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Woman in sensible armour

As a fantasy author, I’m often called upon to write combat scenes for my books. Sometimes they’re a simple tussle using whatever weapons come to hand (like Ned’s main fight scene in The Alchemist of Souls) but given that my protagonist Mal usually goes around wearing a rapier and matching dagger, there are inevitably a number of sword-fights in the Night’s Masque books.

On the one hand I find them pretty easy (and a lot of fun) to write—I’ve seen an awful lot of swashbuckling movies over the years, and of course I do armchair research as well—but on the other, I have pretty much zero first-hand experience. Plus, writing is a pretty sedentary occupation unless you get one of those fancy treadmill desks, so I’m in need of exercise. Which I hate. I thus realised I could kill two birds with one thrust, so to speak, if I took up fencing.

I prevaricated for a while, telling myself that modern sport fencing is nothing like real sword-fighting (which is true), but once my first book came out I started to feel in need of new challenges. I also discovered there was a fencing club based at a high school barely a mile and a half from my house, so I really had no excuse not to go. I therefore signed up for the beginner’s course at Cambridge Fencing Club.

The autumn term started at the end of September; in fact the first lesson was on the Thursday evening before I went down to Brighton for FantasyCon. I was a bit worried I’d be horribly stiff at the convention, so my husband showed me some exercises that would help stretch my leg muscles and build core body strength. As a result, I was only a little footsore after the first class, since we only did footwork. In subsequent lessons we learned how and where to hit our opponent, and a bit of parrying. The instructor likes to focus on the basics in the beginners’ class and leave more complex techniques to the intermediate class.

The beginners’ class is over now, and whilst it was fun, it has also confirmed my suspicions that it’s not for me. Partly it’s the modern sport: the protective clothing is hot and uncomfortable, and I find the highly stylised nature of it (compared to realistic fighting styles) somewhat frustrating. Partly it’s because I’m unsurprisingly not terribly good at it, having started so late in life, and I don’t enjoy activities I’m not good at (this is why I hated PE at school). Mostly, though, I’m not in sufficient physical condition, and it’s very tough on the right arm, which already gets a hammering from computer use and longhand writing.

It was a painful decision to give up; writing has taught me how to persevere in the face of obstacles, and I really did want to enjoy it, but I have to face up to my limitations. It’s been a valuable learning experience, and at least I can now cross another topic off my bucket list. So, I’m regretfully going to have to bail before I do myself a mischief and have to dictate my next novel!



Douglas Hulick

Wish we were closer to one another. I have someone in our group learning rapier who has awful tendinitis, but we’ve figured out how to get around it. One of the nice things about the historical systems (or, at least, the Italian rapier style we use) is that the weight of the sword is mostly carried by the shoulder & back when you are in your guard. I always tell my students if their arm is sore, they’re doing it wrong. However, the movements & stance are different than in modern, so what works for us likely wouldn’t have helped you with modern fencing anyhow.

At least you gave it a go, which is more than most people do. And no, it’s not for everyone. There are sword styles I still can’t get excited about, no matter what I do. It’s a very subjective thing.

So, congratulations on your attempt! 🙂


Thanks, Doug! The trouble is, it’s my shoulder that’s the problem – I developed frozen shoulder a couple of years ago, and whilst a good osteopath sorted that out pretty promptly, it’s still prone to RSI. I was hoping that fencing would build up the muscles that weakened when I couldn’t lift my arm for several months, but I think I need to work on the muscles before I try any more fencing!

On the plus side I still have the Tai Chi class, and our instructor is a martial artist – he likes to show us the combat applications of various moves, rather than teaching the forms in isolation 🙂

S. Eric Rhoads

Given the free time I would love to spend more time w/ the SCA. It is really interesting the work/research being done to re-create these martial disciplines. I live near Cooper’s Lake in PA and a few times a year they have some hardcore SCA folks camp out there and stage mock battles (Pennsicwar), etc. They stay in character full time, but it is invite only, closed to the public.


I liked the blog. I did some fencing back in college and wasn’t bad for someone at my level. I really loved epee, though, and at that time (the early 80’s) there were a lot of resistance in the sport to women fencing anything but foil. After some truly nasty and sexist stuff happened in the sport with regards to its rules (women weren’t allowed to fence epee with anything but a French grip for a while) and not feeling supported by my club, I drifted away from the sport. Still, the experience was fun, and I can draw a bit from it with writing fight scenes. Now that I’m writing fantasy there’s a part of me that wants to find a club that does more historic style fencing or maybe even take up a martial art, but I’m now at an age where inertia is great and new physical skills come slowly and painfully, so I completely relate to your experience.

Brian Turner

I’m hoping to start fencing soon – just put my name down on the waiting list for a local club last week.

However, in terms of research, it’s not actually the fighting as much as the vocabulary and mentality that comes with it.

In the late mediaeval period to late Elizabethan, it seems that any gentlemen worth his salt would carry a sword and be familiar with the etiquette of fencing.

That has to translate into into normal everyday life and life and expressions. That’s my theory, anyway, and one I’m looking to use, especially when you have a group of gentleman in conversation.

Will probably be more fun as research than simply watching Muskateer films. 🙂


Unfortunately modern fencing has little in common with Renaissance practice – I would have got things badly wrong if that was the only research I did! And even before sport fencing, practices evolved. In Elizabethan times, for example, the seconds in duel usually joined in the fight (as seen in Romeo & Juliet) rather than being passive assistants.

I’m sure you’ll have a lot of fun fencing – just make sure you back it up with detailed research when writing historical-based fiction. I agree about the movies, though – once you’ve learnt about real swordfighting, “stage fights” are so obviously fake 🙂