Reading is easy. We sit in a comfortable chair, perhaps by a warm heater with cat on lap/dog at feet and a hot drink. That’s often why we read, to share vicariously the bad times and good with characters while we are cosy. But what about the characters? They are the ones on a quest for some hidden relic, pursued by demons or orcs. Often just as they stop for a rest, the wolves start howling and lightening signals a storm. As Sam Gamgee said, ‘I hope we are not in one of those stories, Mr. Frodo.’ But a reader share the hard times, and it is up to the writer to make those hard times so realistic the reader shivers in sympathy as the snow piles deeper and the distance from home and safety grows ever further.
Fire making is of prime importance in a fantasy, historical or even apocalyptic setting. Assuming no one has fire magic (and here we glance meaningfully at Gandalf) or a handy laser or box of matches, it is up to the author to decide on how primitive things need to be. Bearing in mind that primitive technique is really just one not used now. Fire lighting from scratch is no easy task, that’s why we invented matches and moved swiftly onto electricity. Fire lighting and wood collection is a big part of the whole process of food preparation, keeping warm, and also scaring off night predators. A fire is something that has brought comfort and safety to humans for their entire existence, and is a large part of the human experience, despite the advances of civilisation and central heating. Without a fire people are in trouble, for in the cold and darkness come the monsters of the night that we have put into so many stories. But just because they are in stories doesn’t mean the monsters aren’t real.But just because they are in stories doesn’t mean the monsters aren't real. Click To Tweet
Early methods of fire lighting would probably have been the collecting fire after lightening method, which would be a dramatic event in a book, or a forest fire, which could be a whole chapter in itself of survival and danger. Auel in her ‘Earth Children’ series of Neanderthal times has a fire bearer, a person that carries a burning coal from one fire to the next, kept alight in an old horn, and fed through the day with bits of tinder. An important role of high status and responsibility.
Commonly when people think of lighting fires, the rubbing of two sticks together is advised. However this needs skilful techniques, and even the right pieces of hard and soft wood to work, and is also a physically demanding task. Doing this at the end of a long day would be a frustrating and tedious job.
One technique predating flint and steel was also used by Auel. Her character fortunately discovers iron pyrite can be used to start a fire when hit against flint. When pyrite was available, this must have been seen as quite magical, and Auel uses this to great effect in her novels. There is some evidence that Otzi the iceman used flint and pyrite as a fire starter.
Moving into more civilised times and the development of carbon steel we come to the tinderbox. Humans love handy little boxes of things, and the fire starter kits or tinderboxes were probably on a lot of present lists. Many steel designs were used, most often to fit neatly into the hand, as seen in the photo. A piece of flint or other hard stone such as quartz would be used to strike the hot sparks from the metal. In the kit was the tinder, ranging from carbonised material, dried mushrooms or fur to catch the sparks. I used a tinderbox in a scene in my book Druid’s Portal, as Trajan finds out in exasperation that modern day Janet can’t start a fire.
But sparks – just like in romance- are not enough to cook dinner. Wood must be collected, from small pieces to larger ones as the fire builds up. Different woods burn at different rates as well. If your barbarians are in a pine wood they are going to burn through a lot of wood fast, compared to ones in a hardwood forest. The fire can be a problem if the smoke is sighted by the enemy, so dry aged wood is needed. It also needs tending for the night, so you may need to set guards for this task.
If wood is not available other things may be used. Villages were popular in Viking days for instance. Dried dung from horses produces a pungent smoke, and bones can be used as well, although apparently they require more oxygen to burn successfully. For instance, Auel again uses mammoth bones in an area of few trees, necessitating the invention of a below ground vent to push more air to the fire. Ventilation is also important – fire uses up oxygen and in a closed area people can easily die trying to keep the cold air out. In ‘My Side of the Mountain’ by Jean Craighead George, a story of a boy who lives in the wilderness for a year nearly ends prematurely when his tree room gets sealed by snow. On the other hand, in ‘Ghost Fox’ by James Houston the American Indians take advantage of the smoke swirling to hang meat up to preserve it, as does Pa Ingalls in the little House series, building his own smokehouse.
But sometimes the fire won’t start. What will your characters do? The wood is wet and the quest ends in a swamp. It’s pouring down and those wolves are howling again. Keep on going? Blame each other and storm off? Find a cave and snuggle with the hero for warmth? Drain the swamp water from their boots and curse the Gods? This is when your characters show what they are made of – in hard times when the reader is shivering and cursing the gods and jumping at shadows right along with the story. Sometimes the fire won’t start, and that’s a good thing.