Researching Violence: Joe Abercrombie answers my question

I find it curious that peaceful people such as myself, who view violence as something that humans should evolve beyond as soon as possible, still love to read books and watch films that drip with the stuff. If I ever found myself in a real knife-fight chances are I would somehow manage to cut my own ear off. I would greatly like to avoid anything involving blades and blood happening to me in my own life. And yet I find violence in art to be mesmeric.

Is it necessary to have violence in fantasy fiction? It would appear so. As such, when writing the first novel in my epic fantasy series The Wandering Knife, in order to convey a level of verisimilitude, I thought I should develop my understanding of how humans go about inflicting pain upon one another through the medium of swords, spears, arrows, teeth, hands, and so on.

My own life experience in the realm of violence is restricted to what, in am RPG setting, would at best be described as a tavern brawl. With me hiding beneath a table. I’ve had a little bit of aikido training, but am barely able to flip a pancake, let alone another human. I once unsheathed a real katana, and felt the strangely electric sensation of wielding one of these beautiful and deadly creations. But other than that, I have no direct experience of hand to hand combat, of sword fighting, or of warfare in general. Thankfully.

Going into my research I knew full well that I shouldn’t overdo it. The key is to convey conflict, not bore the reader to death with realism. For me, the goal is to write violence in such a way that the casual reader is able to enjoy the thrills and spills without being lifted out of the action by thinking ‘that doesn’t seem right’.

For the first novel in the series Red Harvest Moon, the protagonist Ren is depicted as being a master of longsword. I felt it was necessary to make an effort to develop my knowledge of sword fighting. Fortunately there is a wealth of information and opinion on the subject available via the interweb. Possibly too much! I’ve really enjoyed learning about German longsword through the multiple HEMA sites and channels available, and have delved into some of the source material such as Joachim Meyer’s A Thorough Description of the Free Knightly and Noble Art of Combat (1570). It’s fascinating, and the recreation of this type of fencing style looks awesome. In fact, if I didn’t live 150 kilometres from the nearest HEMA club I would definitely drop in for a go.

I recently read The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. The novel features a lot of duelling with swords. Abercrombie is well-regarded for the realistic depiction of violence in his novels. While reading the novel, I wondered what his research looked like, whether he’s dipped into similar materials for inspiration. On spec, I tweeted this:

To which Abercrombie replied:

I had to laugh at that. In hindsight, my question was a little earnest. And also, I was pretty chuffed that Joe replied. It’s great that we live in an age that you can shoot a question at a famous author and they’ll get back to you on the same day!