Today author Katharine Ashe and Olympic fencer Leslie Marx discuss sword fighting in fiction. Welcome Katharine and Leslie!
Katharine Ashe lives in the wonderfully warm Southeast with her husband, son, two dogs, and a garden she likes to call romantic rather than unkempt. A professor of European history, she has made her home in California, Italy, France, and the northern US. RT Book Reviews awarded Katharine’s debut historical romance, SWEPT AWAY BY A KISS, a “TOP PICK!” review, calling it “a page-turner and a keeper. Please visit her at www.katharineashe.com.
Leslie Marx enters her sixth season as an assistant coach at Duke. A 1989 graduate of Duke, Marx is the most celebrated Blue Devil fencer, having won the 1995 Pan American Championship as well as finishing 16th in women’s epee at the 1996 Olympics. While at Duke, the former Leslie McFarland competed in the NCAA Regionals, while also earning Academic All-America honors. Following graduation at Duke with a degree in mathematics, she went on to get her Ph.D. in economics from Northwestern. Marx returned to Duke in 2002 as an Associate Professor of Economics at the Fuqua School of Business.
I know much less about swordplay than the hero of my debut historical romance, SWEPT AWAY BY A KISS. Steven Ashford, a nobleman in George III’s England, learned the feel of a hilt in his palm at age five. I first gripped cold steel during college PE. As a youth Steven fled to Paris during the French Revolution, where he sought to assassinate a smarmy politician who also happened to be an expert swordsman. I invariably retreated before the larger, more aggressive, male fencers in my class. Steven soon took up life as a sea captain, growing accustomed to the heft of a cutlass in addition to developing a handy expertise with saber and epee, not to mention pistol and musket (crack shot, don’t you know). At the end of my PE semester, I pilfered from my locker a pair of well-worn gym sweats and a t-shirt but gladly deposited my pointy weapon upon the rack for good.
Steven and I, you see, have precious little in common in terms of martial arts training. Yet he required me to write a scene during which he sword fights to within an inch of his life with a skilled adversary. What begins as a friendly bout of fencing ends with a sharp tip of metal pressed against a naked throat.
So, as a Responsible Historical Novelist, I did all the book learnin’ I could upon the subject. And I dredged my memory for every detail from those months of college fencing class. I even watched The Princess Bride and The Three Musketeers a few times. I wrote the scene. Then I worried. What if I’d gotten it wrong?
Enter Dr. Leslie Marx, Professor of Economics at Duke University, Olympic fencer, Volunteer Assistant Coach to the Duke University Fencing Team, and my good friend. Leslie kindly agreed to read my scene.
Bless all those who teach with both knowledge and grace. Leslie let me know very gently that I’d gotten a lot wrong. Foremost, I had written the fencing bout like a sword fighting scene in a movie. Tournament fencing is not what Hollywood makes it. And it is not dueling. My characters began their play as just that—play. Their fight had to look like a fencing bout, with rules and all the rest. This included making that final, life threatening maneuver something that really could happen in a formal fencing contest.
How did I learn to do that? I’ll let Leslie tell you that part…
I am always so excited whenever someone asks me about fencing. I love to talk about my sport. The students in my economics classes discover very quickly that they can get a break from demand-and-supply calculations by referring to the headgear as a “helmet” (it is a “mask”) or the sword as a “stick.” Generically, fencers usually refer to the swords as “weapons,” as in “Don’t forget to leave a spare weapon at the end of the strip in case your favorite one breaks” or “You don’t need your weapons for this footwork drill.” More specifically, they are “foils,” “epees,” or “sabers.”
The obvious differences among the weapons are the bell guards. The foil guard looks like a disk, the epee guard looks like a bowl (protecting the hand), and the saber guard connects to the end of the weapon, covering one side of the hand. The epee is heavier and stiffer than the other two. All have blades that are ninety centimeters long. In competition the target area differs. Foil fencers can score only on the torso and saber fencers only above the waist (arms and head included), but epee fencers can score anywhere (head, hands, and feet included).
See, I got distracted.
When Katharine said she was writing a fencing scene, I found her some of my favorite fencing scenes from books, including some from Arturo Perez-Reverte’s THE FENCING MASTER. I also invited her to attend a practice of the Duke Varsity Fencing Team for a sense of the noise, smell, and fun of the fencing gym.
For many people, their first reaction to seeing a fencing practice or competition is surprise that we are actually hitting each other – hard. That’s part of the fun of it. Your opponent is trying to hit you, so you better find a way to hit him first while defending yourself in the meantime. There’s a certain thrill when you see how you can score against your opponent. Maybe he or she gives something away in a movement of an arm, or you see the footwork following a particular pattern. In a competition, that’s the moment you know you’re going to win the bout.
Fencing gear makes the hard hits bearable. Most women wear a plastic chest protector that looks like the front of a Barbie doll. (Fencers have been known to jump up a size or two for photo sessions.) Recently, some men wear plastic chest protectors as well, although theirs are flat. Having the hard plastic under the fabric of the jacket makes it a little tougher for the point of a foil to “stick” enough for the touch to register on the machine. So there can be an advantage to wearing one. I’ve never heard a man admit to wearing one simply so that getting hit doesn’t hurt as much. Interestingly, although women are required to wear a chest protector, men are not required to wear a cup. (ouch!)
Coaches can have an interesting effect on a fencer during a bout. For example, coaches may tell their fencers what to do (attack to the leg, attack high, retreat and then duck and counter attack, etc.) either verbally or with signals. Sometimes it doesn’t really matter what the coach tells the fencer to do; it’s the fact of telling that helps. The fencer then has something to focus on. Energy comes from having a mission to accomplish.
Of course, there are bad coaches as well. Coaches can be really good at giving lessons and training fencers, but not so good at coaching stripside. I was once on an international team with an American team coach who wasn’t the strongest strip coach. Another American, an excellent strip coach, served as a referee. I fell behind in the final bout. The two coaches were positioned in the stands with the bad coach in front of and below the good coach. It was comical because after each touch, I would look over and the two of them would be gesturing in exactly opposite ways. I would nod to the American team coach and then continue do what the other coach indicated. I don’t think the team coach ever knew.
You see? I love to talk about fencing. Fencing scenes make any book better!
So you see, I soaked up Leslie’s knowledge, I asked her pointed questions (bad pun intended), and she gave me ideas about how a dangerous accident might actually occur during a fencing bout. Voila, my hero’s expertise! Thank heavens for fabulous research consultants.
What questions do you have about tournament fencing or equipment? Have you ever sought advice from an expert on a fighting scene you’re writing? How did that work out?