Open Wounds

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T is for Traverse

"I thought you said re-verse." "Traverse, Traverse!"

“I thought you said re-verse.”
“I said, Traverse, Traverse!”

Traverse

…is a defensive (mostly) move to the side. It’s an evasion of the blade by displacing your body left or right. In an advance you move forward. In a retreat you move back. In a traverse you move your front foot to the side while you parry. Then you keep going sideways and get the hell out-of-the-way.

Traverse left, parry two.

Traverse right, parry seven.

Attacks with the point tend to be direct, giving fencing a linear feel. The feet are lined up one behind the other and most movement is forward or back. Side-movements like traverses and voltes give transitional rapier and small-sword fighting more dimensions.

Broadsword and rapier fighting can be more circular. The stance is more squared off because it makes it easier to cut and move with a heavier weapon when your feet are both facing forward and your hips are squared to your opponent. Both feet advance.


S is for Stop-thrust

Okay. I know the image is gross but this is one of the coolest moves in fencing. Of course if you’ve been reading along this month you know that I think there are a lot of cool moves in fencing. Still, the stop-thrust is a great move. As your opponent advances in attack you evade back (by quickly drawing your forward foot back, straightening both legs and leaning forward as you extend your sword arm towards your opponent’s head. You attack into his attack. If you strike before he fully extends you should be able to score.
The stop-thrust can be to the wrist or arm (it’s closer to your sword point) but a good stop-thrust to the face (of course you are wearing a mast) makes your opponent think twice about attacking again. Psychologically brutal and satisfying.
This brings me to another fencing term, the straight attack. Straight or simple attacks are the best attacks in fencing. Complex moves with flashy flips and somersaults are great for entertainment, but are not realistic. In competition straight attacks or simple compound (a deceive or a parry-riposte) attacks are the soup-de-jour. Speed and cunning make split second moves the most successful.
Stop-thrusts are straight counter-attacks designed to stop your opponent… cold.
Toilet paper
Toilet paper 2

R is for Remise

Come on!

Come on!

Remise…

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


Q is for Quarta

sc00114b7e

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).


P is for Pommel

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.

sc0011a3df


O is for Open Invitation

I have an itch. Anyone... anyone... a little help?

I have an itch. Anyone… anyone… a little help?

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…


N is for Nee

sc0011695fWe are the knights who saaaaaaaay… nee. What does this have to do with fencing? Well… they are knights…


M is for Main Gauche

It’s French for left-handed dagger. Ah the French with their lovely words for articles of mayhem.

Rapier and dagger fights are so cool.

Seriously.

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!

rapier & dagger


L is for Lunge

The Lunge

The Lunge

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.

The kick is up, the lunge is Good!

The kick is up, the lunge is Good!

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.


K is for Knuckle Bow

sc0011f494The knuckle bow is part of the sword guard that sweeps from the hilt to the pommel in a bow shape offering protection to the sword hand.

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.

The Masked Man

The Masked Man

J is for Joust

Don't Ask. Don't Ask.

Don’t Ask. Don’t Ask.

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.

Wouldn’t you?


I is for Imbroccata

It's only a flesh wound.

It’s only a flesh wound.

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.


H is for Hit

Hit! Touch! Choreography!

Hit! Touch! Choreography!

Colpira senza essere colpito. Hit but don’t get hit. This is from an Italian Master of fencing from the 16th century.

Good advice.

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


G is for Grip

Smoke and Mirrors

Smoke and Mirrors

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.


F is for Fencing Measure

rec birdFencing 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.


E is for Épée

Blue Bird 4There 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.

Blade Fencing Shop on 29th 'tween 7th and 8th - Foils in hand...

Blade Fencing Shop on 29th ‘tween 7th and 8th – Foils in hand…

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.

1st Cover of Open Wounds ARC - Sabre Fencer

1st Cover of Open Wounds ARC – Sabre Fencer


D is for Defensive Box

"No, not a real box - an imaginary box..."

“No, not a real box – an imaginary box…”

An imaginary box that encloses the combatant theoretically leaving no portion of the combatant unprotected, its walls being created by the placement of the blade when parrying. In theory, eight parries are needed to protect every portion of the combatant’s body, creating a defensive box.Actor’s On Guard, Dale Anthony Girard

Fencing has been called contact chess and is a wonder of mathematical angles and forces in motion – a combination of geometry and physics. The exact parries will come later in the month but know that there are only so many places you can attack (the body is in a finite space) and for every attack there is a defense (parry). When it comes to defense, all parries, whether the attacks are cuts with the edge or thrusts with the point – push, hit (called a beat), or slide the blade away from your body and outside your defensive box.

A good defense is essential to staying alive.

A good offense allows you to end the duel in a positive (for you) fashion.

Imagine your protagonist is not aggressive but has learned to defend herself well. What if her opponent is of the same character make-up. Both fencers will stare at each other, make tentative moves forward and quickly back. The audience (if there was one) might egg them on. To be aggressive in attacking your opponent’s defensive box and especially the mortal wound areas – head, heart, lung, liver – requires the desire and capability to try to kill someone. How does your character get to that point? How much can training prepare someone for this moment? Killing someone with a sword is a personal, face-to-face event. It is visceral. It is immediate. It has sound, texture, smell. Don’t ask my how I know this. Let’s just say I have a good imagination.

Use these things to make each sword fight, big or small, come to life.


C is for Capo Ferro

Lunge

Lunge

Capo Ferro has not nothing to do with Italian food or stringed instruments.

Lunge Capo Ferro

It, or rather he, has everything to do with what we know about actual rapier, rapier and dagger, and sword and buckler (shield) fighting from the renaissance period. Since we don’t have film from back then and no photographs, we have to go by line drawings and any books that were written that described it like the one above from Capo Ferro’s book Italian Rapier Combat originally published in 1610. I bought my copy in Portland from Powell’s Books (awesome indi and just a huge huge store). This book is a series of plates with short explanations of the positions and moves of Italian rapier fencing. The Italians were known in the 16th into the early 17th century to be the best with the sword. The French surpass them later but not for a long long time. Ferro was a fencing master in the city of Siena. My favorite are the many images that show (see below) what happens when you are successful in attack. Notice the three different angles the blade can take and the successful parry with the dagger.

capo-ferro-plate-92-600x360

Of course this is 1610 Italy so most people in the plates are fencing naked or mostly naked (very strategically placed scraps of cloth or leaf)- not sure I’d recommend that – must have been very hot in Siena.

Here are some words from the first section: Some Remembrances or True Advices of Fencing

First, if you are found at blows with your adversary; you must always have the eye on the sword hand more than in other places, all of the others are false, because looking at the hand you will see the stillness and all the movements that it does, and from this (according to your judgement) you will be able to determine what you will have to do.

Methods that one must hold against a brutal man:

If you have to encounter a brutal man who, without misura and tempo, hurls many blows at you with great impetus, you will be able to do two things. First adopt the interplay of mezzo tempo, as I will teach you in its place, you will strike him in his hurling of the point, either by cut in the hand or in the sword arm. Otherwise, you can leave him to proceed at emptiness with somewhat voiding the vita backwards, and then you instantly drive a point into the face or chest.

Needless to say, I chose Capo Ferro as a model teacher for my protagonist in my novel Open Wounds.

How could I not?


B is for Blade

stop thrust

What do you do with this thing?

You stick him with the pointy part.

Different types of blades were used in different ways. Let’s look at a typical one-handed medieval sword. It’s main weapon was its edge, not it’s point. The point wasn’t really used a lot during the middle ages. Armor stopped it. Big heavy swords were used more for smashing and hacking. Still for swordplay know that there are two ends of a sword one with a pommel (heavy enough to counter balance the blade and to smash into things like people’s faces) and the other with our famous point. The cross guard is nice for stopping opposing blades from sliding down and cutting your fingers off but also wonderful for punching into the face. You’ll notice a theme here. Pommel to dross-guard is the hilt. The blade has two parts a forte (or strong) bottom third closest to your cross-guard that is used to parry or block your opponents strikes and a foible (or weak) upper third for cutting your opponents in half. The sharp edge can be on both sides (two true edges) or one in which case the blunt side is called a false edge.

All swords in one way or another have these parts even if they look different and are different sizes. Some things to remember about sword fights whether they are with medieval swords, renaissance rapiers, small-sword from the 17th century or the American Civil War. You can fight clean or you can fight dirty. If you fight dirty because it’s an ambush on a city street or you’re a soldier in the middle of a large battle, you will use any and or all the parts of your sword to get rid of your opponent(s). If you are fighting a duel you will probably use the blade only but that depends on the upbringing of the combatants (royalty, upper class, training, personality). And different blades are used to do different things – the use of the edge versus the use of the point. To see visually how two very different blades and upbringing can influence how a fight happens see the following two films:

Rob Roy – the final duel between Rob Roy and the English antagonist is a duels between the past (a large two-handed claymore – which is a heavy hacking edged weapon) and the present (a long, thin, pointy small sword that uses the point to do damage). This is choreographed by famous English fight choreographer William Hobbs. These two characters fight the way their personalities tell them to. The fighting is not generic, it is character-based. A good lesson for all writer’s to learn.

Watch any of the fights in Game of Thrones and then watch the scenes of Arya training with Syrio. Two-handed medieval broadswords are weapons of strength while Arya’s Needle is more point than edge  (swords from two very different time periods but hey, it’s a fantasy novel so you can do whatever you want!).


A is for Actors On Guard



The DuelActors On Guard, by Dale Anthony Girard – a great book on the use of the rapier and dagger for stage and screen.

A young man, a kid really, is doing choreography with a rapier, musketeer blade (double wide épée), cup hilt. He does the choreography well with his partner, an experienced actor and stage combat veteran named Dave. Dave is waiting for the kid to start his schtick.

“What’s the real thing like?”

So it begins.

“I bet I could hold my own in a fight with one of these.” The kid’s looking at the blade with confidence.

“Sure you could,” Dave says. He’s tired from almost three hours of fencing choreography – two classes, a beginner’s class and an advanced. This is the advanced class. He’s sweating and perspiring. He worked all night at his seventeen-year proofreading job, graveyard shift. He won’t go to sleep until that evening – if he can last. Its been 24 hours since he slept.

“Seriously, Dave,” the kid says. “Why won’t Joe fence against me?”

“Just stick with the choreography.”

“I bet I could fence against you.” The kid thrusts his blade tip at Dave’s chest.

Dave bats it away with his hand – his leather gloved hand. He’s more awake now. “You’re not a fencer,” he says with just a bit of an edge. “You’re an actor.”

“I’m pretty good,” the kid’s bouncing on the balls of his feet. “I could fence.”

“Joe,” Dave shouts and turns away from the kid. “Kid wants to see what it’s like to fence.”

An older man, probably in his seventies – the decades speaking in the lines of his face – rouses himself from reading the paper at the teacher’s desk. He slaps the newspaper shut and stands up, pushing his chair back. “David,” he shouts back. The rest of the class stops their work on the days choreography to see what’s happening. “Get the kid suited up.” He smooths back his white hair with his fingers and walks over to a locker, pulls out his gear. Dave gets the kid suited up with fencing jacket, mask, glove, competitive sabre. The old man suits up in similar whites. His fits loosely, like he used to fill it out more. Still he wears it with familiarity. He walks past the kid with his helmut under his arm. He turns smartly. Dave has pushed the rest of the class back so they’re all against the wall – out of range. All except the kid. Dave’s put him in the center with the old man.

“We’ll do three touches,” the old man says. “Dave, you’ll judge.” Dave nods and the old man salutes him, the kid, and the audience, then puts on his mask. The kid, a huge smile on his face, copies him.

“Fencers ready?” Dave asks.

The old man nods and says, “Yes, sir.” He is still. His sabre in the line of three.

Dave repeats his question to the kid. The kid is nervously swaying back and forth, the blade moving from side to side.

“Fencers ready? Dave asks him a third time.

He nods finally.

Before the kid can take a step forward the old man slashes his sabre’s edge across his chest. The kid stumbles back a step clutching his chest with his free hand. He rubs it smartly.

Dave hears him breathing shallowly. He knows that one hurt, even with a canvas jacket on.

“Fencers ready?”

The old man cuts the kids arm and the kid grabs the place where he was hit.

“You ok?” Dave asks sweetly.

The kid nods.

Third go.

The old man waits this time. He drops his guard down, inviting the kid in to an open target.  The kid attacks. He cuts to the old man’s head. The old man parries easily in five and smacks the kid hard in the head, hard enough to make him stagger back a step and to make the rest of the class gasp.

The old man swipes off his helmut and throws it to Dave. “Carry on,” he says and retreats back to his desk where his paper waits for him.

Dave directs the others to go back to their choreography. He walks up to the kid. “Ready for choreography?” he asks.

The kid nods. He’s still wearing his mask. He still hasn’t moved.

For the A-Z challenge I’ll be talking sword-play, every letter of the alphabet. I love to fence and I love to do the choreography of stage fencing. Outside of playing rugby there’s just about nothing better. As a writer who’s first book has more fencing and stage combat in it than most I hope this unique expertise can help others figure out how to write about the use of the sword whether it’s a small sword, a foil, a broadsword, a bastard sword, or a rapier and dagger. Maybe it’ll help with your next fantasy novel or historical. If you have questions, ask. Otherwise onward tomorrow to B.


Chasing the Moldy Warpe

Product Details

Reading Railsea by China Miéville is like taking a course in world-building.

I loved this book. It is the kind of book that took me 50 pages to get hooked on but I was intrigued enough from the opening line to get there.

This is the story of a bloodstained boy.

Spectacular opening line.

The reason it was challenging to get into was the same reason it was so fascinating. Miéville creates a world that is told to us by a narrator using a language similar to English but different enough from it that I stumbled through it until I caught its rhythm. I can truthfully say there are a number of things that I read that I truly still do not understand after finishing the book but I don’t care and it in no way took away from the beauty of the book for me. Actually I liked it even more.

Yes, it’s a dystopian world and I like them. Period.

Yes, it has to do with trains and trains are cool.

Yes, it has to do with Moby Dick and the searching for a philosophy or white whale. I liked Moby, even the whale parts.

And yes, the main character is not a superstar, gun and sword wielding hero. He’s pretty mundane, and every-boyish and that’s what makes him so wonderful.

Look at what Miéville does with point of view. It’s 3rd person omniscient through Sham (the bloodstained boy) Ap Soorap’s perspective through the half-way mark and then the narrator tells us it’s time to switch – as if he’s an actor talking to the audience and breaking the 3rd wall. Then the story splits into three stories until they all converge back into Sham. It’s an incredible narrative risk that works spectacularly.

So listen to his narrative. You don’t even need a context:

“No such animal’s crossed our paths,” she said. “Be assured I know now your vehicle’s name, & at the first sign of that beckoning metal in a sinuate mustelid eruchthonous presence, I shall take careful notes of locations. & I shall get you word. On my honour as a captain.”

And then there’s this one from captain Naphi about her “philosophy” the great moldy warpe Mocker-Jack:

“How meanings are evasive. They hate to be parsed. Here again came the cunning of unreason. I was creaking, lost, knowing that the ivory-coloured beast had evaded my harpoon & continued his opaque diggery, resisting close reading & a solution to his mystery. I bellowed, & swore that one day I would submit him to a sharp & bladey interpretation.”.

He uses the symbol & instead of the word and, and then two-thirds into the book explains why he does.

From word choice, to the rhythm of the narrative, to the way characters speak, to the characters themselves. This world is built from top to bottom and bottom to top. Read it as a reader for pleasure. Read it as a writer for a course on world-building. Read it for the bloodstained boy and the moldy warpe.


Eat Sympathetic Gurus

May I be Happy: a memoir of love, yoga and changing my mind, by Cyndi Lee is a memoir about why women hate their bodies and a primer on how to take your yoga practice and use it in your daily life.

Let me put this out there.

I picked this up because Ms. Lee is a yogi who is internationally known for her teachings (yoga and mindfulness meditation) and I’ve read and enjoyed two of her previous books, Yoga Body Buddha Mind (which I loved as a book about yoga and practice and mindfulness) and Om Yoga: a guide to daily practice (which I have used in my own daily practice). I took classes and workshops at her Om yoga studio (before she lost her lease last year and now has a wandering studio) and it was one of the nicest studios I’ve ever been too.

So I think she’s great.

But here’s the thing.

This memoir is written by a dancer, yogi, celebrity with connections to Cyndi Lauper and Jamie Lee Curtis, who travels to India and is in Japan (Tokyo to be exact) during the horrible earthquakes two years ago. She meets famous gurus (because she can). And is obsessed with her body – she has been taught, to just like so many women by our wonderfully patriarchal misogynistic society. She comes from a privileged position at the top of her field so take that into consideration too.

What am I saying?

I tried to read Eat Pray Love twice and both times I couldn’t get more than twenty pages in. Why? Because I just didn’t care about the main character. She was like the three women in Sex and the City – I just didn’t care about them. Okay, okay. I’m a guy so that’s a problem too. It was hard for me to connect but still. The Sarah Jessica Parker character always complained about her life and I found it hard to feel sorry for her. She lived a good life, in a comfortable home, had plenty of money, dated lots of men, had good friends. What was she complaining about? Anyway a sympathetic character helps to keep the attention of this reader. Also, I know, I’m not the target audience for these shows/books so know that too.  As a reader I’m in the minority as the book Eat Pray Love is a best seller and people have told me how much they loved it – just not me.

Back to Cyndi Lee before I go off again. I read within the context of my experience. I can’t help that. But I also can learn. That I can help.

So Cyndi…  She wrote her memoir about why she hates or why “women” hate their bodies because she does and was taught to. As a “role model” to so many women, she thought it would help other women to explore this issue. Again, I had a hard time during the first part of the book because she is so successful and whining about her squishy parts (her term). This is a woman who does not have visible squishy parts. But she is also dealing with aging, and a mother who is dying, and a husband who has issues – let’s just leave it at that. These aspects of who she is, when taken as a fuller tapestry of who she is were fascinating and brave to speak about. I read on because I wanted to learn more about her. These other stories made her more vulnerable to me, as a reader. She puts herself out there and that is a brave thing to do.

But the most interesting aspect of the book and the main reason I read on was because she used a yogic filter for all of her experiences and that filter was fascinating. I teach in yoga class that we practice in class so that we can take it out into the world. She does this and uses herself as an example. She lives what she teaches and this direct application of yogic philosophy hooked me. Anything else would have been an interesting memoir but this raises it above that status and into another – at least if you’re a yogi or yogini.

One other thing from a writer’s perspective also caught my eye. She leaves out information about her relationship with her husband at a key point of the book which I will not reveal as it’s a spoiler for the memoir. But the absence of information is powerful in how it allows me to see her. Deep pain can be described or it can be inferred. It’s like in a movie when the director has a choice to either show the murder or show a shadow of the murder. Each can be powerful but what is  not shown is filled in by the imagination of the reader. Some readers of Cyndi’s memoir may get angry because she leaves this out. As a writer I was fascinated by the story the shadow told me.

Now here’s a question for you. With a little punctuation, how many different meanings can you make with the title of this blog post?


Breaking Bread not Heads

ASK THE PASSENGERS by AS King

I finished Ask the Passengers a few days ago by A.S.King. I’ve been letting it percolate and settle. Her novels do that to me. I won’t tell you what the ending is but I will tell you it is perfect. I didn’t expect it, the way A.S.King wrote that ending – having her cake and eating it too. If you read the book, and I highly recommend you do as it’s wonderful, I’d like to know what you think about the ending.

But that’s not the only thing, however veiled I’m being about gobsmacking perfect endings, that I learned from her latest book. Actually all three of the books I’ve read of hers, Everybody Sees the Ants, and Please Ignore Vera Dietz, included, demonstrate a great narrative writer’s technique.

I’ll get back to it. Hold on.

I met a Flannery O’Connor award winning author early in my writing career (long aside in progress so watch out for piratical brussel sprouts) named Rita Ciresi. I met her at a writer’s conference in Connecticut – but I don’t remember the name of it as it was a good 20 years ago. In one of her workshops she said, “One of the things I like to do the most is put my characters in a room together and let them eat. All kinds of things happen.” Let them break bread not heads. Now I know you’re thinking, he couldn’t remember the name of the conference but he could remember what Ciresi said. Hmmm. Well, deal with it.

Now it’s back to Ask The Passengers. A.S.King uses meal time – who eats what, with whom, in what room, with what drinks – to paint a tapestry of relationships that are mostly dysfunctional – though watching how they change over the course of the book is one of the subtle joys of the story. They do dishes, cook sometimes, go out into the backyard, lie on the picnic table and stare at the planes passing overhead and send them the love they cannot give to the ones they want to. She is brilliant at creating situations at home that cause her characters to interact. As a writer and reader I watch and marvel at her ability to do this.


Hookers, Language, and Naked Acrobats

Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man by Jay Atkinson is not your ordinary memoir – at least not here in the US. In England there are plenty of memoirs of famous ruggers but here in the US? I don’t know if there is even one – either famous ruggers or memoirs about them. Regardless, Atkinson surely has the credentials and the longevity in the sport to be an expert voice on it.

A friend of mine – someone I faced on the rugby pitch many times over the years and with whom I share a love of the sport – gave me this book for the holidays and I read it quickly and with great enjoyment. I especially enjoyed the perspective of a hooker (a position in the scrum that is responsible for “hooking” the ball back to his teammates when the ball is sent into the scrum. It’s a brutal position simply because of the physics of the scrum (all the pressure of eight players pressing into the shoulders and necks of the front three players and the front row center player is the hooker). I played rugby for 13 years and for all but maybe four or five games played with the backs at wing, fullback, or center. I played 2nd row once (my ears wouldn’t allow me to do it a second time) scrum-half once (now that was fun even if I was terrible) and flanker two or three times. I say this because as a back I especially enjoyed the peek into what it was like to be in the front row and hook.

Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man: Guts, Glory, and Blood in the World's Greatest Game

But what does all this mean? It means Mr. Atkinson had a tough sale to make about a sport that is not real popular here in the US. And he sold it anyway. It helps that he’s published a few novels, some of which have been successful critically and sales-wise (I’m going on record to say that I’ll be reading one of his novels this year …)

What I was amazed at was how heartfelt the memoir is. Now hear me out. Heartfelt and rugby don’t necessarily go together but let me see if I can explain. Atkinson’s book wades through drinking, partying, and sex scenes (there’s one in particular with a naked hand-standing acrobat… ) one after the other for most of the first two-thirds of the book – which is a lot of what rugby is about – mayhem – but it is a bit of an onslaught. Still it is not a sport for the faint hearted and does linger in alcoholic mayhem post play. I think I’m too attached to that word, mayhem. But war stories like this can be tiresome after a while. What’s the point? How do they build the overall story of this man’s life? In a novel wouldn’t some of them be cut to make sure the narrative moved forward?

Atkinson’s story snuck up on me. The backbone of the rugby life laced with stories of his family and his writing is what did it for me. His relationship with his father and with the writer Harry Crews (his teacher) became the emotional thread that built and peaked the narrative in the third act. It made his story a coming of age story that resonated with me deeply. It gave the memoir shape, it gave it form.

It also reminded me of what a writer friend told me once when critiquing my “rugby” novel a long long time ago (it was a novel that never sold but got me my first agent), “Put in all the rugby language and don’t worry if people don’t understand exactly what it means. Fuck ’em.” What I see in Atkinson’s use of the language of rugby – which by the way is the same language that Andrew Smith so skillfully uses in his book Winger – which has its main character play rugby – is how beautiful language can be when it’s unique to an activity – even when it’s brutal. It is language that even if not understood in a direct word for word translation tells a story with texture and depth.

Oh. And what about that kick-ass cover? I remember one game almost drowning in a good foot of water and mud on a flooded field in Bayonne New Jersey…