Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Worldbuilding: wool

OK, how many of us love the clothing side of fantasy writing? Show of hands? Love those silks, velvets, lace? Or do leather straps and buckles float your boat? Why should it have to be one or the other, right?

For this post, I'm going to stick to fiber, though. I'm a knitter and crocheter, you see, so I'm going to geek out a little here.

"The knitting Madonna." She's almost
done, too, just putting the neck on with
a set of double-pointed needles.
As near as anybody can tell, knitting came to Europe sometime during the medieval period. The earliest for-sure knitted artifacts (regardless of what Wiki says) date from the Renaissance, but it looks like knitting was mainly used for everyday things that got worn to bits, such as stockings, socks and slippers. So there are not a lot of knitted artifacts.

There were forerunners to true, multi-needle knitting -- nalbinding is the most well known.

Crochet was invented much later. We think. It became popular in Europe in the 19th century as an alternative, easier, faster and therefore cheaper way to make lace. Easier and faster than traditional bobbin lace and tatting, that is.

Let's talk about wool. Wool is a lovely thing. If you think it's scratchy and nasty, two words for you: merino, and lambswool. Better yet, merino lambswool.

Merino is a particular breed of sheep, originally from Spain but now raised everywhere. Their wool is fine and soft because they were bred specifically for their wool (not for meat) starting sometime in the late medieval period or the early Renaissance.

Some sheep are bred for eating and the wool is an afterthought. Sometimes tough, scratchy wool is what you want -- for rugs or tapestries.

"Wool's hard to take care of" -- for fantasy folks who don't have washing machines, it's no harder than anything else. Wool will felt (as in, compact down int a solid, smaller mass that won't fit you anymore) when it's dunked in hot water and agitated. Washing machines are good at that. When washing by hand, it's not something you're likely to do accidentally. Felted wool has its own uses, of course -- it's tougher and even warmer than un-felted wool.

Knitted wool shawl, pinned out
Before modern fibers came along, wool was your go-to for warmth if you could not get fur. Unlike some modern fibers, wool will let your skin breathe. It insulates even when it's wet. It's stretchy and it has "memory," unlike plant fibers. I've knitted some Shetland lace shawls and there's this magic moment -- you finish the piece and it comes off the needles in a sad little crumple. You soak it briefly in water and then block it by pinning it out (on a bed or something) taut, under a fair amount of tension. Pulling all its little details wide open. Let dry. When you unpin it, it stays in that open shape. It's like butterfly wings emerging.

Wool comes off the sheep in a surprisingly coherent, sheep-shaped piece and is steeped in both the sheep's natural oils (lanolin, which your skin likes too) and whatever filth the sheep has been rolling in. Clean wool that has not been stripped of the lanolin has a scent to it... your best bet would be to find some unscented lanolin hand lotion if you want to smell it. Sometimes you can find "unstripped" wool with the lanolin at specialty yarn shops.

The natural colors of wool are lovely (I'm fond of earthy palettes) and can range from ivory through grey to natural black. There's also a range of browns from a light fawn to a reddish brown to chocolaty shades.

If you're still reading (lol) and you have questions about wool or knitting or crochet for your character-costuming needs, I'd be glad to talk your ear off or at least point you in the direction of an answer.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Terry Tibke's UPGRADER blog tour!

My fellow writing ninja Terry Tibke is kicking off a blog tour for his new book UPGRADER: RE-ENGINEERED right here at the Jovian Frontier! You can follow along on his blog tour from the Ninja Dojo.

A dimensional rift has opened, and now a headstrong young man must learn to use an ancient power before the Earth is enslaved.

Dylan Kent is exposed to a mysterious energy from another dimension! Transformed into an ever-changing warrior, Dylan must harness these new powers in order to keep our world free from intradimensional invaders. These invaders have come to our world in search of the power Dylan now possesses. If Dylan is unsuccessful in repelling them, not only will he die but our world will die with him!

Since I'm obsessed with worldbuilding, I interviewed Terry about some of the details of the world in UPGRADER. Don't worry -- no spoilers! 

Your book blurb tells us that Dylan was "Transformed into an ever-changing warrior." Could you explain a little more?

Dylan is your average comic reading, game playing, party going, zombie-movie-loving teenager in his senior year of highschool. He's dating a girl named Annika, and she's pretty awesome too. But all that changes when Dylan goes out at night and encounters a "mysterious energy." I can't really give away the full potential he gains when he acquires this energy, but I can say it's not without a price. Headaches and barfing from nausea pop up whenever he's about to use the powers he gains. He'll just have to get used to that.

Another quote from the book blurb: "These invaders have come to our world in search of the power Dylan now possesses." Why?

For time out of count, Earth has remained safe from interdimensional conflict. But wars and conquests have raged on in worlds beyond our own. The mysterious energy we keep talking about has traveled to Earth now, and Icarion and his seekers are right behind, trying to capture and use the mysterious energy -- a power that allows a tear in the Seam of reality to be opened that will let through Icarion's army. What's he want? Enslavement of all mankind. And Dylan's the only thing standing in the way.

Can you tell us about the "mysterious energy" without spoiling anything?

I can tell you that the energy is as ancient and powerful as the universe itself, and that it's known as the Sunsoul. The power is a sentient being that is capable of deciphering any genetic, molecular, and mathematical code, plus so much more. And our Dylan becomes its guardian. It's a buttload to handle.

What are you working on now?

If you've read the epilogue to Upgrader: Re-Engineered, you can probably guess that I'm now working on the second book in what Actionopolis has decided to make into a trilogy. I should be done very, very soon -- like, days from now really. I'm also seeking an agent for a middle grade pirate adventure book I finished, have the second book of my fantasy series to illustrate, Armageddon: The White Steel Peaks, and have a couple of other books on my plate I can't talk about yet. Did I mention I'm also an illustrator? I've also been doing design work for Social Titans, a Facebook game company, and recently started working with their creative team on story development as well. I go to sleep around 8:00pm and get up around 2:00am and write for a few hours, then go back to bed. I squeeze drawing in between everything else. Am I busy? Eh, yeah.

Upgrader: Re-Engineered is a fun read with a break-neck pace. The book, like all of Actionopolis' books, is designed for the reader who craves action, adventure, and a quick read. Their reading levels range from Middle Grade to Young Adult, and I know tons of adults who love the pace, and the short time it takes to whip through these books. I really recommend them.

Thanks, Terry and have a great blog tour!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Medival Links & Refs

A links list -- how retro, right? Well, we all know how much time it can take to filter through the oceans of information out there. This is a collection of links and things I have (re)discovered while revising my fantasy world. Maybe something here will give you that nudge you needed.


A university library is priceless. If you can get borrowing privileges, it's worth it. I did, however, buy some books too and these are some that are on my shelf:

Childhood in the Middle Ages by Shulamith Shahar. ISBN: 0-415-07329-4. This is a tricky subject to research, or at least it was several years ago. I remember this book being dense and dry but the best source I could find about childhood in medieval times.

Medieval Swordsmanship, by John Clements. ISBN: 1-58160-004-6. When I bought this years ago, it was hard to find but came so well recommended that I went to the trouble of ordering it from the publisher. I'm glad to see it's on Amazon now.  

Not only does this describe weapons, shields and armor, it's got lots of diagrams of sword and shield use. He explains the major guard positions and the most common attacks made from them. For both one-handed with shield and two-handed without. There's a little about axes and maces and polearms in hand-to-hand.

Two big thumbs-up for this book. 

Some useful links:

I remember that when I originally wrote this fantasy epic, I spent many happy years researching all things medieval. And one online place in particular was very helpful -- a group called "75years" for serious re-enactors of the 1250-1325 era. Lo and behold, it still exists! This makes me happy.

Are you putting plate armor on women? Read this.

Fordham University still has a wonderful collection of medieval links.

Horses. Holy crap, horses. Tons of information out there, and while some things haven't changed since medieval times (horse personalities, how to ride, basic dangers), many things have (breed definitions, medical care, equipment.) A good place to start is the Big Horse Link Thread on Absolute Write.

You've never heard of the Absolute Write Water Cooler? It's an excellent resource for writers. The Research forum is especially useful.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Violence and sex

I'm (was) almost ten thousand words into my writing exercise (when I started this entry), and it's starting to come back to me: the vocabulary, the longer sentence structures, the first person voice. The way it sprawls -- just a writing exercise, I thought. Just to get settled. Ten thousand words later and now we can finally start the battle that we all came here for. Sheesh.

And the graphic details. My MC, Kate, is a doctor's apprentice and she does not flinch from graphic details. She's working in the infirmary of a small kingdom's army with medieval technology tempered by some magic. It's not going to be pretty. Blood and guts and amputations and arrow extractions. Impalements. Horse bites. Bits of chainmail caught in the wound. Burns from flaming oil. Broken bones from falling off horses.

As a result of Kate's graphic detail as a doctor, the graphic details of her personal life would seem to be... required to maintain voice, wouldn't they? Cooking and cleaning and doing laundry. Gathering medicinal herbs. Sewing. Kissing and petting and hands under her skirts and... ?

In my science fiction, the level of graphic detail was much lower. There were fewer sharp objects to get disemboweled with, after all. And I had no problem shutting the bedroom door at a reasonable moment. In the years since I walked away from Kate and her fantasy epic, I settled into this set of assumptions when it comes to bedroom activities (wherever they may occur):
  • My readers care about the characters, therefore my readers want the characters to have good sexual experiences.
  • It's possible that the readers and I agree on what constitutes a good sexual experience, but it's more likely that we at least partly disagree.
  • Therefore, I should let my readers supply their own definition of what my characters did when they had a good sexual experience because the readers will enjoy that more. 
  • The exception being the deliberately erotic cutting-room-floor scenes that I write for personal entertainment. 
I've read a lot of discussion about whether graphic sexual scenes are useful for character development, dramatic development, or essentially anything other than titillation. As near as I can tell, the answer is (as with many things): sure it could be, but it often isn't.

For the record, I do believe that sexuality is a valid aspect of a character's development. Not so much the laundry list of tricks the character knows, his/her cup size/package size etc., but their level of consideration for their partner, their ability to read responses (or not), the hang-ups and baggage they bring to bed.

Getting back to Kate, she is challenging me to be far more graphic than I have been since I switched to science fiction. And while describing gore in detail can be difficult, there is something to be said for knowing that she's there to help and heal.

Describing erotic adventures can be just as difficult, honestly. Not because I'm embarrassed to talk about them, but because they are so intensely character-driven. That and you have to keep track of all the arms and legs and clothes and furniture -- it's really just as bad as tracking all the swords and bodies in a fight. But avoiding her sexual experiences would short-change an important part of her story. There are important consequences.

Which is more challenging for you: graphic violence or graphic sexuality? Do you avoid them? Why?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Trusting your gut

A confluence of things have made me ruminate about writers trusting their gut instincts, so here goes.

The other night, a scene miscarried at a relatively late stage -- 250 words in. That puzzled me at the time, because I'd thought I had a decent handle on what was driving it. The MC in the scene was going to try again to convince his father to let him lead the cavalry charge. I was going to lay out the plan for the battle (which will fall apart quickly, of course) the next day. There were world-building elements I would be able to work out with regards to religious practice.

250 words in, my gut said: no, MC already made one attempt to convince his father and was denied. The battle plan is simple and watching it fall apart will work just as well. Go straight to the following scene of MC angsting over his father's bait and switch (pushing him to lead, then telling him no.) It's more important and there will be religious details there too.

So I stopped and went to the next scene. 770 words gush out, nice and angsty. Threw the aborted scene into the REJECTS folder (I never delete anything.)

I've read about trusting your gut as much as anybody else, but I'll be the first to admit I'm reluctant to trust my gut. I argue with it and get led astray. Clothes I shouldn't have bought, trips that were a waste of time, food that turned out to be a disappointment. Those rollerblades that have been in the closet for ten years now. Bigger stuff, too. Am I the only one who looks at her wedding gown and rolls her eyes?

So how does your gut earn your trust when it comes to writing? I suspect that if I figured that out and bottled it, I'd become a millionaire.

Pile of tripe. Did I write this?
Because we all have that fear, deep down, that we will look at some hackneyed pile of tripe we wrote and our gut will say "Great! Love it!"

Well, I worry about it. I worry about everything. And I take shelter in facts, so here's a little about tripe: it's the stomach of a ruminant, usually a cow. Tripe that you find in the grocery store has been heavily brined and stinks. It's got a texture like a sheet of rubber band elastic. Green tripe is the ruminant stomach with the last meal still inside, and is hard to find. It smells sort of like cow manure, which isn't great but it's not the worst smell out there. Dogs love the stuff and if you suffer through the finding and the serving of green tripe for your dog, you will be the Bestest Human Evar for at least a few days.

Weapon of choice
I trust my gut because I know it's fussy. My gut lives in a little concrete bunker with an anti-aircraft gun and infinite ammo for shooting ideas down. It shoots down my ideas. It shoots down other people's ideas (but I keep my mouth shut, mostly.) It shoots down book blurbs that I read. I've been trying to find self-published books that I want to read (Indie Snippets posts samples, God bless them) and my gut is merciless. The bastard will shoot down anything.

They make medication for this, I know, but it's better to have a cruel inner critic than a rubber-stamper.

Do you trust your gut? What has it shot down recently?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Fantasy swords I have loved...

Back in my swords blog post, I said I'd post some favorite fantasy swords, so here goes.

These are two series that I read at an impressionable age -- as a teenager, since I predate the YA movement -- and loved, for better or for worse. I also read the fantasy classics that everyone talks about, such as Middle Earth, Narnia, and Wizard of Earthsea, and loved and was influenced by them. But these two are less well known, it seems. I don't hear them mentioned as often, so I'm going to do it because I will always have a soft spot for them.

Cover to Swords and Ice Magic by Michael Whelan
The definitive portrait of Fafhrd & Mouser, IMO
Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series

To tie this into the swords theme, Fafhrd's is named Greywand and Mouser's is named Scalpel. However, Leiber did say that neither of them were fussy and these were just what they called whatever sword was in their hand.

I read all of the original collections: Swords and Deviltry, Swords Against Death, Swords in the Mist, Swords Against Wizardry, The Swords of Lankhmar, Swords and Ice Magic, and I bought the final Knight and Knave of Swords when it came out in 1988.

Looking back with a more analytical eye, the world-building is on the catch-as-catch-can side. There are some sequences that will feel contrived to modern readers because they're old hat now. I don't know how old some of these tropes were when he put his imprint on them, but they're still getting dragged out today. But I still love these stories and I'm sure that Leiber's take on swashbuckling, magic, and story twists has influenced me. These stories are the fun side of high fantasy. Sometimes we forget about that part in the midst of all the ring quests and end-of-the-world prophecies.

Cover of Stormbringer,
another Michael Whelan classic.
Michael Moorcock's Elric saga

Stormbringer, the soul-eating sword. It's a powerful ethical dilemma: Elric needed the sword desperately to keep him strong, at the cost of the souls of those he killed. Purposefully and accidentally.

Looking through Wikipedia's listing, I may not have read the whole thing after all. It gets a little confusing. I can say for sure that I read Elric of Melnibone, Sailor on the Seas of Fate. Weird of the White Wolf, The Vanishing Tower, Bane of the Black Sword and Stormbringer. The series has a defininte, unarguable ending. How effective any further stories would be is up for debate... but I will track them down at some point.

Elric's story is very much a saga, full of melodrama, adventure and tragedy. The hero is conflicted, flawed and sometimes reluctant, caught in a fate that he tries to escape. If you're interested in fantasy anti-heroes, this is one of the classics.

In hindsight, you could say it's over-wrought. Moorcock admits he wrote them at a breakneck pace using a formula. The ending's a downer. And the author went on the beat this horse into the ground by way of crossovers and tie-ins to other series.

As with anything, your mileage may vary. But I hope you enjoy them.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Character conversations: Kate

We're still under the hood of my fantasy epic. I've been writing a bit ("Ansehen" in my writing progress bar) to try to get myself out of my science fiction voice and into my fantasy voice -- they're quite different -- plus get to know my main cast again. That's the best way to do it, IME, to jump in the lake and figure out what swimming stroke works best for the situation. It's been a long time. I'm a different person now, and having re-read the whole monstrosity I have opinions about what I did wrong (and right) with my characters.

Let's start at the top with my first-person narrator, Kate Carpenter. I googled "character interview questions" and got a lot of dull, predictable lists but I think we can squeeze some fun out of them so here goes. 

1. Eating habits--granola cruncher, junk-food junkie?

(Kate laughs) Put food in front of me and I eat it. I know I was fortunate, as a child -- Father earned enough as a master carpenter that we usually had something to eat. Porridge, at least. Bread, often, though it was flatbread in the winter. The dough doesn't rise so much when it's cold, even if you keep it near the fire.

I could write a whole blog post wondering why I'm so bad at finding 
reference photos for my female characters. I owe them all an apology.
This is Buttercup from Princess Bride, she's my physical ref for Kate.
You grew up a peasant girl, the oldest of four surviving children. Your mother was also a midwife. That must've contributed to the household earnings? 

Yes, and far more help after Father died.

2. Hobbies? Activities?  Crafts?  Sports?  Collect anything?

(She laughs again) I own two dresses, three shifts, four pairs of socks, and a wool shawl. Do they have any idea how long it takes to wash all of that?

No underwear? 

Do I have to wash it?

You didn't have much sense of humor, last time around. I think it's an improvement. Question three: Did you change much after high school? Let's adjust that to "what schooling you got," since you're only sixteen when the story begins.

When I received my Blessing, (Blessings are received at twelve) which marked me a disciple of Saint Qadeem, the Order placed me in the novitiates' school. I knew some arithmetic, thus had a little lead on the other peasant children. By the end of that two years, thanks to my Blessing, I was reading Alemmani, speaking a fair bit of Russe, and managing some calculations. My writing... was tolerable.

And you already knew how to deliver a baby, thanks to your mother. 

Yes, that's some of why, Master Parselev told me, I drew his attention.

That and your schooling did lead to a big change for you, didn't it?

(she nods, sadness twisting her mouth for a moment) My first disagreement with Father. I was old enough to marry, then, and he'd arranged a good match. Harold and I knew each other, we got on well. As good a match as I could hope for. (a sad shrug) Master Parselev offered me apprenticeship. To study medicine, the highest calling of Qadeem's disciples... and with the one elect in the kingdom, even. I had never disagreed with Father before. Never fought him.

Never thought of yourself as ambitious, did you. 

No. (with a nervous smile) I'm a peasant girl, there's no ambitions to be had. Food on the table and healthy babies, is all. But I could do so much more, once I knew how. Help so many more.

So tell us how that was resolved. 

The piglet died. Father bought a piglet, a good breeding sow, for my dowry. I was to marry Harold that Midwinter. But snow came early that year, very early, and the piglet took sick. Father brought her in stiff and frozen one morning, and that settled that. He signed my apprenticeship to Master Parselev a few days later.

And that's why I called the first part of your story For Want of a Piglet. Too bad the rest of the volume titles didn't live up to that. So in short, a little education changed everything for you. 

My Blessing changed everything. Saint Qadeem takes few disciples, and one should not question the saints' choices. Maybe I will have the chance to ask why it was me, someday.

More notes: I've posted a few world-building thoughts so far and there are sure to be more. If there's something you'd like to hear thoughts about, feel free to ask!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Wordlbuilding: armies

In the process of rebuilding my little fantasy kingdom as a militaristic society, I've been looking at historical armies of the medieval era. I've been trying to work out how large of an army a given population could be expected to field. This is tricky since record-keeping was not terribly reliable in medieval Europe. So take all of this with a grain of salt.

Also bear in mind that who, exactly, served in the army varied a great deal. Military conscription of the sort that we currently use in the US/Europe dates from the late 18th century. Levies -- where all the able-bodied men of reasonable age were grabbed and handed some kind of weapon -- did happen, but these men didn't know much about fighting in formation and needed to be home to harvest the crops. Often, the military was a career path chosen by certain men and soldiers were professional full-timers. Their commanding officers would rent them out as mercenaries to (a) be able to pay them and (b) keep them busy.

I looked at the armies that France was fielding during the Hundred Years' War because they were fighting on home turf and they were a major player at the time. When you have to ship your men across a Channel and move through enemy territory, as England did, I would expect that to reduce the size of your army.

According to Fordham University, in 1340 France and the Low Countries had a population of about 19 million. (As an aside, Fordham has great online resources for medieval research.) At the battle of Crecy in 1346, France fielded 38,000-43,000 soldiers. Or more -- some sources put the army as big at 100k. Even on the low end, it looks like this was the biggest army that France sent against the British during that conflict.

38k is 0.2% of 19 million. Even 50k would only be 0.26%.

Out of curiosity, I tracked down some approximately contemporary Chinese numbers. The Yuan Dynasty (established by Kublai Khan) was in control of most of China and in 1290 the population was around 75 million (which was actually a big drop from the population under the previous Song Dynasty)

When the Yuan attempted to invade Vietnam in 1288, they sent 70,000 regular troops and 21,000 auxiliaries for a total of about 91,000. (This is a mind-bogglingly huge number for the timeperiod, too. They had trouble feeding them, apparently, which contributed to the failure of the invasion) That would be 0.12% of the population.

Interesting, isn't that? So if Saruman sent 10,000 Uruk-hai to Helm's Deep, how big of a population was there back home...?

Right, in fantasy you get to cheat a bit. How much you cheat is up to you, but you should be aware that you're cheating. Armies march on their stomachs (as in, how well you can feed them). The baggage train is where all their stuff is. All those men are tired, hungry and bored so it's a gold mine for entrepreneurs who are willing to take the risk of catering to  customers who are skilled with weapons. About the only thing that happens quickly among 20,000 men is catching something nasty when the guy next to you sneezes.

Plus, if all the men are out marching around in armor, who's working the fields? Sure, women can work fields but they also have children to take care of...

I'm going to be cheating and rationalizing it by saying that this is a society where serving in the military is close to a religious requirement. Everybody has a role in defending the kingdom, whether it's swinging a sword, driving a baggage wagon, or putting clothes on the soldiers' backs. My little kingdom has only about a million people in it, but they will be fielding a lot more than 0.2% of the population -- that would only be two thousand men.

Are you cheating? What's your explanation?

Monday, August 8, 2011

A birthday valentine

Happy Birthday to me... and it's already been a good birthday, even though it's early. Yesterday, the first local apples of the season arrived at my local farm stand -- Ginger Golds, a near-perfect balance of sweet and tart IMHO. I also started writing again. It's just a piece of backstory for the fantasy monstrosity I've been working on and blogging about, but it's the tip of an iceberg.

Today, I am 40 (shrugs). I ought to have some sort of contest or give-away, but sadly money is very tight for me as it is for a lot of people in this recession. So instead I am posting a little love note to science fiction and one particular under-appreciated movie that pushed me toward sci-fi.

2010: The Year We Make Contact

If you hear about this movie at all, it's usually in the context of how it wasn't as good as 2001. When I saw it, I didn't know that it was a sequel and somehow, in spite of having already seen Star Wars and Star Trek and Tron and the original Battlestar Galactica and many episodes of Tom Baker-era Dr. Who that gave me nightmares, it was 2010 that crushed all the space opera under a perfectly proportioned black monolith and made me a hard science fiction writer.

There's a moment in the movie where the Leonov is approaching Jupiter and the frame is simply the planet, black space, and the ship with its center portion spinning. It's burned on my brain: this is science fiction. Going out there, into the dangerous unknown, to find out what happened to the previous mission.

All the science fiction I've read or seen since then has covered all the great themes of the genre: action, adventure, fear, idealism, oppression, survival. Love. I've always been fond of the wonder, though. The cosmic grandeur. Sure, I've made my pilgrimage to Mordor, I've languished in Narnia and Earthsea. Fantasy has its grand themes of good and evil.

But space is different. You don't conquer it. It's eternal.

A planet, a ship and the void. I may leave you for a while, science fiction, but you know I'll come crawling back for more.

Closest I could find to the image that's burned on my brain

What genre would you write a valentine to?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Blog Award

If I get a blog award every week, I might as well start a weekly "Good Stuff I Found" post... Hmm...

1. Thank the giver and link back to the blogger who gave it to you.
2. Reveal your top 5 picks and let them know by leaving a comment on their blog.
3. Copy and paste the award on your blog.
4. Have faith that your followers will spread the love to other bloggers.
5. And most of all - have bloggity-blog fun!

1. Thank you Libby Heily!

2. Five blog picks:

3. Done

4. Go forth!

5. Fun? Me? No, we're all very serious around here... Worldbuilding. Serious bizness. Very serious. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Worldbuilding: knights, part 2


The classic fantasy weapon. Symbolic shorthand for masculinity, power and death.

They've been around for millennia and come in every conceivable shape and size. Then fantasy got a hold of them and expanded into the inconceivable.

Here are a few real-world things I learned about swords: 

It's only a broadsword in comparison to the thinner, lighter rapiers that came later. If your world doesn't have rapiers, then a broadsword is just a sword.

It's not a blood groove. That channel running down the middle of the blade is a fuller and it's there because it changes the weight and bending dynamics of the metal. Swords bend -- they're supposed to, or they'll break -- and they're supposed to snap back true. 

When I was doing research on weapons, I ran into a lot of discussion about: what's the "best" sword? The katana achieved a state of metallurgical and aesthetic perfection centuries ago, and was able to remain there thanks to the stability of the Tokugawa shogunate. In Europe, swords underwent continual adaptation to the changing state of warfare and hand-to-hand combat. Each one had its time and place.

Ultimately, it's not about having the "best" sword. It's having the right sword for your situation. More than that, it's the hand on the sword. Which leads to extensive dissections of fighting styles, mostly involving Asian martial arts because the only European fighting style that's practiced much anymore is fencing... I did run across a persuasive argument by someone who's studied a variety of martial arts that it's not the sword and it's not the fighting style. A duel will be won by the "better" warrior.

What does "better" mean? The one who's prepared, alert, focused, motivated, got a good night's sleep, ate his/her Wheaties, and has something worth fighting for. It could be anything that gives one the edge over the other. In other words, it's about the characters. But we're writers, we knew that already...

Some of my favorite real-world swords:

Katana -- of course. They're beautiful, oversized razor blades. The wavy line along the blade is called the hamon and it's a by-product of the forging process. It's the mark of the genuine article and unique to each sword.

Claymore -- I'll let my Scottish roots show. Big honking sword, though there is plenty of disagreement over how big. The claymore purported to have been William Wallace's is five and a half feet long.

Flambard -- better known by its incorrect name, the flamberge. How's this for scary-looking?

Yes, it's a rather vanilla list. For more interesting things, Google image of "kora sword" or "ngombe sword".

I will post some of my favorite fantasy swords (and the fiction that goes with them) at some point. Do you keep your swords simple, or do you get fancy and exotic?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Worldbuilding: knights

    I started out looking for a nice fantasy landscape to put in this post. Searching for "fantasy landscape" gets you tons of cool wallpaper, though, and I quickly got distracted by knights. Started searching for "fantasy knight". Another  mistake. Very distracting.

    So let's talk about knights.

    As I mentioned a while ago, I'm doing some major under-the-hood work on an epic fantasy I wrote long ago. I have a military-centric kingdom where the local deities are closely involved with their people. Naturally, knights are an important part of their culture.

    Many things to think about when working with European medieval-style knights, by which I mean: well armored, on horseback, primarily sword-wielding, semi-professional to full-time pro. Jousting and heraldry a plus. The most common depictions of knights look something like this guy.

    However, over the course of the Middle Ages knights underwent a great deal of evolution. Broad definitions of "middle ages" put the period as a thousand-year spread from the fifth to the fifteenth century. And in addition, Europe was hardly the only place to put well-armored, heavily armed men on horseback. There's no need to reinvent the wheel -- there are lots of cool wheel designs out there. Consider this a post to get your brain burbling, since I can't  cover the whole topic... 

    Let's talk about armor. There are many ways to wrap yourself in metal. These are some of my favorites:

    Mail, aka chain mail. These are interlocked metal rings made into the shape of clothing. Wire rings may be looped pieces of wire or solid circles punched from a sheet. The wire loops may be riveted shut, welded shut, or left open. Leaving them open is a lot faster to make, but less protective. Its primary purpose is to resist the impact of edged weapons, and it did a good enough job to make it worth the trouble until something better came along. Mail is much older than the Middle Ages, though it did hit its peak in the 13th century and then start to decline. In Europe, it was supplanted and mostly replaced by plate armor. It's still around today.

    Lamellar, in which small pieces of metal with holes in them are laced together. The most famous examples are the old-style samurai armor before they switched to plate. You can also do this with pieces of leather, wood, bronze, pretty much anything tough. Lamellar has a long history, probably longer than mail.

    Splinted mail is a sort of lamellar/mail hybrid. Wikipedia calls it "plated mail".

    Laminar armor in its best-known form was the lorica segmentata of Rome. It was out of use by the Middle Ages but it looks good and isn't that far off the technology level.

    There is of course plate armor which hardly needs any introduction. In Europe, it started to come into play in the 13th century and is still with us today in the form of the body armor that soldiers are wearing in Afghanistan. I would not call it my favorite, though.

    I based my fantasy society on the late 13th to the early 14th century, when a full suit of mail was still quite standard, supplanted by greaves for the legs and maybe the arms too. It's a hefty amount of metal to walk around in, but not as ridiculous as the full plate armor that came later. My knights looked more like this guy.

    How realistic you want to be in your fantasy is up to you, but here are some armor-related things to consider:
    • How did your knight get it? Is it paid for? Was it Dad's? Taken off a dead guy?
    • Regardless of what the armor is, it ain't cheap. Lots of skilled manual labor involved. Who's doing all that work? How easy is it to get the materials?
    • Maintenance. Is it iron? Steel? Rust-proofed? (how?) Who's doing the repairs and getting the rust off? (Supposedly, they'd put mail in a barrel of sand and roll it around to buff the rust off. Great, now you're getting sand in interesting places... during combat...) If it's leather or organic, does it need oiling?
    • Underneath, the knight ought to be wearing a quilted -- or at least heavy-weight -- gambeson. What's the high temperature for today?
    This is why you have squires and servants to follow you around and pick up your armor. Or you wave a magic wand over it. Or invent a magical metal that's light, rust-proof and nigh-indestructible. You could do any or all of that.

    Since I'm writing fantasy, not historical, I will also have some of these:

    Because some women can do it. This will be a new addition as I'm trying to be less historically accurate. 

    What are your characters doing for armor?
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