I have a book called Very Bad Poetry. It’s one of the most hilarious things in existence. And Fred Emerson Brooks, one of the worst poets ever to walk the earth, is in there.


From a patriotic poem:

Fear not, grand eagle
The bay of the beagle!

From a baby talk poem:

There ain’t much edutation
In such a ‘little head;
Besides, I is so s’eepy
And wants to do to bed…

Something’s seeping around here, all right.

I’m not necessarily going to say a whole lot about real castles; these are annoyances I’ve noticed with fantasy castles. But then, since I am talking about fantasy anyway, I don’t think this is a great problem.

1) Keep the geography of the castle straight in your head.

Draw a map, if that helps you, or a floorplan. Or write out a description (what I always end up doing, since I still have trouble drawing a simple chair). I’ve read far too many fantasy books where the castle was basically “dungeons are down, battlements are up, but everything in between changes around as I, the author, need it to change.”

It’s annoying and confusing to realize that the great hall is described as being next to the library at one point, and then the library has somehow gotten on the other side of the castle near the kitchen later in the book. It can sometimes be explained as more than one room having the same designation. Perhaps there is a “library” that’s more like a study for the king and another that’s full of actual books. But if that’s the case, name them that way from the beginning, and make it clear. Even better, show a first-time visitor to the castle getting confused about it. Then you have the excuse of explaining the odd name designation. And best, just have distinct names, even if they’re the same in your floorplan or map.

Another point on this is that you should know about how long it will take someone to walk or run anywhere, taking into mind annoyances like servants in the way or loose roof tiles. I’ve read fantasy books that kept the geography of the castle the same, but a five-minute walk suddenly becomes a ten-minute run when the author wants to increase the danger and the chance of the hero not getting there in time. Try the other way around for a sense of realism.

2) No random secret passages just because.

Secret passages that lead to the outside of the castle and were intended for escape or bringing in supplies during sieges at least make sense, even though I find them ridiculously overused. (What are the chances both that a spy would miss them and that the one or two people who always know where they are would survive the attack?) Passages that go between random rooms make no sense. Nor do passages that lead into libraries everyone knows about, or into attics where only junk is stored, or between bedrooms that could be reached by sneaking around in the open much more easily.

Think about it. It takes time and money to build secret passages, and most of them must have been built at the time the castle was constructed; surely someone would have noticed if, hundreds of years later, piles of rock were lying around in two bedrooms while a passage was built. (This is the problem I have with the “these two ancient people were lovers and built the passage between their rooms.” How, exactly?) They have to be fitted into the construction of the castle somehow, as well as kept secret. And that’s its own problem. Either the king murders the masons, or he pays them enough to shut up, or he constructs them himself—again, at enormous expense of time and money. They should have had a role to play, one that the modern characters can reason out even if they’re not exactly sure they’re right, and not just occur so that your character can escape when attacked in the library by Random Murderer #8.

3) Keep temperatures in mind.

It’s damn cold in a place that’s made of stone, has windows with (at best) wooden shutters and no glass, and has no central heating system. Unless you’re writing about a southern culture, keep in mind that fires are important, and if your heroine is the Special Servant Girl who sleeps late and forgets to tend her mistress’s fire, she should be yelled at. I personally don’t find it unfair, especially when the servant characters grump about how cold they are. Nobles will probably actually be colder than servants, since fantasy authors seem to have a particular fondness for putting servants’ quarters near the kitchens, where they can sneak in to steal food and have tender romantic scenes, and are incidentally next to big roaring ovens.

Beds are unlikely to have silken sheets—yes, really, even in the king’s bedchamber. There should be furs, or at least woolen blankets, if for some reason they refuse to hunt mammals.

If your castle is a northern one and has no tapestries, too, I want to know why. Tapestries weren’t originally just for decoration or to give bored noble ladies something to do; they also helped keep the castle warm. Find some other means of decoration if you don’t think the tapestries are enough, but taking them away completely adds another level of unreality.

4) Put castles in reasonable places, damn it.

A tower guarding a valuable pass, river crossing or piece of land that keeps getting attacked by raiders is one thing. A huge castle that sprawls in the middle of nowhere, with no mention of a handy means of getting food, water, or anything else, and no reason to guard something, is another, and smacks of the author choosing drama over ease of living. (Of course, the author is not the one who will be living in the fantasy castle. I wish I could push fantasy authors into their books sometimes. It would be educational).

Water will be the hardest thing to supply, since not only will the castle use a great deal of it—water for animals, for cooking, for cleaning pots and floors, and for bathing if your nobles are fussy enough—but the farms that may surround and support the castle will also require a large source of it. Even if your area gets a lot of rainfall, it’s unlikely that livestock could be fed exclusively on runoff. And there must be some dry years. Why build away from a river or a lake?

If there are no farms and this castle is in the middle of a forest, a desert, or mountains, then I want to know where the king gets the cheese and the wine he so merrily feasts on, too. It doesn’t sound as though the merchants will be rushing there.

Finally, most castles are instruments of war, or the author would be using the term “palace.” If it doesn’t have something to guard, why did they build it?

Which is a neat segue to the next point.

5) If the castle is an instrument of war, it should seem like it.

I’ve read fantasies before where the author assured me there were indeed thick walls, arrow slits, and battlements. Then she proceeded to tell me about the wide windows with the new glass all along the first floor, disregarding the three feet of stone previously mentioned, as well as how incredibly stupid it would be to have glass windows at all, never mind wide ones.

Consider your castle carefully. What would happen to it when boulders hit it? Could the walls withstand that for even a little while? Does it have an inner source of water, and granaries full of food that it could depend on in times of siege? Does it have country surrounding it that’s difficult to approach, either because of a moat or something else? Does it have an armory, places where women and children can shelter away from falling stones, easy access to the battlements for the guards?

If it’s an open place where just about anyone could walk in, and if stained glass windows and friendly sentries are more your style than murder holes and paranoid guards, then admit to yourself you’re writing a palace. No shame in that, but it should be far behind the lines, and if the enemy gets to it, it shouldn’t be able to miraculously withstand a siege.

6) Realize how many people it takes to maintain a building that size, and what it takes to maintain the people.

For an excellent glimpse of how many people, read The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams. It’s mostly told from the point of view of a scullion, and the sheer scale of the cleaning, cooking, and copying operations, which he sees up close, is impressive.

The royal family is almost certainly in residence, if it’s your typical fantasy castle. With them are various combinations of their servants, handmaidens, ladies-in-waiting, best friends, hangers-on, sundry relatives, people kept for special purposes like jesters and musicians, nobles they want to keep an eye on or who want their favor, those nobles’ servants and handmaidens and hangers-on and sundry relatives, tutors, cooks, scullions, maids, guards, gardeners, advisers, ambassadors, petitioners, grooms, and people who tend various things, like the wine cellars and forge. And all of them have to eat, too, and drink, and have a place to sleep.

It doesn’t make sense, given all this, for servants never to appear, or for a huge castle to be open all the time. There will almost certainly be shut-up wings and towers, if only to make sure the servants aren’t weeping in despair when they try to clean. It doesn’t make sense to have endless supplies of food and water in the castle itself, either; there will be enough eaten to make bringing in more constantly necessary.

Just a sampling of some of the problems. May do more tomorrow.