Tag Archives: research

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.

How To Properly Remove An Arrow: Crazy Things I Learned Researching Books

Remove An Arrow
Remove an Arrow

Have you been shot with an arrow? Don’t yank it out like you see in the movies!

OK, you probably haven’t been shot with an arrow… At least, I hope not. Unless maybe you’ve been practising with friends for the zombie apocalypse. If you are currently experiencing an arrow wound, skip forward a few paragraphs.

Who am I kidding? Go to the emergency room!

But the point remains that what you see on-screen is for dramatic effect rather than accuracy. Even if the person is dead and you are only retrieving the arrow for re-use, yanking it out of a corpse is likely to give you nothing more than a stick with pretty feathers on one end.

The definitive source of information on arrow wounds is the notes of one Dr Bill who lived during the American Civil War, and I came across it after I shot one of my characters with an arrow and then realised I had no idea how life-threatening the wound was.

Interestingly, arrow wounds could be more dangerous than gunshot wounds, largely because a gunshot was more likely to pass through the body, and even if it didn’t, the shot could be safely left in the body to be encased in bone or tissue. Arrow heads, on the other hand, are sharp and continue to injure and inflame the tissue around them – ultimately resulting in infection and death. As you might imagine, removing the head was therefore vital.

So why can’t you just yank it out?

Arrow-heads were secured to the shaft using gut, which would begin to loosen when it got wet – such as from your blood soaking into it. This meant that yanking on the shaft was likely to rip the head free and leave it in the body. Once detached from the shaft, locating and removing the head was much harder and caused more trauma to the wounded.

A shaft could, however, be carefully ‘twirled’ to determine if the head was lodged in bone. Alternatively, the doctor could enlarge the wound and use a finger to follow the shaft to the head to check if it was stuck. Ugh. Pass the whisky.

on_the_hunt_stock_photo_by_luda_stock-d8cb5bu

If the head was not trapped in bone, the arrow could be safely pulled free after enlarging the wound. But what if it was lodged? In this case, a larger incision was required, and much force would be applied to pull it free. A loop of wire could be used to apply traction, alternatively the esteemed Dr Bill used dental forceps, and later forceps of his own design. The force required to pull the head free was so great that in one instance Dr Bill reported bending the forceps, and in another that he would have fallen to the ground if someone hadn’t caught him.

An additional worry was that arrows that struck close to the bone might have their tip bent into a ‘fish-hook’ shape. Such arrows couldn’t be safely drawn from the body without additional precaution. The tip always needed to be checked, and if it was bent, it first needed to be pushed deeper into the body to pull the bent tip free, and then the doctor must cover the tip with his finger as he pulled it out to ensure it didn’t snag anew.

So if you are shot by an arrow, what are your chances of survival?

Ask your doctor! Go now!

But for a man wounded by arrows pre-modern medicine, the answers vary. To start with, it was unusual for a wounded man to have only one arrow wound, given that an experienced archer could shoot six arrows or more a minute. Dr Bill reported an extreme case of three men with a total of 42 arrow wounds amongst them. I’m guessing they all died… And I’m not sure the experience of having that many arrows removed, without anaesthetic, would be preferable to a quick death either…. So the more arrows you have stuck in you, the worse your chances.

Injuries to the chest were most common, with large numbers of fatalities associated with lung punctures. If there was no lung involvement, the wounded had a good chance of survival. Nearly all wounds to the abdomen were fatal owing to the risk of blood vessel and intestinal damage. It was fairly typical for a gut wound of any kind to pretty much be the end of you, owing to all the icky stuff in your bowels and intestines encouraging all kinds of infection, and there being no protection to the abdomen from ribs or other bones.

Remove An Arrow

Wounds to arms and legs were more likely to have the arrow pass clean through, in which case the majority would heal within a week with minimal complications. Sounds like your best outcome to me. Wounds to the head were rarely fatal unless it was a shot to the eye as an arrow would not generally penetrate the skull except at extreme close range. Uh… but please don’t take this as encouragement to go around aiming bows at people’s skulls!

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Bioluminescent Fungi: Crazy Things I’ve Researched For Books

Bioluminscent Fungi

Surprisingly, there are quite a few forms of mushroom that glow in the dark. The Brazilian ‘flor-de-coco’ was discovered in 1840 and reportedly glows bright enough you can read with it. A glowing mushroom is totally my next bedroom accessory. Although I’m not sure how to care for it… will I have to feed it?

The jack-o-lantern fungus in the United States is a poisonous mushroom easily mistaken for delicious chanterelles. I recommend you always mushroom pick at night – if it glows green, don’t eat it. As for how you are going to find the non-glowing, edible mushrooms in the dark…. That’s not my problem. I don’t eat mushrooms. But at least you won’t be dead of poisoning, right?

Honey mushrooms don’t glow entirely, but apparently only have glowing filaments. They grow in rotting wood, and these are the mushrooms that often (but not exclusively) make foxfire – the phenomenon where rotting logs seem to glow blue-green after dark! Now that’s neat. Maybe I could use one of these as a feature bench seat in my garden. It’d go well with the pool lights. In other parts of the world foxfire is also known as will-o’-the-wisp and faerie fire. Well we all know how often those plot points crop up in fantasy novels.

Fungus glows for the same reason that fireflies do – by burning luciferin (sounds deliciously hellish). Fireflies, however, only burn it in bursts, while mushrooms do it all the time. Show offs. They even do it during the day – we just can’t see it. Now that’s downright wasteful.

The real puzzle is why do mushrooms glow at all? There are three usual reasons for bioluminescence:

  • To attract a mate;
  • To frighten off predators
  • To attract potential meals.

Now mushrooms are not mating, and when it comes to predators, many are already poisonous. So far as we know, mushrooms also aren’t eating anyone else.

Glowing Mushrooms

So what is the glowing mushroom trying to do? In some species it appears glowing is linked to metabolism – but not in others! Curiouser and curiouser.

Now you might be wondering why I cared about glow-in-the-dark fungus at all – and I promise I am not writing will-o’-the-wisps into my book.

If you haven’t been following the ITCOTD Monday Morsel series, you might not be aware there are catacombs under the castle that serves as the main setting for my next book. Essentially our hero is underground here without a light source and I suddenly needed him to be able to see something. Glowing fungus seemed like a solution, but I didn’t know if there was in fact any such thing. Apparently there is even a species in Australia that glows but that was news to me – certainly I have never seen it. And you can get these fungi in caves. I also didn’t know how bright such a mushroom might glow and if it would be bright enough for what I needed.

So off I trotted to ask Google. Who said you never learn anything real in fantasy?

Castle Design and Sieges Poll: I Need Your Help

Castle Design


I’ve just started writing In the Company of the Dead, an epic fantasy novel for adults, and I’ve belatedly realised I need to do some research, something I don’t usually find I need to do.

See, the story is set in a castle. Nearly the whole story. A small castle. So I think I need to have a very clear visual myself of the setting in order to be able to describe it, because there’s not a lot of space here for me to get creative with, and if I make a mistake, that also means not much space to make excuses with.

I had already decided to loosely base the castle on Caerlaverock Castle in Scotland, purely because I stumbled across it and thought it was pretty. It has the advantage of being really defensible, too, which is important since the reason the whole story is set in the castle is because it’s under siege. And we want it to be a long siege or, you know, the story would end prematurely…

So here’s where I need your help.

Firstly, I’ve got most of my castle mapped out, but I have some empty space, and I’d like your thoughts on what else should be included. Here’s what I’ve got:
  • Guardrooms
  • Well room
  • Kitchen
  • Servery
  • Bakery
  • Servant’s Quarters
  • Banqueting hall
  • Withdrawing room
  • Lords’ suites
  • Gatehouse
  • Library
  • Guest rooms

What else do I need? I’m thinking a small barracks, which was noticeably absent from the plans of Caerlaverock Castle, either because it was in the ruined section of the castle, or came under some other heading like ‘public rooms’ or ‘private rooms’. At least, I assume it must have had somewhere for guards to sleep. 

What about stables? My people have horses, but it could either be inconvenient having the horses in the castle during a siege, or a source of food (blargh…). 

Anything else?


The other thing I need your help on is the siege. Caerlaverock Castle was famously defended for 36 hours by 60 men against 3000. Not long, but the fact that such a small number held out for any length of time against such odds is incredible. At least, the attacking king was impressed, and I daresay he was more qualified to judge than I.

So my castle is being attacked by 1000 soldiers. We’ll say they have some small siege equipment, but nothing too huge. As you can see, the castle is surrounded by a moat, which is surrounded by a marsh, so the only approach is front on, at the gate. I want the siege to stretch out for some time, but the odds to be bad enough that the attackers will likely fail before help arrives.



Please do contribute any other thoughts in the comments below. I’m also open to suggestions for the name of my castle, as it remains nameless for the time being.