I love research, and I love facts and details just as much. As a writer, this is a good thing. We research plane crashes, wilderness survival tips, survival rates from various gunshot wounds, and how to fight with a sword. Amongst other things…
If anyone looked at our internet history, they’d be thoroughly disturbed. (Well, unless they were another writer who knew about our work in progress!)
I completed my degree in history. It required a ton of research and a lot of time in the library. I loved it. I miss my little corner and my chair. The views around campus too:
I can’t resist using my research skills when I write. I’ll look at pictures, read books, and watch Youtube in the effort to bring a scene to life. The best descriptions suck the reader into the scene and make you feel like you’re really there. They make your heart clench with fear as the character teeters at the edge of a cliff, and bring the wonder of a beautiful waterfall to life.
Poorly researched information can distract from the magic of a story. A characters leg twisting in a way that’s not possible during a fight scene, for example. Want to write a fight scene? Learn to fight. Or, failing that, visit Youtube, where you will probably get distracted and end up with far more information than you need (and not all of it relevant!)
One of my current works in progress, Dragonspire, is set in a medieval style fantasy kingdom. The moon has a longer orbit, and there’s magic and dragons, but other than that, the kingdom where the story begins is similar to medieval Europe.
Sure, the castles are cool, but there’s no electricity. They’d use candles. But, in a world with no modern lighters, how (when the fire breathing dragons are unavailable) do they light them?
When my character went to light a candle in his bedroom, I froze in my frantic typing to wonder how he’d light it, and what type of candles they had in the middle ages.
Now I could have just written, ‘he lit the candle,’ and left it at that, but I was curious, and I wanted to be able to show how he did it, just in case I ever wanted to use it…
What were candles like in the middle ages?
According to my research, candles in the middle ages were made from animal fat (Tallow.) These candles, when lit, smelt worse than manure and gave off a smoky flame. They were common in general home use because they were cheap.
If you were rich, or a beekeeper, you’d have candles made from beeswax. These burned cleanly, without the smoke, and smelled sweet and pleasant. They were often used during church ceremonies. Only the wealthy used them at home because they were expensive!
In Dragonspire, the village my main character lives in is self sufficient. They keep bees to make honey, and make their own beeswax candles. In the kingdom below the village most people use tallow candles, and when Arckia first experiences one the smoke and smell shocks him.
So, two types of candles. Now, how to light them?
Tools to make fire:
My research found that matches were not invented until the 1800’s. Therefore, my characters would always carry the following, stored in a tinder box, to light candles and fires.
Char cloth is cloth that has been partly burned. Partly burned material catches a spark much easier. In the middle ages, it was likely to be made of linen.
To see how flint and steel worked, I went to one of my favourite places for research: Youtube.*
To light a candle, the char cloth is placed on the back of the flint, near the edge. When the flint is struck, a small spark is created, and the cloth should catch the ember. Shield the ember, take it to the candle, and blow on it to encourage the ember to become a flame. Then light the candle. The cloth can also be transferred to the tinderbox and coaxed into a flame in there.**
I used my research to write a scene where a character lights a candle. I ended up with this:
Arckia placed the candle on his desk and stuffed his hands into his pockets. After some rummaging, his fingers closed around a small, metal box. He pulled it free and took out some flint, and a battered steel striker. At the bottom of the box, a small piece of cloth sat, and Arckia pulled it free to rest it on top of the flint, sharp edge facing upward.
Steel striker in hand, he struck the flint a few times, until a spark caught the cloth and it began to smoulder. He shielded the cloth with his hand and placed it near the wick of the candle. A gentle blow was all it took to ignite the wick, and the candle burst into life, flame dispelling the shadows and brightening the corners of the room.
Of course, this scene may be too descriptive, and may not be used. At over 200000 words, book one of Dragonspire is already an untameable monster that needs many darlings killed!
Thanks for reading! What’s the strangest thing you’ve researched for writing? Have you ever lit a candle with flint and steel? Do your stories end up as long as mine do?
*Libraries are good too. Warning. Youtube is highly addictive. If you have deadlines, or want a hope of getting anything done, approach with caution.
** Don’t try this at home, not without supervision and a fire extinguisher or water dragon on standby!