Clearly there are many advantages to reading bad books. One of these is the inspiration to write blog posts in an effort to make sure it never happens again.
There are several aspects of medieval life which are easily researchable, but which sometimes writers think they can make up on the fly. I can hardly blame a writer, who has grown up with movies and TV series in which the pseudo-medieval people sit round a blazing fire of leaping yellow flames, which comes on and goes off as if at the flick of a switch, for thinking that that’s how it really is.
But you know what, kids, it really isn’t, and writing shows up your ignorance more than any brief glimpse of setting in a movie ever could. Worse, more than enough of your readers will have dealt with camp fires, will have open fires at home, will be blacksmiths, reenactors and twisted firestarters to know you got it wrong and to laugh at you for it.
Here, then, is a cheat’s guide to the common camp and hearth fire.
First of all, to address the scene in the book I just read, if you stumble into a clearing where someone has had a fire which has been left to burn itself out and is now cold, and you want to light one yourself, do not try to set fire to the ‘powdery stuff’ which is left. That stuff is called ‘ash’. Ash is the waste product of fire, and while good for tanning leather and making soap it is not flammable.
So, how do you relight someone’s fire (sounds like a romance plot)?
First of all, you rake the cold ashes out of the place where they made the fire. Ash forms a fluffy, inflammable barrier which prevents air getting to your fuel – so it actually chokes the fire. You want a nice clean start on which to build, because making a fire is hard, and unless you give it the best chance you can, you will fail to get it started at all.
First of all, consider your terrain. Are you in a very dry place? What’s the soil like? If you start a fire on top of an unprotected soil largely made of dry peat, you may end up setting fire to the ground under you. This is a bad idea.
Check, therefore, to see if the previous camper lined the firepit with stone or clay, or whether the ground is wet enough to reduce the danger of roasting yourself and the county you sit in. If not, find stones or clay yourself and make a floor of that to start the fire on.
Next, sort through the raked out mess of the previous fire. There are some parts of a burnt out fire which will be helpful – any largish chunks of wood which are partially but not wholly burned are likely to be slightly more inclined to catch alight than completely unburned wood would be. These don’t go on the hearth (technical term for the floor you’ve made for your fire) yet, though.
Now you want to give the infant fire some baby food to help it grow up strong before it can move on to the solid food of big logs. You cannot just drop a spark on a log and expect fire to result, unless you’re in ‘hello forest fire’ conditions, in which case do not light a fire at all!
Ideally, your sensible pseudo-medieval traveller is carrying a carefully protected bag of dry hay, small dry twigs, and a half a dozen larger dry split sticks. (This is a job for the evening before – drying out enough wood to start the fire next day.)
Arrange the small twigs in a lattice arrangement (any shape you can manage which leaves plenty of space for air to get through, and a hollow in the middle into which you will insert the fire. Arrange the larger twigs on top of that – still carefully preserving the air-flow. Support the larger dry sticks and partly burned pieces on top of that.
Make sure there is a good pile of further wood already gathered and preferably cut up into hearth-sized lengths waiting to go on when the time is right.
OK, so that’s the easy bit done. Now, the prepared pseudo-medieval traveller takes out her tinderbox. The tinderbox contains a small lump of flint and a steel strikealight. It also contains a piece of pre-prepared tinder. This can be a kind of dried fungus, or the fluffy seed of bullrushes, or several small pieces of linen that have been cooked in an airtight box until they’re black.
I’ve never used fungus or bullrushes, but this is how it goes with linen. When absolutely everything is ready, you hold one piece of linen and the flint in the same hand. Strike the steel against the flint until a spark falls on the linen. The spark will hopefully catch and create a little glowing red spot of slow burning on the linen. When this happens, you put the flint down, keep the spot glowing by blowing gently on it, pick up the straw. Place the glowing linen into the centre of the straw and blow hard into the centre of the ball of straw and linen.
Hopefully the straw will catch alight. Not too soon, but not so late that you burn your hands off, push the burning ball of straw into the hollow you created for it in the lattice of what will become your fire. Get your face as close to the fire as you can and breathe air into the flames – gently and steadily.
Hopefully, the twigs will begin to burn before the straw burns out. Hopefully the larger twigs and pieces of branch will begin to burn before the smaller twigs burn out. If so, the careful lattice will slowly settle into itself and begin to create glowing embers.
You cannot walk away from the fire at this stage. It needs another hour or so of feeding it larger logs while being careful not to crush or smother the air out of it before it’s self-sustaining enough to be left for a short period. But even then, you will need to check on it every quarter of an hour or so to make sure it isn’t running out of fuel and threatening to go out, or alternatively to make sure it hasn’t ventured out of the side of the hearth and decided to explore your whole campsite.
Fire needs to be cosseted and nurtured and tenderly nursed, and watched relentlessly to be sure it isn’t going to make a break for it. Fire is not an electric light or a space heater, controllable at the flick of a switch, and it’s a tricky, sneaky creature whom you have to keep a careful eye on.
But, you may say, my pseudo-medieval traveller was robbed of all his equipment and is stumbling through the forest naked. He starts a fire and…
How’s he going to do that then? I say. Naked, eh? So he’s got no flint or steel to create a spark? And he’s got no knife to create a fire-drill? Um… Is there flint or rock around he could knap into some kind of cutting tool? More to the point, is he the kind of character with the survivalist knowledge necessary? Does he know which kinds of trees to make his fire-drill out of? Could he recognise the right kind of fungus for tinder? Is it the right season for the bullrushes to be in seed?
And I really hope it’s not raining, because even if he has the ability to make the spark, if the fuel it ends up on is wet, it will put the spark out.
Your average pseudo-medieval peasant is likely to know how to start a fire at home, using dry everything under optimal conditions, just as you are likely to know how to start a fire using matches and a couple of firelighters. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re any better than you at lighting a fire in the wild without matches/tinderbox and kindling.
Your naked forest-wanderer may still be saved if he stumbles over the remains of someone else’s fire. But – here is the key bit – he must do so before it has completely burnt out. If he gets to the fireplace and the ashes are still warm, then there is a chance that there are still small embers alight in the ash-bed. Then, if he can find dry tinder (straw, dry pine bark, paper etc), small dry sticks and larger dry sticks, he might be able to find an ember in the ash which will take the place of that elusive spark (another good romance title).
It still has to be not raining, though.