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Research...

Postby RHFay » Tue May 22, 2007 8:49 am

Hello all!

I thought I would start a topic in writer's guidelines about research. Sorry if it's already been discussed...

"Research?" you say. "For sci-fi and fantasy?"

Yes! Even though speculative fiction is about what could be or may be, or might have been, I believe that every world, no matter how fantastic, should have some ground in reality. Something that the reader can latch onto as real helps sell the unreality of the situation. And being able to present something in a believable fashion often requires research.

Let's use sword and sorcery fantasy for an example. If you discuss the arms and armour in your world, you had better know the difference between a war hat and a great helm, or the difference between a falchion and an estoc. Even if you create a unique weapon or armour, it should work in a similar way to those actually used in history. The "studded leather armour" beloved by role playing games, and the "leathern bikinis" beloved of fantasy illustrators, probably didn't exist as real armour. ("I'm going to hit you only in your privates and no where else" - think about it!) Swords were not overly-heavy objects that could only be wielded by the strongest warriors (contrary to what Conan the Barbarian might say), they were tools made to be used in an elegant and deadly fashion.

My point is, if you are going to write a sword and sorcery fantasy novel, get a few books on arms and armour and do some basic research. Know your terms. Know the different types of historical arms and armour, and know the benefits and drawbacks of each. There are groups out there that know a lot about this stuff (I know, I used to "hang" with one on the net), and they will be critical if you misuse terms, or perpetuate some of the mistakes made in the past. And they could be one core group of your readers! (Many arms and armour enthusiasts got into that hobby through an interest in fantasy literature.) It also wouldn't hurt to do some castle and magic research as well!

Oh, by the way, one mistake that looms large in literature is calling armour made of rivetted links of iron or steel "chain mail". That's a misnomer; it is called "mail", which probably comes from the Latin "macula", for "net". Calling that particular armour "mail" will sound more like you know what your talking about than using the misnomer "chain mail" (which would be similar to calling a great helm a "great helm helmet".)

The same point about research can also apply to science fiction, but that's should probably be left for another post.

Writing is fun, but it can also be a lot of work.

I hope this was helpful!

Cheers!
Last edited by RHFay on Tue May 22, 2007 4:10 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby aldan » Tue May 22, 2007 9:34 am

I agree with most of what you said in this posting about fantasy weapons. However, not all swords were the slashing or stabbing swords that were popular in the movies of the 50s and 60s. Some were great swords (up to 6 feet in length, though usually 5 feet long or so), while others were broad swords (hacking swords, used in some ways like an axe, but normally double-edged).

Another thing you spoke of was studded leather armor. Now, 'tis true that as you see the illustrations in the RPGs, they were not that way, but leather was used as an attachment base for metal plates prior to the development of 'plate mail' (which was an armor that consisted of metal plates connected to each other by linked chain armor <mail>). Plate mail, as I said, was preceded by the use of softer leather as an attachment base for metal plates (the studs that the mixed up RPG fanatics are so, um, attached to), which were such things as a breast and back, greaves, arm guards, thigh plates, and whatnot.
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Postby RHFay » Tue May 22, 2007 10:00 am

Hey aldan! :)

I have literally hundreds of books on arms and armour and medieval warfare, and I previously spent many months on a forum dedicated to historic arms and armour collecting, until my obsessive participation interferred with my creative writing. My house is filled with replica medieval swords, and even some armour. I even wrote a few historical articles for that same arms and armour web site. Yes, I know swords varied! (Ever heard of Ewart Oakeshott's medieval sword typology? - That shows how even the straight, double-edged "knightly" swords varied over time and personal taste.)

However, even great two-handed swords of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries didn't usually get much heavier than four pounds or so (I once posted a list of weights of historic swords). The latter, specialized two-handed swords of the 16th century didn't weigh more than seven or eight pounds. There are a few historic swords in museums that weigh around 14 pounds, but they are usually thought of as "bearing" swords - swords that were never intended to be used in battle.

Leather as a base for armour (a cover for a coat of plates, for instance), or as armour itself was indeed used historically. Often times it was hardened in a debatable process (the historians and archaeologists can't agree on the actual process) to produce "cuir bouilli". I've even made some "hardened leather" armour using the "wax-hardening" method. Now many people belive that a different method was used. Perhaps the leather was more "moulded and tooled" than actually hardened.

If you said that some swords were used like an "axe" (which I actually suggested once) amongst the historic arms and armour community, you would get some rather heated responses to the contrary. (I know, I've been there!) However, there are differences in the use of different types of sword. A falchion (almost invariably single edged), for instance, is much more of a "hacking and slashing" weapon than a long sword. A long sword is more used for "cut and thrust". This may be an over-simplification, but I'm speaking in generalities here.

"Studded and splinted" armour so popular in Germany in the 14th century had metal strips and studs (possibly holding plates beneath the covering - but I believe this could be a debated point in some cases) on a possibly leather base. There are also some examples in medieval manuscript images and writings that suggest that leather armour was used on the limbs, even when metal was used for the torso.

A better name for "studded" armour where the studs hold plates beneath a backing is brigandine or coat-of-plates, depending upon the size of the plates. Brigandine plates tended to be rather small, while the plates on a COP were rather large. Good examples of the plates from such armour were recovered from the mass graves at the Battle of Visby.

However, all of this is straying too much into a discourse on historical armour. To get back to my original point, knowing all this takes a bit of research. I think you can create a much more believable world if you take from history instead of past literature. Read books on the subject before you try to tackle descriping such stuff.

Edit: I looked back at my figures, and 7-8 lbs may be a bit heavy for usable two-handed swords. I had some on my list that weighed less than five. Remember, medieval warriors had to depend upon their swords and armour to stay alive. Often times a heavy sword is a slow sword (a lot more comes into play -balace points and all that, but it's a generality). A slower sword puts you at a disadvantage.

Cheers!
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Postby Ariel » Tue May 22, 2007 4:27 pm

Wow, you guys know your swords! Hey RH, I'd love see pics of your swords and armour. Have you been collecting long?
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Postby aldan » Tue May 22, 2007 4:36 pm

Indeed, seven or eight pounds can really wear you out when you're trying to control it precisely. I've always been under the impression that the great swords were mainly used against the field and full plate sorts of armors that really weren't easily pierced by the slashing or piercing sorts of swords. Falchions were indeed that sort of slashing sword, but weren't they much more ancient than the long and 'hand and a half' swords of Europe, and weren't they more of a Middle Eastern weapon? They were rather heavy (relative to the rest of the sword) toward the end of the blade, right at the heavily curved section of blade, and while they had a point at the tip of the blade, it couldn't really be considered to be a stabbing point, by any means.
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Postby RHFay » Tue May 22, 2007 5:04 pm

Ariel wrote:Wow, you guys know your swords! Hey RH, I'd love see pics of your swords and armour. Have you been collecting long?


I've been reading about swords and armour since I became interested in fantasy role playing games in the 1980s. I've become a bit obsessed about that stuff over the years.

I've been collecting replica swords (and a few other weapons) since the mid 90s. I haven't been able to keep adding to my collection as much as I would like due to money constraints (and better and more historical, but much more expensive offerings have appeared on the market over the past few years), but I still add a piece or two every year or so.

As for pictures...hmm...I don't know if SV is really the right venue for that.

aldan wrote:Indeed, seven or eight pounds can really wear you out when you're trying to control it precisely. I've always been under the impression that the great swords were mainly used against the field and full plate sorts of armors that really weren't easily pierced by the slashing or piercing sorts of swords. Falchions were indeed that sort of slashing sword, but weren't they much more ancient than the long and 'hand and a half' swords of Europe, and weren't they more of a Middle Eastern weapon? They were rather heavy (relative to the rest of the sword) toward the end of the blade, right at the heavily curved section of blade, and while they had a point at the tip of the blade, it couldn't really be considered to be a stabbing point, by any means.


This is a really complex issue, and one that's really straying from my original intent in this thread. However, it does show how research can help reach a better understanding of such things.

As for great swords; yes and no. Some of the early great swords were introduced (possibly) as a response to better armour protections (plate supplements added to the mail hauberk). The "war swords" or "great swords" of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were longer versions of their smaller one-handed kin. There were also genuine "two-handed swords" in use, albiet rarely, at the same time. These were again longer versions of the typical "knightly sword", designed to be used with two hands.

Later "long swords" could be used in unarmoured duelling. There are several late medieval manuscripts that present many plates showing the different postitions used in the swordplay of the time. Long sword fighting is amongst the techniques shown. There are western martial arts groups out there that can give you much more information regarding the techniques than I can. I'm more of a collector and amatuer historian than I am a practitioner.

The history of the falchion is a point of debate, but it was indeed used in medieval western Europe. There are a few surviving European examples in museums, and many shown in medieval art. Some are shown in the hands of "exotics", but not all. (I one posted a lot of information and images about falchions on a thread on the arms and armour forum where I used to spend far too much of my time).

Falchions do have much of their weight near the tip, unlike the narrower "knightly" swords, but many still have a servicable point. Some examples had a clipped point, that looked like a way to increase it's thrusting ability. Even within certain sword "types", there was still a lot of variation!

Again, I think this is a good example of where research can help you flesh out the details. Arms and armour is a broad subject, with many different aspects. There are some good resources out there - the Osprey publishing series is a good start, although some volumes are better than others, and just about any book by Ewart Oakeshott can be a good addition to an "arms & armour" library.

I believe it really helps to make your settings, actions, and character descriptions believable if you add some realistic researched details. Having your character clad in an armour that might actually have been used historically, and carry a sword that could have been wielded historically, is a start!

Cheers!
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Postby Ariel » Fri May 25, 2007 4:40 pm

What a wealth of information here! RH, you can post your pics in the 'off topic' section.
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Postby Llew » Fri May 25, 2007 5:39 pm

Oh the subject of long swords (although I think it was used for all manner of swords) , I believe they were used for half-swording, placing one hand on the hilt and the other on the blade, giveing you much more leverage and control over an otherwise unwieldy sword.
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Postby RHFay » Fri May 25, 2007 6:49 pm

Llew wrote:Oh the subject of long swords (although I think it was used for all manner of swords) , I believe they were used for half-swording, placing one hand on the hilt and the other on the blade, giveing you much more leverage and control over an otherwise unwieldy sword.


Sometimes, definitely; half-swording was an option when you wanted to "get in close". The more elaborate two-handed swords of the 16th century had a long ricasso - unsharpened section near the hilt, that was often protected by lugs. This design allowed for gripping the blade.

Cheers!
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Postby clknaps » Wed May 30, 2007 6:33 pm

Excellent, excellent information here. Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge with us. The topic of research is one I was "hit in the gut" with early on in my writing experience.
One day I found myself furiously searching on the net for a description of a raven's egg, as well as medieval needlepoint and embroidery techniques. It's amazing everything you have to know in order to make a story believable and effective to the reader.

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Postby Llew » Wed May 30, 2007 7:04 pm

You don''t know how true that is, clk! I do that a whole bunch, just looking up odd tidbits of info about random things, like what parchment is made of.
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Postby aldan » Thu May 31, 2007 9:51 am

Also, if you are doing a novel that contains parchment, find out what it smells like... since the more senses you can capture, the more believable the book will seem....
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