Christian/Miles Cameron


Month: August 2018

Writing Fantasy: Baskets and Broadswords

Summer 2018 Deed, Trek, Blue Mountain 045

Lunch on a Medieval trek. Waxed linen bag for food, leather shoulder bag based on a Thames find, Medieval Danish axe, copper canteen based on a 13th c. original.

When people ask me about the impact of reenacting on my books, they almost inevitably follow up with a question about swords and armour.  They’re often great questions, and I’m always happy to answer them; I’ve taken a pretty deep dive into a couple of periods and I think I have developed some interesting ‘general usage’ theories of martial arts and warfare. At the end, there’s a nice picture of a fantastic original sword that helped inspire the book Cold Iron.

But the thing is that weapons and armour are actually the least important aspects of reenacting.  Even the most keen and hardened warrior (if such people actually ever existed; modern psychology suggests that warriors are either keen or veterans, never both, but that’s another story) only engaged in combat a few days a year, whereas cooking and sleeping and keeping clean happened every day.

The remarkable thing about cooking and cleaning and sleeping and living is not the items you need to do them.  You can, with a little online research, reach out and buy a 14th century fry pan and a fourteenth century kettle, and some other very useful kitchen tools. A little more research, and you can come up with recipes and even whole cook books of Medieval food, whether Norse or English, French or Italian.

Even with swords and knives, you can buy an excellent blade; cook’s knives, eating knives, daggers, broadswords.

Ultimately, recreating the past, or understanding a fantasy world, is more about containers than it is about weapons.

Try and find a decent, correct scabbard.

Or a net bag to carry all the vegetables you plan to eat.

Net bags?  Did they have those?

What did meat come from, at the butcher’s?  What was it wrapped in in 1380? How did split peas come, or dried fish? Flour? How the heck do you keep flour dry when you travel?

Let’s cut to the chase.  In the past, most people had to supply their own packaging.  Women went to market with baskets and jars and linen bags and probably leaves and scraps of bark too.  Men who traveled (often the wealthy) had elaborate sets of equipment not entirely unlike picnic sets to carry food and drink and pots and pans. But even those sets usually came inside a container, and the container was a basket.


These baskets are 20 years old. They have gone wilderness camping, been carried many miles, even gone in airplanes.

Wholesalers provided food already stored in baskets; remember when you bought blueberries and strawberries in baskets? (I do.  I’m old.) Most market towns had a ‘women’s’ industry in just making baskets; in early North America, First Nations people made (superb) baskets. They still do.  All of the baskets my Medieval group uses are Mohawk baskets made on the Tyendinaga reserve. We use their baskets because they are actual, usable baskets, which look like the ones in Medieval art but will last and last.

We make our own linen bags, and we can never get enough of them.  It’s worth knowing that linen was often woven at home, by women, and it cost time and effort, so making little bags was probably not all that common. indexTo the left is the cover of Ulrich’s brilliant ‘Midwife’s Tale’, perhaps the most important history book I’ve ever read.  Lots of it is about women’s economy in the late 18th century.  Anyone writing fantasy should read it; anyone with an interest in the lives of women in the past should read it.  It includes details of the internal economy of a house; it even includes details on weaving linen. Just remember, when a reenactor, or a fantasy character, makes a bag out of linen… how many hours of someone’s work that little bag may represent.

In Northern Europe and North America, people made bark containers; usually birchbark, but sometimes elm. Birch bark was as prevalent in Poland as in Canada; Elm bark was equally popular, and I suspect that in England, the bark of ash and other trees was used instead.




Both of these are bark containers from Poland.

They didn’t wrap things is paper, at least right away.  Large scale, commercially successful paper manufacture in a 14th century thing, but that was a fine quality rag paper for printing, and the whole idea of throw-away paper… is not a Medieval idea.  Throw-away?  Even the baskets can be reused. Linen bags can be washed, better yet, boiled. Netting can be used to hold bulk; woven nets of flax or other fiber (includign bark fiber) were used to hold bulk vegetables and all sorts of other things.  When we’re in the woods, we usually use net bags to hold kale and other delectable greenery.

OK, I’m not a big Kale fan.  I admit it.  In the Middle Ages, they ate it, as long as ‘they’ includes horses.

I’ll finish with leather bags.  That’s mine in the top illustration; I’m eating lunch with my Compagnia at the top of Myer’s Hill in the Eastern Adirondacks.  That bag is based on a find in the Thames; it has several pockets, and it would have cost real money even in 1380.  It allows me to keep all my gear separate; my fire kit (there’s another blog) and my candles and my razor and my little mirror and my eating kit and…

And a fortune in small, carefully wrought items.  Why do adventurers not carry these?  And why aren’t they the most valuable possession?  You can always kill some guy and take his sword, right?  But try and find a bag full of useful objects in the outdoors.  Try getting a really good dry snug fire kit. I lost mine on Camino in Spain.  Still sad.

My point is, though, that your leather shoulder bag is your lifeline; your survival kit.  Also your purse.  Mine holds some food, always, and a precious wax candle for starting a fire, and other secrets… Remember that in Medieval clothes, no one has pockets.  And remember that when you say ‘Oh, in my world they have pockets’ you need to know why people didn’t have pockets in the past…

Alright.  that’s enough for today. I’ll stop.

My latest novel is called ‘Cold Iron’ and it is out August 30th in the UK.  This is (exactly) what Aranthur’s sword looks like. It is, (in my novel), an artifact of the ancient First Empire; a long sword that has a complex hilt. I take great joy is learning about the complexities of what museum professionals call ‘Material Culture’ because in understanding these things, be they linen bed sheets or swords, I come to understand the nuts and bolts that hold a culture together.

Original 2


No Writer is an Island

Cold Iron graphic 1

Cold Iron is the first book in a new series.  New series, new world, and one that is, I hope, totally original.  I admit that I was itching to write The Red Knight when I started Fantasy in 2011, and I might return to Alba again eventually; I certainly planned a prequel about how Gabriel becomes the Captain, and I also have in mind a series of short novellas about life after the Gates are open… actually, I’ve already written two of them… and the paperback/mass market of the last book, Fall of Dragons is out this week, which is amazing, because I’ll have two Fantasy novels out in the same month…

Fall of Dragons graphic 2

Never mind.  While Alba is/was the demi-Arthurian fantasy of my youth, I have long wanted to write a very different, and in some ways more ‘fantastical’ series. Cold Iron is the first in a three-book series, but I hope that there will be other adventures and other protagonists when Aranthur Timos is gone, at least in part because this is a world into which I’ve sunk a great deal of design time.  I run an active RPG set there; it isn’t going away soon (See below!).

And I had some goals.  Recently a reader pointed out to me that my books tend to have themes.  I always knew this in my head, but it was fascinating to have a reader point out that the themes are so strong…  William Gold (the Chivalry series, after all) is obviously about the ethics of violence, while the original ‘Tyrant’ series was about leadership and responsibility. And the Red Knight series was also about leadership, or rather, about how a great leader might come to be, in response to a crisis; how there are no great individuals, in my mind, only great teams.  I hope that came through; that arrogant and self-centered as Gabriel Muriens is, he is the captain of a brilliant team, and it is the team, not the individual, that triumphs. And Ash’s failure is as much about Ash’s selfishness and inability to delegate as it is about any brilliance of his adversaries.

But I digress, as usual.

Cold Iron also has a theme, and the theme is complex.  I have come to believe that fantasy, or at least ‘good versus evil’ fantasy may actually have some role in the creation of the world in which we live; the world of apparent contrasts, of terrorism and refugee crises, of renewed racism and re-born right-wing ideologies. I worry, (despite how much I adore Tolkien and E.R. Eddison, who was himself pretty close to a fascist) that our books, which often portray lone-wolf sword-wielding heroes with piercing blue eyes, relentlessly Northern European cultural signifiers, and various forms of violent masculinity, monarchy and aristocracy and ideas of purity of race (even if the race involved is Elvish), that these books can be read to have a very different message than the one that we intend, or even that most of us receive.

And I’ll add to that, as I put in my blurb in SFX, that I worry that violence and the portrayal and fetishising of violence has become the new pornography.  Don’t imagine I think I’m above all this! I love writing fight scenes; especially really large battles; I love martial arts, I enjoy fencing, I shoot guns,  etc, etc. I also love writing commanders with piercing blue eyes.  I just don’t know it that’s a good idea right now…

So the theme of Cold Iron is, ‘The World is complicated, and the bad guys are not easy to spot, and maybe violence isn’t the way to fix them.’ (It’s funny to say this, as Cold Iron has more sword fights per page then Red Knight.  However, it’s there, in the end…) Sometimes it reads more like a spy novel then a fantasy; sometimes, at least in book 2 (Forge of Darkness,already finished and handed in) it may read a little more like horror. Anyway, I confess that if I’m trying to turn the ship of epic fantasy, it’s a slow turn; I still have lots of daring do, and Book Two (Forge of Darkness, but, friends, I recently discovered that Steven Erikson, whose work I very much admire, already has a novel of that title, so I’m going to try for ‘Anvil of Darkness‘ instead) book 2, whatever its title, opens with a major battle scene… it’s not action, it’s the effects of action, and I’m trying, thematically, to use the action to tell a different story about violence, right, and wrong.

All that said, what I really wanted to blog about is the team that makes a book. It’s true that I write them… but I have enormous help. So let’s look at all the people who are involved. Because whatever my message, nothing would get across to you, the reader, unless I had all this support.

First, I have an editor.  Her name is Gillian Redfern, and she’s amazing.  She’s a great editor, and she’s a thoughtful critic, but the thing about her that’s delightful is that when she’s at a con with her ‘staff’ she’s ‘The Captain.’ She’s fun to watch, as she does all the leadership things so well. Before I knew Gillian, I never thought of editors as captains, but I suppose that’s foolish of me.  of course they are, especially in high-pressure social battlefields like SpecFic cons… Anyway, Gillian is a fantastic editor and she makes every book better… and she leads the team that does all the rest.


Gillian Redfern

I also have an American editor at Orbit, named Brit Hvide, and she’s also brilliant.  I’ve never met her, but I like her patience and her contributions and, to be honest, I love her twitter feed. And she and Gillian both help me stay current on what’s ‘going on’ in Fantasy, because Fantasy is a very lively genre.

And besides editors, there’s a very different person called the copy editor.  Mine is Steve O’Gorman, and he’s the best copy-editor I’ve ever had.  He’s ridiculously thorough, but he’s also interested and keen. Cold Iron is much better edited than any of my prior fantasies, and even more fun, Steve made me rationalize my languages to the extent that I got to be a little Tolkienesque and work out how each culture’s language works, what some of their verb forms were, and how we’d form the various modiers.  Safian?  Safirian?  See, when I write, I just write… and I make up words, and as a fan (anti-fan?) on one of the boards recently put it ‘Cameron forgets a lot.’  Unkind readers might add that I can’t spell either.  I like to think that a lifetime of reading historic manuscripts has convinced me that spelling, like race and culture, is merely a construct and I should rise above it.  Ahem. Regardless, Steve makes it all so much better. Steve is an independent copy-editor; a free lance.


Steve O’Gorman in his natural habitat

Brittany Sankey at Gollancz is new (to me) but she works in marketing, and she’s provided, for example, the lovely advert blurb that graces the top of the blog.  I look forward to getting to know her better.  No, I could not graphic design my way out of a sandbox.  I need someone to do that for me.

Stevie Finegan is my publicist at Gollancz.  She’s also the person at cons who leads me around and tells me where to eat and where to get a pen to sign books.  I adore her patience, as I can be a bumbling old fool; and her boundless energy, which may simply be a job requirement, but I like it. Stevie coordinates interviews and magazine articles and all that; because of Stevie, people in the UK have some vague idea who I am. (I have little active publicity in Canada and thus, no one here knows who I am, which is probably the best thing for all of us).

Stevie 2018

Stevie Finegan

Steve James (almost everyone on my team is named Steve, if you hadn’t spotted that yet, unless they are called Brit…) is one of my oldest friends, and he has drawn the maps for every book I’ve ever written (36 to date).


Steve James

For Cold Iron, he had to draw a world map and then re-draw it about six times as the role playing game and the novel resolved conflicts. I could write a whole blog on how different an RPG is from a novel.  In an RPG, everything has to actually work… players routinely ask about distances, days of sailing, supplies, where to buy a donkey…


And map-making is a two-way street.  Steve’s maps sometimes alter my writing.  I look at the map and realize things… sometimes too late to alter the text, but not this time… thanks to Steve, and Steve O’Gorman, the map actually matches the novel.  Well, except for one error, all mine.  ‘Mitla’ the Imperial city way up in the left top corner, is actually ‘Volta.’ Blame the author.  Oh, by the way, there’s the map to the Cold Iron world… or about 1/2 of the known world. Safi, the steppes, and Zhou are off to the east… maybe book two or three… right now (literally now) Steve is making a colour map of the city of Megara… my fantasy city that has some Lankhmar and some Sanctuary and some Merovingen as well as a healthy dose of Venice on top of an solid strata of Istanbul and Athens. Swamps and canals, bridges, a waterfall, an gothic palace, a magnificent university…

Yeah.  Steve has to get all that down on paper.  Go Steve!

And the newest member of my team is Keight MacLean. Keight is an award-winning Toronto artist; she paints and has a successful career.  Luckily for me, she also plays role playing games and reenacts the Middle Ages (so does Steve) and was willing to do some illustrations, so she’s doing the cover for the ‘Reader’s and Players Guide to Cold Iron’ which will be out as freeware next week (a downloadable PDF on my author site … the thing is, we all have to finish working on it first…

DSC_9397That’s Keight at the right in the beautiful hat. I own two of her paintings.  She plays in the Cold Iron campaign AMD is a Medieval reenactor.  Oh, and also paints.

And here’s an early draft of the painting she’s doing for next week… just to give you some Cold Iron flavour… You can see the painting next week AND DOWNLOAD THE COLD IRON PLAYERS HANDBOOK AND READER’S GUIDE FOR FREE ON MY AUTHOR WEBSITE.

cover rough 3

Aranthur, Dahlia, prince Ansu and Tiy Drako try to decide where to get a drink.

And so far I haven’t even mentioned the cover design team… I don’t actually know their names; and Kerem Beyit, my brilliant cover artist. Even then, I haven’t acknowledged my RPG group who have contributed ideas, character suggestions, and various sharp objects, or my beta readers, several of whom have asked to remain anonymous, so I’ll just say… I wrote a good deal of historical fiction without Beta Readers…how did I ever do that?  They’re incredible, they catch name errors, they care about magic systems, and sometimes they just say gushy nice things that make me feel better…

Did I mention the RPG?  I have eight permanent players and a half dozen who have made guest appearances, and every one of them… every one… has made a contribution to the eventual novels.  BTW, the Cold Iron group still meets and will continue to meet… after all, in writing the novels, I’ve generated a lot of good content, right? :) They’re on a parallel track and never really intersect with the novel’s plot, a trick I learned from Celia Friedman (American SpecFic writer C.S. Friedman, who remains one of the best GMs I’ve ever played with!)


My RPG crew. Also my friends from Medieval reenacting. Also my friends, really. Chris Ryall, Syndi Berman, Chris Duffy, Keight MacLean, Heli Kennedy, Sean Horbatiuk, Craig Renaud, Aurora Simmons, Elisabeth Beattie. Missing; Kayla O’Brian, Stephan Callahan.

All together, there are about twenty-five people who have contributed to this series.  All three of these books will come out over the next 14 months.  I hope you like them. If you do, thank all the people who made these books happen.  And if you don’t, that’s probably my fault.

Cold Iron graphic 1