Hovel Day

July 17th, 2006

One of the many complaints about fantasy writers (and is pilloried in Diana Wynn Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasy) is the Peasant Hovel villages, towns, streets just below the castle. If you feel your world requires the wide economic divide between rich and poor, at least spend a day in your own hovel thinking about what life is actually like.

Here are my Hovel Day suggestions:

One, go camping. i don’t mean at some lovely place that has rustic cabins with electric lights and clean toilets that you don’t have to clean yourself, hot and cold showers, and a dining hall just down the path that someone leveled for you, I mean out in the wilderness somewhere. Spend as long as you can. you probably won’t want to hunt for food, but to make the test work, while you are going through the labor or building a campfire, cooking your meal, serving it, then cleaning up after it, reflect on how and wherefrom you would have obtained that meal.

Next, experience the tasks of getting through a day: where are you going to the bathroom? How are you keeping clean? If you camp long enough, how are your clothes getting clean, or are you compromising and wearing them over and over? What are you doing for entertainment since there is no electricity? How are you protecting yourself if the area is known for roving wildlife searching out food?

If you can’t go camping, then have a no-electricity time at your house–a week if you are venturesome (and this opportunity might be given to you if you live in a hurricane or quake area) for at least a day. How do you perform your daily chores if you cannot turn on a light or stove or washer? How do you communicate if there is no phone? You are permitted to use the toilet, but post a sign in front of the can saying “Where would I put it when I am done?” Cook without gas or electricity. Get from room to room without electricity–this is where writers often fall down, characters run around as if the lights were turned on in Ye Olde Castle. What does a room look like when you enter it carrying a lantern or candle? What do the stairs look like when you mount them with a candle dripping wax if you are not careful? (And where did you get that candle?) What does it smell like? Writers often blithely have characters with tallow candles–do you know what tallow is, how much it stinks, and how poor its lighting is?
A day spent without amenities can help make those poor folk in your fantasy land more convincing.

17 Responses to “Hovel Day”

  1. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 17 Jul 2006 at 5:09 pm

    Amen to that, Sherwood. It reminds me of the scene in the movie musical Brigadoon where they’re pulling tartan plaid out of the dyepots. (My god, it must be a magical village if they can do that!) And then there’s the scene in the first Pirates of the Caribbean where the heroinne is saved from an incipient flaming death by a luckily timed pirate raid. Why? Because her maid, having used a bedwarmer apparently for the first time ever (they being so useful in the tropics–not!), leaves the covered pan filled with hot coals between the bedsheets. Ahem. Bedwarmers were meant to warm the sheets, then be removed. Leaving one in the bed is the equivalent of plugging in an electric iron and dropping it in the laundry basket. How long until all the clothes are ironed? And why am I smelling smoke?

    Also, a note on tallow candles. Tallow candles were also called rushdips or rushlights. Why? Because they were rushes soaked in fat, either beef or mutton. They could also be eaten in a pinch, if you were starving. Of course, the last time in a novel I saw anyone eating candle-ends for sustenance was Tom Sawyer.

  2. Sherwood Smithon 17 Jul 2006 at 5:38 pm

    There are some accounts by real mariners wherein they ate the ends of tallow candles…even the ones with insects smothered in the grease.

    Yes, if they left something in the bed, it was a hot brick. They also used hot bricks in carriages if they had to ride at night.

  3. glenda larkeon 17 Jul 2006 at 7:36 pm

    I once spent a week camping with 20 men out in the forest with no bathroom or toilet …now there was a logistical problem for me!

    Once again, I think the problem for a fantasy writer is not just to think of these things and be aware of them, but also how to integrate this background without letting it take over. The story and the characters are what counts, not how they go to the dunny (Oz slang, for those unfamiliar with the term). Whatever the reader is going to be bothered by, you must deal with – and the key word is ‘integration’. The background, toilets too if necessary, have to be fitted into the story so that the result is seemless.

    One fault of beginning writers is to bring up the problem only at the time it becomes important, thereby interrupting the narrative flow of a key scene. For example, if it suddenly becomes important to the action that the family in the hovel use tallow candles, the middle of the action is not the time to explain what a tallow candle is made of and why they are using it.

  4. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 17 Jul 2006 at 8:28 pm

    I think it’s more important to simply know that poor people, if they were lucky, had rushdips, and the rich could afford beeswax. If the poor light their hovel with rushdips, people can gather from context and etymology what they are.

    There was a detail which I thought I’d posted, but obviously something just ate it. Anyway, here it is again, of use especially to Regency writers: A friend of my mother just mentioned she’d been in a historic house in DC where there were “skirt mirrors” in the ballroom. These were mirrors set in the wainscotting such that ladies with full length skirts could see them move as they swirled around the dancefloor.

    Little details like that help to add to the verisimilitude

  5. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 17 Jul 2006 at 8:32 pm

    Here’s a post on rushlight that I put on my blog sometime last year:


    Ever wonder how to make a rushlight? Here’s how:

    The Rushlight or Rush Candle of Old England
    From The Rushlight, Vol. 1. No. 4; Feb. 1935Readers of Shakespeare and Milton, of Scott and Dickens, of Charlotte Bronte and other writers, are probably familiar with the rushlight of English literature, but few of them perhaps have any distinct mental picture of it and how it was made. Figures given here are from the years between 1750 and 1800.

    The common Soft or Candle Rush of Europe is identical with the common Bog, Soft or Water Rush (Juncus effusus L.) of our own Worcester County, where it grows freely in wet meadows, and along brooks and the borders of ponds. The Candle Rush has a round, green, erect stem up to four feet tall, filled with a soft, white pith. There are no leaves, but several inches below the pointed tip of the plant is a many-branched cluster of small inconspicuous flowers.

    The best time to collect the rushes for candle-making was in the summer or early fall. As soon as the rushes were cut, they were put to soak, so that the peel or outer skin would strip easily. Small children, old people, and even the blind became very proficient in removing this skin, always leaving narrow strip to hold the pith together. When this was done, the rushes were left out on the grass to bleach and to collect dew for several nights; they were then dried in the sun. All the fats and grease of the household were saved, and if a little beeswax or mutton suet could be added to the mixture, it gave a clearer light and burned longer. The rushes were dipped in this boiling mixture, and when carefully done gave a good clear light.

    A rush two and a half feet long would burn about an hour and larger ones up to an hour and a quarter. A pound of rushes, weighed and dipped, would contain over 1600 individuals and would cost about three shillings or 1-11 of a farthing apiece. Allowing an average of only half an hour for each rush, large and small, to burn, this would give over 800 hours of light, or 33 entire days. A thrifty housewife could get 5 1/2 hours of rushlight for a single farthing, and a pound and a half of rushlights would last a frugal family an entire year; for the working people went to bed and arose by daylight.

    Taken from Worcester Magazine. Its author was Norman P. Woodward, Botanist, and it was sent to THE RUSHLIGHT by Mrs. Frank H. Dillaby.


    Here’s an extra article, with photographs:


     and another article here with details of how to also make a rushnip and grisset:


  6. Muneravenon 18 Jul 2006 at 10:33 am

    Living in Alaska (except in the cities) helps one get over taking electricity and running water and indoor plumbing for granted.

    Having to hike out into the woods at night in -30 degree weather to get to an outhouse really makes you think about how badly you want another beer.

  7. David Louis Edelmanon 18 Jul 2006 at 4:44 pm

    This is why you people all need to write science fiction instead of fantasy. Within a few hundred years, we’ll either all have nanobots that take care of all the messy and sticky aspects of life, or we’ll be uploaded into virtual environments where we won’t have to worry about it. :-)

  8. Erin Underwoodon 20 Jul 2006 at 5:02 pm

    Hi David,

    You’ve made a good point about writing science fiction. However, if you want to write SF your technology has to be correct or the story falls flat even if it’s plausible. I’d love to write SF, but I’m not sure I could do justice to the technology. Do you have any tips for writers who are not well versed in technology, but who want to write futuristic fiction without having a degree from MIT?

  9. Katharine Kerron 20 Jul 2006 at 6:09 pm

    Sherwood, great post, but you forgot the flies. :-)

    Livestock was a part of everyday life for both rich and poor. Serfs had to raise meat animals for their lords’ tables, not that they were allowed to eat any part of them. The slightly better off poor would have a chicken or two for eggs. Yeoman farmers would have a pig, chickens, a plow horse or mule, and a milk cow at the least. All of these animals produce um well by-products. Said by-products attract flies by the hundreds, though it August it must have felt like thousands.

    Even in the cities and towns, those who could afford it kept livestock, chickens, the occasional cow, and of course, the well-off had a team of horses. More by-products, more flies.

    Erin, you might try going to your local library and checking out some books on science and tech for the General Reader. There are a quite a lot of them available.

  10. Sherwood Smithon 20 Jul 2006 at 6:43 pm

    Well…if people do go camping, they will get a Rich Bug Experience. At least I always have, and come home pink-doughed with multiple bites of various sorts to prove it. *g*

  11. glenda larkeon 20 Jul 2006 at 9:05 pm

    Sherwood, I live and work in Malaysia. Besides the wealth of the bug experience, we have leeches…I have on occasion come back into camp and removed as many as 45 of the little *#@s

    Katherine, I once read that someone riding into London in Elizabethan times on a hot summer’s day would see the cloud of flies over the city before they saw the buildings. Have NO idea if this was true or just something the writer invented.

  12. Sherwood Smithon 20 Jul 2006 at 9:25 pm

    Hoo boy, talk about a dose of reality.

    And that would be a great lesson in worldbuilding…because going out into the wilds of the Rockies is a far cry from going out into the wilds of Jakarta, or Northern China, or Antartica, or central Africa, etc etc.

  13. David Louis Edelmanon 21 Jul 2006 at 2:29 pm

    Erin says:

    Do you have any tips for writers who are not well versed in technology, but who want to write futuristic fiction without having a degree from MIT?

    Be consistent. Your technology doesn’t necessarily need to be plausible from a scientific sense so much as it has to make sense on its own terms. You can invent a McGuffin to cover the big technological leaps, as long as you think through all of the implications.

    Say you envision a future where some scientist has invented a machine to eliminate flies. Never mind how the machine works… how much does it cost? What does it look like? What effect does the disappearance of flies have on the food chain? Did the inventor of the machine become filthy rich? And so on.

  14. Katharine Kerron 21 Jul 2006 at 4:33 pm

    There are freshwater leeches in Europe and in parts of America, too. They like still shallow water, the sort of pond where children can swim safely though that’s not their motivation, I suppose. I have been bit by these beasties myself in earlier days. It’s oddly interesting to see them turn from slime-gray to pink or purple with your own blood — or rather, it’s interesting the first time. After that, it was grab the salt and attack!

  15. glenda larkeon 24 Jul 2006 at 8:48 am

    Yeah, we had the freshwater ones in Australia too – we used to turn them inside out on a stick for fun when I was a beastly little 10 yr old…

    But the tropical ones are land leeches. They even drop on you from above. And the ricefield leeches are HUGE.

    Oops…we seem to have got away from hovels…

  16. Alison Croggonon 24 Jul 2006 at 7:02 pm

    A childhood spent on a farm is quite a useful resource. When I was a child, I milked cows, raised calves for meat to eat and was made to labour in the vegetable garden. I had to take my turn making bread and we made our own jams and even clotted cream (still a favourite culinary memory) and cheese. And my mother was a horse fanatic, so I was falling off them from an early age…no rushlights, thanks be to god. I’m sure they smelt.

  17. Erin Underwoodon 21 Aug 2006 at 3:32 pm

    One more addition here for dark castles. Mirrors and polished metal (if they could be afforded) were also used to trap and redirect natural light into places that were poorly lit.

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