The Writer's Most Useful Weapon
For historical fiction, a dagger is the ideal weapon: plausible in many scenarios, and loaded with emotional connotations. Yet, its under-used, because few writers grasp the dagger's fiction potential.
PLAUSIBLE AND VERSATILE
Many authors write sword fight scenes where a dagger fight would be more plausible. Swords are large and heavy, cumbersome to carry, slow to draw, and almost impossible to conceal. In many situations, it's unlikely that a protagonist happens to carry a sword with him. By contrast, daggers are small, lightweight, quick to draw, and easy to conceal - perfect for quick responses, spontaneous action, brawls, suicide bids, self-defence and assassination.
While only people of wealth and rank can afford a sword, owning a dagger is feasible for all but the poorest. Wielding a dagger requires only moderate strength, which makes it plausible weapon for a lady. Even an injured person may be able to summon the strength for a final defence with a dagger.
For almost every scene, the dagger is a better choice than the sword (the exceptions are horseback fights and battle scenes).
The concealment offers exciting fictional opportunities. Typically, a dagger is carried in a leather sheath on the belt, easily concealed under a cloak if required. For secrecy, it can also be hidden in a boot or in a bodice. Indeed, during the renaissance, it was quite common for women to carry a dagger between their breasts (the sheath was sewn into the bodice). A dagger can also be concealed in the back of the bodice or in a hair ornament. The heroine, preparing to fight off a lecherous advance or to assassinate an enemy, can pretend to twist her necklace anxiously, or to fidget with her hair, and quickly draw the blade. Bodice daggers hilts without cross guards.
Here's a picture of a bodice dagger: www.knifemaker.co.uk/Gallery/Gallery%20Images/Art%20Images/Bodice/bodice.html
Besides its many practical uses, the dagger carries a lot of emotional and erotic symbolism.
To stab someone with a dagger, the fighter has to get close, which makes it one of the most intimate weapons. When the dagger penetrates the flesh, the hand almost touches the victim. This is very different from a bullet or arrow, which can be shot from a great distance. The closeness creates an intensely personal connection between attacker and victim. Daggers (and knives of all kinds) are often used in fights where emotions are running high: gang warfare, hate crime, vengeance.
The shape of the weapon and the fact that it's typically worn on the belt make it a symbol of male virility. In many cultures and periods, men demonstrated their manhood by displaying ornate daggers at the front of their hips, the bigger, the better.
Sometimes the hilt rather than the blade was exaggerated: Many daggers from 1200 to 1800, especially in England and Scotland, had huge, stiff, upwards-pointing wooden hilts with balls on either side. They were unblushingly called a 'bollocks daggers' (or 'ballock daggers'). Here's a picture of a ballock dagger (be prepared to gasp):
In addition, the motion of sliding a dagger into or out of the sheath can be highly suggestive. Talk about daggers lends itself to suggestive dialogue, with comments like 'Nice weapon. Are you any good at wielding it?', 'Want to see my other dagger, babe?', 'Does your dagger need polishing?', 'So you like swordplay, Milady? How about daggerplay?'
DAGGERS MAKE GREAT VISUALS
Book cover designers love daggers, especially when depicting the hero. They adore the chance to imply male virility. The elongated weapon on the hero's belt - or in the heroine's hand - hints at other things.
A dagger on the cover may increase your book's sex appeal, so it's worth telling your cover designer about it. However, many cover artists get carried away by the concept, with cringe-worthy results. I've seen covers where the hero wore the naked blade in his belt without sheath: a prelude to self-mutilation!
HOW TO WRITE A DAGGER FIGHT SCENE
All fight scenes are fast-paced, and dagger scenes are the fastest of them all. Use all the fast-pace techniques you know, e.g. short paragraphs, short sentences, short words. Focus especially on verbs: cut, stab, pierce, act, slash, thrust, target, push, drive, force, press, duck, poke, kill.
Words with 'k' sounds are especially effective for dagger fights: duck, poke, cry, hack, kill.
Daggers are stabbing weapons with sharp points, usually with long, thin blades. When describing a stab wound, show blood spreading or oozing. The aim in a fight is to stab a vital organ. Stabbing directly at the chest seldom works, because the blade may glance off the ribs. If the fighter has dagger experience or anatomical knowledge, she will position the dagger below the ribcage and drive it upwards (through the diaphragm into the lungs). This is lethal and works from the front or from behind. If she knows her anatomy well (e.g. if she's a professional assassin), and if the dagger is long enough, she can aim for piercing the heart, which leads to a quicker death. Trained assassins know additional spots where a stab is lethal, e.g. under the armpit or under the chin.
Some daggers are designed for slashing as well as stabbing. These have one or two sharp edges. When describing a slash wound, show a lot of blood, streaming or even spurting. The aim in a fight with this type of dagger is either to slash the opponent's throat, or to disable him by cutting tendons, muscles or ligaments (followed with a deadly stab). Fights with slashing daggers are very bloody. The point-of-view character's hand may grow slick with blood, and her grip on the weapon may become less firm.
If you're aiming for a sanitised, gore-free version of a dagger fight - e.g. for a romance novel -, you may want to stick to pure stabbing daggers.
For an assassination scene, give your assassin stealth and knowledge of human anatomy. An assassin will plan in advance how to kill the victim, and carry out the killing with calm efficiency. It will be with a single stroke, probably a determined thrust from below the ribs.
An attacker who is motivated by intense feelings, such as outrage or hatred, will stab the victim repeatedly, and keep stabbing, perhaps even after the victim is already dead. If the motive is long-held hatred, the attacker may stab or slash the victim's face, disfiguring it.
If both fighters are armed with daggers, the fight may include wrestling-type moves as each tries to restrict the other's weapon hand.
They will also try to disable each other's weapon arm, for example by slashing the inside of the elbow. Such fights are often fuelled by emotions, intense, irrational, very bloody, and fatal.
You can watch a demonstration of dagger fighting with wrestling moves here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=z143thJWRBQ
SWORD&DAGGER IN COMBINATION
If a fighter expects a fight, e.g. in a battle, he may use both sword and dagger. He fights with the sword in his right hand and the dagger in his left. This was common during the renaissance.
You can watch a sword&dagger demonstration here:
The versatility of the dagger, combined with its symbolism and connotations, makes it a perfect weapon for historical fiction.
Rayne Hall writes dark fantasy and horror. She has published more than twenty books under different pen names in different genres, and her stories have earned Honorable Mentions in 'The Years' Best Fantasy and Horror'. She holds a college degree in publishing management and a masters degree in creative writing, and teaches online classes.
Even if you've never wielded a weapon, you can write an exciting fight scene. Rayne will show you how, in her workshops on 'Writing Fight Scenes'.
The next workshops are:
March 2011: www.celtichearts.org/workshops.html
June 2011: www.romance-ffp.com/event.cfm?EventID=303