One of the things I find myself frequently doing is researching for something I want to include in a book. Sometimes I’ll find myself planning it out before the book itself is written, or, because I’ve had a stray thought while writing out a scene, and realising I don’t know how the process goes well enough to include a description of the character engaging in it – no, I don’t mean the character in question suddenly dropping in a ‘how to’ of tanning – unless it’s part of the story. The characters which populate my imagination are busy sorts – they like to keep their hands busy or use up the daylight well. Inevitably, because most of the stories I have are set in a fantasy, a number of the ‘way things are done’ rely heavily on traditional techniques.
Most of what I research does not end up in the book itself. It’s usually kept as -mostly handwritten- author’s notes or little scribbles in my concept notebook. This is part of my personal worldbuilding process, because it allows me to be able to visualise how the setting works – and what I can and cannot do with it. I’ve ended up with a library of DIY, off-grid, self sufficiency stuff because of that, and cookbooks that go along a similar vein; and I hat-tipped that kind of How To book with my bookish dragon, Sparrowind. This kind of book existed in real life as well, usually in the form of a housewife’s cookbook and household-management instructional – most of the book would be recipes, and maybe the last quarter would include things like how to make up household cleaners, furniture polish, and how to run your household efficiently. I’ve a couple of these, dating back to the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s, inherited from my maternal great-grandmother. One of the books has a very basic first aid instructional section, which dealt with things ranging from splinters, to well, treating someone who had been hanged from a nearby tree and isn’t dead yet, while the other has instructions on how to dress a deer.
Why yes, I find it fascinating at how much a woman was expected to know back then, in order to be considered competent, compared to the ‘modern age’, where all too frequently, we have women who are unable to cook themselves a basic meal. I’m grateful my parents didn’t raise us like hothouse flowers and made a point to raise my brothers and I to know how to cook, clean, do the laundry – by hand!-, priortise and budget, shop for groceries, and organise ourselves. I’ve had a number of people praise me for how helpful my children are around the house, because even if it’s a chore as simple as helping me unpack and sort the groceries, they can do it. I then get a story about how that’s so rare amongst children now.
I relate this not to toot my own horn or disparage the modern woman (okay, too much), but to illustrate how differently things were done between my own childhood and my children’s and their peers. My siblings and I were taught how to do laundry by hand; my children were taught how to properly load the washing machine. The difference in what we needed to know lies entirely because in the differences of the settings we grew up in.
Those differences mean a LOT, which we often take for granted. For example, let’s take the availability of water.
When I was in Germany, we had a washing machine and a dryer, but when we returned to the Philippines, the area we ended up living in – and the era – was when we’d only get enough water pressure to the apartment during certain periods of the day – something unimaginable to someone who, until that point, only had to turn a tap and there was clean water. Now we had to make sure there was clean water stored up for cooking, drinking, washing dishes, and bathing in. Oh, and water needed to be boiled before you could drink from it, so when you factored in the cost of buying tanks of LPG gas, water was more expensive than soft drinks and soda; and the boiled water had a rather metallic aftertaste, so we would mix up 2 liter pitchers of Tang or Kool-Aid to mask it.
I left out laundry from that list because that needed to be scheduled – a laundry session typically took about four hours, so we couldn’t wait for the times when the water would be available in the house. The dirtiest clothes were soaked in water mixed with some detergent, while the not-so-dirty clothes were kept in a hamper. During weekends during school-times, and twice a week during school breaks, we’d take all that laundry out, with basins and bars of soap and hauled them to the sidewalk outside our small gated compound. By the wall outside our apartment there was a large spigot, installed by someone, that the neighborhood would use to fetch water from.
Well, we’d use the water once we’d let it run long enough so that it wasn’t rusty colored. We were lucky because further down the street, the spigot there had water that stayed slightly reddish – so sometimes the housewives and menfolk living there would carry their laundry over to our spigot to wash.
Using buckets and large hand-held ladles, we’d pour water into the basins and wash and scrub our clothes until they were clean – denim often scrubbed on a washboard and a plastic net sponge that helped scrub off the sweat, dirt and smell, as we crouched beside the basins, or sat on low wooden stools. My father’s white shirts had to be soaked in soap that had bluing incorporated in it. You had to change the water whenever it got too brown, which meant that you hauled out all the clothes you were cleaning, pile it next to you and pour the water out of a basin that was often more than a meter across, because while you were scrubbing one article of clothing, you’d be soaking some of the ones you were working on next. Then you’d fill the basin from buckets of water filled at that spigot, rinse off the dirt, and get back to cleaning. Each of us worked with our own washing basin, while the dirty clothes inhabited another, and the washed clothes were piled into another large basin. It took typically 2-3 washes (with soapy water and soap) and a rinse to get all the clothes clean, and you had to try wring out as much water as you could so it wouldn’t take ridiculous amounts of time to dry. Then it would be trudge back inside, with wet laundry, to hang them up to dry.
Sound like painful backache-inducing work? It was, and I think that was one of the main reasons why I didn’t need to do a lot of exercise as a teenager. But it was also rather social work, because we’d chat – with a neighbor who timed their laundry sessions with ours, or took advantage of the fact that the water was clean then, as we scrubbed washed and worked.
In my mother’s home village, there were neighbourhoods with communal deep wells with a hand pump – the larger ones took two people to pump. If you lived closer to the river though, you went to the river with your laundry, and then swam to wash your sweat away. I used to see people – usually wives, mothers, sisters and boys who weren’t big enough to work in the fields – wash their laundry there, chatting and laughing and gossiping. It wasn’t uncommon for as many as four households to load up their washing into wooden carts and push them to the river, or hook up a cart to a water buffalo and take the trip to the river and wash clothes, animal and other hard to clean things there, have a picnic lunch at the river then go back home after a quick wash in the river to bring the clothes back to dry.
My grandmother’s house had its own deep well, which they didn’t have to share, which had enough water pressure to allow there to be a sink in the kitchen, and an outdoor bathroom and a flushing toilet – one where you didn’t have to fill a pail of water to flush the toilet with. There was a bathroom at the house too, but it was a later addition. The water from the deep well was also clean, so you didn’t need to boil the water before you drank it. Compared to a lot of other places, it was downright luxurious because of the water. (The kitchen, by the way, was a wood-fire kitchen and the kitchen fire was fed by corn cobs from the family corn field.)
If that sounded hard and awful and primitive, I don’t have any concept of how hard it was when soap wasn’t very common, or when you had to make your own soap. I can’t imagine too well what it’s like for people in a pre-industrial society to do that, especially if they had changing seasons. It’s things like that that shape how local cultures work, how they do things, how they plan things, how their social habits form.
That’s why I read about them. I can’t live those eras, or see them firsthand, but if the people of the societies they’re based notionally off of are going to interact with my characters, they’ll have their own methods and schedules, some of which are inflexible enough that my characters may need to work around them. I won’t have a historian-accurate setting – often times I won’t need it to be accurate down to the way that they made nails – but I do need enough of it in my head at the least, to be able to plonk my characters into that setting and sometimes use those everyday limits of society as roadblocks to my characters.
Some stories turn those everyday things as massive challenges for the characters. A great example of this is found in the light novel series Grimgar of Fantasy And Ash. The story focuses on a bunch of modern-day young people who find themselves in a fantasy world, with no memories other than their names, they are given no choice except to be recruited as members of the Frontier Army’s Reserve Force – which are essentially freelance, or mercenary monster exterminators, who go hunting monsters, and bring back bounty items stolen from the corpses to trade. Hinting that this is somewhat like a Sword Art Online trapped in a video game plot, the newbies are given 10 silver pieces at the start and have to buy their own equipment, guild membership and food. Unlike Sword Art Online, this story follows the difficulties of a group that has problems killing the equivalent version of the level 1-3 monsters in a video game, without even having the benefit of information beyond ‘you need to do this or die.’ It’s so bad that they are forced to avoid excess use of the clothes that they wear under their armour, and something as simple to us as salt is expensive and is used sparingly. Even dying is expensive, as you have to cremate the body to prevent it from rising as a zombie.
Great stories can be found everywhere, if you know how to look.
I mean, if you got this far, you read several paragraphs of me describing how we used to do laundry.