July 21

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“Give a girl (or a forty-year-old woman) a sword” by Melissa Marr

I began writing The Hidden Knife in 2010. I was pushing forty, and I’d decided to become a mother one more time. As part of prepping for motherhood, I began to exercise. A lot. I was doing Pilates, including trapeze exercises, setting “walk goals” of one hundred miles a month. The side benefit was that for the first time in my life, I realized that I could do the sort of hands-on martial arts research that typically would have intimidated me.

Okay, it still intimidated me.

That feeling, that “you don’t belong here” voice in my head, has been as useful as the sword skills in writing this book. Nonetheless, I walked into a sword gym at forty years old, female and easily a decade older than the very fit twenty- and thirty-year-old men there. That day there were no women, no one “old,” and I felt so awkward—but I did it.

We started with shinai (bamboo practice swords), but when I decided to stick with it, I became owner of my first steel longsword. I held it in my hands with the sort of excitement every girl who once dreamed of being a pirate has.

In The Hidden Knife, Vicky practices the German tradition of Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA). I focus only on sword in the book. In the real world, I used a longsword (two hands, longer blade), a messer (shorter blade, one hand), a poleax (big stick with a pointy end and a slicing and bashing end), and a staff. I learned brief bits of hand-to-hand, but that was harder. In HEMA, there is also Ringen (medieval wrestling).

I learned unexpected things. I’m not a strike-first person if I like the person in front of me, but I very much enjoy the mental “what follows what” part of a fight. There is a brilliant strategy aspect to swords. X blocks Y, but Z counters X. So, the starting sequence of Y, X, Z . . . what can follow? If Q, then K. And so it goes . . . not unlike the steps of a formal dance. I loved that part.

I loved most of it—until I tried a rapier (a long thin single-handed sword akin to the modern rapier). Goodness, I hated the rapier. It’s a fine weapon, but it was not a personality match.

Or maybe it wasn’t an (dis)ability match.

I have lupus. One manifestation has been what folks call “arthritis,” but in practical terms it means lunging as rapier requires is a terrible idea. I will fall. It felt vulnerable in a “bad idea” way. That trait—that vulnerability—is in the book (I hope!), too.

Vicky has different fears than I do, but I wanted to capture that sense of how hard trust is even when armed. I trusted my coach (Bill) in a way that felt magical. He explained the concepts, the treatises, the research. And he knew that I had a bad knee as well as PTSD, so he figured out how to work around it. That problem-solving logic enabled me to learn things I couldn’t have dreamed. If he came at me faster, I knew it meant he thought I could defend myself. If he said, “I’m going to touch your arm as I disarm you,” I knew that he was teaching me more than the literal sword moves—he was teaching me to counter my fears.

HEMA is in the book. Literally. Factually. The house Vicky belongs to is Talhoffer, named a medieval German fencing master in the school of Liechtenauer. (Originally, I called the house Liechtenauer, but somewhere along the way, I thought, “Adults mangle this word, so maybe we go with Talhoffer.”) The moves (ochs, krumpau, and the rest in the book) are the physical sword moves.

But so are the “heart lessons” that HEMA gave me.

Along the way, I met for the first time another woman who practiced HEMA, Dagi, whom my coach asked to spar with me. Through her, I found an online group of women around the world who practice HEMA (Esfinges). They had a push a few years ago called “Give a Girl a Sword,” and I am proud to say that not only did I give my fictional girl a sword, but I offered swords-for-writers workshops where people held my swords in hand (some who later found local groups). I began teaching it for free in Arizona when I moved here—and let me say walking into a parking lot with a group of women with swords is a brilliant feeling. I had the privilege of teaching it for hundreds of kids at Arizona State University’s Día De Los Niños/Día De Los Libros event.


And through it all, my coach became a trusted friend. Meister Tik is very influenced by the high regard I have for the life-changing lessons I had at Virginia Academy of Fencing, where Bill was head of the Historical Swordfighting division.

Unlike Vicky, I might not need a sword to fight off monsters, but there is a magic in lifting combat-tested steel and realizing that you know what to do. What better gift could I give my character as I sent her off to face obstacles in Glass City?

 

Melissa Marr writes fiction for adults, teens, and children. Her books have been translated into 28 languages and been bestsellers in the US (New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal) as well as in various countries overseas. She also wrote the best-selling picture book Bunny Roo, I Love You, and she is well-known for the Wicked Lovely series for teens and the Graveminder series for adults. She lives in Arizona with her spouse, children, and many dogs.