Open Wounds

Historical Fiction

10 – Part 2

Here’s my second set of five. Make of them what you will, but in no particular order:

Spartacus (Paperback) ~ Howard Fast (Author) Cover ArtSpartacus 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.

stand 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…

 

 

 

captain bloodCaptail 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 roomMake 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.

 

 

 

papillonPapillon by Henri Charriere is a magnificent adventure novel based on the life of the author – the only man to escape from Devil’s Island. Because of Papillon I wanted to get a tattoo (thought my wife wouldn’t let me – I know I know). “Welcome to the penal colony of …” from the Steve McQueen movie of the same name is just about perfect accompaniment also. This was one of the first real adult novels I read as a teenager and it fired my imagination.
There’s the last of my ten. Next week as I lie about on vacation (I will not check my work email) I’ll come up with my ten favorite reads of 2013. Never done it before so it ought to be fun.

The Dust of Dogs and Human Insight

  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  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?

 


Z is for Zanbato or “horse-slaying sword”

I know. I know. Zorro, right? But that would be too easy. So I went after Zanbato instead (thanks again to Urban Dictionary for the path). If you have never seen The Seven Samurai, by Akira Kurosawa, then you have never seen the most magnificent Zanbato in film. One of the samurai wields it. This is one of my favorite movies of all time – as is its American version, The Magnificent Seven.

So what is a Zanbato? Urban Dictionary: an especially large type of Japanese sword, the historical use of which is disputed. The sword closely resembles the nodachi or odachi, however it differs from the nodachi by having a ricasso of approximately 12 to 18 inches (460 mm). This lends more to the theory of the sword having a practical use in feudal Japan. The increased length of the blade, along with the extra grip, would give it dual use both as a sword and as a polearm for attacking advancing cavalry.

Horse-slaying sword. That says it all.

And so the A-Z challenge ends with the image of seven samurai looking down into a valley filled with poor peasants being over run by bandits. What will they do? Thanks to all who stopped by for this year’s challenge. En guarde!

I am Zoro... without the mask. Really. Ask anyone...

I am Zoro… without the mask. Really. Ask anyone…


V is for Varvarinski

What happens to the Lefty's?

What happens to the Lefty’s?

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:

->—-
“Before I become master,” Nikolai said, “I go to Italy in 1908 and study in Rome. When I return to Russian court I can fence like no other. Russian nobles like devils to fight in duel. Want to be like French. Like devils to be French. Everything French. I call French fencing master coward and kill him in duel. His students come to me.”
“How many men have you killed?” I asked.
“Quiet! I not finished. I bring them fencing book, La Spada e la Sua Applicazione. Book by Greco. I show them to speak with sword must speak Italian. ‘First to be Italian!’ I say. My students live—opponents die.”
“But, how many men have you killed?”
“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.
“How many did you kill in duels?”
“Six or seven.”
“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!”
->—-
Nikolai is based on my mentor, Joe Daly’s description of a sabre teacher he had when he was a young man who had him take off his shirt for every lesson. “You will parry faster when you know a miss will hit your flesh.” I used this with Nikolai, whose teaching cry in Open Wounds is, “Too take off shirt!”

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.


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.


Sights, Sounds, and Smells

Fencers engaged in match

My friend and mentor Dr. Digby from CW Post LIU (my alma mater) has asked be to take her small English class to Manhattan to see the world of Cid Wymann first hand. They’re reading Open Wounds now. I’m going to talk to them about how you can make the past come alive in a historical novel.

I’m very excited about it (not the amount of work I will put into it – more than I need to probably but that’s my problem). I went to talk to The Fencer’s Club (on 28th) folks today to see what time on a Saturday October 20th, would be good to bring a dozen non-fencers to watch the goings on and maybe get a short talk about the history of the club – and… not get in the way of the fencing.

I’ll have them sit and listen to the sound of fencers going at it. I love that sound. Then there’s that smell of sweat from fencers who haven’t cleaned their uniforms in ages. Ahhh.

Then the Hotel Chelsea where Cid lives with Lefty down on 23rd. It’s under construction with a new interior renovation and new owners so we can’t go inside but at least the outside looks the same.

Then two avenues over to where I placed the fictional Gotham Fencer’s Club but where at some point prior to 1930 there was an author’s club near 28 West 24th Street.

Then down by subway – the R train – to the bloody angle (not from Gettysburg) in Chinatown on Doyers where the Rescue Society Mission used to be and where I placed an alley that leads down and deep underground to an opium den where Lefty tries to disappear from the pain of life.

Finally we’ll end up a little north at the lower east side on Grand where Siggy lived at the Amalgamated and over to Orchard where he worked selling pickles from a push-cart.

I might be a little too ambitious.

We’ll see.

I’ll let you know as I get closer.

Oh… and just ignore the fact that I’ve been away form a month and some. I’ll tell you about it later.


Indie Excellence Gone Bzrk

2012 Indie Excellence AwardsI’ve been away in my mind for the last two weeks. That’s what bloggers say when they’ve been away from their blog – at least that’s what this blogger says. Yes, I am a blogger. I’m surprised to see myself write this but it’s true.

So, I’ve been busy with my day job and putting words on paper for my new book – more day job than new book but I have clocked in my first  100 pages so I’m pleased.

I’m in Nashville right now, at a Starbucks Coffee mixing with the mall rats from across the street’s giant Greenhills Mall and just visited Parnassus Books (in a small mall on my side of the street)  – an awesome indie with a saleswoman who was nice enough to take two copies of Open Wounds and put them on the shelf and consider stocking them – consider, I can ask no more.

It helped that my book has just been announced (no megaphone or loudspeaker, just a quiet facebook mention from my beloved publicist Julie Schoerke at JKSCommunications) as a finalist in the historical fiction category of the 2012 National Indie Excellence Book Awards. I’m very excited, especially since I’d completely forgotten that I’d entered my book in the contest. Julie had recommended that I do so and I’m glad I did.

So I was at Parnassus looking for Michael Grant’s Bzrk and they had the book (many indies have not, I’ve asked at five so far) but only at the warehouse. I couldn’t buy it because after the conference I’m presenting at is over tomorrow I’m heading home and the store is out of the way (two bus rides for this writer and an hours travel). But you can bet they’ll have it stocked on the floor tomorrow. My search for a non-Barnes and Noble purchase of Bzrk goes on…

Oh, but I did buy a book while there (I have to support the indies!). I bought the new Stephen King book in the Dark Tower Series – my favorite books from Mr. King.

Now it’s off to the bus stop and back to the Opryland convention center where workshops on LGBT Issues, Teambuilding, and Cultural Competence await me.


M is for Molṑn labé! (Come take them!)

Still of Gerard Butler and Vincent Regan in 300Molṑn labé!

“Come take [them]!”

King Leonidas of Sparta says this in response to King Xerxes of Persia’s demand that the Greek army lay down their arms before the Battle of Thermopylae. Tens of thousands against 300 and they say, “Come take them!” What were they, out of their minds?

The movie 300 (see it if you haven’t because it’s awesome) is one of the most chest-thumping, testosterone filled films I’ve seen in the last year. Maybe I don’t see many chest-thumpers or maybe it is just that visually stunning (it is). Or maybe it’s the classic story that grabs me in which 300 come-back-victorious-or-on-your-shield Spartans hold off a swarm of Persians at the small pass of Thermopylae so that their armies back home can organize. They buy time now for victory later. And… spoiler here … they all die in the process. It’s brutal. But the dialog is just amazingly chest-thumping. There’s so much testosterone in this film it is overflowing.

What’s fascinating to me is how caught up I was in the characters, the father and son, the two friends who are like brothers (they are all like brothers), the king who willingly sacrifices himself and his warriors for the greater good of his country, and the cripple who wants so bad to be a soldier and betrays them all.

The reviews were mediocre of this film when it came out so I did not see it until recently. Everyone said it was visually spectacular but that the story was weak. I didn’t see that at all. I saw tremendous violence surrounding characters, hard as nails, that I cared for. That’s what story is all about. Characters you care about placed in danger in some way that they have to somehow get out of or through or around – even if they do not survive. Extreme, yes, in this case, but also, compelling.


Api tou heliou metastethi (Stand a little out of my sun.)

It’s all Greek to me.

This is my first post on the A-Z challenge and I’ve got my own theme for the month that comes from the book I’m working on now that takes place in 1914 England where Greek and Latin ruled as education in the “classics”. How each of these sayings deals with writers today will be my own stretch. So stop by and see what I come up with.

Api tou heliou metastethi (Stand a little out of my sun.)

So replies Diogenes the Cynic when asked by Alexander the Great if he had any wish he could fulfill. You gotta love that with a rim-shot for punctuation.

Something I recently overheard from a writer at a conference who was published with a big house when asked about the kind of support and publicity campaign she was receiving: “Oh it’s great except they always put me next to the (choose your megastar writer – there are only a few) so I might as well not even be there.”

Me I like being next to the megastars. At Charlottesville, being next to Alma Katsu (The Taker) on a panel meant people on her line (long line) sometimes drifted over to my line when they finished having her sign their book. Hey. You gotta start somewhere. Alma is a very cool writer whom I’ve had the pleasure to meet twice at two different conferences. I can stand in her shadow any day, ’cause one person’s shadow is another person’s sun.

Where is Diogenes when you need him?


Old Lies and Hand Granades

Old Lie: The Great War and the Public-School Ethos

I just finished a book I was reading as part of my research for my next book. It has taken me four months to finish it. Non-fiction works that way with me. It was fascinating, small print, footnotes – not my usual fare. But it gave me background that I need. It’s title is The Old Lie, The Great War and the Public School Ethos, by Peter Parker. I bought a used copy since it’s out of print. I’ve got notes written in the margins now, pages dog-eared, flags sticking out its side, and a coffee/tea stain here and there on the cover (or that may have come with the book).

Here’s some Latin that haunts the book and England during WWI:

Dulce et Decorum est,
Pro patria mori

(it is sweet and right to die for your country)

This is what drove English boys to war from the public schools at ages of 17 and 18, to be officers. It’s still doing its work today. The thing is in 1914 England the world was very different from what it is today. Context is everything.


Gladius Tattoo

Take a look at this video and then come back. Go ahead. Full Metal Jousting.

Here’s a variation on the theme of writing what you. What if you write about something that you don’t know? Can you still write about it? The answer is both yes, no, and… it depends.

Have you seen Full Metal Jousting on the History Channel? Have you seen the collision of lance and armor? It is an incredible spectacle. It is also a real life history lesson for the writer who wants to depict a medieval setting. There’s no staging of hits. There are no theatrics other than what comes from the drama of watching repeated collisions of horse and rider and lance. It’s the real deal and it is an intense sport reborn for modern times.

Each episode has added two or three facts about jousting that are terrific details for the writer. For example: in one episode a smaller horse was chosen to give the rider the advantage of targeting up at the opposing rider – a greater chance to unhorse than targeting down. In another episode they talked about the need to release the reigns once the horse and rider begin their charge down the lane. The reason is so that when (not if) when they are hit – if unhorsed – they don’t pull the horse down with them and hurt the horse. Knights then retake the reins after they pass their opposition so they can stop the horse. Another example: armor weighs 80 pounds and knights (what else can you call them?) walk funny in full armor – legs out a little wider, more bent, torso stiff, neck immovable. Another example: the horse is as important as the rider and the relationship between horse and rider is critical to success.

If you’re writing about this time period and wanted insight to the practice this is the perfect show to watch.

I wrote a lot about fencing in my novel Open Wounds. I have fenced on and off for some thirty years, mostly épée, but also foil and saber. I’ve also choreographed and taught stage fencing using rapier, case of rapiers (two at once), rapier and dagger, short sword (like épée), and broadsword. I’ve done these things because I love playing with swords (who doesn’t?) and I’m fascinated by them (who isn’t?). They also inform my writing. Giving me details about combat with swords that would be difficult to get without the insight of personal experience.

A writer named James Duffy, who has written a wonderful pulpy series of historical novels about gladiators in ancient Rome called Gladiators of the Empire. On his website you can see pictures of him doing gladiatorial reenactments with a group of re-enactors in New england where he trained for two days as a way of doing research. I have to say… that sounds like fun.

This is one of the wonderful parts of writing – doing so that you can write more authentically. It’s opportunity to learn and fun. I wrote a novel (one more revision still needed) with a protagonist who played a Warhammer like fantasy miniatures game and collectible card games like Magic The Gathering. I played these games at a gaming club for a year – doing research, and having a lot of fun.

Does it mean you have do what you write about? No. Can it help? Yes. Do you have to do what you write about? It depends (on what you’re writing about).

And in case you haven’t seen the show – check out Full Metal Jousting and let me know what you think.


Mine Arse On a Band Box

King's Captain: An Alan Lewrie Naval Adventure

I always look for new books to read. I’m a fan of historical fiction and am on the constant lookout for the next stand alone or series that I can sink my teeth into. My favorite series over the last fifteen years has been by a little known author named Dewey Lambdin. The series is about a man named Alan Lewrie who starts out in the first book as a seventeen year old midshipman and moves (so far) through fifteen plus years of his life to a position of post-captain of a frigate in the English navy during the years of the American Revolution and through the Napoleonic Wars.

The larger story of this man’s life is epic. Each individual book is unique yet adds depth of character to Alan mine-arse-on-a-band-box Lewrie. And Lewrie is an imperfect soul with a temper for violence and lack of skill in decision-making when it comes to women and relationships. He makes mistakes and pays for them. He’s a rake. He does good sometimes selfishly, sometimes for profit, and sometimes without knowing it. And sometimes he is very, very bad. But he is always like-able – especially because of these character flaws. I have followed him over 18 books, one more or less a year per year, every year of both mine and his life. It is like reading one long novel about one human being whose life is painted large on canvas. It helps if you like nautical, bawdy (there is sex and violence a-plenty), funny, adventure stories.

I found the series browsing through the new mass market paperbacks in a Barnes & Noble, looking for something good to read. The first book, The King’s Coat grabbed me from the opening scene when Alan’s father catches him in bed with his step sister, steals his inheritance and railroads him into the navy. I’ve loved every minute of each book ever since.

Two novels especially stand out (some in the series are better than others but all add in some grand way to the larger story line). One, Havoc’s Sword spends the first third of the book detailing a duel with pistols in which Lewrie is one of the duelists seconds. It is a wonderful piece of writing and takes place all on dry land. Another is a The King’s Captain in which the last half of the book takes place at anchor during the mutinies at Spithead and Nore – something I knew nothing about and found absolutely fascinating.

And here’s the coolest part. We had the same agent once a long time ago for a short period of time (about two years). I’ve corresponded with him ever since and last year he wrote a blurb for my novel. He writes all correspondence on a typewriter and has replied to every letter I’ve sent. My dad reads his books too. Every February (when the next book generally comes out) we race to see who will find it on the shelves of a bookstore first. This is as it should be.

My son is already asking when he gets to start reading them. He’s going to have to wait.