You had Me at Mortuary Sword

I’ve been reading romances lately. It’s partially market research, I have a few I want to write, but it’s partially because I love a good romance. I particularly like historical romances. The book I am reading right now is set in the early sixteen hundreds and the main character uses a mortuary sword, a common weapon of the time period. What’s more, the author clearly knows what that weapon looks like and how it’s used.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

I love that.

One of my biggest pet peeves in fantasy and/or historical novels is writers that seem to think different words for weapons are just fancy titles to make them sound cool. Actually those different words indicate very different weapons and not researching the weapons of your period leads to jarring breaks in suspension of disbelief. At least it does for me.

I’ve read battle scenes where a character armed with a Claymore dukes it out with a pikeman in a narrow castle hallway, both fighters swinging wildly at each other. Have you seen a Claymore? Or a pike for that matter? Both are huge.  

And then there are those fantasy stories where every male character is a knight in armor with great swords. And the one female mysteriously carries a scimitar with no real explanation for why. Not only do scimitars come from a very different culture, they are cutting weapons that would be pretty much useless against armor.

So it impresses me a lot when an author gets it right. I love it when they know that a mortuary sword is different from, say, a broadsword. In historical fiction, getting it right matters.

In fantasy you can be a little freer, bend the rules here and there. But it still has to make sense. The swords a character might carry will be dependent on the kinds of weapons, armor and enemies they might face.

Weapons have uses. They evolve and change based on armor, tactics, economics and developments in warfare.

Armor is great protection against a cutting edge. Piercing weapons can punch through armor, if they are made of high quality steel. A simpler, low tech approach to beating armor is heavy bludgeoning weapons like maces and morning stars.

The point is that when you are doing world building for a fantasy novel you need to spend some time thinking about these things. Every culture is going to be at some level of technical expertise, which will influence the weapons they can make. There will be prefered tactics and styles of warfare. There will resources that are bountiful and others that are rare. All of these things will influence the weapons your characters might carry and use.

Weapons also frequently have cultural significance. Swords are perfect example, they continued to be important status symbols long after they were retired from the battlefield. Even today they are frequent collector items.

In the Gilded Empire saga, the druids carry scimitars. It suits their fighting style, which is fast and circular. It also suits their role, they are not soldiers. They are more likely to be fighting bandits in some wild region then armored knights on a battlefield. The staff, their other main weapon, and the scimitar are symbols of their path, and important cultural items for them.

The gnomes, which feature heavily in the next three books, fight with short swords and hand axes. Their fighting style is close and fast. Their technology isn’t as developed as elsewhere in the empire and they are poor. Most wear leather armor, and short blades and axes fit with the kinds of armor and battles they face. The hand axes can be thrown as well as swung. Gnome traditionally carry three axes, called a bevvy, and they have a strong cultural significance for them.

The bottom line is, research your weapons. Include them in your world building, so that when the story gets put down on paper it all flows organically and feels right. It’s really worth the time, and besides it’s fascinating stuff.

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