Until my latest WIP, the only thing I had ever really researched for a book was how to kill a man with one blow.
Um… OK. That is weird, I concede. I don’t want to kill anyone, honest. My protagonist was just an assassin with Japanese jujutsu skills. No really. I mean it…
Moving right along…
That was until I got to In the Company of the Dead.
First I had to research castle floor plans. That was kind of cool, and even involved buying some from a royal historical society to use as inspiration for my castle. Nearly the whole book is inside the castle, so I needed a very clear idea of where everything was. You can check out the floor plans in this post – Floor Plans of Caisteal Aingeal an Bhais: The Castle from In the Company of the Dead.
The castle is under siege, so there’s lots of catapults and burning oil and stuff. This led me to Greek fire, which was a terrible scourge in ancient times, as it was very difficult to put out. The Byzantines had a frightening way of squirting it from their ships onto enemy boats and it would burn on water. In fact, water could not be used to extinguish it, and only sand, strong vinegar and old urine would put it out. But what was it?
We don’t know! We know neither the chemical compound to make Greek fire nor the mechanism used to project it from ships. Thought the secret has been lost, modern scholars suspect it was based on petroleum and may resemble modern napalm. It is probably the inspiration for the wildfire used in the Battle of Blackwater in Game of Thrones when King’s Landing comes under attack by Stannis Baratheon and also Quegan Fire in Raymond E Feist’s Midkemia books.
|Depiction of Greek fire in the late 11th century Madrid Skylitzes manuscript.|
Then I unexpectedly needed to research how to pull an arrow out. The short answer was – you don’t really want to have to do this because there’s a good chance the victim will die. That wasn’t a very good outcome for the book, so I had to find the long answer.
A plot twist suddenly had me wondering how you know sappers are tunnelling under your castle walls, how you find them once you know you’re there, and then what you do about it when you locate them. This is not an easy thing to learn, although fortunately I found enough to get me by.
Since the conventional approach of dealing with siege engineers wasn’t really an option for my beleaguered heroes (on account of available resources and the like) I had to think of another option. Perhaps some sort of explosive?
Hmmmm. More questions. What kind of explosives might be believable in a high fantasy novel with a roughly medieval feel?
Turns out the Ancient Chinese had crude explosives from close to the beginning of the AD calendar. Who knew? They even had crude grenades in clay pots and soft-case grenades too – presumably made from something akin to papermache. They definitely had gunpowder (which I now know is made from saltpetre, sulphur and carbon) and saltpetre was even called Chinese Snow. Saltpetre is white, where I had always thought it was black. It’s the carbon added to make gunpowder that makes it ‘black’ powder. I even know where saltpetre can be obtained!
|Suenaga facing Mongol arrows and gunpowder bombs during the Mongol invasions of Japan in 1281 AD, painting dated to 1293 AD.|
It’s amazing the stuff you can learn while writing a genre often dismissed as ‘fairy tales for adults’.
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