Writing Fantasy: Baskets and Broadswords

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Lunch on a Medieval trek. Waxed linen bag for food, leather shoulder bag based on a Thames find, Medieval Danish axe, copper canteen based on a 13th c. original.

When people ask me about the impact of reenacting on my books, they almost inevitably follow up with a question about swords and armour.  They’re often great questions, and I’m always happy to answer them; I’ve taken a pretty deep dive into a couple of periods and I think I have developed some interesting ‘general usage’ theories of martial arts and warfare. At the end, there’s a nice picture of a fantastic original sword that helped inspire the book Cold Iron.

But the thing is that weapons and armour are actually the least important aspects of reenacting.  Even the most keen and hardened warrior (if such people actually ever existed; modern psychology suggests that warriors are either keen or veterans, never both, but that’s another story) only engaged in combat a few days a year, whereas cooking and sleeping and keeping clean happened every day.

The remarkable thing about cooking and cleaning and sleeping and living is not the items you need to do them.  You can, with a little online research, reach out and buy a 14th century fry pan and a fourteenth century kettle, and some other very useful kitchen tools. A little more research, and you can come up with recipes and even whole cook books of Medieval food, whether Norse or English, French or Italian.

Even with swords and knives, you can buy an excellent blade; cook’s knives, eating knives, daggers, broadswords.

Ultimately, recreating the past, or understanding a fantasy world, is more about containers than it is about weapons.

Try and find a decent, correct scabbard.

Or a net bag to carry all the vegetables you plan to eat.

Net bags?  Did they have those?

What did meat come from, at the butcher’s?  What was it wrapped in in 1380? How did split peas come, or dried fish? Flour? How the heck do you keep flour dry when you travel?

Let’s cut to the chase.  In the past, most people had to supply their own packaging.  Women went to market with baskets and jars and linen bags and probably leaves and scraps of bark too.  Men who traveled (often the wealthy) had elaborate sets of equipment not entirely unlike picnic sets to carry food and drink and pots and pans. But even those sets usually came inside a container, and the container was a basket.

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These baskets are 20 years old. They have gone wilderness camping, been carried many miles, even gone in airplanes.

Wholesalers provided food already stored in baskets; remember when you bought blueberries and strawberries in baskets? (I do.  I’m old.) Most market towns had a ‘women’s’ industry in just making baskets; in early North America, First Nations people made (superb) baskets. They still do.  All of the baskets my Medieval group uses are Mohawk baskets made on the Tyendinaga reserve. We use their baskets because they are actual, usable baskets, which look like the ones in Medieval art but will last and last.

We make our own linen bags, and we can never get enough of them.  It’s worth knowing that linen was often woven at home, by women, and it cost time and effort, so making little bags was probably not all that common. indexTo the left is the cover of Ulrich’s brilliant ‘Midwife’s Tale’, perhaps the most important history book I’ve ever read.  Lots of it is about women’s economy in the late 18th century.  Anyone writing fantasy should read it; anyone with an interest in the lives of women in the past should read it.  It includes details of the internal economy of a house; it even includes details on weaving linen. Just remember, when a reenactor, or a fantasy character, makes a bag out of linen… how many hours of someone’s work that little bag may represent.

In Northern Europe and North America, people made bark containers; usually birchbark, but sometimes elm. Birch bark was as prevalent in Poland as in Canada; Elm bark was equally popular, and I suspect that in England, the bark of ash and other trees was used instead.

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Both of these are bark containers from Poland.

They didn’t wrap things is paper, at least right away.  Large scale, commercially successful paper manufacture in a 14th century thing, but that was a fine quality rag paper for printing, and the whole idea of throw-away paper… is not a Medieval idea.  Throw-away?  Even the baskets can be reused. Linen bags can be washed, better yet, boiled. Netting can be used to hold bulk; woven nets of flax or other fiber (includign bark fiber) were used to hold bulk vegetables and all sorts of other things.  When we’re in the woods, we usually use net bags to hold kale and other delectable greenery.

OK, I’m not a big Kale fan.  I admit it.  In the Middle Ages, they ate it, as long as ‘they’ includes horses.

I’ll finish with leather bags.  That’s mine in the top illustration; I’m eating lunch with my Compagnia at the top of Myer’s Hill in the Eastern Adirondacks.  That bag is based on a find in the Thames; it has several pockets, and it would have cost real money even in 1380.  It allows me to keep all my gear separate; my fire kit (there’s another blog) and my candles and my razor and my little mirror and my eating kit and…

And a fortune in small, carefully wrought items.  Why do adventurers not carry these?  And why aren’t they the most valuable possession?  You can always kill some guy and take his sword, right?  But try and find a bag full of useful objects in the outdoors.  Try getting a really good dry snug fire kit. I lost mine on Camino in Spain.  Still sad.

My point is, though, that your leather shoulder bag is your lifeline; your survival kit.  Also your purse.  Mine holds some food, always, and a precious wax candle for starting a fire, and other secrets… Remember that in Medieval clothes, no one has pockets.  And remember that when you say ‘Oh, in my world they have pockets’ you need to know why people didn’t have pockets in the past…

Alright.  that’s enough for today. I’ll stop.

My latest novel is called ‘Cold Iron’ and it is out August 30th in the UK.  This is (exactly) what Aranthur’s sword looks like. It is, (in my novel), an artifact of the ancient First Empire; a long sword that has a complex hilt. I take great joy is learning about the complexities of what museum professionals call ‘Material Culture’ because in understanding these things, be they linen bed sheets or swords, I come to understand the nuts and bolts that hold a culture together.

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No Writer is an Island

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Cold Iron is the first book in a new series.  New series, new world, and one that is, I hope, totally original.  I admit that I was itching to write The Red Knight when I started Fantasy in 2011, and I might return to Alba again eventually; I certainly planned a prequel about how Gabriel becomes the Captain, and I also have in mind a series of short novellas about life after the Gates are open… actually, I’ve already written two of them… and the paperback/mass market of the last book, Fall of Dragons is out this week, which is amazing, because I’ll have two Fantasy novels out in the same month…

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Never mind.  While Alba is/was the demi-Arthurian fantasy of my youth, I have long wanted to write a very different, and in some ways more ‘fantastical’ series. Cold Iron is the first in a three-book series, but I hope that there will be other adventures and other protagonists when Aranthur Timos is gone, at least in part because this is a world into which I’ve sunk a great deal of design time.  I run an active RPG set there; it isn’t going away soon (See below!).

And I had some goals.  Recently a reader pointed out to me that my books tend to have themes.  I always knew this in my head, but it was fascinating to have a reader point out that the themes are so strong…  William Gold (the Chivalry series, after all) is obviously about the ethics of violence, while the original ‘Tyrant’ series was about leadership and responsibility. And the Red Knight series was also about leadership, or rather, about how a great leader might come to be, in response to a crisis; how there are no great individuals, in my mind, only great teams.  I hope that came through; that arrogant and self-centered as Gabriel Muriens is, he is the captain of a brilliant team, and it is the team, not the individual, that triumphs. And Ash’s failure is as much about Ash’s selfishness and inability to delegate as it is about any brilliance of his adversaries.

But I digress, as usual.

Cold Iron also has a theme, and the theme is complex.  I have come to believe that fantasy, or at least ‘good versus evil’ fantasy may actually have some role in the creation of the world in which we live; the world of apparent contrasts, of terrorism and refugee crises, of renewed racism and re-born right-wing ideologies. I worry, (despite how much I adore Tolkien and E.R. Eddison, who was himself pretty close to a fascist) that our books, which often portray lone-wolf sword-wielding heroes with piercing blue eyes, relentlessly Northern European cultural signifiers, and various forms of violent masculinity, monarchy and aristocracy and ideas of purity of race (even if the race involved is Elvish), that these books can be read to have a very different message than the one that we intend, or even that most of us receive.

And I’ll add to that, as I put in my blurb in SFX, that I worry that violence and the portrayal and fetishising of violence has become the new pornography.  Don’t imagine I think I’m above all this! I love writing fight scenes; especially really large battles; I love martial arts, I enjoy fencing, I shoot guns,  etc, etc. I also love writing commanders with piercing blue eyes.  I just don’t know it that’s a good idea right now…

So the theme of Cold Iron is, ‘The World is complicated, and the bad guys are not easy to spot, and maybe violence isn’t the way to fix them.’ (It’s funny to say this, as Cold Iron has more sword fights per page then Red Knight.  However, it’s there, in the end…) Sometimes it reads more like a spy novel then a fantasy; sometimes, at least in book 2 (Forge of Darkness,already finished and handed in) it may read a little more like horror. Anyway, I confess that if I’m trying to turn the ship of epic fantasy, it’s a slow turn; I still have lots of daring do, and Book Two (Forge of Darkness, but, friends, I recently discovered that Steven Erikson, whose work I very much admire, already has a novel of that title, so I’m going to try for ‘Anvil of Darkness‘ instead) book 2, whatever its title, opens with a major battle scene… it’s not action, it’s the effects of action, and I’m trying, thematically, to use the action to tell a different story about violence, right, and wrong.

All that said, what I really wanted to blog about is the team that makes a book. It’s true that I write them… but I have enormous help. So let’s look at all the people who are involved. Because whatever my message, nothing would get across to you, the reader, unless I had all this support.

First, I have an editor.  Her name is Gillian Redfern, and she’s amazing.  She’s a great editor, and she’s a thoughtful critic, but the thing about her that’s delightful is that when she’s at a con with her ‘staff’ she’s ‘The Captain.’ She’s fun to watch, as she does all the leadership things so well. Before I knew Gillian, I never thought of editors as captains, but I suppose that’s foolish of me.  of course they are, especially in high-pressure social battlefields like SpecFic cons… Anyway, Gillian is a fantastic editor and she makes every book better… and she leads the team that does all the rest.

I also have an American editor at Orbit, named Brit Hvide, and she’s also brilliant.  I’ve never met her, but I like her patience and her contributions and, to be honest, I love her twitter feed. And she and Gillian both help me stay current on what’s ‘going on’ in Fantasy, because Fantasy is a very lively genre.

And besides editors, there’s a very different person called the copy editor.  Mine is Steve O’Gorman, and he’s the best copy-editor I’ve ever had.  He’s ridiculously thorough, but he’s also interested and keen. Cold Iron is much better edited than any of my prior fantasies, and even more fun, Steve made me rationalize my languages to the extent that I got to be a little Tolkienesque and work out how each culture’s language works, what some of their verb forms were, and how we’d form the various modiers.  Safian?  Safirian?  See, when I write, I just write… and I make up words, and as a fan (anti-fan?) on one of the boards recently put it ‘Cameron forgets a lot.’  Unkind readers might add that I can’t spell either.  I like to think that a lifetime of reading historic manuscripts has convinced me that spelling, like race and culture, is merely a construct and I should rise above it.  Ahem. Regardless, Steve makes it all so much better. Steve is an independent copy-editor; a free lance.

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Brittany Sankey at Gollancz is new (to me) but she works in marketing, and she’s provided, for example, the lovely advert blurb that graces the top of the blog.  I look forward to getting to know her better.  No, I could not graphic design my way out of a sandbox.  I need someone to do that for me.

Stevie Finegan is my publicist at Gollancz.  She’s also the person at cons who leads me around and tells me where to eat and where to get a pen to sign books.  I adore her patience, as I can be a bumbling old fool; and her boundless energy, which may simply be a job requirement, but I like it. Stevie coordinates interviews and magazine articles and all that; because of Stevie, people in the UK have some vague idea who I am. (I have little active publicity in Canada and thus, no one here knows who I am, which is probably the best thing for all of us).

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Steve James (almost everyone on my team is named Steve, if you hadn’t spotted that yet, unless they are called Brit…) is one of my oldest friends, and he has drawn the maps for every book I’ve ever written (36 to date).

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For Cold Iron, he had to draw a world map and then re-draw it about six times as the role playing game and the novel resolved conflicts. I could write a whole blog on how different an RPG is from a novel.  In an RPG, everything has to actually work… players routinely ask about distances, days of sailing, supplies, where to buy a donkey…

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And map-making is a two-way street.  Steve’s maps sometimes alter my writing.  I look at the map and realize things… sometimes too late to alter the text, but not this time… thanks to Steve, and Steve O’Gorman, the map actually matches the novel.  Well, except for one error, all mine.  ‘Mitla’ the Imperial city way up in the left top corner, is actually ‘Volta.’ Blame the author.  Oh, by the way, there’s the map to the Cold Iron world… or about 1/2 of the known world. Safi, the steppes, and Zhou are off to the east… maybe book two or three… right now (literally now) Steve is making a colour map of the city of Megara… my fantasy city that has some Lankhmar and some Sanctuary and some Merovingen as well as a healthy dose of Venice on top of an solid strata of Istanbul and Athens. Swamps and canals, bridges, a waterfall, an gothic palace, a magnificent university…

Yeah.  Steve has to get all that down on paper.  Go Steve!

And the newest member of my team is Keight MacLean. Keight is an award-winning Toronto artist; she paints and has a successful career.  Luckily for me, she also plays role playing games and reenacts the Middle Ages (so does Steve) and was willing to do some illustrations, so she’s doing the cover for the ‘Reader’s and Players Guide to Cold Iron’ which will be out as freeware next week (a downloadable PDF on my author site … the thing is, we all have to finish working on it first…

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That’s Keight at a gallery of her work in Toronto.  It’s really good, I own two of her paintings. Also pictured are two photos by Moira Ness, who doesn’t work on my books but whose art I really like…

And here’s an early draft of the painting she’s doing for next week… just to give you some Cold Iron flavour… You can see the painting next week AND DOWNLOAD THE COLD IRON PLAYERS HANDBOOK AND READER’S GUIDE FOR FREE ON MY AUTHOR WEBSITE.

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And so far I haven’t even mentioned the cover design team… I don’t actually know their names; and Kerem Beyit, my brilliant cover artist. Even then, I haven’t acknowledged my RPG group who have contributed ideas, character suggestions, and various sharp objects, or my beta readers, several of whom have asked to remain anonymous, so I’ll just say… I wrote a good deal of historical fiction without Beta Readers…how did I ever do that?  They’re incredible, they catch name errors, they care about magic systems, and sometimes they just say gushy nice things that make me feel better…

Did I mention the RPG?  I have eight permanent players and a half dozen who have made guest appearances, and every one of them… every one… has made a contribution to the eventual novels.  BTW, the Cold Iron group still meets and will continue to meet… after all, in writing the novels, I’ve generated a lot of good content, right? 🙂 They’re on a parallel track and never really intersect with the novel’s plot, a trick I learned from Celia Friedman (American SpecFic writer C.S. Friedman, who remains one of the best GMs I’ve ever played with!)

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All together, there are about twenty-five people who have contributed to this series.  All three of these books will come out over the next 14 months.  I hope you like them. If you do, thank all the people who made these books happen.  And if you don’t, that’s probably my fault.

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On Camino

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Life is really not all about swords, despite what you may think from my other blogs.  This spring, with the support and companionship of friends and family, I walked the Camino Primitivo in Spain.  In medieval clothes and shoes.  You know.  As one does.

Now first, I feel the need to tell you that yes, I am religious. I understand when people say ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’ but that’s not enough for me, and I’ve always enjoyed the human pastimes of philosophy and theology almost as much as swordsmanship and role playing games, so walking across the mountains of northern Spain while discussing transubstantiation and immanence and the impact of Duns Scotus and Descartes on modern notions of God (when we had the breath to discourse at all, of course) was marvelous.

And so was prayer. (I have this picture of 200 people closing the browser window at this point). Hey, listen, in normal life, I pray… infrequently.  In Spain, my friend Elisabeth and I did compline most nights, and the rhythm of prayer was…remarkable.  And very Medieval. I managed Morning Prayer (I’m an Anglican of sorts) a few times, off my cell phone… not nearly as spiritual as reading the BCP.  At least, for me.

In addition, I prayed at a dozen or so wilderness chapels, every one of which resembled, to me, the various Arthurian ruined chapels where wandering knights find wise old hermits.  Some people in my group suggested that I was old enough to take on the job, which I guess would be flattering, except that I don’t feel particularly wise and I still like to fight in armour, but there’s another story.

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So, there was prayer.  But there was also fatigue.  The Camino Primitivo has daily elevation changes of almost 1000 meters, all told; the ups and downs are wearing, and the linear distances of 20-30 kilometers are wearing, too, especially in medieval shoes.  Hmm.  I’m not sure I mean that; my shoes were fine, and years of hiking in and out of the military have convinced me that ankle support is a myth, if your ankles are strong.

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And Medieval clothes are marvelous.  People kept asking us, as if we were very brave and super tough, if our clothes were hard to wear, and I’d always say ‘people actually lived in these clothes.’ One very nice couple actually became frosty when I suggested that my clothes were better adapted to the environment than theirs. But in fact… the hood is an incredibly useful garment; separate hose that can be rolled down are the most flexible legwear I’ve ever owned; it takes seconds to change the arrangement, unlike zip on trousers and other ‘outdoor’ wear offered by various outfitters.  Wool remains, to me, better than any modern ‘miracle’ fabric.  Ditto linen. In my ‘Greenland’ wool cote, I was impervious to 100 KPH winds while I watched various hikers and pilgrims suffering in very expensive ‘outdoor’ wear.

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As to weight, I climbed over the Hospitales Route carrying my bedroll and all. It was not easy, but on the other hand, I used everything I brought, so I feel fairly justified. I admit that the rondel dagger was probably the most useless thing… but wait.  I didn’t get attacked by bandits, but the triangular blade was awesome at breaking up heavy Spanish chocolate bars…

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Here we are, about a kilometer from the top.

None of this really matters.  The prayer, the load out, the kit, the views.  What matters is walking.  Many people told me about the walking, and I didn’t listen, because 1) I can be an idiot and 2) I’ve spent so much time walking, from Africa to the Adirondacks, that I knew all about walking.

Well, Humility will no doubt come with time.  The thing about the Camino is that it is there every day.  I was constantly reminded of Nathan Greene‘s comment on the American Revolution; ‘We fight, get beat, rise and fight again.’  Every day, no matter how hard the day was, ANOTHER day was waiting. Every morning, no matter how swollen our feet, we had to get up and walk.  Eventually, all there is is walking.  Everything else falls away; life, family, work, writing, swords, competition, masculinity, poisonous or otherwise; contracts, social media, all slowly stripped away until it’s just walking. Camino means ‘I walk.’

Yep.

Companions help, and mine were the best.  My companions never lost it on the trail; we had no spats (until the day was done) and no one walked off.  I had fabulous conversations.  I heard wisdom, learned secrets, told a few.

And we walked.

After the Hospitales route, and Salas, we were joined by the original inspiration of our Camino, Greg Mele, and his wife, and my friend Steve.  And then we were eight (including my daughter Bea) plus my wife Sarah, who became our emergency driver.May-June 2018 Santiago to Verona 033

These people are hot and tired.  But we ‘only’ have 3 kilometers to go in a very, very long day, and we started too late.

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This is one of the most magical places on the whole route, an original pilgrim spring on the Medieval road, complete with benches. And no stinging nettle.  Some of us were particularly good at attracting stinging nettle. Ahem.

I’m glad I have these photos, because this is the day I had a fever and I really don’t remember much of the day. In a way, it was the ultimate ‘I walk’ because from time to time, I just had to lower my head and walk on.  I wasn’t even in a spiritual space. It was as if I didn’t really exist.

And that loss of self, of worry, of pressure, of stress… I think that’s what everyone was trying to tell me.  It’s not about pain, swollen feet, difficulty.  I walk a lot; I’m 55, I’m used to being tired.  Parts of me hurt every morning, regardless of my fitness level. But there is something MARVELOUS about having nothing ahead but the road.  No reward but completion, and maybe a glass of wine.  Or compari*.  No penalty at all.  Stop and rest; stop a day.  Stop and work at an albergue for two weeks. Get on a bus and go to Santiago.  Whatever.

A little story not my own.  Greg Mele swore a vow to do this walk many years ago, when he was recovering from a very serious martial arts injury.  He walked it in ten times the pain I was in.  I watched him do it.  But… I think he also found that feeling that there is nothing but the walk.

It’s quite a feeling.

I haven’t really discussed this with my compadres yet.  But when we made it to Santiago; when we’d hugged some friends we made on the road, and some total strangers, in the plaza in front of the cathedral, when we’d hugged each other, when we’d gone to mass, when, finally, we all sat down to eat a huge and well-deserved feast…

I can’t describe it.  It was beyond accomplishment.  I’d go again tomorrow. Let me revisit this thought… I’ve had a pretty good life, with plenty of adventure, in and out of the military.  This adventure was ‘doable’ by a 55 year old man, a 53 year old man, a badly injured man, a couple of middle-aged women… This isn’t a desperate mission behind enemy lines.

Its ‘just’ walking.

It will remain one of the greatest adventures of my life.

My thanks to Greg (Greg Mele, master of Armizare, my own teacher for many years, and also head of Forteza Fitness), for vowing to go, and to Sarah and Bea, for driving the support vehicle, and to my companions, Matt, Elisabeth, Marc, Steve, Tasha (That’s Cotte Simple Tasha!), and Greg, and for a little while, my daughter Bea (who, with a 14 year-old fit body, cruised a 28K day and clearly thought we were all out of shape. Of course, she didn’t do it again 🙂 ) Great companions make great adventures.

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And a few more photos…

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Inside the Cathedral at Lugo, where apparently they thought we were priests and nuns of some very odd American order. BTW this is the Cathedral Vestry, which was larger than my whole church at home.

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Greg walks. (Tasha, too).

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I think Greg and Tasha are in the stream.  Seriously, this is from my fever day and I have no idea what’s going on.  Good pic, though.

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Steve, ready to walk on day 11.

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Once we linked up to the main Camino, it was like this all the time.  Pilgrims everywhere.  Jolly, happy people with only a couple days to go.

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Almost there, in so many ways.

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The feast!

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Pilgrims going to mass on Trinity Sunday. One days pilgrims FILLED the cathedral.

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I had Saint James, if it is indeed Saint James, all to myself for a while.  Seems like a good place to end. I’ll probably write more on this later, with less rant and more contemplation.  And talk about how all of it was practice for a tournament.

Sure it was.

Try it!

*Oh yeah, Compari.  So we all started drinking Compari after the Tournament of the White Swan in Verona back in 2014.  As one does.  And an important part of life on the Camino Primitivo is that if you walk into a town at 3PM, NO ONE will feed you until 7PM at the earliest.  But they will give you stale chips, and booze.  One particular evening, after the Hospitales route, when we were all exhausted, an inexperienced Albergue keeper poured us highball glasses FULL TO THE BRIM of Compari.  And gave us very small bottles of soda water to add. Buon Camino, indeed. I could barely do laundry; walking to dinner was challenging.

Yum.  Compari.

Rhodes: Writing about Sieges (Pen and Sword tour Part 1)

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IMG_9051Today I was in the mines beneath the walls of Rhodes; I walked along the ditch where you can see where cannon and other artillery have knocked holes in the masonry, and I looked out over the glacis to where the Turkish trenches were; to where Demetrios the Besieger sat in the fourth century BCE. Rhodes has endured quite a few sieges, and the evidence is all around; from catapult rounds pre-weighed and marked in Mina and Talents, to the pock marks of harquebus fire where someone tried, and apparently failed, to storm a gate.

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Sieges may seem dull. In the imagination, a siege represents days or weeks of boredom, slaves and lowly soldiers digging in the burning sun, or waiting to starve out a powerful enemy, or perhaps waiting for disease to do its work.  But the walls and tunnels of Rhodes show a different story, of determined, daily resistance and equally determined attackers; daily raids and counter-raids much like WWI trench raids; a handful of knights and their men-at-arms emerging, perhaps, from tunnels to try and hit a Turkish battery, an elite assault group of Janissaries or Spahis creeping along the ditch to attempt to surprise an outpost. A deadly, endless form of warfare, with no quarter asked or given; probably mostly fought at night.

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And let us not forget fighting in mines… the purpose of mining was to undermine (it’s all in the word) a weak section of wall, a good way to cause a breech, even in modern times. Once gunpowder was invented, a mine could be filled with powder.

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The defenders could always counter-mine, using primitive sounding tools to locate the wound of the enemy sap and attack it underground by tunneling.  And that’s what we see under the walls of Rhodes, I think, the old tunnels wandering off in odd directions were once Turkish and Hospitaller saps, later redug and transformed into underground sally ports. If this theory is correct, these tunnels can tell us a great deal about what mine warfare was like in the Middle Ages. If you are reading this and you know something about the tunnels under the walls of Rhodes, feel free to email me; I know they were there in the 1850’s and they look original to me, but I’d be happy to hear more.

Assuming they are what they appear to be, complete with shafts to the surface and oil-lamp sconces built into the walls, they are perhaps unique in the world. I could write a book….

Fall of Dragons Publication Day

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It’s launch day, at least in the UK.

I started writing these novels in 2012.  I think there’s at least 2400 pages of material, and I could write more.  It’s odd to say goodbye.

However, I want to take this space to discuss origins and books I loved, not endings.  Who knows, maybe Gollanz will eventually want more.  I certainly hope so… a great deal of effort went into world development, both thirty years ago and right up until a few days ago… but that’s another story.

Today’s story is the origins story, with a few tiny spoilers. Really, it’s a social history, or an historiography, with lots of thanks.

Alba started as an RPG.  There were between nine and twenty players, and we always had a heavy element of war gaming involved, so there was an RPG level, a political level, and a military level, and the three were not always the same players.

I happened to be the nerdy president of the Simulation Gaming Association.  (The war games club).  We shared an office with the other campus pariahs (we called ourselves the Pariah Alliance)(NB not to us, but, hard as this may seem to believe, being Gay was a huge deal in 1982) the Gay and Lesbian Association (GLA) and the Drama Club. Nerds, Dramies, and LGBTQ.  All in one office.  A considerable crossover of people…

It was fantastic for my game.  Sure, we started with a bunch of pudgy undergraduates, but by the end of the first year, RPGs had caught on with the two clubs with which we shared the office, and the Alba universe took on a wider scope.  Frankly, some people from the Drama club and the GLA massively upped our role-playing level.  And we had visiting GMs, who included my friend and mentor Celia Friedman, better known to you as C.S. Friedman the SFF writer, and Doug Snyder, one of the best GMs I’ve ever known and a man who sometimes wrote modules for GenCon.  We migrated from AD+D to ICE and eventually Chivalry and Sorcery, and as many of the core gamers were studying Medieval History (and Classics) we gradually discarded other systems and designed our own, like people everywhere.

The story of how our office came to dominate the financial and social life of the campus shall remain for another time.  Suffice it to say that war games conventions, SFF conventions, and dances run by the GLA were the top moneymakers in the Student Association…. and when we had all the money… No, no one was injured.  We owned a lot of miniatures, though.

But I digress…  About three years in, Alba had a depth to it unlike almost any RPG I’ve ever played.  By then, we had about 60 players, some occasional, some always there; I remember well the night that three sorority women showed up to play… causing nerdy gamers to lose their ability to focus…ahh, university. Did I mention that I managed the Student Union?  We always had great rooms in which to play.  Aesthetics matter.

So, back to Red Knight and onward.  It didn’t all happen that way.  That is, you are not reading a compilation of events that unfolded, like history or news reportage.  On the other hand, many characters, from Sauce to Gabriel’s mother to Desiderata, represent the role-playing efforts of real people.  I gather that most readers feel there are far too many characters, but honestly, who was I supposed to leave out? Oak Pew? Father Arnaud?

I have always loved big stories.  When I began to put Alba together, my favorite series were 1) The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett, probably the best HisFic writer of our time, and 2) the Lord of the Rings, with 3) The Deryni Chronicles in a close-run.  Katherine Kurtz (who founded the SCA and represents the William Morris approach to Fantasy, at least to me) does not, I feel, receive enough credit.  Her world was beautifully crafted.  Yes, it was mostly Medieval England.  And Christianity functioned, for good and ill, a choice I chose to share, and I suspect for the same reasons; without Christianity and all its warts and magnificence and weird – arsed Saints and all that baggage, you can’t have the Middle Ages.  You can have sometime completely different, but my Alba was an alternate Arthurian world… and it still is.  In case you didn’t see that coming.

Yeah.  The King, never named, is Arthur.  Desiderata is Guinevere.  De Vrailly is Lancelot.  Gabriel is Mordred.  (Gabriel was, in fact, Mordred’s name int he early cycles, and Mordred was one of the heroes, not a villain). Gawain is… Gawain.  My favorite character. So sue me.  This really shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it seemed fitting to just lay it out at the end.

Later, Alba was modified by other books; Glen Cook’s ‘The Black Company’ and Steven Donaldson and perhaps most of all, the magic system, which was pretty much defined for me by the books I was reading on Hermeticism for classes but beautifully brought out in Ursula LeGuin‘s Wizard of Earthsea, still, maybe, the best novel I’ve ever read. But I was also influenced by the Riddle-Master of Hed, by Jerry Pournelle‘s novel ‘Janissaries’ (bit of a spoiler there) and, overall and most of all, by all the history I was reading; Froissart, and the Chronicon, and charter roles, and books on knights, real ones like Geoffrey de Charny and Sir John Chandos and Sir John Hawkwood. Look them up. Dick Kaeuper and Perez Zagorin ( the professor who, as a life-long socialist and anti-McArthyist, told me ‘If people like you don’t join the military, then it is just people like them’) and a few other professors gave me History. It’s the best story ever.  It is far wider and deeper than fantasy.  In it is the whole story of the human condition, and I never tire of it.

But it wasn’t all history.  I owe a special debt of gratitude to my core friends for being passionate orators about politics and philosophy. Jevon, Bob, Rob, Leslie, Kate, Janis, Doug, Doug, Ann, Joe, Regina, Bill,  Sean-Patrick, Greg and Mike Hauser, Mike Putre and Gail and Marjorie and Jim Dundorf and Rich Daprix and (More recently) Sarah and Nancy, Aurora, Chris, Chris, Cole, Len, Abby, Fil, Elisabeth, Dave, Melissa, Greg, Tasha, Sean, Marc Auger and then all the people in Italy… Simone, Maurizio, and Giuglia… anyway, perhaps more than anyone, Mark Stone, a young man getting a post-doc in Philosophy and philosophy of science.  Mark, and his ally in philosophical crime, Doug Snyder, were relentless is asking ‘why’ about RPG cosmology; why are there gods? More recently, Rajiv Kaushik, professor of Philosophy, and Matt McIntosh have filled the same role.

Who made the Gods?  Who made the universe? Is it a multiverse? Why does magic function?  What role is there for science?  How do societies develop? How does economics function?  How do people study? How does learning work? Who gets to be ‘better’?

Where does the gold/fur/silk/gunpowder come from?

Is there good?/Evil?

Can we defeat evil? Militarily?

Well, here we are, at the end of all things. Mostly, I want to say, THANK YOU to the teachers, writers, books and friends (apologies to anyone whose name was missed!!!) that made the Traitorson books. It’s been fun.  Come by and tell me if you want more.

Oh, by the way, tonight at 7PM EST I’m doing an online launch with Nicholar Kotar.  You can find it here. Ask me anything about the Traitorson series, or really, anything else.

 

 

Writing and Fighting: WMAW 2017

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Compagnia

That’s me with two excellent squires, the banner of our Compagnia, and my friend and master fencer Sean Hayes. And you cannot have an armoured deed without squires and other support crew, who get to work and sweat so you can look great and fight in armour. Thanks Adam and Jess and Kat! And to Adam’s left are two young men just beginning to learn about Armizare, age 14…

This is a blog about fighting; about teaching martial arts; about admitting when you are wrong, and most of all, about how well-run and fascinating WMAW is.

But first, if you are, say a fantasy or HisFic fan and not a sword person, you may well ask ‘What is WMAW?’  The short answer is ‘The ‘Western Martial Arts Workshop.’  It is an interesting title which might just conjure images of a lot of white nationalists practicing for Hitler’s second coming, so let me immediately note that the word ‘Western’ here has a slightly different history, and we’re really talking about ‘Not-so-much Eastern’ martial arts, and let me add further, most of the attendees have or will practice ‘Eastern’ martial arts as well.  This year we had Ethiopian, Spanish, Italian, German, American and Persian martial arts demonstrated and taught. Most of the concentration is on the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  In two years I’ll be an instructor teaching what we can know (and can’t) about Ancient Greek martial arts.

Right.  Anyway!

WMAW is where most of the instructors and senior students in the historical martial arts movement (and some lucky beginners) go to learn and teach and hit each other with swords (or spears, knives, cudgels, sticks, fists, or throws. Also pole axes, pikes, partisans, and probably pretzels.) The event happens every two years in Racine Wisconsin.  It includes a large and very well run armoured deed of arms.  More on that later.

Historical martial arts have a gamut of practitioners and instructors, and they do not all seek the same goals, as I have said before in this column…  That’s fine! WMAW brings many of them together to share knowledge and to share their points of view. It is incredibly useful to here from other people who have points of view radically different from your own.  Perhaps this might be applied outside of swordsmanship… but I won’t get preachy. (Oh, but I will.)

As a veteran swordsman, one of the things I value most about events like WMAW (and it is, for my money, the best of its kind, at least in North America) is that it allows me to experience the teaching of other instructors AND to fence/fight with them and their students.  (A small digression.  I learned at age 13, in good old Olympic foil, that it was actually immaterial whether an instructor could beat me in a bout. By 16 or 17, I could beat many of my coaches. And…they still knew all kinds of things I did not know, although I confess it wasn’t always apparent to me! Because I was 17)

Despite this, I DO find it useful to actually test other instructors a little.  All of us create ‘Glass Houses.’  All of us, left to ourselves with our own sword school, develop theories based on the manuscripts and our own experience; we develop them with our students.  And… sometimes, they are just wrong. Sometimes this development is a closed loop. Only active combat with a peer who is not ‘one of us’ can reveal the flaws in our thinking and our teaching.

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A nice period illustration of a garde

Sadly, the example I will use here is me. It’s Christian’s glass house, and the subject is the arming sword/side sword style of Marozzo, an early 16th c. Italian master.  I did not consider myself (thank God) an expert on Marozzo, but we do touch on Marozzo in our Hoplologia curriculum, utilizing two of his assalti (plays) to touch on the fine points of Italian-style sword and buckler fighting. I would have said that I understood (pretty thoroughly, thanks) what Marozzo had to say about theory and practice… and, in my club, and even among a larger group of swordspeople, I have used the techniques as I taught them with some success…

Then I went to WMAW 2017.  There, I had the chance to cross swords with a variety of other folks who specialize in side-sword as a weapon, and who teach Marozzo.  The bout that comes to mind especially was with John O’Meara (Chicago Swordplay Guild).  He pretty much hit me at will.  Here’s the thing that will make swordspeople smile and puzzle others… we’d just fenced a different weapon to a virtual draw (small sword) so that I think we might be said to be relatively EQUAL as ‘swordsmen.’  That meant, to me, that my whole idea of Marozzo was…probably wrong. Ouch.

Put another way, as we had just discovered, to our mutual delight, that we were on roughly equal footing with another weapon, I had to assume that what was different with side sword was that he used it more effectively. I misunderstood the material.

Instructors

Roberto Gotti on the left, Ton Puey on the right

Now, it was not just happenstance that throughout the WMAW curriculum I followed a ‘Marozzo’ track; I was aware of the deficiency (but not it’s scope!). So I had about twelve hours of classes with Ton Puey, of Spain, with Montante/Spadone (long two-handed sword), and with Roberto Gotti of Brescia, Italy, with Spadone, but specifically and precisely examining Marozzo’s theory and method.

The result was that in one four-day period, I was able to discover the depth of my misunderstanding, and start towards correcting it, all in one place, while having a devil of a good time.  (NB If you really want to know what I did wrong and what I learned about it, you have to go to the end of the article, because I don’t want to bore anyone).

Field-testing your historical research and your practice is at the heart of all good reenacting, and any attempt at scientific experimental archaeology.  I have no interest in competitive, highly-structured HEMA events; they are not examining the historical uses of weapons, but instead, creating a new, Olympic-style combat sport (totally fun; just not my approach). Events like WMAW allow the historical practitioner to see if all that experimentation and practice and theory has validity. Of course, the practitioner has to be prepared to admit that S/he is wrong. (Digression #2.  A few years ago, a fairly senior HEMA practitioner said ‘I don’t need to go to WMAW; no one there has anything to teach me.’ To me, this statement is roughly analogous to saying  ‘I know my fencing is weak; I choose not to test myself.)

A few posts ago, I did a blog on teaching yourself Armizare. Here’s a shocking statement; to some extent, everyone is teaching themselves.  That is, even masters of this art, people who are fully immersed in Armizare or in one of the other forms, Talhoffer, Marozzo, Carranza; long sword, Montante, side sword, sword and buckler, what have you; even the men and women who TEACH these arts are, to some extent, simultaneously teaching themselves.   The good ones also practice what they preach; they will engage in fun bouts with others; they are not adverse to showing their skill in public, so that their peers can see if what they practice actually works. Everyone should attend such events; both to learn from others, and to test what has been learned.  It is fun, and because all of us build theoretical glass houses, it’s essential to keep the quality of our fighting arts high.

Marshal

Here I’m not fighting; I’m the marshal for a bout between two knights in 15th c. harness

Oh, yes, and there was an armoured deed.  So, if I’m a relative piker with Marozzo, I’ll say that I am a fairly competent armoured fighter and I actually teach the Italian form of Armizare. The armoured deed was splendid, from the initial parade to the closing fight; twenty armoured fighters in two teams, Italy vs the world. I was on team Italy.

Team Italy

And here’s the rest of the world (mostly German, but with Persian and English armoured styles as well).

Team Germany

I could not find a photo of the whole of their team. Apologies to Frank and Manouchehr and anyone else not in this photo.

Italy won. I will say no more.

Christians

The duel of the Christians; me vs Christian Tobler. A really good photo of a completely indecisive moment :

And we all had a really good time, too.  A lot of wine and beer flowed; many nice bruises were incurred; there were some fantastic demonstrations; I got invited to learn more Marozzo in Italy next year.  Did I mention the party?

Really.  WMAW.  Everyone should go.

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And now the technical bit about Marozzo.

So, I’ve memorized the whole of one of his Assalti, about 39 individual actions (a cut, a parry).  And I’ve fenced the style for a couple of years.   I confessed myself puzzled by the repeated use of heavy cuts and off-line guards, which I put down to the use of heavier swords and armour for a weapon that was quickly becoming the common ‘carry’ weapon in Italian streets.

What I saw almost instantly, both in John O’Meara’s fencing and in my instructors, was a constant use of development of lines and line changes as a fundamental of the art.  Looked at in modern terms, I was trying to use what I had learned to score with first intention attacks or simple counters/ripostas.  I had, utterly incorrectly, written the side sword out of the complex second intention as too unwieldy.  (Just to reveal the depth of my misunderstanding, my ‘long sword’ fighting is a whole world of second and even third intentions, so how I came to this stunning glass house is… oh well. Apparently I thought that Marozzo the long sword teacher and Marozzo the side-sword teacher were different men…)

Looked at as a writer, I learned that the young knight from a small castle who goes off to war is likely to die from the errors of his master-at-arms; in a combat situation, isolation from mainstream practice could be as dangerous in the past as no training at all…