A few days before I was due to meet my writer friend Laura Montgomery in Culpeper (for a lunch of Chinese stir fry), she announced that she was christening our meal the Midway Writer’s Conference.
We both chuckled. Can a gathering of two really be considered a conference? Despite our laughter, we gave the question serious thought.
We’re old college friends who lost touch over the years and then reconnected in the comments of the wonderful blog run by Passive Guy, aka David Vandagriff.
We were astonished and delighted to learn that our lives had acquired some curious parallels. She’s the mother of twins; I’m the mother of twins. She’d launched herself into indie publishing writing science fiction. I’d done the same writing fantasy.
How cool was that!
After a bunch of cordial emails and some beta reading for one another, we decided to meet up for a cup of tea. After the briefest of pleasantries—“You look just as I remember you!—we talked writer shop for 2 hours straight. At the next meeting we talked for 4 hours, this time mixing publishing shop in with the writer shop talk.
Our latest meeting was 6 hours, with a focus on the marketing angle of indie publishing.
Yes, these really were conferences. Although this time we actually did manage to talk about our kids. Who knows? Maybe next time we’ll even chat about our spouses. 😉
One of the topics we discussed in Culpeper was the nature of genre and whether or not I wrote epic fantasy. Laura blogged about the question (and our conference), so I’m going to quote her. She said:
We tried to figure out if…The Tally Master was epic fantasy or not.
I was arguing it was. The troll wars rage across the Northlands. Weapons are forged. Our cursed main characters live in a troll tower of monumental proportions. It all seems pretty epic to me.
The hero is a bronze-age accountant. She was telling a small tale. It was a mystery about missing tin, a matter of seemingly little moment.
But, said I, it has large consequences, it’s part of a grand, epic sweep. A light bulb went off in my own mind…
And now I think I’d better send you off to Laura’s blog to read the rest. It’s really not fair for me to steal her audience.
So click HERE and go read. She’s witty in an understated way that I love, so it’s worth the click. I’ll wait while you visit her. Promise. 😉
Did you go?
I’m going to pretend you said, “Yes.” You did, right!
(The Sky Suspended features the patent fight she mentioned. Mercenary Calling presents the mutiny charge in a suspenseful story that also kept me in a ripple of internal chuckles the whole way through. I do love Laura’s dry humor.)
What did you think about her light bulb?
I thought she was clever—and correct—in her assertion that we both like focusing up-close-and-personal on a hero caught in the sweep of epic events.
But does that truly make my books epic fantasy? I know I’ve asked this question before, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to decide the answer for certain.
Nearly a year ago, I wrote a guest post about bronze swords:
• how the metals were extracted from the earth
• how the weapons were smithed
• and why they were more effective than the early efforts from the Iron Age.
The blog on which my post appeared is an active one, hosted by a talented and prolific sister author. She generates fresh material for her site every day, and my post has long been buried under 365 days of impressive creativity!
Given my latest streak of posts about steel swords, now seems a grand time to revive my research on bronze swords and present it on my own blog. 😀
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Tracking down knowledge is my drug of choice. Each new fact is just so interesting! Even better is the moment when an entire constellation of facts coalesces, and I see how it all fits together and what it all means. That’s a total thrill!
But my insatiable curiosity (and I seem to be able to be curious about everything and anything) was not why I researched bronze metallurgy in ancient times. I was writing a novel set in the Bronze Age of my North-lands, and my protagonist was essentially the treasurer for a warlord. The wealth of the citadel lay in its metals and – especially – its weapons. So I needed to know all about how the metals were extracted from the earth, how they were purified and poured into ingots, and what forging techniques were used. My protag knew all that stuff, so I needed to know about it also.
For those of you who share my curious bent, here’s what I discovered.
Too many of the sources I found were overly theoretical. The author might explain why ancient cultures developed metallurgy as they did or how they traded for their tin. But I needed nitty gritty details.
How were their smelting furnaces set up? How long did it take for the metal to become molten? How exactly did the ancients fashion bronze scale mail? How did they make their bronze swords?
Historical re-enactors and experimental archeologists proved to be my most fruitful sources. I found actual patterns for re-creating bronze helmets and bronze armor, along with photos of the finished results. I found videos showing Bronze Age combat techniques.
Smiths Were Mages
The website of Neil Burridge, a smith who creates Bronze Age artifacts using authentic materials and methods, had the details I was truly seeking. Videos of him in action allowed me to see a real smith moving within the forging environment, garbed in the protective gear of heavy apron and gauntlets, using the tongs and crucibles, exercising prudence with the liquid fire that is molten metal.
He also explained vividly the awe with which the ancient smiths were probably regarded. Metallurgy was not a theoretical science for them. It was a practical discipline, absolutely necessary for their tools and weapons, but with techniques developed over hundreds of years and handed down from one smith to another.
They didn’t know why these techniques worked. And they weren’t infallible. Sometimes a pour would turn out a perfect result. Other times it would fail, and the smith wouldn’t know for sure what had caused the failure. Certainly ordinary people, with no access to a smith’s secrets, would have regarded the whole business as magical.
Why Would a Skilled Smith Waste His Time?
Although the people in my novel were using Bronze Age technologies, I envisioned them as possessing military organization more like the armies of ancient Rome. Thus my smiths would not spend days setting up for the pouring of one sword that might – or might not – deliver success. They would pour many blades in one day, and then hand the blades off to others for the steps that transformed the plain metal blank into a weapon.
Anvilfire.com, a website “dedicated to advancing modern blacksmithing while retaining traditional standards of craftsmanship,” supplied me with information about this finishing process. The bladesmith created the blade. A separate shop did the grinding and polishing. Yet a third made the hilt and secured the blade to it. And a fourth made the scabbard.
Making a sword was resource intensive, both because of the valuable metals required and because of the labor from many skilled individuals that went into it.
Firesetting at the Copper Mine
So what about those materials? Bronze is made by mixing a small part of tin with a larger portion of copper. The ancients didn’t have modern strip mines or deep underground mines. Nor did they have sophisticated machinery run by diesel engines. How did they get copper and tin out of the ground?
Copper mines bore some resemblance to my expectations. The copper deposits needed to be relatively near the surface, but the ancients actually did tunnel down to a vein of ore. There, at the working face, they built a fire to heat the ore-containing rock. Once the rock reached a high enough temperature, they doused it with cold water. This process increased the brittleness of the rock and induced a preliminary degree of cracking. Blows from a hammer or pick could then break it into rubble, which could be heated in a smelting furnace to extract the copper.
Tin was another matter, one entirely new to me.
Tin was found in alluvial deposits in stream beds, usually as a very pure tin gravel well stirred with gravels of quartz, mica, and feldspar (gangue). So the trick was to separate out the tin gravel from the others.
The method of the ancients, as far back as 2,000 BC, was this:
• Dig a trench at the lowest end of the deposit.
• Dig a channel from the nearest water source to pour water over that part of the deposit
• Allow the stream of water to wash the lighter gangue into the trench
• Pick up the heavier tin gravel that remained
• When the lower portion of the deposit had yielded all its tin, dig another trench a bit higher and redirect the water channel, to allow the next section of the deposit to be harvested
The tin gravel thus obtained would be roughly smelted on site, simply roasting the gravel in a fire. The pebbles resulting from this rough smelt would then be transported to a dedicated furnace for a second smelting that yielded the purer tin needed by bladesmiths.
What About the Ingots?
Modern ingots are rectangular blocks, but those of the ancients took several different forms. The earliest were so-called “biscuit” ingots, round on the bottom like a muffin, gently concave on the top. They took the shape of the earthen pit into which the molten metal dripped from the smelting furnace.
But metal is heavy, and the biscuit shape awkward to carry. Around our own Mediterranean, an “oxhide” form was developed. It weighed about 80 pounds and possessed four “legs,” one at each corner, that allowed it to be tied between pack animals or gripped and carried by men.
I became fascinated with an ingot form used much later by the Chinese in the Malay Penninsula. These were hat shaped, much smaller (weighing only a pound), and actually used as currency.
A Peculiarity of Forging in Bronze
Bronze has one very peculiar property in the smithy.
Most metals, such as iron or even copper, when heated and cooled slowly to room temperature, become more ductile and more workable. They are less prone to internal stresses.
Bronze does not behave like this. When slow cooled, it becomes brittle and difficult to work. Thus it must be heated to cherry-red and then quenched in water. This quick cooling makes it so soft that it can then be hammered. The hammering condenses the metal, giving it more rigidity.
A bladesmith will hammer near the edge of a blade to harden it and help it keep its sharpness, while allowing the center rib to retain more of its resilience.
Were These Swords Any Good?
If you compare a bronze sword to a steel sword, the steel is always going to win. But when the Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age, bronze metallurgy was at its peak. Several thousand years had gone into the development of the most superb techniques. Iron metallurgy was in its infancy, and getting the iron swords to be rigid enough was a problem. The iron swords just weren’t as good as the bronze ones, which were light, strong, just rigid enough, and held an edge well.
But there’s no need to take my word on this. A YouTuber with a passion for swords, Skallagrim from Canada, discourses quite knowledgeably about the pros and cons of bronze. More amusingly, he tests one of Neil Burridge’s bronze swords “to destruction” in the video below.
(There’s a brief reprise snippet of Mr. Burridge before Skallagrim gets going with his destruction. Go to the 3:30 mark, if you want to skip that snippet.)
Even after all my research, I cannot call myself more than a mere smatterer. I learned enough to write The Tally Master, and not much more. But I hope you found these tidbits entertaining, and I’ll be happy to answer questions in the comments below. Or to speculate with you, when I don’t know the answer. 😉
In The Tally Master, the elite of the citadel possess quarters in the uppermost levels of the tower. Its warlord, Regenen Carbraes, inhabits chambers with an internal stair connecting several lower spaces with others on the upper floor.
Gael, the protagonist of the novel, chooses not to use the official apartments that go with his position of Secretarius, but he pays an unplanned and fateful visit to his empty rooms one evening.
Another turning point in the story occurs on the terrace ringed by the quarters of the elite. Carbraes and the general who commands his legions (the March) are enjoying a rare moment of conversation and leisure under the summer sun, when Gael brings them startling news.
The tower of Belzetarn possesses three great halls. Too many trolls dwell in the citadel for one hall to hold them all, and even so, many of the craftsmen and craftsmasters dine in the mess halls of their lodges, located in the artisans’ yard or the bailey.
The topmost hall (level nine) serves as the official hall of the regenen, the warlord who rules the citadel. But Carbraes’ practical instincts push him to dine in company with more than the elite, and thus he randomly takes some of his meals in the middle great hall (level six) and the lower one (level five).
When Gael goes seeking the castellanum one evening (the castellanum manages the domestic concerns of the citadel), he starts by checking the topmost great hall, but comes up empty. The middle great hall is equally bereft of the highest officers. Carbraes dined in the lowest great hall that night, and the castellanum, perforce, dined there with him.
I find the book to be beautiful, and for several days after I received my copy, I kept it on the coffee table in the living room, so that I could pick it up and admire it every time I passed nearby. Now it’s on a bookshelf, but I keep taking it down to look it over – gorgeous cover, beautifully framed frontispiece, wonderful map, and so on – wanting to prove to myself all over again that it really does exist. 😉
I’ve enrolled the book in Amazon’s Matchbook program, which means that if you purchase the paperback first, you can then buy the ebook edition at a discount. As a reader myself, I’ve found that for certain books I want the paper edition sitting on my bookshelf, while I tote a convenient digital reading copy on my e-reader when I’m out and about. Perhaps some of you might own to a similar preference.
As I type this, the paperback Tally is available at Amazon, CreateSpace, or Barnes & Noble. Over the next 8 weeks (or so), it will wend its way through the distribution chain to reach bookstores such as the Book Depository and Powell’s.
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Seven years ago, reeling from a curse in the wake of battle, Gael sought sanctuary and found it in a most perilous place.
The citadel of a troll warlord—haunt of the desperate and violent—proves a harsh refuge for a civilized mage. But Gael wields power enough to create an oasis of order amidst the chaos.
Now master of the metals that flow to the citadel’s weapon forges, Gael rules his tally room unchallenged, until he discovers a theft within its vaults.
Gael loves the quiet certainty of black ink tally marks on smooth parchment, but his search for the thief leads to a maze of unexpected answers, putting his hard-won sanctuary—and his life—at risk.
Set in the Bronze Age of J.M. Ney-Grimm’s North-lands, The Tally Master brings mystery and secrets to epic fantasy in a suspenseful tale of betrayal and redemption.
Belzetarn’s wealth is measured in its metals and the war gear made from those metals.
Great vaults at the core of the tower hold stores of weapons and armor for the legions. Smaller vaults, stacked within the thick outer wall, guard the swords and breastplates intended for officers, as well as the ingots of tin, copper, and bronze from which they are forged.
Gael’s tally chamber lies off the lowest great hall, where the lowly in the tower take their meals. Gael’s personal quarters sit immediately above the tally room, while his assistant’s apartment perches third in the stack.
Three significant scenes take place in or adjacent to the melee gallery of the tower (on level three).
In the earliest, Gael first sets eyes on the cursed gong that his warlord’s scouts dragged from the bottom of a ruined well. The gong will bedevil him through much of the book!
In the second scene, Gael must pronounce a young prisoner to be either troll or human. If the youth is human, he will be executed. In the third scene…well, too many spoilers for me to say a word about that one! 😉
Gael’s friend Barris is the chief cook in the Regenen’s Kitchens, and Gael stops by the servery often as he goes about his responsibilities. Barris presses food treats such as smoked fish and fruit conserves upon his friend whenever Gael looks in to say hello.
When I made the (vague) plan to share my floor plans for Belzetarn’s tower on my blog, I envisioned a vast spill of drawings showing all of the main levels. But when I opened my computer to write the post, I realized that just as the proverbial “wall of text” is unappealing, so is the “wall of floor plans” a bad idea.
I almost scrapped the whole thing.
But… but… but! Floor plans are cool! I bet some of my blog readers would like to see them!
So, instead of reserving the floor plans for the appendices of The Tally Master only, I put my thinking cap on. How can I present the floor plans in an approachable way? Thinking… thinking… thinking…
How do you spread the waist-high pile of mulch? One shovelful at a time. How do you make the long journey? One step at a time. I would not try to show the whole tower in one go.
Plus, I could then talk about what’s on each level, which would be fun.
So, here are the lowest levels of the tower and the kitchen annex.
The cellars under the kitchens are a little lower than the smithies inhabiting the roots of the tower proper. Two separate stairs give access to the root cellars, but the mead cellar deliberately has only one locked entrance. No illicit tapping of the mead barrels allowed!
Many of the drinking vessels used at table are made of horn (much more delicate than the pottery bowls and copper cooking pots) and possesses special cleaning requirements. Thus there is a horn scullery devoted to washing drinking horns! The leather bottiles in which mead is carried to the great hall, where it is served, also posses their own scullery.
The Castellanum’s kitchens, right above the cellars, prepare food for the bulk of the denizens in Belzetarn. The Regenen’s kitchens (one more level up and not on this floor plan) handle the fancy dishes reserved for the high table where the warlord and his elite officers dine.
The smithies occupy the great stone vaults at the foundations of the tower. They are shadowy spaces, lit by the fires in the forges and echoing with the shouts of the smiths and the ringing of hammers on metal. The color of heated bronze – or copper or tin – indicates its temperature and when it is hot enough to be worked, so strong sunlight would be a hindrance.
My inspiration for The Tally Master came as a sort of vision, although “vision” is a misnomer, given that the sense of sight had little to do with it.
I felt as though I were Gael as he sat in a small and gloomy chamber hollowed from the thick stone wall of a dark lord’s dark tower, hunched over a parchment, quill scratching tally mark after tally mark.
There wasn’t much light, just flickers of firelight and shadows and the sensation of great weight pressing my shoulders down and my spine into an uncomfortable curve, while sound filled the air around me.
The roaring of great forges deafened me. The clanging of smiths’ hammers on beaten bronze clamored. Sudden shouts made my heart contract in alarm. Spurts of running footsteps pounded in a nearby stairwell.
Gael and the sounds of his setting seemed very real, and I wanted to tell his story. I knew that he was a troll and that he managed the wealth – the metals – for his dark lord, but I didn’t know much else.
So I engaged in the process that has become so familiar and effective for me over my years of telling stories. I asked myself question after question, made extensive notes of my answers, and drew bunches of maps and floor plans. Over several months, I came to know a lot about Gael, about his overlord (not quite the typical “dark lord” at all), and about Belzetarn, the citadel that was their home.
In my initial stabs to make Belzetarn match the feeling I had for it, I placed the kitchens in the tower proper, which was utterly wrong. I was so relieved when I realized that they were located within a sort of annex slabbed onto the lower southeastern side of the tower. Once I got that piece, the rest of the fortress almost fell into place by itself, although it took me a while to draw it all.
My goal was always to sculpt the physical form of Belzetarn to express the mood and the ambience of my initial inspiration.
The style of this drawing doesn’t truly hit the mark. The photo at the beginning of this post does that better. But the design of the tower itself is close to right. It’s tall – very tall – it’s dark, it possesses clawed protrusions at the top and a lumpy, spiky annex on one side. Plus, all the chambers and offices are in the right place, as you can see when you slice the tower in half.