Write What You (Don’t) Know


Writing a sword fight is very difficult, especially when you have no idea what you’re talking about.

I have two questions for you readers:

1) What other fantasy-appropriate weapons and warfare are there? I mean, ones that would be interesting to write about? And don’t say archery. As my friend Brittany pointed out at lunch yesterday, thanks to Hollywood, archery is so in this year.

(Excuse me while I sulk about how mainstream archery has become: “I took archery classes before it was cool.”)

2) What literary duels have you most enjoyed? Personally, I love Inigo and Wesley’s fight in The Princess Bride, but I think the duels in C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian are my favorite.

Both swords were out in a moment and the three others jumped off the dais and stood watching. It was well worth it. It was not like the silly fighting you see with broad swords on the stage. It was not even like the rapier fighting which you sometimes see rather better done. This was real broad-sword fighting. The great thing is to slash at your enemy’s legs and feet because they are the part that have no armour. And when he slashes at yours you jump with both feet off the ground so that his blow goes under them. This gave the Dwarf an advantage because Edmund, being much taller, had to be always stooping. I don’t think Edmund would have had a chance if he had fought Trumpkin twenty-four hours earlier. But the air of Narnia had been working upon him ever since they arrived on the island, and all his old battles came back to him, and his arms and fingers remembered their old skill. He was King Edmund once more. Round and round the two combatants circled, stroke after stroke they gave, and Susan (who never could learn to like this sort of thing) shouted out, “Oh, do be careful.” And then, so quickly that no one (unless they knew, as Peter did) could quite see how it happened, Edmund flashed his sword round with a peculiar twist, the Dwarf’s sword flew out of his grip, and Trumpkin was wringing his empty hand as you do after a “sting” from a cricket-bat.

“Not hurt, I hope, my dear little friend?” said Edmund, panting a little and returning his own sword to its sheath.

“I see the point,” said Trumpkin drily. “You know a trick I never learned.”

-Chapter Eight, “How They Left The Island”

…for now Peter and Miraz were entering the lists from opposite ends, both on foot, both in chain shirts, with helmets and shields. They advanced till they were close together. Both bowed and seemed to speak, but it was impossible to hear what they said. Next moment, the two swords flashed in the sunlight. For a second the clash could be heard but it was immediately drowned because both armies began shouting like crowds at a football match.

“Well done, Peter, oh, well done!” shouted Edmund as he saw Miraz reel back a whole pace and a half. “Follow it up, quick!” And Peter did, and for a few seconds it looked as if the fight might be won. But then Miraz pulled himself together – began to make real use of his height and weight “Miraz! Miraz! The King! The King!” came the roar of the Telmarines. Caspian and Edmund grew white with sickening anxiety.

“Peter is taking some dreadful knocks,” said Edmund.

“Hullo!” said Caspian. “What’s happening now?”

“Both falling apart,” said Edmund. “A bit blown, expect. Watch. Ah, now they’re beginning again, more scientifically this time. Circling round and round, feeling each other’s defences.”

“I’m afraid this Miraz knows his work,” muttered the Doctor. But hardly had he said this when there was such a clapping and baying and throwing up of hoods among the Old Narnians that it was nearly deafening.

“What was it? What was it?” asked the Doctor. “My old eyes missed it.”

“The High King has pricked him in the arm-pit,” said Caspian, still clapping. “Just where the arm-hole of the hauberk let the point through. First blood.’

…Peter now seemed to be able to make some use of his shield, and he certainly made good use of his feet. He was almost playing Tig with Miraz now, keeping out of range, shifting his ground, making the enemy work.

“Coward!” booed the Telmarines. “Why don’t you stand up to him? Don’t you like it, eh? Thought you’d come to fight, not dance. Yah!”

“Oh, I do hope he won’t listen to them,” said Caspian.

“Not he,” said Edmund. “You don’t know him – Oh!” for Miraz had got in a blow at last, on Peter’s helmet. Peter staggered, slipped sideways, and fell on one knee. The roar of the Telmarines rose like the noise of the sea. “Now, Miraz,” they yelled. “Now. Quick! Quick! Kill him.” But indeed there was no need to egg the usurper on. He was on top of Peter already. Edmund bit his lips till the blood came, as the sword flashed down on Peter. It looked as if it would slash off his head. Thank heavens! It had glanced down his right shoulder. The Dwarf-wrought mail was sound and did not break.

“Great Scott!” cried Edmund. “He’s up again. Peter, go it, Peter.”

“I couldn’t see what happened,” said the Doctor. “How did he do it?”

“Grabbed Miraz’s arm as it came down,” said Trumpkin, dancing with delight. “There’s a man for you! Uses his enemy’s arm as a ladder. The High King! The High King! Up, Old Narnia!”

“Look,” said Trufflehunter. “Miraz is angry. It is good.” They were certainly at it hammer and tongs now: such a flurry of blows that it seemed impossible for either not to be killed. As the excitement grew, the shouting almost died away. The spectators were holding their breath. It was most horrible and most magnificent.

A great shout arose from the Old Narnians. Miraz was down – not struck by Peter, but face downwards, having tripped on a tussock. Peter stepped back, waiting for him to rise.

“Oh bother, bother, bother,” said Edmund to himself. “Need he be as gentlemanly as all that? I suppose he must. Comes of being a Knight and a High King. I suppose it is what Aslan would like. But that brute will be up again in a minute and then – ”

But “that brute” never rose…

– Chapter Fourteen, “How All Were Very Busy”

What do you all think? And is anyone else excited to see Brave this summer? And can someone explain to me why the bow is apparently an acceptable weapon for girls in literature/media but not the sword? (Unless you’re Éowyn.)

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22 thoughts on “Write What You (Don’t) Know

  1. I’d like to see more of halberds. 🙂

    I don’t know why bows are more “female-appropriate” weapons in fiction, unless it is simply that it keeps them out of hand-to-hand combat… personally, I find the sword a lot easier to handle than the bow, but that has a lot to do with my figure.

    • The halberd. I’ll consider that.

      You’re probably right. I wonder also if the female archer is somehow more aesthetically pleasing. I like archery a lot and understand it more than fencing, but I would like to see girls have a variety of weapons to choose from.

      Having said that, in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, the character Joanna Mason’s weapon of choice is the axe. However, she’s also a very brutal and somewhat “unsexed” character – she’s not masculine, she’s just not feminine at all.

      Does the weapon reflect the character’s personality? Hmm… now there’s something to think on.

      • It’s a versatile weapon, at least in some of its forms.

        I think writers often let the weapon effect the personality of its wielder, and some may even base a character’s personality ON their weapon. What amuses me more than that, though, are “racial weapons.” Elves with bows and Dwarves with axes… I mean, really?

  2. I have always been fascinated by ancient and medieval military strategy. Would elephants counts as a weapon?

    Do brains count? ‘Cause I totally thinks that they should. Politics: the Art of Getting Your Enemy to Destroy Himself.

    And I also did archery before it was cool. I found it easier than swords; archery requires skill rather than strength, which is something I feel confident in. (And girls seem better able to have the delicacy of touch and aim required even better than boys . . . sometimes. Maybe that is the reason for it?) Although my current weapon of choice is a dagger – a bodice dagger, clever disguised as jewelry – I maintain a soft spot for the bow and arrows despite the Hollywood.

    As for favorite sword fight, that fight between Peter and Miraz was in my mind instantly. And then you wrote about it. It is near perfect!

  3. I’ve no idea, but it seems that it doesn’t take much for racial weapons to take hold. It is frankly worrisome!

    I agree about slingshots. We seem to have forgotten that they can be effective weapons.

  4. So far my current WIP has two halberdiers and someone who favors the nightstick. Crossbows are also much in evidence for various reasons. Weapon-choices can be very important in world-building, I think. I find myself considering the tone of the story, the terrain and the types of enemies and fights faced by the people in the story, and that helps me find what weapons make the most sense. In short, the arsenal becomes a means of showing the reader what the world and the people are like.

    • I agree. At the moment, I’m trying to just write the whole story out and then go back and fix and edit it all into submission, but things like weapons, clothes, and transportation bug me enough to distract me for hours on end.

      Clothes especially right now. Men’s clothing. While I find women’s medieval clothing to be rather beautiful, I think the men’s sucked. Are my characters wearing tights? Or trousers? Pants? And having grown up overseas, I struggle with the word “pants” because even though I use it in the American sense, whenever I type it I hear a British voice in my head and immediately start to giggle.

      I’d rather not talk about the clothes at all – whenever I read a book that goes into detail about the characters’ wardrobe, I tend to skip it – but it is important to this story at times. At one point I have a female character wearing the clothes of a male character, but I’m still not sure what she’s wearing. I’ve left it all very vague for the moment.

      This goes back to the setting – is this a fantasy world with ties to the real world? Does it look like medieval England? Germany? Italy? I seem to be drawing more from the Turks and Persians – but what in heavens name did they wear? Was it only robes and turbans?

      I’m venting. I’ll stop now.

      I need to add “crossbow” to my arsenal.

  5. Venting can be a good thing. 🙂

    I am trying to write through a whole story too, or at least two parts of a whole story, but I find I have to understand the world to understand the plot.

    A British friend of mine laughs at the word “pants” when used in the American sense, so I have picked that up too. It’s highly distracting! Clothes do become important sometimes, and one can certainly give enough information about what characters are wearing without dwelling on it in detail. As for your setting, I know very little about historical Turkish and Persian wardrobe, but I bet you could quickly research it at a library or through the internet. 🙂 Research is the bestest!

    My current WIP is closer to colonial America than anything else I know, though it is definitely a different world. I find it challenging as I grew up on (and love) the pseudo-European fantasy. It takes some serious thought to avoid hallmarks of European culture that might derail the intended tone of the place. I even try to avoid calling the halberds what they are because of the word’s connotations, even though the weapon itself makes perfect sense for the place.

    Crossbows are interesting things.

    • I have a strange aversion to libraries. Not to their purpose – I approve of that – but I hate how quiet they are. I need noise and movement, or I get stuck in my own head.

      I love “pants.” Last summer when I was living in England, I learned the Brits have multiple uses for it. My teacher used it all the time: “This assignment was a bit pants, wasn’t it?” It was like “crap.”

      My decision for using the Turks and Persians is because I’ve always loved C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. He alluded to the Turks, Persians and Central Asians often (especially in his creation of Calormen and his choice of names with Aslan and Caspian). In a way, I think my book is shaping up to be a love letter to Lewis and to my life in Central Asia. 🙂

      Good luck on your writing! Wow, colonial America. That sounds hard yet very interesting. I enjoy that era of history, and it would be interesting to read a world influenced by that. Very cool. 🙂

      • Ah, I’m a natural cave-dweller, so libraries are great for me, but they aren’t for everyone. But the problem is easily solved in this day. Just make friends with a librarian or e-mail your library’s reference staff.

        I’ve not heard that usage, but it’s funny 🙂

        Aw… How long were you in Central Asia, and where? If you don’t mind my asking.

        It’s only flavored by that, and by Appalachian culture. I don’t want to write alternate histories or anything, but it seemed logical for me to write with a flavor that was a bit closer to home… something I more instinctively understand.

      • I don’t mind you asking. 🙂 My family moved to Kazakhstan when I was ten, and I left when I was eighteen. After college, I returned and worked for three years as a high school literature teacher at an international school. I’ve been back in the states for almost a year now.

        Ah, the Appalachians. Your book sounds wonderful.

  6. Fascinating! I’ve done a fair bit of traveling, but I have not lived outside of the U.S., and I know that is quite a different thing. It sounds as if you have a rich and varied experience.

    I hope it will be, but it, and I, have a long way to go.

    • I suppose I have. I appreciate it a lot more now that I’m older, but when I was a kid I was just mad that I couldn’t be “normal.” The grass is always greener, I guess. 🙂

      Where have you traveled?

      • I am the odd-woman out among my friends as I lived in the same house for 14 years, and the same city for all of my young life. In this day, that is very weird. I value that weirdness for the different perspective it gives me. I am glad you’ve learned to appreciate your unusual youth as well. 🙂

        Hmm… outside of the states I have been to Italy, Austria, Germany, England, Scotland, China, Japan, Cancun, Mexico and I am getting ready to go to Canada. There are many more places I want to visit, and I want to go back to some of these places too, but I have realized that I am woefully ignorant of my own nation. I want to do some more traveling in the States.

      • I don’t think that’s weird. It’s refreshing. And you’ve been to Scotland! Cancun! I am jealous. Those are places that I really want to visit as well.

  7. Completely agree with you there. But, hey, I heard that in Snow White and the Huntsman, Kristen Stewart uses a sword! I could be wrong, though, haha 🙂

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