Purveyor of fine fantasy adventures

The cutting edge of fantasy fiction?

Authors of fiction should wear their learning lightly, I feel. Research should subtly inform their writing, not dominate it, and the reader should never, ever feel as if they’re being lectured. After all, they picked up the book to be entertained and transported into another world, not sat down and told to pay attention, because there’s a quiz later.

It’s a widely-held view that fantasy as a genre is one in which the writer can pretty much dispense with research. It’s all made up, so as long as you make sure there are certain natural laws by which your world functions and you stick to them, you can do what you like. It’s your sandpit. You make the rules.

Sword and scabbardExcept it’s not that simple. Even in fantasy, there are some elements where a little research will prevent your reader frowning and thinking “That’s not right.” I mean, they might write to you and complain.

For example, there’s likely to be horses in the book somewhere, so it pays to know the hairy end from the end with the teeth. How to get on and off. How far you can ride one in a day.

If the blokes on the horses are knights, you’d better know your hauberk from your pauldron, and where to find the vamplate (it’s the bit which guards your hand as you grip your lance, in case you didn’t know).

So I was sitting at my desk, putting the finishing touches to the second book of The Wild Hunt series, and I had a sudden thought. An epiphany, even. One of those moments of realisation which is often—nay, almost inevitably—followed by “Oh, shit.”

What I realised was that I have spent mumblety-mumble years thinking, dreaming and writing about folk for whom a sword is a part of everyday life, and I’ve never laid hands on one. Seen a few in museums and so on, but never actually wrapped my hand round a hilt.

My imagination’s done the work up to this point. I knew not to pick it up by the pointy end, for instance, and was fairly confident I could score at least 6/10 on a naming-of-the-parts pop quiz. I also knew that they don’t weigh nearly as much as people imagine, but even three pounds is going to feel like it’s ripping your arm out of its socket after half an hour’s earnest use.

What I didn’t know, and had to rely on my imagination for, was the specifics. Which muscles does it pull on as you start to tire? Where do you get the calluses, and what does it feel like in your hand when the sweat—and worse—begins to run? What does it feel like in your hand, full stop?

So I bought one. A replica of a 15th century longsword (also called a hand-and-a-half, or a bastard sword, depending on your era of origin and local preference). Not a lightweight copy of Andúril that comes with a fancy plaque to hang on the wall, but a traditionally-made, full tang, edge-ready, functional sword. And it’s sharp.

Well, I’m not going to know what a real sword feels like in my hand unless I’m holding a real sword, am I?

Apologies for the crummy pics–it’s pouring with rain and even with the lights on I can barely see what I’m doing. Click to make them bigger.

Sword in scabbardCloser view of ring guard

11 Comments

  1. e.lee

    Wow these are lovely swords! And yes they are quite heavy but you get used to it (I used to fence)

  2. prue batten

    I’ll be the other one and we can duel, sort of. Except I’m in Australia and you’re in the UK?

  3. prue batten

    What I really want to know, now that you have the sword, and as an interested fantasy writer . . . does it sing? When you pull it from the scabbard, is there metallic music? When it hits another sword, does it ring or clash?

    What muscles hurt? I imagine it’s the upper and lower arm muscles, but also across the shoulderblades and up into the neck?

    I so admire your research. I’ve got the horse thing sorted as I have ridden all my life and still have a horse. But what about scaling castle walls, going to the toilet, body odour . . . oh so much!

    Love the blog.

    • Ellie

      When I draw it, yes, there is a faint chime, kinda like you get when you flick a wine-glass. As for what sound it makes when blade strikes blade, I guess I’ll have to buy another sword to find out. Ooh, shiny…

  4. Anne Lyle

    That is very cool – now I’m sorely tempted to buy myself a replica Elizabethan repier 🙂

    Know what you meant about fantasy writers not wanting to research, though. Not long ago I politely pointed out to another writer that the depression along a sword blade is called a fuller, not a “blood channel”, and it’s there to reduce weight, not for the blood to run down (it would surely make your hand all slippery, no?). Didn’t go down very well…

    • Ellie

      I once had occasion to ask an author precisely what she meant when she described decapitating someone with “a broadsword stroke” and never got an answer.

  5. Barb

    I bought myself an “Agincourt” replica years ago (1997). I had a scabbard done for it by a guy who was also a fencing master (meaning he taught how to duel with swords and broad-swords 1400s style), BUT he told me women didn’t handle swords, therefore he’d do the scabbard but would NOT teach me how to use my sword, sniff! 🙁 His girlfriend made me an excellent costume of the period – ladylike, of course, but I still bought myself a pirate shirt for whenever I want to be the warrior woman of my stories… as long as Mastro Simone is no present! 😉

  6. Franklin Beaumont

    What a good idea. With some tactile experiences, you really don’t know until you’ve tried them. I once handled a sword, and found it heavier than I expected. And longer. And sharper.

  7. Sam

    Research, eh? That has got to be the best reason, short of being knighted, I’ve heard for owning a sword. Do I take it you can be found, when the weather is nice, wandering about your garden swinging said sword, all in the interests of authenticity of course? 😉

    • Ellie

      Having imperilled several overhead light fittings indoors, and narrowly avoided catastrophe with a scabbard/picture glass interface, the garden is looking like the safest option. I could prune the fruit trees whilst I’m at it.

  8. thedragonsedge

    very nice blog. keep it up

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