Hello everyone,

Research is a constant, ongoing process while writing historical fiction. Sometimes a fascinating tidbit surfaces that might be of particular interest beyond its use in a novel. As I continue to work in the historical fiction field, I will post those occasional points of interest here. Occasionally I muse on the writing process as well along with news to keep readers informed of what's going on with my books and other writings.

Please feel free to post comments--I'd love to hear from you.

The photo above is of Snowdonia in North Wales, which plays a large part in the setting of the Macsen's Treasure Series.


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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Thunder Fire!

While moving along with the re-edit (which is turning out to be more like an overhaul) of my first book, Into the Path of Gods, I decided to reassess one of the secrets my main character Marcus discovered. Ok, actually, he stole it from the druids.

We know very little about the druids. Mostly, it’s some skewed, propagandized information left from the Romans who destroyed the druid enclaves in Britain as part of their conquest of the island. Because they banned all forms of writing, the druids left behind no documentation of their own. They were, however, considered well educated for the time and along with the histories, mythologies and genealogies of their people, they may have also understood some astronomy and other scientific disciplines. When the Romans destroyed their groves, schools and culture, this vast knowledge was lost.

Or was it? It is believed that a few druids escaped the annihilation and continued to practice in secret. One reason for banning the written word may (and that’s a big ‘may’) have been to protect their knowledge. Were some of their secrets dangerous? Something they didn’t want people to use on each other?

In the original version of the book master spy Marcus ap Iorwerth stole one of those secrets. He reproduced a recipe of charcoal, saltpetre and sulphur, an explosive powder he enclosed inside fragile clay balls and lobbed over fortifications to make noisy distractions and wreak general havoc. Anyone in the know would recognize this recipe as what we call gunpowder. Having no guns in the fifth century, Marcus called his weapon a powder ball. Historians believe gunpowder, invented by the Chinese, was not known outside of China until the thirteenth century, although the Chinese possibly knew it as early as the tenth century. Could the druids have actually known or figured out how to make gunpowder? It’s possible, but we’ll never know without a time machine.

So if the druids (and Marcus) didn’t have this explosive powder, to what else could they have had access? In doing a little research, I learned that accounts of incendiary weapons have been documented as far back as the ninth century BC and have encompassed a wide variety of formulas, delivery systems and names in the centuries ever since. The most common name applied to the entire range is ‘Greek fire,’ invented by the Byzantines. This term actually only originated since the Crusades and in truth should apply just to the particular mixture the Byzantines employed. Other names, some from earlier times, some from later on, include sea-fire, Roman-fire, war-fire, liquid-fire, prepared-fire, automatic-fire, and processed-fire.

Because druids belonged to Celtic culture that goes back to ca. 500 BC, and because it was widespread across much of Europe and even into parts of western Asia in those days, it is possible the druids could have known of this form of weaponry and kept the formula secret. Indeed, throughout the centuries these formulas were heavily guarded military secrets.

Now, I’m not a chemist or scientist, so I’m hoping this makes sense. Of the substances used in these formulas, a petroleum-like fluid, ala tar, pitch, naphtha, or tallow would have created the base. Other ingredients might have included sulphur, saltpetre (aka stone salt), charcoal, and quicklime. Marcus would have had access to tar (distilled wood, peat moss, heath, among other sources), as well as stone salt, charcoal and quicklime.

Here’s one of those instances that makes me love research. Quicklime, when in contact with water, immediately increases in temperature to 150° C. So if a pile of wood is soaked with tar in combination with some of these other substances, and quicklime is added to it, it’s possible to start the fire with water of all things!

[Note: a demonstration of this was done on television, probably on The History Channel or a similar channel. I’m trying to locate a DVD of this, but haven’t figured out which channel/program/episode yet.]

This liquefied fire was delivered by various means, often out of pressurized siphons—primitive flame throwers. Another innovation in delivery of this fire is shown in a picture from the National Historical Museum in Athens: clay grenades! These were used in the 10th – 12th centuries, and were filled with Greek fire. In the picture they look like they are made of glazed ceramic. Other pictures show them made of unglazed terracotta. This seems to partially validate Marcus’s use of clay spheres to deliver his destructive message. Clever fellow that he is, he could have improvised this delivery system as good as other innovators did. Just because it’s not recorded somewhere, especially in a time when things were rarely or not recorded at all, doesn’t mean it couldn’t have existed then.

So, we have Marcus stealing the recipe to produce liquefied fire, making up or stealing the idea for some device to deliver the goods, but what would he call it? As he’s discovering this for the first time, he might overhear a term from the druids or dub it something logical as he sees it. Of the names listed above, perhaps war fire or liquid fire might make sense. Because he intensely dislikes the sea, he’d never call it “sea-fire.” He might be tempted to call it a “river-fire” instead because it looks like a flaming stream or river. But when he first sees it, a loud boom is set off. I think he would call it “thunder-fire.” Maybe by the time the editing is done I’ll have decided on another name. Or Marcus, in his clever, convincing way, will have decided it for me.

Photo courtesty of National Historical Museum, Athen Greece, as noted in the Greek Fire entry on Wikipedia.com