29 April, 2010

On Genres

SO, I was writing a query yesterday for an agent with very specific guidelines on what she wanted to see from a fiction author. (Note to all the agents who are not reading this blog right now: I LOVE THIS! Because of all the English Lit majors I'm competing with who don't know how to follow directions.

*dodges barrage of dogeared Strunk&White paperbacks*

Anyway, the agent did not list Historical as a valid genre. Since my story happens (but it really didn't happen) in the 9th century AD I've been thinking of it as historical fiction.

But really, is historical fiction a genre? SHOULD it be? Calling every story that happens before the present day historical is like calling every novel that takes place in the present day contemporary. There are mysteries, romances, horror stories, etc. written in all time periods.

And so, I picked Thriller (heeeee- heee! jam on! see picture) from the available labels. Hey, I've got knife fights, brothel brawls, hiding from pirates, political intrigues, and the odd strangling happening as quick as the pages turn. But no zombies..... in THIS novel.

27 April, 2010

Five Common Blunders in Fight Choreography

I first started using the word 'mayhem' as my brand many years ago when I founded a fight choreography and prop weapon rental company called Stage Mayhem. This can make watching a movie with me either very enlightening or eye-rolling annoying, depending on your stomach for snark commentary.

Last night my wife and I were watching a Season 2 episode of The Tudors, and I could tell from the actors' clothes and positions not only that there was going to be a swordfight, but exactly what tactics the fighters would use and how it would end up. Unfortunately it started too fast for me to make the full prediction out loud to my wife and take full credit for my prescience. That's just as well, as she's the one rolling her eyes when I give the correct Final Jeopardy response before Trebek reads the clue. (Rutherford B. Hayes FTW!)

Message to historical fight directors: don't be so obvious! If no one else in your show wears a little cloak off one shoulder, I know you put it there so he can use it as an off-handed parry in a two-on-one attack. (I also know that you found the actor by trolling the lysts at an SCA event) If no one else in your show wears a white puffy shirt and no doublet, I know he's wearing it so the blood will show up better when he gets stabbed. I know this because I had to wear one every stinking night for Cyrano de Bergerac.

Here are a few common problems I have with the fights I see on TV, movies, and stage.

1. Use all the weapons!
By all means, focus on the swords if it's a swordfight. But don't forget the unarmed hand for grabs and punches, foot stomps, elbows. Most practical disarms from the Golden Age of Dueling used the unarmed hand to grapple, not a sweeping bind or prise-de-fer.

2. "Where'd he learn to fight?"
Well, not everyone can fight. And when a tax preparer and a waiter go at it, I don't want to see nice, crisp, well-choreographed punches and blocks. When two guys who don't quite know what they're doing try to hurt each other, it generally starts with shoving and ends with them rolling around on the ground. A great example of this done right was the street fight in Bridget Jones' Diary. Hugh Grant's character was not presented as a fighter, and he didn't fight like one.

3. Attacking the Parry
This one is tough to avoid because of fight safety practices. We teach actors to wait for the parry to get into position and then strike the closed line. Of course in a real fight you'd attack the nice squishy flesh on the other side. A well-designed fight includes some feints to open lines, just to show the characters really are trying to kill each other.

4. The Beauty of Imperfection
I love seeing characters make little mistakes in fights. (characters, NOT actors. That's how you lose an eye.) What if he got too close to the enemy and can't quite get his sword out of the scabbard for a while? Or his voluminous cloak gets snagged or goes over his head? Or he forgot to chamber the first round and his Webley-Vickers 30.80 just makes a fateful 'click'? Read an account of almost any real fight where one or both parties were surprised. Mistakes abound, and the guy who makes the first one isn't always the guy who makes the last.

5. "Why don't they all just attack him at once?"
A perennial favorite. Actually there are some very good reasons why the army of goons surrounding the hero shouldn't all attack at once. And the fight choreographer had better think of one, 'cause otherwise the goons really should just dogpile the sucka.

  • limited space: the fight takes place on the deck of a ship, an alley, inside a Starbucks, etc. Any set design that tends to funnel the goons so the hero can take them one at a time.
  • good tactics: the hero does what an actual trained fighter does in such a situation (assuming he can't run away, which is always my Plan "A") He attacks one or two of the goons to get outside their ring, and then makes them come to him. This will tend to line them up for a series of one-on-one battles.
  • quick actions: There isn't time for anything complicated! If the hero spends more than half a second on any foe, the rest should rightly swarm him. Bruce Lee was great at using quick disabling moves in 20-on-one fights rather than spend the time necessary to fully detatch someone's spine and rip it out of his body. One-beat actions (hero clobbers goon) are fastest. Beat-and-a-half (goon strikes, hero slips the punch and counterstrikes) are nearly as fast. Two-beat actions (goon attacks, hero blocks, hero counters) can be too slow, especially if they pile up. You don't want the audience to see any space where two guys could have attacked at once, or someone couldn't just dive on the sucka.

25 April, 2010

Feast of Saint Mark the Evangelist, 2010

On this day in 68 AD, Mark the Evangelist met his martyrdom on a street in Alexandria
(pictured at right by Fra Angelico).

I first became interested in Mark because of the story of how his body left Alexandria 760 years later and ended up in Venice. The more I learned about the living Saint Mark, the more I liked him.

Mark is unique among the Gospel writers in several ways. First off, it's entirely possible that he was actually there. Tradition puts him at the Last Supper, as a server. (Hey, boy, can you get us a new salt shaker? And wrap the rest of this bread up to go-- might be important later. Thanks.) He may also appear in a cameo in his own Gospel, as the young man in Gethsemane who the Romans try to arrest but manages to get away by ditching his clothes. Mark's mother was one of the early Christians who sheltered the Apostles in the days after the Crucifixion, and so Mark became an early disciple of Peter. In fact, Mark's gospel might really be Saint Peter's lecture notes.

What I love about Mark's Gospel is its immediacy and its directness. Mark doesn't tell a nativity story. Mark doesn't bring in a lot of imagery and symbolism. The message is strong enough that Mark feels he can tell it without first establishing his main character's divine credentials. So, one can approach Mark's Gospel as a philosopher. And why not? Whether or not it gets anyone to Heaven, a philosophy of putting love of others first, if universally adopted, would make Earth a pretty nice place to live.

Besides the mystery of what happened to Saint Mark's body in 827-828 and what that meant for Venice, the other thing that intrigues me about him is the fact that a good portion of his orginal Gospel draft is not known to us.

Say what?

Well, Mark writes his "just the facts" story and at a pretty good clip takes us straight to the moment where the women go into the tomb and find Jesus's body missing. Mark 16:8 has the frightened women running out of the tomb... and then, in the earliest known manuscripts, it just ends. The rest of the traditional text, Mark 16:9-20, wraps the story up with news of a Resurrection, but it reads like another author's work. Maybe Mark's agent or editor added the extra verses to make his Gospel more saleable... (A cliffhanger? No, seriously, Mark baby, that ain't gonna work for your debut. We're already taking a chance on you printing on papyrus and not going straight to trade paperback.) but slightly more likely is the possibility that part of a codex got lost along the way and a helpful scribe added a religiously appropriate ending.

And so today we celebrate the author on whose text Matthew's and Luke's gospels were based: an eyewitness to the last days of Christ and the first days of the Apostles: the man who founded the Coptic Church, the first community of Christians outside Israel: and the man who, if the legends are to be believed, continued to affect history and politics for more than a thousand years hence.

I was talking to the rector of St. George's in Schenectady on Friday (George's feast day, as it turns out) and he asked me where Mark's body is now. Well, he's in at least three places! Most of him is still believed to be in Venice, although in recent years the Venetians have not really let anyone look at him. The head might still be in Alexandria, though it has not been seen since the early 19th century and Napoleon's invasion of Egypt. And certain relics were returned to the Coptic Church (some or possibly all of the Venetian treasure) in 1968.

24 April, 2010

Opening Shot

Welcome to Historical Mayhem! This blog is mostly about my book, which I've finally FINISHED (almost three years in the making and a full day ahead of schedule). As in all blogs, Dear Readers shall also be subjected to my musings and such Links as I find entertaining.

There may also be periodic snippets of original fiction, deeeeeep historical analysis, and pictures of me lifting heavy objects over my head. Do enjoy.