Tag Archives: crazy things i learned

Chinese Snow: Crazy Things I Learned Researching Books

chinse bombsports74.ru

Apparently humanity discovered explosives a lot earlier than I thought. Whether this is a testament to our ingenuity, or our seeming desire to find a better way to rapidly self-destruct, I’m unsure….

In any case, some of the earliest records of explosives are among the Chinese. While we don’t know everything, we do know they made something explode in 142 A.D., and by the 4th century there is a record of the chemical reaction that occurs when saltpetre, pine resin and carbon are heated together. By the 8th and 9th centuries it is clear that the Chinese had fireworks for use in celebrations.

By contrast, the earliest record of gunpowder outside China is in 1240 A.D.. Apparently saltpetre had been known in the Middle East as “Chinese Snow” since the 8th or 9th centuries. Wait – snow? I always thought saltpetre was black! No, apparently it is white… Gunpowder is black, which is a mixture of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal. Presumably the charcoal is what makes “blackpowder” black.

By 1126 A.D., Chinese explosives were so advanced they were able to throw soft-cased gunpowder filled grenades by catapult. The grenades used either layer paper or mud casings. In less than 100 years, they advanced further to iron casings. They also used smoke bombs, which might have as few as 20-30 layers of paper in the casing to up to one hundred, sometimes with poisonous substances layered between. As per usual, our destructive creativity knows no bounds.


The Chinese names for the various bombs translates quite evocatively into English. Here are some examples and their functions:

I can see there is plenty of fodder here for future books….

Reference: Leong Kit Meng http://www.grandhistorian.com/chinesesiegewarfare/siegeweapons-earlygrenades.html

Concentric-Ringed Fortresses: Crazy Things I Learned Researching Books

Beaumaris Castle, viewed through the outer gate into the outer ward and looking at the inner gate

Beaumaris Castle, viewed through the outer gate into the outer ward

The castle which forms the principal setting for In the Company of the Dead is primarily inspired by Caerlaverock Castle in the Scottish Borders, but I modified it to suit my needs.

One of the modifications I made was to give it a second outer wall, my logic being that two walls allows you to pull back to the inner wall if you can’t hold the longer wall, and if you position them just so, you create a killing field between them with nowhere for the enemy to hide. That second wall is ruined in my book, so it’s indefensible, but it still impedes an enemy army as the wall is too structurally intact to march a force over it, and it’s within bowshot of the inner walls, so you risk heavy casualties trying to get over it or through the undefended gate.

So far as I recall, there was no inspiration for that wall beyond simple logic. I was a tactical genius. Then I discovered that actually someone thought of it before me.

These castles were called ‘concentric-ringed’ fortresses or castles, two of the best remaining examples being Beaumaris Castle and Harlech Castle in Wales. Both feature a second outer wall, although in both cases it’s only about 18 metres (60 feet) between the inner and outer walls, while in my castle, that distance is much larger – the idea having been that the space between could be used to pasture a small amount of livestock for food in the event of siege – but still close enough that anything within the wall is within bowshot. Harlech Castle also had a much larger wall extending down castle rock to the sea, complete with a water gate, to preserve ship access and resupply capabilities for the fortress.

Reconstruction of Harlech Castle

Reconstruction of Harlech Castle

Creating concentric-ringed fortresses meant that in the event the first wall was lost, the castle was equipped with a ready-built ‘coupure’ – a coupure usually being a ditch or palisade hastily-erected behind the castle’s main wall in the event of a breach, in order to better defend against an exploitation of the breach.

So much for my military genius.

Besieging Moated Castles: Crazy Things I Learned Researching Books

Besieging Moated Castles

Besieging Moated Castleshttp://mountainsphoto.ru

Besieging a moated castle is really hard. I mean really, really hard.

Here’s a list of things you can’t do with a moated castle:

And here’s some things that are really hard to do with moated castles:

And here’s the list of things you could do:

In reality, prior to the invention of muskets and cannon, which really rendered castles obsolete, moated castles were really hard to take.

Caerlaverock Castle in Scotland is a moated castle that fell a few times, most notably in 1300 when Edward I besieged it with a force of more than 3000. The castle was held by a mere 60 Scots, and the castle was taken when the defenders surrendered, apparently overcome by exhaustion and wounds.

Wintergreen Oil – Minty Poisonous Freshness: Crazy Things I Learned Researching Books

Wintergreen oil

wintergreen oilОкраска стен

So while revising In the Company of the Dead I discovered I’d described a poison as tasting of mint. Now why did I do that? Did I research a poison that tasted of mint? Do any poisons taste of mint?

Well I don’t know. Better go find out.

Enter wintergreen oil. Which does taste minty – not that I recommend sampling it. At least not in copious quantities. And by ‘copious’ I mean a teaspoon of the stuff.

The proper name for wintergreen oil is ‘methyl salicylate’, and it’s produced by ‘wintergreen’ or ‘evergreen’ plants, possibly as a defence mechanism given its toxicity. In pure form, wintergreen oil is toxic, with one teaspoon containing 7 grams of salicylate, or the equivalent of more than twenty-three 300mg aspirin tablets. This is documented to be enough to kill an adult up to 70kg in body weight.

That said, there’s a good chance you have consumed wintergreen oil – it’s used in very low concentrates to provide the mint flavour in some chewing gums!

Apparently if you crush Lifesavers flavoured using wintergreen oil in a dark room, you can potentially witness triboluminescence – which is light generated by breaking chemical bonds in a material when it is pulled apart, ripped, scratched, crushed, or rubbed. If you try this out, please send me pictures!


How To Carry A Claymore: Crazy Things I Learned Researching Books


So in last week’s post I talked about the basket-hilted Scottish broadsword. I noted that this sword became popular after armour was obsolete, which meant it was more likely my hero would carry a weapon he could use effectively against an armoured foe.http://dekor-okno.ru

So Lyram now carries a basket-hilted broadsword as a clan relic and a claymore for battle.

This all led to another question – how do you carry a claymore? The things are huge. Taller than me, even. OK, I’m not that tall, but I’m not that short either.

Presumably it needed to be carried on the back, but I didn’t know the answer, so I looked it up.

And I learned a few things.

It is exceedingly difficult to draw a claymore from a back sheath without removing or severely damaging one’s own head. Uh, maybe not a good idea.

It is arguably even more difficult to put it back in the sheath without being able to see what one was doing.

This meant claymores were carried one of two ways. Either in a back sheath where the shoulder harness could be easily dropped off to allow the sword to be drawn without decapitating oneself, or more simply in the hand.

But wait, it gets more complicated.

Apparently it wasn’t unknown for the sheath to ‘grip’ these swords. I haven’t found a good reason why, but I suspect this was a problem common to many swords. It presented a particular difficulty with the claymore because the thing was so damn big that holding the sheath in one hand and levering the blade clear with the other wasn’t easy.

So many swordsmen who carried these beasts of war also had a man filling a squire-type function, who would carry the claymore for the warrior, and/or assist him to unsheathe it as needed.

So what I thought was a relatively simple question turned out to be quite complex.

And the moral of the story: don’t cut your own head off drawing your sword.