head with his open invitation and I couldn’t get him out.
I couldn’t think of what to do because I could do anything. Too much freedom gave me brain freeze. He set a trap and I fell into it.
Wait until next week.
As a writer this kind of positioning is a wonderful opportunity to show character through choice of guard (or the way you hold your blade in on guard – know that every guard shuts off a line of attack and opens up another. Only the open invitation leaves them all open.). What does Coach Wrak’s choice speak to of his personality, confidence, skill level? What do my reactions and choices show of me. Okay, let’s not go there. I’m neurotic enough as it is. Anyway, you get the idea…
Rapier and dagger fights are so cool.
First, they look cool. One of my favorite film fights with rapier and dagger is Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Don Juan, the final fight on the stairs. At the end he throws his sword to the side and says, “The sword is too good for you. You die by the knife!” Then he leaps down onto him. This is a little talked about fight because it comes from a movie that is late in Flynn’s career but if you get the chance to see it you won’t regret it. It’s very tongue in cheek and quite the spectacle. There’s also a fight in a tavern that is wonderful as it’s in an enclosed space. Flynn does all his own work in this film. You can tell because all the shots of him fighting you can see his face rather than shots from behind – when a double is usually in place. As an added bonus see if you can find the clip of the film that comes from Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. They plucked the scene right out of it and integrated it into this one! Hah.
Second is that the fight with a main gauche moves very fast. The reason for this is that when you parry with your dagger you can, at the same time attack with your sword. This cuts into the time of your opponents attack. Instead of a beat of tick tack tick tack you get ticktackticktack. It can look just ferocious. When choreographed it is much more complicated and stage combatants have to really be aware of where the blades are and what each hand is doing – for the more experienced combatants only. You can also attack with the main gauche as an added bonus in case you close the distance or want to get someone away from you who is too close.
Third and finally, there is something about a dagger, of any sort that just seems dangerous. A knife expert told me once that if anyone ever pulled a knife on him he would get the hell away as fast as he could. Why? Because in knife fights fatalities are common. You’re just too close to miss. So good advice. As they say in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Run away!
Sometimes I spell it lung or lungee. I don’t know why. Perhaps because it’s late and it’s been a long week. Perhaps you know what I mean.
A lunge is an attack that elongates the body and subsequently the blade towards your opponent with the hope of skewering him. Okay I’m feeling a little aggressive so we’ll work with that. From en guarde you extent your sword arm then the front foot kicks forward and up while the back leg straightens advancing your blade toward your opponent with the hope of skewering him. I know I said that twice but the image stays with me.
There are two cool ways to practice lunging. One is to have someone stand in front of you just out of reach with a glove in their hand. From en guarde you have to wait until the glove drops and then lunge and try to grab the glove before it hits the ground. The second way is to place a quarter under the heel of your front foot and when you kick your front foot forward and up you have to lift your toes first and push hard with the heel to send the quarter skimming forward. This practices the explosive part of the move.
The lunge is a quick and efficient attack that can use all kinds of combination attacks with it including deceptions of the blade, feints, beats, and glissades. Usually books talk about three types of lunges, the demi (or short) lunge, the grand lunge (it is what it sounds like), and the standing or stationary lunge. You can throw in the passato sotto or rear lunge (which is really an evasion – a duck) also as a personal favorite. In the passato sotto rather than lunging with the front foot kicking forward, you duck and kick your back leg back, extend your sword arm while you bring your free hand to the floor for balance. Your opponent runs on to your blade – always helpful.
Did they lunge in medieval times with long swords and broadswords? Nope. They would use the point only after their edges were dull and they got tired of trying to crack each other’s metal shells and started trying to stick the point into the creases between the plates in the throat and the underarm. Who needs a lunge for that?
Besides the lunge wasn’t even invented until the 16th century, when they figured out that the point of the blade moves faster than the edge. Think about it. It does. And you can see a cut coming but just looking at the point it’s harder to figure out distance or target to defend against. Oh and the Italians invented the lunge. Capo Ferro’s prints are the first to document it. Gotta love that guy.
Competitive sabres have them and many rapiers did. Not only great for protecting the hand but great for in-fighting also – smashing into the face especially. The pommel is great for that also as is the cross guard. You can also (as a neat trick) reverse your sword, holding the blade with both hands, one hand on the foible and one on the forte. Then use the parts of the hilt and grip as a weapon. Nasty stuff. Not taught on the lawns of the great families but in the dark alleys where the smell of brandy and whiskey is strong. That and urine. I had to add that in. Couldn’t help myself.
I know what you’re thinking. Jousting is not swordplay. It’s two men on horses in armor trying to knock each other off with a lance.
It is that.
But it also was so much more. Swordplay in medieval times was more brawn than finesse. Armor was heavy and so were the swords and shields. Originally a joust could be a battle on horse, a grand melee or single combat on foot. On foot is could be with pole-axe, axe, dagger, or… the sword. By The Sword by Richard Cohen is one of my favorite books on combat with the sword and he’s got a whole chapter 0n this type of combat.
On the melee, “… these jousts were condemned by the church for their high casualty rates.”
On single combat, “…the use of heavy armor and heavy weapons allowed only simple movements, forcing contestants to concentrate on one blow at a time, so that complicated phrases were impossible… Only when a shield was so cut up as to be useless were the swords themselves used for parrying, as edge-to-edge clashes were mutually damaging.”
I went to visit a Society for Creative Anachronism group a few times where they roleplay medieval life including fights with swords. I fought twice. They use rattan taped up with duct-tape – think getting hit with a two-by-four only it’s lighter so it moves a little faster. I wore leather armor and a full steel covers the whole head like the black knight in Monty Python and The Holy Grail, helmet, hand-made by a friend. They calibrated me for the fight (so I would know what a death-blow was vs a glancing blow or arm-cutting-off blow) by wacking me in the head with their swords three times. “This is a death blow.” Wack. “Let’s do that again.” Wack. “Once more so we know you got it.” Wack. My head was ringing. Then they put a sword in my hand and gave me a shield (heavy) and we went at it. In a matter of seconds I had been hacked in the legs and wacked in the head. Death-blow. I tried again and lasted about two minutes. It was very humbling. All my opponent did was smash into me with his shield, and wack me with sword blows to my head – very very fast, repeatedly. O as fast as he could go with all that armor on. Okay it seemed fast to me, even it wasn’t. Hell, I had no idea what I was doing.
I still had fun.
I would do it again.
Imbroccata is an Italian word for a downward thrust, generally delivered from the right side with the hand pronated over one’s opponent’s sword arm. Your sword hand is higher than your shoulder and the point of your sword is angled down. – Actors On guard by Dale Anthony Girard. It looks vicious in a stage fight and in competition I find it makes my opponents hesitate (as in what the hell is he trying to do now?).
I love all the Italian words for the different fencing moves. The opposite of the imbroccata is the stoccata (attacking from the bottom up under the opponent’s sword arm). Mandritti are cuts from the right side. Botta Dritta is the straight thrust. Botta longa is the lunge. Stramazone is a slicing or cutting blow made with the point/tip of the sword. Mandritti Squalembrato is a cut from the right side oblique and downward attack. Volte is a specialized foot movement to avoid a thrust – nothing to do with a battery. And finally Botta segrete or the secret attack – is the secret attack that only a few fencing masters know of that no one can defend against.
The language of fencing whether it’s in English, Italian, or French, is a language of textures, colors, aggression, and heavy breathing. Yes it’s very much a language of sex in addition to one of violence.
The rest I’ll leave to your imagination.
Colpira senza essere colpito. Hit but don’t get hit. This is from an Italian Master of fencing from the 16th century.
What’s the difference between competitive fencing, a duel, and staged choreography? There is a conceptual difference that is important for writer’s to understand and incorporate into their work. It all centers around what it means to be hit.
Stage combat is choreographed (if someone ever says to you, “Let’s just go at it and see what happens. It’ll be more spontaneous that way.” Run. Run as fast as you can.). It is like a dance made just for the characters involved, tailored to each of their personalities. A fight that could be used by any character without signature is a generic fight that doesn’t add to the story. It is a fight for a fight’s sake. Hollywood does this all the time. That’s why so many fights look the same and even though the action is kinetic it is ultimately un-engaging and leaves us feeling used – as if we weren’t considered smart enough by the director to handle the “smart fight.” Don’t get me started.
Competitive fencing with épée (the closest to a dueling weapon) allows double touches and scores a hit for one and not the other if you hit a fraction of a second before your opponent. You don’t worry about the second hit because it’s later and doesn’t count. We’re not hitting to kill or draw blood. It is a sport. Hits are called touches. The weapons are dangerous (why else wear masks and canvas to protect ourselves?) but safety is emphasized in the rules and play stops after every touch.
What about a duel? The mind-set changes. If it’s to first blood it can be blood anywhere so hits to the wrist and arm may be sufficient. But fights to the death are another story. What follows is from Aldo’s Nadi’s book On Fencing chapter in which he describes a duel he was involved in 1910. Remember, this is a man who was considered the greatest fencer of his time. No one could beat him. Then he challenges a forty-year old fencing critic who has fought 4 previous duels before while he, at 24, although he has just won the championship in three weapons has never fought in one. This chapter is worth reading. Here’s an excerpt in Nadi’s words.
“…You have heard shouts under the mask before, and you have never paid the slightest attention to them. why even without mask, this man is like any other. He is armed with a weapon quite familiar to you, and there is no reason why he should beat you–none whatever. When these few seconds of uncertainty and uncontrollable fear and doubt are over, you counterattack, and touch, precisely where you wanted to touch–at the wrist, well through the glove and white silk. but during the violent action of your adversary, his blade snaps into yours, and its point whips into your forearm. you hardly feel anything–no pain anyway; but you know that after having touched him, you have been touched too. “Halt!” shrieks the director.
Caring not for your own wound, you immediately look at your opponent’s wrist, and then up at his face. Why on earth does he look so pleased? Haven’t you touched him first? Yes, but this is no mere competition. He has indeed every reason to be satisfied for having wounded you–supposedly a champion–even if he nicked you after you touched him.
Young man, you must never be touched. Otherwise, the blood now coming out of your arm may instead be spurting from your chest…” – Aldo Nadi
Aldo Nadi, probably one of the greatest fencers of the 20th century, says in his autobiography The Living Sword, that you can tell a lot about someone by the way they hold a sword and the way they fence.
They reveal themselves.
Grip is both how you hold the sword and what the sword’s handle or grip looks like. The big three are French, Italian, and pistol. There used to be Spanish style also but from what I can tell that is long gone. Italian is right behind it. Notice in the picture that follows the French style is simple, straight, and conforms to the palm and wrist.
The classic duel is between French and Italian style – not gangnam style. Pistol grip replaced Italian around the 1970’s. Notice the Italian style in the picture has a crossbar and two metal rings for the fingers.
The myth is Italian style is no longer competition eligible. The reality is it has gone out of fashion and few make them any more.
The pistol grip is the most popular today because it gives a fencer more control over his blade. There are six or seven different types of pistol grips. My problem with the pistol grip (and note that I have used it on occasion – basically when I don’t have access to my own weapons because I’m traveling – hey it’s my excuse) is that it makes me feel like I’m firing a weapon and not fencing. I know, I know. That’s ridiculous. But Italian grip looks most like a real sword to me. I like to use my imagination in my swordplay. What’s a real sword? One that makes me go, “Ooooo.”
One of my fencing teachers, Joe Brodeth, gave me an old Italian dry foil (non-electric) that he used to use back in the fifties when he first came to the states. He gave it to me knowing I would carry on the tradition and use it too. I still do. I am not fully trained in the style but I’ve read Nadi’s book On Fencing. And I had Joe Brodeth give me some guidance in the form of lessons.
The grip and the pommel and the hilt can be ornate or they can be plain, unblemished or scarred. They can reflect the personality of the user, just as grip can. French style avoids the blade and is used with finesse. Italian attacks the blade and uses some muscle because the grip is stronger. Italian is strong enough to disarm. Pistol can do all of the above. Of course this is all modern competitive styles. The broadsword and rapiers were much simpler because mostly their purpose was to use their edge so little point control was required.
Fencing measure is a stage combat term than means the distance you are at from your opponent that is safe to do your choreography from. You are out of distance of each other’s blades so you can’t be hit but close enough to give the illusion that you can be hit. It’s all smoke and mirrors I know but that’s film and theatre. It’s entertainment and safety is key. But we can learn from this.
You measure this distance by, from your on guard position, extending your arm fully and touching your opponents bell guard with your point. Tip to guard. Then you are just out of distance.
Distance is an interesting thing in fencing and in a fight. Depending on the person and how threatening they seem to you and whether their weapon is drawn or not, the distance at which you might be attacked or feel threatened is very different.
In stage combat class most actors get into each other’s faces for violence and forget they have a sword at their side. They’re used to fists. They were not born with a blade in their hand or in the hand of others around them. They have not been training with a sword since childhood and seen death come to their town, city, castle, family, from the razor edge or the point of steel.
So notice that distance to attack can be as close as an extended arm plus three feet of steel. It can be two to three feet longer for a lunge distance and another two to three feet for an advance and lunge, or even further if your opponent runs at you.
Look at how distance is used in the first duel in Ridley Scott’s movie The Duelists. Notice how far they are to start. Almost tip to tip. Watch how scared one combatant is to close the distance and how quickly he leaves the killing space. Notice how Harvey Keitel (with the long hair) understands the distance so well that he plays with it.
Think of this. The edge on a sword should be as sharp as a razor. The point is like a pin.
I can tell you having seen a real machete (a slightly curved weapon that has one sharp edge used for farming and self-defense) fight in a very remote community in Honduras somewhere near the Nicaraguan border that thirty feet away was not far enough. When the combatants ran at each other and their blades hit sparks flew and people dove for cover – me included. I saw the wounds of one man up close after the fight and after applying some basic first aid – pressure to stop the heavy blood flow – helped to carry him to a hospital a few hours away on foot. I got to see his wounds up close. One wound across his chest took 34 stitches and a cut that scored his forehead near his hairline left a flap of skin that fell forward across his face. These wounds were enough to give me great respect for and want to keep a great distance from – a blade.
Distance is everything. You can’t hit someone if you can’t get close enough. And if you can hit them, they most likely can also hit you.
There are three competitive weapons in fencing today: foil, sabre, and épée. I have fenced épée on and off for over thirty years (more off than on, and with a tremendous amount of humility), tried sabre for a year or two and started with foil as most fencers do. The question is what’s the difference and why should you care?
I’ll tell you. The first cover of my book – the one that went on my ARC – was a dark, edgy image of a fencer in mask and full uniform. I loved it. Only one thing. It was a sabre fencer and my protagonist, Cid Wymann, fenced épée. I got another, better cover, with an image of a stage rapier super-imposed over NYC. Each is a different weapon with a different personality and type of fencer who picks it up.
This is important. Each weapon speaks to character and personality.
Foil is more structured and formal with a rule called right of way which dictates who can score and who can’t. You must extend your arm fully to take the attack. It makes foil more structured and in some ways artificial – more of a sport than a martial art. The target is only the torso, not the arms, legs, pelvis, or head. The blade is thin and bends. It can even be used in a whipping motion to score back hits in a move that has nothing to do with the martial art (hits over the shoulder and into the back?) of the sword. You can only score with the point.
Sabre is a holdover from rapier and calvary sabre days. It is an agressive and sometimes brutal sport (okay, okay, if you parry well you can avoid getting hit which is the idea. I get wacked because I’m slow with my parries). You can get bruised up because the thin metal blade is used to both cut (both sides are considered to be edged) and thrust (it has a point also). There is a guard to cover the hand and you need it. It uses the same right of ways rules as foil and is hard to follow because it is so fast. The target is the waist up but not the hands so the arms and head come into play and must be defended. Sabre moves fast and furiously. Sometimes you see sparks fly from blade contact.
I learned to fence with a foil my first two years fencing. I learned to be agressive with sabre. I learned to think with épée. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.