Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sword Play: Information for Writers with Eric Gates

Eric Gates
After several readers tweeted me requests this week for information on swords, I turned to Eric Gates.

Eric J. Gates has had a curious life filled with the stuff of thriller novels. Writing Operating Systems for Supercomputers, cracking cryptographic codes under extreme pressure using only paper and pen and teaching cyberwarfare to spies are just a few of the moments he’s willing to recall. He is an ex-International Consultant who has travelled extensively worldwide, speaks several languages, and has had articles and papers published in technical magazines in six different countries, as well as radio and TV spots. His specialty, Information Technology Security, has brought him into contact with the Military and Intelligence communities on numerous occasions.

He is also an expert martial artist, holding 14 black belt degrees in distinct disciplines. He has taught his skills to Police and Military personnel, as well as to the public.

He now writes thriller novels, drawing on his experiences with the confidential and secret worlds that surround us. 

Fiona - 
Welcome, Eric. As a martial artist of (WOW!) fourteen different black belt disciplines, swordsmanship is part and parcel of your training. Does it make a big difference about style issues in how a sword is used? Or is a sword a sword and every culture manipulates the weapon in the same way?

Eric - 

Good question. There are many similarities in using a sword and many differences too, that vary according to the styles and characteristics of the weapons.

In Japanese swordsmanship, a Daito (long sword) can be used one-handed (Kiritsuke) or with both hands (Kiri). In the case of a two-handed grip, each hand has a distinct and separate role. 
  • The right hand, behind the guard, is used to guide the blade on its journey. 
  • The left is used, with a pulling action, to impart power. 
  • Both hands are used, by twisting the wrists in opposite directions without slackening the grip, to stop the blade’s motion. 
  • The space between the hands is used to help create a ‘lever’-like action to impart speed to the tip.

As with all swords, the cuts are delivered not with the arms and shoulders (sorry Arnie) but with the lower part of the body (hips and legs). This was why in Japan the wearing of Hakama (the baggy pants) helped cover the feet and thus hid any clue as to how you were going to strike.

In fighting with a sword, not just the edge of the blade is used. 
  • Strikes to the opponent’s hands, arms, body and weapons using the guard and the handle, even the back (non-sharp) part of the blade are employed. 
  • The use of other objects, from parrying weapons to throwing weapons (to blind or distract opponents – shuriken [throwing blade] in Japan) were common too. As is the use of ‘unarmed’ combat techniques (Japanese: Aikijutsu) to unbalance, even throw the opponent, or capture their weapon and disarm them. 

Most sword fighting, from Scottish Claymore, English Broadsword, Arabian Scimitar, Chinese Jian, to Japanese katana use the body's movements as the means to deliver the strikes, especially the lower body. 


The Samurai (which means ‘one who serves’) would be given his swords by the Daimyo or Feudal Lord. The two swords are known together as a Daisho and consist of:
  • Daito (the long sword, commonly referred to as a katana in the West) 
  • and the Shoto (shorter, one-handed sword). 
  • In turn these may be completed by a dagger or Tanto, often used to finish off the opponent on the battlefield by slipping its blade under the neckpiece of their armour once they are on the ground. 
All three are worn in the belt (Obi) in such a way they can been individually drawn without getting in the way of each other. In the Nito (or two-sword) Style both the short and long katana blades are used together, the right hand using the Daito and the left the Shoto, and both can be drawn simultaneously by someone trained in these styles.

Fiona - 
Do you think that a Japanese sword could find its way into a piece of modern literature? Or do you think it's best left to a different time period?

Eric - 
Japanese swords have been used in modern literature - the one that immediately comes to mind is Eric Van Lustbader's 'Ninja' books. Set in the present but involving a lot of ancient Japanese weapons, not just swords. 

Historically, Japanese swords found their way over to China and to Europe, and more recently, many American soldiers brought them home after WWII. So it's not completely impossible that they could appear. In Movies we have the Highlander series, the Bob Mitchum film Yakuza and of course Michael Douglas in Black Rain.

Fiona -
Who would carry such a weapon and what would their minimal training/background be (unless they were a wannabe psycho who bought a sword off E-bay?)

Eric - 
Many wannabes out there! Also many bad (i.e. dangerous) swords. Over here in Spain, there's a huge industry in Toledo dedicated to making replica swords - both of real weapons from history, and the sort that turn up on GOT or Lord of the Rings. Anyone can buy them, but most are useless as anything other than wall-hangers - they are made from poured metal (hopefully, but not always steel) using molds. 

It takes a good year to learn the basics of how to use a sword - and I do mean basics. Otherwise the probability of injuring yourself or others is very high.

Fiona - 
The sword is an intimate weapon. And by that I mean there are ways to wound someone hands-off, guns being the prime example. What kind of personality might gravitate to the use of a sword as their weapon of choice. It's so different than a knife - convenient, small, close proximity battle while a sword is a dance really - arms length, full body...

Eric - 
Yes, I agree. Swords are an intimate weapon. Anyone can shoot a gun (apologies, milady) but just to make a basic strike with a sword means learning a skill that involves both mental and physical expertise. To then face an opponent, similarly armed, requires understanding strategy, tactics, body language, internal energies, terrain managment and being better with your sword than they are with theirs. Above all it require two things: patience and absolute relaxation in your body and mind. Someone who impulse-bought a sword on EBay doesn't seem to fit the bill.

Fiona -
When you read a sword scene in a book, what makes you roll your eyes and skim forward? (I'm thinking things that defy physics and anatomy here)

Eric - 
Two basic areas: all this nonsense about swords being imbued with magical properties when they are made because they are dipped in human blood (which would cause a hot piece of steel to warp and break instantly) etc. No, all they ever used was water (salted usually) or oil. Second issue is really a multiple. All the nonsense people repeat because they've seen it in a movie. I’d like to highlight five common mistakes regarding swords that Hollywood especially has propagated throughout the years:
  1. When placed on a display rack, the Japanese katana swords should never be simulating a smile, rather a grimace (i.e. a bump in the middle). I see this constantly in movie & TV. The reason is simply you do not want the wood on the inside of the scabbard (saya) in contact with the cutting edge when in storage. 
  2. You can always tell when a non-Japanese has trained an actor in wielding a katana – both hands will be gripping the sword handle (Tsuka) together. A Daito (the long sword) is gripped with the right hand behind the guard (Tsuba) and the left at the end of the handle. The space between allows for greater control and leverage during the strikes. In fact, the left-hand little finger and heart finger are the most important in gripping the sword (which may be why the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia, so fond of carrying katana, have to chop off the tip of their little finger in penance if they screw up something – this would make using a sword efficiently extremely difficult and result in the decline of their importance in the organization). Usually when I see this, the instructors for the movie/TV show are Chinese as this manner of gripping the two-handed sword is Chinese, not Japanese, in origin. 
  3. A mistake made often by fantasy writers: in a battle scenario, the kind of sword you want to have is one which can slash and hack. The ‘coolness’ of a rapier-like blade is offset by its impracticality in this kind of situation as superficial cuts and stabbing don’t get the job done. This kind of weapon was employed for one-on-one duelling (especially in France) and is just not suitable (even for small girls, sorry GOT fans) as they are easy to break when they go up against a more solid blade. Incidentally, this is probably why certain writers imbue their dainty weapons with ‘magical’ properties. 
  4. Remember that scene in Kill Bill 2 in the trailer - just wouldn't happen. Anyone with a minimum of training can draw a sword within the width of their body, flip it around so the pointy bit is aimed at the opponent and strike... and do it quickly. Plenty of room to swordfight in a trailer - could this be a new sport? 
  5. Another fallacy - sword weights and the huge, bulked up people that many would believe are needed to use them. Most swords, worldwide and throughout history were between 1 and 2 kilos. Those big battle broadswords used in the middle ages rarely exceeded 4 kilos. You need to remember that moving something of a certain weight at a speed that would allow kinetic energy to help do some damage will tire you out even if you look like Schwarzenegger. (Incidentally, when he was filming Conan in Cuenca in Spain, he trained with a Japanese friend of mine at the Japanese Cultural Centre in Madrid - they didn't get on, to say the least - Arnie wanted a lot of twirling and stuff - useless - and the swordmaster wanted to teach classic swordfighting - Arnie left after a couple of weeks.)

Fiona - 
LOL - why does that not surprise me about Arnold? I love the phrase "terrain management" - I'm assuming this means you don't trip over the brambles in the pathway?

Eric -
Terrain management refers to the place where you fight. You see many movie fights staged on flat areas with no obstacles. That doesn't happen. The footing could be icy, sandy, rocky, uneven, a mountain track 
with a drop-off, a small room...You have to know how to use the environment to your advantage, and to the opponents' disadvantage as well 

After searching old backup copies of stuff on DVDs I came across the attached pic. It shows several interesting aspects of TM. The technique we did took place on the edge of a small wood on a very sunny day, relatively early in the morning - hence the dappled lighting effect. 
Now depending on where you were standing, your form and movements were diffused by this - instant camouflage as the human eye tries to adjust to the sharp localised differences in light.

I used this by applying an Aikijutsu technique which spun the other guy around so his face was pointed into the sunlight. I then applied pressure to his knees with my own, taking advantage of the slope of the hill and loose dirt underfoot, to make him lose his balance. Capturing his left elbow and steering it using the grip of my own sword, resulted in the point of his weapon piercing the earth, thus reducing its threat level to me. Finally, I moved in for the 'kill' cut with a reverse forward grip on my own Daito.

Fiona - 
So very interesting.
Thank you so much.
Learning in a Do jang. I often thought we should be training in real life situations. And real life clothing. I think that's a big hole in MA training.

Eric - 
The gear we wear for sword training, from the tabi shoes through the Hakama pants and wide-sleeved jackets, is exactly what was worn by the samurai when not using armour. The latter, even replica, is far too expensive for training purposes, so it's as good as it gets. 

When I teach self-defence, we do train with street clothing though, and common improvised weapons. That's the basic difference between (using the Japanese terminology) a -do (such as Karate-do, Ju-do, Aiki-do etc) and a -jutsu. It's not just about the former being focused on competition (even if it's just about doing a better Kata than the rest); it's a state of mind. 

Modern clothing is not designed for fighting, so it makes an interesting element to take into consideration both negatively (what you can't do) and positively (what your opponents can't do) and exploiting the latter is half of the fun. 

Also being able to fight inside vehicles, subways, aircraft, trains, and all the other places we take for granted in our lives is so different from what you learn on a tatami (for example, I learnt to roll out of throws on a marble floor - that way you get it right the first time or it hurts). The change in perspective is also remarkable: you see your world in a different way. That magazine on the table, the coaster under your drink, the coffee in your cup, the mug itself, the pencil in your pocket, the chair you're sitting on etc all become potential long as you know how to use them. 

And no, it's not about learning Jason Bourne-like techniques with a rolled-up newspaper; it's a mentality-shift, based solidly on science (physics, anatomy and math, mainly geometry) which can be taught and easily assimilated with a little practice. 

My own approach is what I call the "toolbox method." There's no point learning specific techniques to counter predefined situations because the odds of that situation happening exactly as you practiced are pretty remote. So the trick is to have a stack of options available, easily combined amongst themselves, to respond. Just like the handyman who is faced with a repair - he may not have the precise tool he needs, but he does have the knowledge of what needs to be done and what the capabilities of his tools he has will allow. It's the Swiss Army Knife/MacGiver mentality at work; all about breaking mental boundaries. 

Fiona - 
Funnily enough, I unschooled my kids and their education is based on what I call my "Toolbox Philosophy." 

I'm interested in the concept you mentioned  about being relaxed in mind and body. THAT is a task easier accomplished in a setting with a sparring partner - what does one do to prepare for a real battle with a vicious enemy? How does one learn to maintain or compartmentalize the adrenaline so that they can stay in their place of Zen quietude and perform at top level?

Eric - 
It's not Zen, as such. The Japanese call it Mushin (literally 'No Soul'). It's like a blank slate on which you are waiting for someone to write something. It is not easy to learn yet all competent fighters, of any discipline, usually have this. It frees your training and your body. Many 'arts' teach you to maintain a tense body position (Karate for example) yet any muscle group MUST relax before it can move a limb so tensing beforehand, then relaxing just wastes time. It's a dance, as you say. The more relaxed you are, the more you go with the music and integrate your movements with your partner/opponents then the better things will go for you. 

Fiona - 
What do you want us to know about the sword experience so we can translate it into our writing. By this, I'm really asking if you can share how it feels to you - the weight in your hand, the air whistling past the blade, what happens to your body when you are struck or conversely land a strike. This is a huge hard question.

Eric -
Okay, I'll give it a go: In combat, sword or otherwise, you strive to attain a state where you trust your training to keep you out of trouble. There's no time to think out a move, your body is being hammered with adrenaline too, as you say, which can play havoc with basic control. Then there's the amygdala and the fight or flight issue. If you choose to fight, you can give in to an adrenaline-fueled reaction (and become much easier to defeat). So maintaining calmness especially in your mind, and the body relaxed, opens the door to whatever you need.

When fighting, you are not conscious of holding a weapon. If you have trained well, it has become an extension of your own body, like moving a hand or foot. You don't think, just do. That sounded very Yoda-like, didn't it - I'm even turning green - must be the adrenaline!

 After it's all over, then you notice the adrenaline and throw up!

Adrenaline and heave definitely go together.

Fiona - 
Yes, my heroine from my Lynx series, Lexi, vomits a lot. Poor girl.

What do you wish I had asked you today?

Eric - 
Best sword in the world? 
This is a discussion that has been raging for, probably, centuries. Some say the Japanese katana blade, others those made from Toledo steel and yet others, the famous Damascus steel blades. For a combat sword to be outstanding, it needs to be both strong and flexible (did you know you can bend a good Daito blade sideways almost back on itself without it breaking), relatively lightweight and easy to maintain on the battlefield....

And, why do I look so fat in that video?
I have a habit of stuffing notebooks and coloured pens down the front of my training jacket to explain stuff in class - occasionally other weapons to throw etc. as a surprise for the students. What I had that day, I can't remember - probably as it was a Black Belt class, the notebook and pens.

Fiona - 
Before I ask the obligatory question about death-defying experiences, I wanted to tell folks that Eric's book won

GoodReads BOOK of the MONTH February 2015


Outsourced - 
Outsourced’ features a New York-based writer of thriller novels who receives a mysterious package from a fan. That fan turns out to be a professional killer. That’s just the start of the writer’s problems; problems that escalate way beyond anything he could have imagined on the pages of his novels, as death and destruction follow rapidly.

Just when matter cannot get any worse for the novelist, he learns a high-tech Intelligence agency has been tasked with obtaining the contents of the package too, and they will stop at nothing to achieve that goal. They have their own global agenda. The agent assigned to the task is out of her depth working on US soil and her methods are unsuited to a civilian environment. As pressure mounts for her to achieve results, she becomes more and more radical in her approach.

And, if that’s not enough… the sender wants it back, and his methods are even more direct and violent! He believes the contents of the package were used to try to kill him and his aim is to recover them and exact his revenge on the writer.

Fiona - 
Were any  of your scars made with the tip of a sword?

Eric - 
Scars - yes I have a few but can't tell you where or how I got them, sorry, (none of them from a sword though.) I do have the one on my forehead from when I did a science experiment at age 4 - what's the hardest, my head or a ceramic tile? Guess which won?

Harrowing experiences? Jumped between skyscrapers and got shot at on the same day when doing a security penetration test for a client... no more details available. Does that count? How about being scheduled to fly one morning, cancelling at the last minute due to clients' planning issue and aircraft falls from sky killing all aboard (I recently heard that it may have been a bomb with another passenger as the target).

Fiona - 
Yowza! Now here I am with the dilemma - if travelling with you, do I insist that we are side by side for my own protection? Or do I require my own car and separate hotels for my own protection? 

Eric - thank you so much for such fabulous plotting fodder. So incredibly interesting. 

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  1. Excellent post--I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you!

  2. Thank you, Cathleen. It was an honour to be invited by Fiona to talk to you all about this subject. Hope you found it helpful. Best wishes, Eric