Sarah Avery (dr_pretentious) wrote,
Sarah Avery

Sword and Spindle (On Learning Your Protagonist's Trade)

My journeyman weaver protagonist probably started to learn drop-spindle spinning when she was five years old. I started learning it about five weeks ago. Here’s one of the earliest human technologies, something our forebears figured out how to do with rocks — literally, rocks — and it is kicking my butt. And that’s okay, actually. When you take up in your fourth decade a thing that Peruvian peasant girls are taught when they’re toddlers, you will not get Peruvian-quality results in five weeks, no matter how simple the task.

It’s a little late for me to take up the kind of hands-on martial arts research M. Harold Page puts into his fiction (I reviewed one of his books here). When his protagonist notes how the weight of a weapon shifts on uneven footing, I know Page is writing from the body’s memory, not just from the medieval treatises he’s read. My own brief time as the Worst Varsity Fencer at Vassar may add up to more swordplay than most fantasy writers have done. My absurd but earnest efforts at Tai Chi have served me in good stead as a writer of combat scenes. Still, a writer who writes from a state of total immersion stands out.

I’m so grateful to writers who share what they know from that state. Sue Bolich’s series of blog posts on horses in fiction gets my full attention every time. There are arts, trades, and survival skills I have no business taking up, especially as a parent of young children, and horseback riding is one of them. When I first set out to write the Stisele novel, I spent several days hanging out at a dressage stable, trying to observe and note absolutely everything. The owner of the stable had studied under one of the last Chilean cavalry officers with actual horseback combat experience, and I got to pick her brain a little. Just when I was about to talk myself into getting serious about learning to ride, a friend who’d been riding regularly since childhood had a life-threatening riding accident. To avoid being thrown by a panicked horse, she threw herself, which is probably why her skull fracture left her comatose for a couple of weeks, instead of killing her instantly. Verisimilitude in fiction is a virtue, but not one worth dying for. My friend recovered, thank goodness. I haven’t been back on a horse since, though, and with the kids in the picture now, I probably never will be.

The drop-spindle seems to be a keeper. It helps that the spindle doesn’t require a pasture, or stabling fees, and that the spindle is unlikely to kill me. Fairy tales aside, I’m not that worried about spinning wheels, either. I get to try one of those out tomorrow, and I’m almost as excited about that as I was about getting on a horse for the first time. The drop-spindle requires no special time set aside for it, which is a blessing, since, right now with our relocation almost accomplished, I rarely have time to catch my breath. Spinning is highly compatible with listening while my six-year-old practices reading aloud and my three-year-old builds block towers. Practicing longsword form would be less so. When I’ve read enough about botanical dyes and early mordants to avoid frantic calls to Poison Control, I may follow my tapestry weaver heroine further into her trade.

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