Behind the Sword by S.J.A. Turney – Guest Post
Behind the Sword by S.J.A. Turney – Guest Post
Today on the blog we welcome author S.J.A. Turney, with his guest post ‘Behind the Sword’, as part of the blog tour for his new book, ‘Daughter of War‘.
S.J.A. Turney is an author of Roman and medieval historical fiction, gritty historical fantasy and rollicking Roman children’s books. He lives with his family and extended menagerie of pets in rural North Yorkshire.
Behind the Sword
Combat in historical fiction
Everyone who reads historical fiction is expecting, and probably eagerly anticipating, a certain amount of hacking and slashing. The old school of the genre is not called ‘swords and sandals’ for nothing, after all. And publishers, agents and editors have all told me on numerous occasions ‘start with a fight to draw the reader’s attention’. It’s a cliché, really, but we often do just that, and cliché or not, it works. Readers of historical fiction are probably also largely viewers of historical movies, so there’s an expectation there:
The hero staggers from a punch on the jaw as the bad guy twirls his longsword expertly in a web of death. The hero ducks, rolls, whips out his own sword and expertly punches it through the chain mail and into the bad guy’s heart.
You’ve seen it in movies and read it in books many, many times, I know. I have. I’ve also put scenes like that in books. The problem with that scene is that it’s fantasy. It is not only improbable in the real world, it’s more or less impossible. Because real fighting is a whole different kettle of mackerel to swords and sandals, and in the modern day, readers are becoming much more assertive in terms of what they expect from their historical novels. More and more people find historical accuracy important over excitement. And the problem with accuracy is that it loses some of that old school movie magic. Let me try and explain by example. I’ll rewrite that scene above in realistic terms. Let’s try it again:
The hero staggers from a punch on the jaw, dazed and with blurred vision. Somehow he manages to overcome the intense pain to see the bad guy advancing on him, clutching his heave broadsword in two hands, sweat beading on his brow. The hero considers rolling for a low blow, but with his armour and the sword as an impediment there is more chance of injuring himself or ending prone on the ground than landing a blow, so he waits, clutching his own blade. The bad guy pulls back his sword in both hands and swings. The hero lunges with his sword in both hands, but the point is caught in the bad guy’s chain mail and fails to punch through. The last thing the hero knows is the bite of his enemy’s sword and the bitter realisation that swords don’t go through chain mail.
See what I mean? Injecting a little realism changes everything. Because I like to do my research. Oh, I am still guilty of a little Hollywood combat from time to time, but I try to keep things more realistic than that as often as I can. You see, I own both swords and armour, having been a part-time reenactor. And there are things you learn really quickly when you try to use a sword in reality. Firstly, they are heavy. Really heavy. A Roman gladius is only a short sword and you can pick it up and swing it, and think ‘this isn’t hard’, but try to do it for five minutes. Then you start to realise what weight it is, as your muscles scream and your arm droops. So heroic battles that last for twenty minutes, leaping from wall to wall are highly improbable, believe me. And that’s just a short sword.
A medieval longsword is heavier still. It takes impressive strength just to hold it in one hand, let alone whirl it around. So that lightning-fast twirl? Nope. Not likely. More likely he’s holding it in two hands and sweating like billy-o. And as for swords going through chainmail? Maybe a one in a hundred lucky blow, or the mail is defective or something. But really, it doesn’t happen. Mail is good against everything except bodkin-tipped arrows.
In fact, what I like to do, and try not to do in front of neighbours, is to enact potential scenes. If I have an interesting and important fight to write, I will plan it, then try it. I can be found in our garden swinging a sword and lunging at leylandii with aplomb. I will swing and thrust and hack, and often fall over or swear as I grab an aching muscle and retreat for a cold brew to recover. And when I am happy that the scene is feasible, I will write it. And I will look at it and decide whether it is also exciting. And if it isn’t, I will then throw caution to the wind and add a little Hollywood glitter, because it is historical fiction, after all.
But that’s the truth of it. In ancient and medieval warfare, the truth of a fight is that both combatants are sweating and grunting as they flail around with very heavy weapons and try with little finesse to beat each other to a pulp. And as often as not when a blow lands it will not sever anything or cut deep. Because of armour and padding, on the whole a medieval sword will just break the bone. That’s where the fight is won. And the fight will be short, because very swiftly both combatants will begin to tire and the swords will start to droop.
It’s up to both author and reader, I think, to find a happy medium with which they can work. Realism is important, but fight scenes would begin to get very repetitive if we didn’t throw in just a tiny bit of Hollywood.
Anyway, that’s my two-penneth. Now I’m off to swing a sword and swear a little as I plan my next fight.
Knights Templar Book One
Publisher – Createspace
Pages – 314
Release Date – 26th March 2018
ISBN 13 – 978-1986867818
Format – ebook, paperback
Europe is aflame. On the Iberian Peninsula the wars of the Reconquista rage across Aragon and Castile. Once again, the Moors are gaining the upper hand. Christendom is divided.
Amidst the chaos comes a young knight: Arnau of Valbona. After his Lord is killed in an act of treachery, Arnau pledges to look after his daughter, whose life is now at risk. But in protecting her Arnau will face terrible challenges, and enter a world of Templars, steely knights and visceral combat he could never have imagined.
She in turn will find a new destiny with the Knights as a daughter of war… Can she survive? And can Arnau find his destiny? An explosive novel of greed and lust, God and blood, Daughter of War marks the beginning of an epic new series from bestseller S.J.A. Turney. Perfect for fans of Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden and Matt Harffy.
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