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WHAT’S A CASTLE REALLY LIKE?

March 17, 2021

            For writers, regardless of genre, there’s nothing like a good castle to add to the atmosphere. I got the inspiration for this article partially from my bud, Richie Billing, who just did an outstanding article on fantasy castles. The problem is that many of you never have and never may have the opportunity to visit a real castle in your lifetime, especially if you live in the good old You Ess And A.

            You can go with thousands upon thousands of photos, endless descriptions from others, but there’s nothing like visiting one yourself. When you describe one in your story, since you’ve never actually been in one, you can just make it up on the fly, depend on the descriptions of others, or do what James Rollins once told me, be vague if you can’t find out (or in this case, see for yourself).

            Then there’s the point of gaining inspiration when all you have is print, or maybe video.

            How can you possibly do something with that?

            I’m going to try an experiment and make an attempt to find ways for you to gain a bit of inspiration without having to book a trip to (mainly) Europe.

            I lived in Spain and Turkey for a total of fifteen years. I lived and breathed castles, every chance I could get, so I chalked up a bunch of castles over those years, including a few in Jolly Olde’ Englande’. In both Spain and Turkey, we (I was not a lone adventurer) often made it a habit to take a weekend drive. In Turkey, it was a bit more planned for safety reasons. In Spain, it was a case of just picking a random road, then driving. More often than not, we’d run into some kind of castle, whether it be a ruin or one fully functional. In other words, I’ve actually been there, done that. While most of them were ruins, living and intact edifices were an occasional prize. In your story, who am I to say that your castle is intact or not?

            Below, I’ve compiled what I hope are a few ways to gain some insight into what a castle is like from everyday places here in the You Ess And A. These examples are a far cry from the real thing, but they’re not all that dissimilar, when you boil it down and use a little to a lot of imagination.

            The thing is to be smart about it and be safe. Some of the better examples I had to omit because the last thing I want to do is encourage risky behavior. These examples may give you your own ideas, but please, don’t go overboard and at the same time, maybe you’ll find even better and still safe examples than what I suggest.

THRONE ROOMS

            This is by far, the safest example, whether you’re religious or not.

            I’m talking about a Catholic church. However, I’m not talking about just any old church. I’m talking about the biggest, and most elaborate Cathedral, with a capital C. You need to find one with the fanciest filigrees and maybe some gold leaf and fancy woodwork.

            Now, just ignore the pews, substitute the pulpit for a pair of thrones, and there you have it. Instant throne room. Keep in mind that in real life, the thrones were not all that big, at least the ones I’ve seen. It may be shocking to learn that many of them were rather small, given the stature of the populace at the time.

            If the priest allows it, sit there in different places and start substituting in your mind a bit. Add in details like tapestries and filigrees and whatever else you can think of and you have an instant throne room.

            Imagine in place of the pews, obedient subjects kneeling before the throne, a bard or two off to the side where the band sits, maybe a jester on the other side.

            Oh, and any residual incense smell in the air is fine. In the old days, it would probably have covered the body odor and damp, moldy smell in the air.

            I can’t vouch for other churches, synagogues, or mosques. I’ve been in some, but the examples I’ve seen didn’t have the right structure for what I’m talking about.

DUNGEONS AND PASSAGEWAYS

            I had another possibility in mind originally, but the negative possibilities that came up as I wrote it made me erase it all. Instead, I came up with a much safer alternative.

            This all, of course, depends on where you live. If you’re in a rural community, you may have to travel to a larger town or city.

            You need to find a parking garage.

            The more elaborate the better.

            Now go for the stairwells.

            If there are any tunnels leading under the street, even better. The plainer the better.

            While this example isn’t the first thing that popped to mind, it’s far safer than what I originally thought of.

            In the stairwells or tunnels, you, of course, have to stretch your imagination, but these places aren’t too different from a castle.

            The sounds and smells would be different, and you’d have to blank out any posters or graffiti on the walls, but just think plenty of silence, mold, dampness and unpleasant malodorous things lingering in the drafty air. Change the concrete to large or even small stones. Narrow the passageways down so that you can stretch your arms across and touch the walls. Lower the ceiling to just above your head. Add in some mold growing from the cracks and maybe a bit of water trickling along the floor. In the stairwells, remove the guardrails and any metal change to stone. Once again, narrow the steps to just wide enough to pass through.

            In the parking garage itself, blank out the cars, substitute the car exhaust for a dank sewer-like smell and you’re close. Where the cars sit, or the parking spaces are lined up, substitute walls and jail cells. Make sure some of them are broken down and the doors missing.

BEDROOMS

            This example is more of a stretch, but it can still work.

            What you need to do is go to a furniture warehouse. Not just a regular furniture store, but a warehouse with a high ceiling.

            Now, find the beds.

            Pick a child or teens bed and lay on it. I say this because a lot of the people back then were a lot smaller than we are today. From my experience, every single bed I saw was on the small side.

            Pretend it’s surrounded by a canopy with all the trimmings. Think of the high ceiling of the warehouse and imagine it covered with filigree and tapestries. Imagine instead of the new furniture smell, the smell of damp mold, old wood and the faint odor of sewage from a nearby chamber pot.

            If you can find an actual canopy bed, great. Try that one too.

            That, my friends, is…oh, and don’t forget the drafts wafting by.

            Now, try to ignore the salesman.

CASTLE CONSTRUCTION

            Like I said before, most of the castles I saw were ruins. What this means is that they were shells.

            Shells?

            That’s right. Instead of stone all the way through, they were outer walls with hollow insides. That means that the thick outer walls were the framework for wooden insides. The insides rotted out. When the castles were either conquered, caught fire, or abandoned, the wood structures inside either burned out, rotted out, or were salvaged.

            So, when you see the inside of a castle on TV or in the movies, you see a lot of stone, but what you’re actually seeing are outer walls. The insides were quite often a lot of wood with stone bracing. That, of course, did not help with the dampness. The wood beams were little more than squared tree trunks with brick or stone buttresses. There was no such thing as insulation or ventilation or a sewer system.

            Being Europe or even the Middle East, dampness and humidity prevailed, and your local A/C and heating companies were not exactly around to help bring things into the comfort zone.

            Me thinks a lot of the peasants, while living in hovels, actually may have sometimes lived in more comfort, if not less protected from invaders than the above ground caves the royals lived in. That’s not saying much, but those were pretty awful times no matter who you were.

SECRET PASSAGES

            Secret passages are great for stories and fiction. However, in real life, they were a lot harder to pull off. First off, secret passages significantly weakened those thick walls, which were meant for protection. Second, when examining castle ruins, if secret passages existed, most if not all had to be incorporated into the inner workings which burned like everything else or were salvaged or whatever. In all my time exploring castles, I never saw a hint of secret passages. One reason may be because they were no longer secret. Maybe back in the day they might have been, but in modern times, they became incorporated into the regular structures of the still functional castles. In the ruined ones, not once did I see any indication of one in the outer shell. If there had been one, it would have been fully exposed after four-five hundred to a thousand or more years of plunder, I can imagine.

            So, I cannot give a real-world example of a secret passage except if you have a crawl space under your house and aren’t afraid of spiders, or an attic, use a bit of imagination and go for it!

MOATS

            Moats were common around castles except as barriers, they weren’t as glamorous as you might think. They were actually used as the sewer. Yup. All that drainage had to go somewhere.

            The moat wasn’t as deep as it appeared to be, but deep enough to take all the wastewater and wide enough to discourage those attempting to try and sneak in. Besides, dredging through sewage just to come up against a sheer rock wall doesn’t encourage invaders.

            To get a sense of a moat, find a storm creek, particularly one that’s polluted or stagnant. It’s much better if it’s fenced. Just stand there on the safe side of the fence and imagine wading through that nasty water, up to your chest, and imagine that chain link fence being fifty feet high without a break. There you go.

SUMMARY

            I hope this helps spur your imagination, especially if you will never be able to get to a place with castles. I know I didn’t cover every aspect of a castle, but this is a good gist of the main points.

            One place I forgot to mention for inspiration was of course, Disney. While those castles are ridiculously far from reality, they can still be an inspiration, for looks alone.

            Happy writing!

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