Salt may be one of the most important chemicals that humans use – and certainly it is the most loved. Humans have craved salt so much they start wars or accept it as payment for a days work. The craving for salt has shaped civilisations throughout time. How does this crystalline addictive substance fit into a novel? It is there in the word – crave. What people desire, they will do anything to get.

Salt is a simple element – Sodium Chloride. It forms a cubic crystal called halite. A fun experiment most kids would have done is to grow the crystals on string dipped in a saturated brine solution. The slower the evaporation, the larger the crystals. It is found obviously in the sea, in animals, and on land in salt mines, lakes and hot springs. While by itself it is colourless, it is usually found in combination with other minerals (magnesium etc) which give it different colours, such as greyish, or pink. It can also be in association with algae, which can give a salt lake a distinct pink tint.

It is harvested or mined in a number of ways. Salt processing was recorded as early as 6,000 BC and mining in 5,000BC. Processing is basically evaporation and can be as simple as harvesting from drying ponds, or intricate methods of boiling and refining. Mining is a difficult and dangerous task, with miners in ancient times having short life expectancies, although that is common for mining of all forms. Old or abandoned salt mines are used for purposes as diverse as churches, radioactive waste storage, health cures and tourist attractions. Post apocalypse novels could make good use of these as shelters. Some photos:

Before refrigeration, salt preservation of meat and fish was extremely important. Added to the relative scarcity of salt and the labour needed to process it, and you have a highly sought and rare commodity. For humans, this leads to violence to obtain or steal it, slaves or prisoners to produce it, and the rich to flaunt it. This unfortunate aspect of humanity is something that can be included in any historical or fantasy novel. Less upsetting aspects can be a how to make a dish of salt fish, or bartering for supplies of salt, or using it as a form of currency.

For science fiction, the environment of salt is interesting. Super saturated brine pools are home to all sorts of interesting bacteria and algae, as well as more advanced creatures. One Star Trek episode involving changing the pH of underground water was found to be killing a sentient species that lived in it. Creatures that live in the chaos of evaporating salt ponds have evolved ways to manage salt concentrations, even using it as a spur for metamorphosis. Tardigrades have also featured on Star Trek, and there is room for other extremophiles to be explored in scifi.

Along with desire for salt is the reverence for salt. It is a common addition to spells in Wiccan, being a symbol of the earth. But many religions have customs around salt. Breaking bread and sharing salt, or salt spilled and throw it over your shoulder into the eye of the devil for instance. But salt was also used as punishment – sowing the fields with salt so your enemy could not use the land. Getting transformed into a pillar of salt because you lacked sufficient faith.

Romance may be able to upset the saltshaker! The salt sweat on the skin of a lover, a pinch of salt to perfect a dish for the beloved, or the ever-hilarious mistaking salt for sugar by the blushing bride. Or shedding salt tears, at either an unexpected proposal or a gut-wrenching tragedy.

So a simple daily use item has a history and power that can be exploited in a novel. Salt reflects the face of humanity in it’s crystalline surface. A glittering prize or a dark mirror of the worst of humanity. It’s your novel, so you can choose!

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World building: Salt
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