Archive for August, 2011

So in her comments on my last entry, Ketutar mentioned her fandom for one of the original action writers, Alexander Dumas, he of the Three Musketeers and Count of Monte Cristo fame.  Coincidentally, Dumas was mentioned in the latest copy of American Fencing, a nice little rag all we American Fencing Association members get (which reminds me that I’m overdue for paying my dues for the year).

From a novelist’s viewpoint there’s an intriguing fact about Dumas:  his paternal grandmother was a former slave of African descent from the West Indies, and even after Dumas became a big-time bestselling author in Europe, he had to deal with racial prejudice.  Ironically this black ancestry was appropriate because, as the AF article points out, it was very common to find in the 18th and 19th centuries many slaves and former slaves and free men (and women) of African descent who were highly skilled at fighting with everything from sabers to cutlasses to broadswords and rapiers, daggers, you name it.  There were also more than a few black and “mulatto” master swordsmen.  Who knew?  I certainly didn’t.

Like in New Orleans.  Seems that it was the only city in the U.S. where the sword duel was still common, and that’s where you could find plenty of blade masters who happened to be black free men or “mulatto” and who were so freakin’ good even white bigots went to their “salles d’armes” for lessons.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges was being called the greatest swordsman of his time.   (Weird fact:  he often had public fencing bouts with a famous white cross-dressing chevalier, which is a fancy way of saying knight.)   And the greatest fencing master of the entire nineteenth century mighta been Jean-Louis Michel.  He had “mixed black and white parentage,” had emigrated from Haiti, became a soldier under Napoleon, the regimental fencing master, and – this for me is the really cool part – taught his daughter to fence.  She was good enough to defeat many of her father’s male students.

Movies and TV shows really don’t show us this kind of history, do they?  I mean, people kinda snicker when Catherine Zeta-Jones fights expertly with a sword in the Zorro flicks, ‘cause they assume women back then never ever did anything remotely athletic, at least not respectable women.  But history says otherwise.

So maybe this is where novelists could pick up the slack and write fictional takes on these real-life fascinating sword fighters.  Maybe because New Orleans is such a natural setting for paranormal stories, the 18th and 19th century black fencing masters who lived there could be inspirations for a whole line of novels.

There is at least one modern-day European novel (well, written in the last several years but set in 19th century Spain) that involves a woman and fencing.  I finally got a copy of The Fencing Master by Arturo Pérez-Reverte and will start it in the next few days.  In his story, a mysterious woman who is brilliant at swordplay comes into the master’s life and turns it upside down.

How cool is that?

So today I’m finally gonna talk about a few resources on the Internet that writers can use for realistic fight/self defense scene information.  My blog pal Hart first suggested it (Confessions of a Watery Tart), and pal Ben (EveryDay New Year) told me that yes, there’s lots on YouTube that can help, and that he’s studied three martial arts so far.  Ben, you are so much more ambitious than I am.

But back to Hart and also Ciara (Ciara Knight) for their enthusiastic support for Buffy the Vampire Killer.  After watching a few more episodes, I got a feel for the fight scenes and enjoyed most what I saw.  But let’s start first with the slightly down side …

Some of the Buffy’s fighting techniques seem more theatrical than practical, which makes sense considering the show’s premise (high school girl fights vampires and other evil creatures).  Thus there are the widely thrown, swooping punches, which look great, but more often a direct fist back/fist forward (and put your whole body into it) can not only be more effective but crushingly faster.  As I’m always being told in fencing when I start to swashbuckle, the quickest way between two points is a straight line, so make it fast and clean.  Buffy and her foes also use lots of aerial movements and kicks when maybe more peppering of small jabs and crosses could be effective, and a few times Buffy pauses to climb up on something or whatever to get a better angle for her next attack.  That’s when the action seems to lose its pacing.

But on the upside, a lot of what Buffy does is practical and smart and she knows how to adjust herself in each fight.  She’ll use spin kicks in tight spaces to give her kicks enough power.  She’s smallish so her moving up in aerial kicks can level the playing field.  Her punches go for the vulnerable face and not a guy’s strong chest, etc.  She’s also often up against evil human-looking beasties who need to be smashed and so she smashes them; no girly, hesitant fighting on her part, and if a vampire needs to be staked she doesn’t hesitate to stake away.

Finally, there are a couple deadly techniques that (so far) I’ve never seen Buffy use, but considering her audience and the producers’ responsibilities, they shouldn’t show them.  I’m talking about chops and kicks to the throat, and of course the throat strike/tiger claw (as in taekwando) to the throat.  Since I’ve watched little kids act out what they see on TV or in movies, you don’t want them learning stuff like that.  On the other hand, in grown-up movies like the Jason Bourne ones, it’s the deadly and realistic fight scenes that can be exciting for us grown-ups.

Here’s a really handy website I found on the Taekwondo Throat Strike or Tiger Claw. As the guy demonstrating it says, this is only for taking out a guy (“…jack him”) in a serious situation involving protection of yourself or loved ones – or for us writers, for our characters who have to do as much.

As you can see, this website is called TAEKWANDO ANIMALS, and I personally think it’s a great resource for writers.  Notice the Table of Contents on the left-hand side.  If you click on the different topics, such as Punches & Strikes, you’ll bring up lots of definitions and descriptions under that topic, and for several of the topics, each definition will bring you to a video that demonstrates the specifics.  Like the difference between the jab, the cross, the upper cuts, etc. and how TKD is the same as boxing in this respect.  I loved the spinning back fist video, and the Defense Against the Side Kick techniques look like something Buffy would use, like climbing up on the guy.

A lot of these videos are also on YouTube, but this one website brings them together and organizes them in a very smart, convenient way.  For example, the link on “Kicks” brings you to a list with 14 different kicks, the definition of each, and one to several videos for each.  The filmed instructors give specifics that can make all the difference in a fight scene, from where the foot is pointed to taking a hop forward to add momentum to an attack.  In fact there’s so much on this website I’m still exploring it.

Also, for real-world fighting techniques, go to YouTube and type in Krav Maga.  You’ll find plenty of videos that break down specific attack/defense tools, such as “defense for bear hug from behind arms” and “knife to throat defense.”

For more advice, I’m going to steal shamelessly from Ben by quoting from his comment to me:

Youtube has thousands of helpful videos. If you want martial art mechanics, then the Youtube channel Submissions 101 is helpful for takedowns and Jiu Jitsu, Expert Village teaches step by step moves. If you’re looking for ideas for fight scenes, type in “Martial arts” or “Fight scene” or “Fight scene choreography” and watch a ton of videos, taking the best moves from each video you like to create a realistic yet adrenaline pumping fight scene. Readers don’t like a description of every move, though, so only a few are necessary to make it feel realistic. Fight scenes are best written (I have found) with thought narration, overview of the fight (i.e. John dodged a flurry of punches) instead of details of each punch being thrown… but, I have found Youtube to be quite helpful in my writing of action scenes.

So there you have it.  Hope you writers have some helpful resources now.  If any of you know about others, I’ll be happy to shout them out.

Remember how way back when I started this website (two summers ago!) I began my Layla plan by taking the toughest of all courses?  That course being, of course, a ten-class introduction to parkour.   My body still cringes in agony at the memory.

Anyway, as I wrote back then a few of my young manly-man instructors tried out that summer for the Ninja Warrior game in California auditions that were  shown on the cable channel G4.  The top qualifiers would then go on to compete in the humongous finals in Japan.  My instructors just missed getting into the top twenty, but for me it was still a hoot to see them on TV.

Then a couple days ago I heard how the latest Ninja Warrior competition was underway and I checked it out.  Who did I see on the tube?  Jake!  Young, uber muscular, freakishly energetic instructor Jake who one day in my parkour class casually mentioned, as all us students were dropping in sweaty exhausted messes to the floor, that oh, gee, he’d forgotten to eat that day.  Then he continued to run around and bounce off the walls.  For a few moments there, I really hated Jake.  Still, I felt bad for him two days ago when he just barely missed by this much (like a few seconds) getting into the top twenty.

Now it seems that Ninja Warrior has gotten so popular that the final show, which is broadcast from Japan, will hit the big-time and go to a prime time network (NBC) tonight.  If you take a look you’ll get an idea of the kind of guys I was working out with.  I could so not keep up with them.  Of course, I should add that I was the lone female and by far the oldest and only middle-aged person brave enough to take the course.

I’m still kinda proud of myself.  Working out with guys like that really forced me to raise the bar, to push my levels of endurance to the breaking point, to make me face my physical weaknesses and get better, and to realize how bad thigh pain can get.  So bad I couldn’t walk down any stairs for days afterwards.

I doubt that I’ll ever take those classes again, but I’m glad I’ve done them once and appreciate how they  had a lasting impact on me.  I’ll also be rooting for Jake and the other guys to get to Japan and the ultimate finals one of these years.

Bring Buffy Back

on August 15, 2011 in Misc 8 Comments »

So in my last post I talked about what it was like being a kid back in Mad Men days, when little girls like me weren’t supposed to like playing with swords – neither the fencing nor swashbuckling kind.  Then in the post before that (Toughening Up) I talked about real self-defense/martial arts/whatever ya got and how I tried to make it real while writing fight scenes in The Compass Master.  (There are only a few; I’m not that belligerent.)

Anyway, my blog pal Hart (Confessions of a Watery Tart) asked if YouTube has videos of self defense and fight scenes that could be handy for us writers. I haven’t had a chance to explore those and other sources yet, but I promise to do so within the next couple weeks.  I’ll also guide you all to anything helpful that you could use.

What did kinda stump me was when Hart asked if Buffy, as in the Vampire Slayer, had unrealistic fight scenes, but I couldn’t answer her because I’ve only seen a few Buffy episodes and that was a while ago. See, that show was kinda after my time, age wise, so I’ve mostly caught it only in reruns. Still, I was curious so I looked to see if the Denver library system had some Buffy DVD sets. Turns out a) yes, they do and lots of them for all the seasons; and b) almost all of them were checked out, which tells you how popular that series still is. I finally managed to get my grubby hands on one much used  set, in this case the complete third season. And after reviewing just one disc with four episodes I have to ask a couple questions. The first one is…


And my second question is…


Now in all fairness I haven’t read the Twilight series, only a lot of stuff about them, both pro and con, and there must be something good in them to sell a gazillion copies.  But my niece said that at her high school (she’s now in college) the kids were divided into two camps: slavering, avid Twilight fans (only females, no males) and rabid Twilight haters (both genders) who claimed that the books could be summed up in one sentence: Bella’s choice is to fuck the vampire or fuck the werewolf, and she makes the wrong choice. (Their words, not mine.)

I also know a couple people (adults!) who read and liked the Twilight books but said that Bella was so whiny and self-pitying, especially in the second book, that they wanted to slap her.

I mean, even as a non-cognoscente outsider on the issue it seems pretty obvious to me that Buffy is a far better role model for young women than Bella, has gobs more going for her, and as a fictional character can carry her own show through several seasons because she’s intriguing all on her lonesome, and not because of who she’s dating.

So am I right?  Very wrong?

After watching some more Buffy shows and other stuff I’ll get back to you on fighting techniques.  In the meantime, Buffy has gained another fan.

Back in Mad Men Days

on August 12, 2011 in Misc Comments Off on Back in Mad Men Days

When I was a little kid I could play pretty rough with my sisters.  Or maybe it just seemed rough because they were older and bigger so I had to toughen up to level the playing field.

That field could be softball, where I learned to hit the ground after pitching to my oldest sister because she could slam a line drive that could flatten my face if I didn’t get out of the way.  It might be tether ball with my other sister, which with sibling rivalry run amock we could play until we were half dead with exhaustion.

And when we were really young we sometimes improvised at sword fighting.

I know we got the inspiration from swashbuckling movies and reruns of the very old Zorro shows.  I mean, Zorro had a cool cape and a sword and a HORSE!  (I ALWAYS WANTED A HORSE!).  The closest thing we could get to swords were long sticks or thin poles, and with those in hand we’d stab and whack at each other.  Happily no one was ever impaled.

Flash forward to adulthood.  As you know I’ve been fencing for a few years now.  Epee fencing, which I like because compared to the other weapons (foil and saber) it has the fewest rules and you can hit your opponent anywhere on the body.

But here’s the thing about telling people that you fence:  kids get it.  Kids REALLY get it and want to do it too.  These days their influences run more along the line of Star Wars and light sabers, but also Pirates of the Caribbean.  It’s the reaction of some adults that’s different.  Grownups sometimes give me a quizzical look and ask, “Fencing?  What got you into that?”  So I say, Well, you know when you were a kid and wanted to do sword fighting like in the movies….

And they give me a blank look.  Especially the women.  Some men light up as if remembering their own fantasies, and when I see them again they ask me how my “sword fighting” is going.  Most older women don’t mention it.  Most women my age and older are on the sidelines in the fencing club and watching their kids or grandkids fence while they knit or read a book.

And that’s when I realize that, unlike me, there were a lot of little girls around when I was growing up who pretty much stuck to dolls and sugar and spice and everything nice – i.e., EVERTHING THAT BORED ME TO TEARS!

OMG, things have changed so much.  And I’m so glad they’ve changed.  Now lots of little girls and adolescent girls and twenty-something young women are fencing and/or doing all kinds of fantastic sporty stuff. And they’re being supported and cheered on.

Wanna get an idea of how much things have changed?  When I was a kid I once looked through my oldest sister’s copy of Vogue magazine.  It had a layout of Peggy Fleming, the Olympic gold medalist in figure skating.  The gist of the article was that Fleming proved a woman could be an athlete and still be feminine and beautiful.


Sadly, yes they did.  It really was a Mad Men world.

When I was a kid and later a teenager, there were no book series like The Hunger Games trilogy, with a young Katniss who survives and feeds her family thanks to her skills with a bow and arrow (I LOVED archery).  But these days you can’t throw a book without hitting a whole series of YA and grownup novels, especially in the paranormal and fantasy genres, that have heroines who can wield swords and bows and spears (another almost deadly childhood weapon for me).  And the guys in the stories love them for it.  And the women reading those books love them for it.

Change can be a very good thing.

Toughening Up

on August 9, 2011 in Misc 2 Comments »

So FINALLY I’ll finish telling you about those self-defense books I got from the library.   When I was in line to check them out, a big guy behind me saw their manly-man covers and asked me if I was studying to be a bouncer.   I told him it was a profession to which I have always aspired.

Seriously, I have a friend who was a part-time bouncer in his student days.  He worked at a young people’s nightclub (a fancy 3.2 beer place).  He had naturally quick reactions, months of intensive Tae Kwan Do, and was freakishly strong.   One night a group of out of town rednecks decided to start a fight.   They had knives.   He had nothing.   They couldn’t hurt him while he put two of them in the hospital.  When the police arrived, they took one look at the melee and put on riot gear.  Then things really got fun.

My friend also had to take down a woman one night.  What?  He hit a woman?  Hell, I would’ve whacked her.  The evil goth nutcase repeatedly tried to bash him over the head with a heavy beer pitcher.  He ducked a couple times before giving her an elbow to the face.  She went down and the police came to haul her away.

By the way, your elbow can be an essential weapon in defending yourself, according to several of those books.   Not only does it make for a hard, bony weapon, it may be the only part of you able to deliver a blow to the face or throat of an attacker when he’s extremely close to you.   There are also head butts, bites, and eye gouging.   And if he’s got you on the ground but you have one leg free, you can whip that limb up and wrap it around his head and push him back.

Isn’t this fun?

You know, when I was writing a couple fight scenes in The Compass Master I had to rely on my imagination, ‘cause it’s not like I’ve spent my life getting in and out of fist fights or martial arts take-downs.  For Layla’s violent encounter, I have her in the open, hence her movements can be large (kicks, evasion, and she uses her knife when the bad guy gets her on the ground).   But for Zach (Layla’s main man), he has to fight an attacker in the confines of a car, so we’re talking sharp fast fists to the attacker’s head (ineffective, like hitting a bowling ball) and his face (much more vulnerable).

Two of the library books were about Filipino stick and knife fighting, as you can tell by the title of one:  Pananandata Yantok at Daga.    As I wrote last time, the influence of fencing (“escrime”) on this “eskrima” martial art gives me an edge.   But I really need to get a DVD ‘cause the photos were too static for conveying the speed and power of the moves.

Same thing with the other books, like No Hold Barred Fighting – Savage Strike (“850 Photos!”) and H2H (Hand to Hand Combat).   Page after page of guys on top of each other or in bear hugs can only do so much for me.   Still, I was able to cull some helpful tips that I can use in writing and for self-defense.   A few basics:

1.  Act rather than react
2.  Lead rather than follow
3.  Use offense rather than defense
4.  Strike rather than block
5.  Stay mobile, don’t be stationary

And from fencing I’ve learned to attack attack attack, and do it with extreme speed.

Finally and because it cracked me up, the photos here are from a book I couldn’t resist checking out:  Savate – French Foot and Fist Fighting.   Hey, 70’s hair  and mustaches and guys in tight clothes jumping around like they’re in a Parisian musical – you gotta love it!

Okay, so one more time I’m delaying writing about self-defense.  Today I just want to tell you about a couple articles that might interest you.

If any of you write mysteries or have novels with a character who’s trying to hunt down an elusive truth, you’ll want to look up “Mourning Columbo in the Arab World,” by Joseph Braude in Huffington Post.

It seems that when Peter Falk recently died, the Arab world took note.  Who knew that years ago Columbo was very popular in certain Arab countries?  I love the reasons why.  As Baude writes, “…the spectacle of a wily yet humble detective probing the secrets of his own society had a lasting influence on viewers that proved to be mildly subversive. Witness my friend Muhammad Bari in Casablanca, Morocco…who read the news of Falk’s death and cried.  “God have mercy on him,” he said.  “Columbo changed my life.”

Wow. A TV character changed a man’s life?  I know you’re wondering what this has to do with writing.  But remember that well-written TV shows (as opposed to the flood of cheapo reality crapola ones that flood the airwaves now) are, like novels, a form of storytelling.  A writer creates a character and, either alone or with other writers, weaves stories around him or her.  And to create a character that people respond to is what all we writers aspire to.  A literary agent once told me that every book can be summed up in one sentence:  What does a character want and how does she go about getting it? Well, Columbo always wanted the truth.

As Baude reports, his Moroccan friend Bari “wears a tattered Columbo-style trench coat dating back to the 1970s.” In 2008 Bari’s…

“…best friend had been murdered, and though the homicide detectives who cracked the case told Bari it was just a robbery gone wrong, Bari did not believe them.  There must be a conspiracy behind the killing and a cover-up by police, he told me privately.  He asked me to help him quietly investigate the crime on his own. “I can’t go on with my life until I know what really happened,” he explained. “And besides, I’ve always wanted to be like Columbo.”

“It was a gesture of extraordinary boldness for a poor man in an authoritarian Arab state… Asking too many questions could get you killed.”

“So we ventured together into the night – Bari in his trench coat, me in a windbreaker — and used some of the gentler techniques we had seen on TV to figure out why his friend had been killed. We traded cigarettes for information. We asked indirect questions of people who were afraid. We played dumb when necessary. We leveraged his deep roots in the community and my privileged status as an American, and nearly always avoided a confrontation.  Four months into our sleuthing, we established that police had indeed been keeping secrets from Bari – and so had the murder victim.”

If you want to read what they learned, you can look up the story here:

The other article I want to mention is much more frivolous, but it made me feel pretty good, middle-aged dame that I am.  Apparently Dame Helen Mirren at the age of 66 has been voted as having the best female body by an L.A. Fitness Poll of 2,000.

If you look up the picture of her at age 63 in a bikini, you’ll see why. Is her body perfect? Hell no. But she’s still obviously in good shape (chesty too, unlike moi) and obviously does ab workouts. Good for her.  Oh, and coming in second was J Lo, who’s 42 and not exactly skinny.

So there. We older ladies can be in great shape too.,0,5857659.story

Okay, so today I went to the library and checked out several books on hand-to-hand self defense books.   Most of the photos in them show two tough-looking guys with their hands on each other in a whole lotta different places.   But I’ll tell you more about that in a couple days.

What I’d rather talk about right now is a fun movie for writers:   Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Saw it on Sunday and loved it.   And I could SO identify with the hero/protagonist Gil (Owen Wilson).   He’s not sure about the novel he’s written.   Is it good?  Very bad?   Mildly sucky-poo?   He’s also surrounded by some people he’d rather not be with and who are doing their best to ruin his time in Paris.   He wants to move to Paris.    Hell, he wants to go back to Paris of the 1920’s so badly that he makes it happen.

Yes, this being a movie, he gets his wish.   And OMG, could I identify with that!   One of my ideas of heaven is Paris in the 20’s.

He goes back in time repeatedly, and Paris becomes his Hemingway-dubbed moveable feast.   ‘Cause he meets Hemingway.   And F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda.   And T.S. Eliot and Picasso and Dali and Buñuel and Man Ray and Cole Porter.   And I know I’m leaving others out (James Joyce?).   And he gets his book read by Gertrude Stein (played gloriously by Kathy Bates).   I mean, Paris in the 20’s was crammed full of these people and more, and they KNEW EACH OTHER AND HUNG OUT WITH EACH OTHER!

And this is why Paris in the 20’s is legendary among writers and artists.

But yes, of course, there’s a lesson to be learned about yearning for the past and preferring it to the present.   Hence Gil has a lesson to learn and a choice to make.   And the ending is sweet and rather fairy tale but hell, it’s the ending I wanted.

So what about you?  Any writer fantasies you secretly harbor?   Writer and artists you could meet and hang out with.   Times to go back to.   Or forward to.   I think we all have our secret ideal (or idealized?) literary worlds.   And legendary people like Gertrude Stein or Hemingway to read our manuscripts and give us wise feedback.