This evening, in an effort to get caught up on my 5th grader's science project that is coming due, we spent an hour or so investigating the effect of viscosity on boiling point of a selection of liquids. My son had chosen four different household substances, all he perceived as having varying levels of viscosity, to boil and measure the temperature at which they did so. One of these chosen substances was vegetable oil.
As he measured the oil to pour it into the saucepan and heat, I told him to hold on a second. In all my years cooking, I have never once seen vegetable oil boil. It has smoked. But bubble to a steady boil? Never. So I quickly did a little snooping around on the internet, and soon informed my son he would not be using vegetable oil as one of his subjects.
What does all this have to do with fantasy? Or writing? I promise, I'm getting there.
I learned in my quick Google search that it could potentially take raising the oil to three hundred degrees (Celsius, mind you) to get it to boil, and that just ain't gonna happen here in my kitchen. Even if I could make that happen on my stove, I wouldn't want my 5th grader within range.
Which brings me to the fantasy tie in. You hear all kinds of books that employ a pseudo-medieval, western European structure at their core, and in those epic sieges of castles, you hear talk of intruders being doused in boiling oil poured through murder holes. Now, the murder holes are something you can go to any number of castles that are still standing and observe. But what about the boiling oil? Would medieval technology really offer the means to boil oil, rather than just heat it to smoking and potential combustion? I don't know the answer to this, but I could know. How? A little thing called research.
Yes, fantasy is one of those places you have a lot of wiggle room to make stuff up, since if you can't do something in real life (like boil oil over an ordinary fire, maybe?) there's always magic to bridge the gap. But even fantasy writing is so much better when the mundane facts are researched and based in plausible reality. Sure, you can throw us into your fantastic world, where people wear armor that makes them able to jump many times farther and run exponentially faster than they otherwise would, or dragons spew way greater a volume of their substance of decimation than would logically fit inside a physical organ of some sort, and you can chalk that up to magic. But when ordinary people are trying to accomplish every day stuff, a little research goes a long way in building depth and richness.
I see the researched stuff as the steak of the meal, and the magically enhanced, fantastical stuff as the crumbly gruyere topping. You wouldn't eat a whole plate of the topping. A big chunk of steak, more likely. The cheesy goodness, in moderation, just makes it all the better.
So whether you're deciding if your soldiers can carry armed crossbows on their backs, or you're planning a massive, cataclysmic war in your world, do yourself a favor. Undergird it with some research.
Otherwise, you might just find yourself standing at the electric range rescuing a ten year old from a pot of oily inferno. Figuratively.
By the way, drop back in at the beginning of next week...a new installment of The Windrider will be up either late Monday or early Tuesday.