Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Research Corner #1: Grossness

I haven't ever talked much here about research.  In fact, it's perfectly possible I've never talked about it before.  The main reasons for that fact, in ascending order of relevance, are a) that it never really occurred to me as a viable subject until I read Laura Lam's frequent, always interesting posts on the topic, b) that I never had anything particularly exciting to talk about on that front and c) that I tend to do bugger all in the way of research.

Wow, there's a confession.  I mean, don't get me wrong, if I see the need, I do it.  I use google images a lot to get a taste for locations.  I spent a fair amount of time trying to make sure I was getting my terminology regarding fortifications more or less right.  But as a general rule, I suspect I do less than a lot of writers.  And I have a stone-cold excellent excuse, too.

Two words: Easie Damasco. Best defence for being a lazy researcher ever.

Because Damasco is self-absorbed, bad-mannered, solipsistic, frequently ignorant and generally great at ignoring anything that isn't relevant to what he's going through at any particular moment in time.  I mean, some writers, their protagonist meets somebody and they have to worry about intricate details of what that other character does and how they do it.  Not a problem with Damasco!  He'll never ask.  If they try to tell him, he won't listen.  If they try really hard, he'll probably run away.  Or rob them. Or fall off a cliff.

Fortunately, for me at least, this tends to mean that when I do need to research something, it's pretty intriguing.  Because after all, it's either caught Damasco's all-too-fickle attention or else it's so damn important that he hasn't managed to ignore it.  Some serious investigation went into the lock picking sequence towards the start of Giant Thief, for example; I stopped short of actually teaching myself - though, I admit, it was tempting, and hey, it's not like you can't buy the relevant equipment on Amazon - but I did pick up a few interesting odds and sods.  For instance, that any film in which you see someone picking a lock with a single pick is patently wrong.

This post, however, is here solely because of a subject I recently read more about than I probably wanted or needed to, and felt the need to share, if only so that I wasn't the only one having to think about it.

You can't exactly tell from his expression, but this man lives in HELL.
I had a vague idea from somewhere that tanning wasn't a particular pleasant process in ye olden days, and tended to get relegated to bits of town that no one much wanted to go into.  So, needing an unpleasant location to cram a few characters into in Prince Thief, a tannery seemed like a sound bet.  And that inevitably led to the question of just what it was that made tanneries so gross that no one wanted to live next to them.

So here's how my (very wikipedia-heavy) research went:
"In ancient history, tanning was considered a noxious or "odiferous trade" and relegated to the outskirts of town..."
Aha!  Along the right lines here...
"Skins typically arrived at the tannery dried stiff and dirty with soil and gore."
Well ... that's gross, but understandable.
"Next, the tanner needed to remove the hair fibers from the skin. This was done by either soaking the skin in urine, painting it with an alkaline lime mixture, or simply allowing the skin to putrefy for several months then dipping it in a salt solution."
Wait, what?  In urine?  Allowing to putrefy?
"Once the hair was removed, the tanners would bate the material by pounding dung into the skin or soaking the skin in a solution of animal brains. Among the kinds of dung commonly used were that of dogs or pigeons. Sometimes the dung was mixed with water in a large vat, and the prepared skins were kneaded in the dung water until they became supple."
Did you just use the phrase dung water?  Just before solution of animal brains?  In reference to the already half-rotted, peed on, dead animal skin?  Oh, you did, didn't you. You know what, Wikipedia, you could have just answered my question without quite so much graphic detail!  A brief and only slightly repellent summary would have done the job just fine.
"It was this combination of urine, animal feces and decaying flesh that made ancient tanneries so odiferous."
 Yeah.  Little late now.

So, next time someone tells me it could be worse, I'm going to believe them without hesitation.  Even if I'm being attacked by zombie monkeys and my feet are on fire.  Even if my house is being burgled by trained velociraptors.  I'll clasp them by the hand and thank them for their wisely platitudinous observation.

Because sure, those things would suck.  But at least I wouldn't be a medieval tanner.


  1. Ah, ancient tanneries, this takes me back to my undergrad ;-)

  2. You had to fund yourself through uni by working in an ancient tannery? You've earned my sympathy for life!