Gentleman and thug: researching my new historical novel

One of the great pleasures of novel-writing is the research which, for almost every book, ought to bring the writer to investigate different areas of inquiry. To become a swift expert in something others might spend all their lives studying.

That’s why I’ve taken up my sword.

I’m working on a historical novel about the great Italian artist Caravaggio. That has meant learning to paint with oils, which has been even more enjoyable than learning piano while writing MOZART’S LAST ARIA, the novel I have coming out in 2011. But Caravaggio wasn’t only a painter. He was also infamous for killing a man in a rapier duel.

Hence my visit to the Academy of Historical Fencing on my recent trip to the UK, where I learned that the rather dandified image of dueling is somewhat over-romanticized. “You could fight like a gentleman or like a thug,” says Nick Thomas, one of the brothers who founded the Academy. “But it was all about killing, in the end. So it could be said that the thug predominates.”

Nick is a delightfully obsessed martial arts fan who learned Renaissance Italian so he could translate his favorite fencing manual (Ridolfo Capo Ferro’s 1610 masterpiece the “Gran Simulacro”) and has won many European rapier competitions. By day he and his brother write zombie fiction (their latest is about "Sherlock Holmes and the Zombie Problem"). With several friends, he founded the Academy in 1996. They run classes in Bristol, England, and my hometown of Newport, Wales. So after putting my son to bed, I picked up my Dad in my rental car and zipped out to Caerleon University, where Nick awaited in the gym with his swords and daggers.

The Academy class gives new recruits a choice: slam each other with the medieval broadsword or run each other through with a four-feet-long rapier. Well, figuratively, at least.

Read the rest of this post on my blog The Man of Twists and Turns.

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Comment by I. J. Parker on November 5, 2010 at 6:50am
Afraid not, Matt. But I have the most vivid imagination and read a lot books filled with bloody violence of the historical kind. :) (Yes, there are differences: the samurai swords were heavier and mainly used for slicing off arms, heads, and legs, though apparently technique entered into this also. See Musashi).
Comment by Matt Rees on November 5, 2010 at 3:53am
You're right, Albert -- in many ways it's the gaps which make it all fictionalizable. And IJ, did you ever wield a samurai sword?
Comment by I. J. Parker on November 5, 2010 at 3:20am
Oh, what absolute fun!
Comment by Albert Tucher on November 5, 2010 at 2:43am
Caravaggio was a fascinating character, and his biography has some intriguing gaps for a writer to fill in. Sounds good!

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