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Fencing Travel and Fiction Research

This past weekend, I had the fortunate opportunity to combine both fencing and fiction research together in one trip. I traveled to St. Louis, Missouri for a North American Cup (NAC) event. This is a series of tournaments run by the United States Fencing Association (USFA), held all over the United States, and on occasion elsewhere in North America. From October through April, these events are held once a month. Each NAC is comprised of different levels of events and age groups. This year’s schedule can be found here. The final event of the season is a combination of Division I National Championships and Summer National Championships. This is held over about a ten day time span from the end of June through the first week in July. It is a massive affair, with events for every age group and level.

St. Louis – Gateway to the West.

The October event was a Division I, Division II, and Cadet event. Division I is the highest level of national competition. If a fencer finishes in the top 32 of a Division I event, he earns points that go toward a national ranking. The Cadet event is for fencers under sixteen years of age and is also a point event, but with a separate tally for national rankings. I fenced in just the Division II event. This level restricts entrants to those with a C, D, E, or U rating (leaving out A and B fencers). If you missed my earlier post on ratings and rankings, you can find more of an explanation here. The Division II event awards no points, but rather awards new letter ratings depending on how high you finish.

Fencing venue. For most of the day, these strips were full of fencers. But earlier in the day, I was busy fencing so this was taken toward the end of the day’s events.

A NAC is an immense and overwhelming thing to a first-time competitor. The venue is usually a large convention center exhibit hall. Fencing strips stretch as far as the eye can see. Scoring machines buzz and beep, fencers scream and shout, and blades clash together on all sides. The bout committee runs the event and is sequestered on an elevated platform in some central location. Equipment vendors, merchandisers, equipment check-in, equipment repair services, and stenciling services can be found around the periphery of the hall.

The bout committee. The section to the left is for referees to gather and rest.

When I first arrived at the event, I had to check in. Everyone has to pre-register for a NAC event. Walk-in competitors are not allowed. At the posted time, the competitors for a given event line up at a booth which is usually in the hall outside the venue. They scan your USFA membership card and then you’re confirmed for the event.

Instant replay station.

The next step is the equipment check. This is within the venue and the line can vary from non-existent to a 45 minute wait. This is where your mask is checked for safety, and the conductive pieces of equipment are verified to be working.

This tournament had several instant replay stations, more than I’ve ever seen before at an event. But despite all the technology, each fencer has to cluster around a simple bulletin board to find out which strip her bouts will be fenced on.

One of several bulletin boards around the venue where important details are posted.

Overall, it appeared to be a well-run event. If you knew where to look, you could even glimpse some of the recent Olympians in action.

At the end of the day, I did not fence as well as I had wanted to, but after my injury and surgeries I was happy to be able to even compete again. I’ll likely enter the Division II NAC in the spring.

The Missouri Historical Society Research Library.

The rest of my trip was spent working on research for my novel, Badge of the Black Dragon. Since this story is set in St. Louis, I figured that this would be a great opportunity to explore the city’s history. The first day of research was spent at the Missouri Historical Society’s research library. I delved through old photographs and books, taking notes on a variety of topics.

This was the type of library where you need to come in with a specific area of interest. I had to request specific files of photographs, and a little research about this ahead of time had at least prepared me as to what was available. The librarians were very helpful when it came to my other topics. They suggested several approaches to search for what I was looking for and brought me about a dozen books. My favorite item was a reproduction of a map of St. Louis showing which blocks were destroyed in the fire of 1849. The library also had newspapers from the mid-1800’s which were filled with fascinating headlines and advertisements.

A section of the map showing the extent of the fire’s destruction in 1849.

On the last day of my trip, I traveled to a local cave system and then returned to the city to explore the St. Louis arch and the Missouri History Museum. These excursions were less specific for my novel research, but sparked some ideas that I hope will add to the depth of my worldbuilding.

I finally returned home with some additional books for study. My favorite is The Prairie Traveler: A Hand-book for Overland Expeditions – a reprint of a guide to pioneers that was originally published in 1859. I’m not sure that I would have found this small publication if I hadn’t investigated the local museums.

Also this week, I was interviewed by Michelle Carraway over at Reality Skimming about my writing process, ideas, and influences. Please go check out her page here. I’ll even tell you a little more about Badge of the Black Dragon in the interview.

Are there any readers out there who are thinking about taking a trip to research for a novel or story? Have you already done this? If you could do it again, would you prepare any differently?

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Fictional Fencers – Conditioning and Athletics and Zombies

Oh hey, it’s time to return to a post about fencing! Today, I’m going to talk about what types of athletic activities a fencer might participate in outside of regular practice. Or another way to look at it would be – what athletic feats might your character be good at if he has done some fencing? What would he struggle with? And most importantly, would he be able to effectively run from zombies?

First off, any character has motivations and goals. How often is she fencing and why? If your character is obsessed with swords and uses every opportunity to train at fencing or other martial arts, this person will have a different physique and abilities than one who runs daily, trains for marathons, or perhaps picks up a fencing weapon only once a month. Maybe your character used to fence ten years ago, but hasn’t picked up a blade or made a lunge since then? What skills would this character retain?

What other types of exercise would a fencer do?

I think it’s easiest to group our fencers into three types. First off, you would have the novices. This group would include those beginners that may have aspirations for competition, but are still trying to figure out the footwork, rules, and proper blade positions. You could also put those who fence more as a hobby than a sport in this group. These fencers would have some degree of fencing skill, but since they either have not been working at it for long, or perhaps pick up a blade once a week or less, their physical condition can vary greatly. Fencing alone at this novice level is unlikely to give this character much additional strength or endurance for other sports, running from zombies, or trying to fight off a serious threat.

The second group of fencers will be those who have the basics down and attend practice regularly (or at least seasonally). This type of character will have more muscle development in the legs and the weapon arm. She will also have some degree of cardiovascular conditioning from footwork drills or bouting practice. However, since fencing uses a lot of fast-twitch muscle fibers, this character may have limited endurance for a long day of competition or running further than a few miles from those zombies.

The last type of fencer is the elite athlete. This fencer will be attending regular practices, but will also work out in other arenas. Weight-training and conditioning are critical to a fencer who wishes to compete and win in anything other than a local tournament. This article gives a great overview of the types of exercises that are helpful. Some competitive fencers may work with a trainer to maximize the benefits of training and to minimize the risk of injury. This type of fencer may be able to lift heavy objects, run several miles, or sprint short distances faster than an average person. Any athlete that has done cross-training in multiple types of activities will be more coordinated and could tackle unexpected obstacles with more success than the average person. One caveat to this would be that the elite athlete would be more likely to have sustained injuries due to the intensity of the training. So while your athlete may have the cardiovascular fitness, coordination, or mental toughness to survive that run from zombies, at the end of the day, she may also have caused an old knee injury to flare up to limit her activity the next day.

The elite athlete cannot be good at everything, and fencing is still more similar to a boxing match than a marathon. If you need your character to be able to run a marathon for your story, then the training associated with fencing will contribute less to this and he had better be doing a lot more running than fencing.

An additional category of fencer that could be involved in a story would be the character that used to fence, but has not done so much as a lunge or a parry in several years. I have seen many high school and collegiate fencers that stop training and competing once they have graduated. What if one of these fencers picked up a sword after a long absence from the sport? What would he remember and what would be tough?

Unless this former fencer was physically active in other sports, his footwork would be awkward and clumsy after such a break. He might remember how to do a lunge, but his legs and core would not cooperate in the same way that they used to. The bladework would be more easily remembered. The muscle groups there are more localized to the fingers, wrist, and elbow, and there is less overall balance and muscular strength needed for these motions. Of course, if he fences for very long at all, he will certainly have muscle soreness afterward. This would be most pronounced in the legs, but could also involve the forearm or back.

Lastly, for a specific example. What do I do for my training and conditioning? I practice specifically fencing three times a week, for an average of two hours each practice. I lift weights at the gym at least twice a week, although on occasion I manage it three times. Cardiovascular conditioning is split between short runs (1 – 3 miles) and cycling (5-11 miles). I throw in interval training and sprints, yoga classes, other cardio (elliptical machine, rowing machine, etc), jumping rope, and footwork drills, depending on my energy level, schedule, and any soreness or injuries.

Could I outrun the zombies? I don’t want to find out, but I think I’d have a better chance than others.

So, what type of feats have your characters performed when forced to it? Have you written a zombie chase scene? You don’t have to outrun the zombies, right? You just have to outrun everyone else.

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