A week from today I'll be in Denver, leading 60 authors through their paces with Broadswords, Rapiers, and Smallswords at the Historical Novel Society Conference. It's quite an honor, and I'm hugely excited. Because the more writers understand about fighting, the better they can portray it on the page. But combat was not restricted to mortal matters. As I tell writers of historical fiction, you might not know you're writing about swordplay, but you are.
From antiquity to the late 19th Century, swordplay was at the center of the world. I don’t mean just duels and warfare. I mean customs and society. The way a man bowed. Why we shake hands in greeting. The reason men’s and women’s shirts button differently, even to this day – all of this came from swordplay.
Dance is especially important in the history of swordplay. Or rather, swordplay is vital to understanding the history of dance. In a dangerous world, a man had to always remain in practice. So the dance of any given period reflects the fighting style of that period. In the time of longswords, with big sweeping steps and long arcs, the dance is the reel. In rapier-and-dagger fighting of the Tudor era, dance partners held up both hands and switched from one to the other, just as in a rapier duel. The delicate footwork and correct posture for smallsword fighting is exactly mirrored in the 18th century waltz.
The dance of a period comes out of the fighting style of a period. In fact, it is not until we introduce repeating guns that this trend ends (it is also the end of couples-dancing – ever since we started using automatic weapons, men and women have ceased to dance together).
This is what I mean when I say you’re writing about swordplay. A woman walking on a man’s left in public was to keep his sword-arm free. The length of the sword in Elizabeth’s court was a strict 33-inches, because men kept wearing longer and longer swords (overcompensating?) and were constantly whacking each other when they turned.
And language! So many phrases we use today stem from violence. Cloak and dagger. Let the cat out of the bag. Lock, stock, and barrel. Half-cocked. Flash in the pan. Fly off the handle. Even the insult ‘gauche’ refers to left-handed men, deemed to be devilish for their unnatural way of fighting.
Because fighting was so much at the heart of society, it branched into every aspect of life. Learning the basic elements of swordsmanship is unbelievably helpful to the historical author – if only to let you know how easy it is to trip over your sword when walking up a flight of stairs. Such details are the lifeblood of our art, and are so often overlooked.
The HNS has offered me a wonderful chance to present some of this knowledge in two sessions this June, exploring different eras of swordfighting. For part of the time, we’ll be picking up swords and learning the basics, just as in the old fight schools and academies. For the rest of the time, I’ll be running through a history of swordplay in Europe, from the ancient Greeks through the Napoleonic era. I’ll talk about the evolution from cutting to thrusting, and how the Romans were far ahead of their time. And I’ll share stories and offer advice on how to write violence. Like every other element of our stories, it comes from character, and research.
In our business, nothing beats good reviews. With that in mind, here are a few kind endorsements from our colleagues who attended my last session in St. Petersburg:
C.W. Gortner: Having written historical novels where my characters wield blades, David’s workshop was invaluable and so much fun. I learned not only the proper way to hold a certain type of weapon, but got a real-life feel for the heft of it, the strain on my shoulder, the way I had to position myself to employ it. It made my writing come alive; I was always thinking afterwards as I wrote, how does this sword FEEL to the character?
Patricia Bracewell: I’m already signed up for the Broadsword Workshop with David Blixt in Denver. I attended David’s session in Florida and discovered that holding a sword and actually working with one are two very different things. Having listened to academic talks about swords I was somewhat familiar with the technical aspects of swordplay, but David’s workshop was a physical, hands on experience that was illuminating and great fun. Highly recommended.
Donna Russo Morin, author of The King’s Agent, a USA Book News Best Book of the year finalist and recipient of a starred review in Publishers Weekly: David Blixt’s Sword and weapon workshop was one of the highlights of my 2013 HNS Conference experience. With a combination of lecture and hands one time, it’s a fast-pace, fact-filled adventure. Whether writing battle scenes, duels or to simply identify which weapon belongs to which period, this workshop is essential. While I don’t write battles, I do write women in combative situations. Having the opportunity to wield these period weapons, learn basic moves, is not only fun but incredibly useful for almost all time periods. I highly recommend making this workshop part of the conference experience. It truly brings history alive!
Lisa Yarde: Very little topped the swordplay session during the Historical Novel Society conference in St. Petersburg. The very wonderful and personable David Blixt is an author, actor and as soon became obvious, David clearly loves historic weapons and historical fiction. He started off with an introduction to our enthusiastic audience on the history of swords and the mechanics of wielding a weapon. First, he talked about the parts of sword, then the evolution of swords over time. David also mentioned a neat tie between dance and fighting…
But what’s better for an author than training with the weapons our characters use? There were broadswords, longswords, rapiers, daggers and axes on hand. David showed us how to put weapons to effective use. For our characters, of course!
Alison McMahon: I went to the conference for the Historical Novel Society in 2013, which took place in St. Petersburg, Florida. A historical writer named David Blixt, who is also an actor and a fine specimen of gladiatorial humanity, taught a class on stage combat. I was instantly in love. With the fencing, that is. So when I got home, I signed up for a fencing class and took it for three months.
See you in Denver!