Category Archives: Martial arts

Arms and the Writer

weapons2

Historical fiction author Kathy Owen has a must-read post at Jami Gold’s writing blog. Owen reminds writers that readers of historical fiction KNOW THEIR HISTORY, so any mistakes in your story will turn off the very people you’re trying to reach.

Of course, that advice is true of any genre. Not long ago, in a manuscript I was critiquing, I read how the protag raised a 2×4 over his head to protect himself from a street thug’s nunchaku attack, but the “numchucks” broke the board in half.

No. Not even Bruce Lee could whip a flailing weapon hard enough to do the work of a sledgehammer. I’ve been studying martial arts for thirty years, and though I don’t compete any more, I still do katas, both empty handed and with kobudo weapons. In the picture above are my favorites. From left to right, we have the sai, short stick (a length of pipe, ’cause I’m cheap), tonfa, nunchaku, and staff (bo).

Over the years, I’ve also learned how to make and use the sling, the atlatl, and bola.

Fantasy fiction fairly bristles with primitive weapons, including dirks, daggers, swords, staffs, and many others. Many of your readers will know the capabilities and limitations of those arms. Some details in a story can be faked, but many cannot. And if you are truly fascinated with your subject, you’ll want hands-on experience, experience that will make your stories come alive. Jean Auel amassed a vast knowledge of primitive survival skills after she determined she wanted to write about prehistoric peoples. I, on the other hand, was taught tracking and hunting skills as a boy, and later took up backpacking. In my early 20s, I studied Isshin-Ryu karate. Only much later did I write fiction based on those passions.

The point is that you have to have not only practical knowledge of your subject, but a love for it. The reader can sense that, and will enjoy your story more as a result.

There’s a scene in Aztec Midnight when Jon Barrett, the protag, must escape his captors and find his kidnapped wife. With only seconds to act, and with an armed guard nearby, he improvises a bola:

There was no time to breathe, no time for a second try. I hooked a weight from the scales into the hole at the end of my leather belt.

Gabriel groped under his vest.

The hook on the second weight slipped into the hole on the other end of the belt.

Gabriel had the gun in his hand.

I dropped forward, crouching on one knee, and used the momentum to swing my bola toward Gabriel.

It snapped in my hand, and I released it. It spiraled through the air and across the room.

The pistol fired and filled the room with an ear-splitting crack.

The bola slapped against Gabriel’s knee and coiled around his legs. The second weight whipped around and smashed into his calf.

Gabriel bellowed and dropped to his knees, eyes clenched shut. I saw him open his eyes, eyes wrinkled in rage and pain, and he leveled the gun at me for a second shot.

I think that worked nicely. It never would’ve sounded believable without 1) my fascination for the subject and 2) knowing what I was writing about, which gave me the confidence to tackle such a scene.

Want to be more successful? Try thinking about death

New Orleans New Orleans cemetery

A study published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology finds that thinking about the worst that could happen, including death, energizes athletes, as well anyone striving to improve their “performance-related activities”:

Study co-leader Uri Lifshin of the University of Arizona told Medical News Today: “Terror management theory talks about striving for self-esteem and why we want to accomplish things in our lives and be successful. Everybody has their own thing in which they invest that is their legacy and symbolic immortality.”

“Your subconscious tries to find ways to defeat death, to make death not a problem, and the solution is self-esteem. Self-esteem gives you a feeling that you’re part of something bigger, that you have a chance for immortality, that you have meaning, that you’re not just a sack of meat.”

There’s a fire inside every artist that drives him to complete that special piece, to create a thing of beauty and meaning that will survive him and tell people of a future time that he once lived. And mattered.

A memento mori works as a severe yet effective motivator. Focusing on mastering oneself in the face of oblivion is a discipline that enables us to live more, not less. The Bushido code of the Japanese samurai reflected the same strategy for optimizing one’s efforts: “One who is supposed to be a warrior considers it his foremost concern to keep death in mind at all times, every day and every night, from the morning of New Year’s Day through the night of New Year’s Eve.”

Gotta go. I have a novel to finish.

Swordmaker Instructed In Dreams

Swordmaker

The latest Ancient Origins features Chen Shih-Tsung, a passionate modern-day citizen of Taipei who’s revived the ancient Chinese art of fine swordcasting:

Chinese legends tell of a kind of infallible sacred sword, forged from meteorite material, that gave its bearer an apparently supernatural advantage over his opponents. The creation of such a sword seems beyond the capabilities of ancient technology, but modern sword-maker Chen Shih-Tsung has revived the art successfully—guided, he says, by instructions imparted to him by celestial beings.

In making the swords, one’s heart has to be incredibly calm, Chen explained. He sits in meditation for an hour before starting a grinding session. Casting swords of this kind has an irreplaceable human and spiritual element.

Chen is in the process of teaching his sons how to grind swords, and it sits on their shoulders to carry on the tradition.

It’s a heavy weight, too. The tradition of swordcasting is enormously significant to Chen. “The value of a masterpiece sword can never be calculated in money terms,” he explains. “It is an invaluable treasure which ought to be an heirloom for future generations to admire and cherish.”

Chen embodies Charles Dickens’ prescription for how a humane and fulfilled person should live: “in the Past, the Present, and the Future.” By reviving an old tradition, he has “made it new,” thereby enriching and expanding the present with “an invaluable treasure” that will inspire future generations. That’s quite a feat.

The Paris Massacre, Awareness, and Writing

Musashi

Like many others, the horrific massacre in Paris got me to thinking about how I would have reacted to a terror attack. A number of articles have popped up on the Internet stressing how situational awareness improves your odds of surviving acts of terrorism and similar emergencies. I couldn’t help but notice the ties between situational awareness and writing.

I’ve previously made the case that intense physical activity sharpens the mind and senses. Famed Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi argued the same in his classic The Book of Five Rings. And now we have science that bolsters Musashi’s insights. From Psychology Today:

Musashi referred extensively to training vision and perception through martial arts, but now there is modern evidence in experimental psychology to support his assertions and show that visual abilities can be enhanced with such training. …

Writing in the journal “Attention and Perceptual Psychophysics,” Monica Muinos and Soledad Ballesteros from the Department of Basic Psychology in Madrid, Spain wanted to know if sports training that relied heavily on dynamic visual acuity could interfere with the normal decline in this ability. Using a tracking task where the participants had to rapidly determine the direction and characteristics of object motion, they studied young (less than 30 years) and older (more than 60 years) adults who either had no sporting background or who had training in judo or karate. Not surprisingly, martial arts athletes—both judo and karate—had better dynamic visual acuity scores than non-athletes. This result supports the idea that martial arts training may enhance dynamic visual acuity.

In the following clip, Matt Damon (as Jason Bourne) explains how attention to seemingly trivial details is essential to survival:

Awareness of the fine details others overlook is something every writer must develop. As Stephen King wrote in On Writing, “Skills in description, dialogue, and character development all boil down to seeing or hearing clearly and then transcribing what you see or hear with equal clarity.”

As I’ve said before, the act of reading and writing stories isn’t just a diversion from life, it is life itself.