When I first heard about What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank: A Fantasy Lover’s Food Guide I knew it was going to be brilliant. The concept alone demanded it – which I had heard about a few months beforehand.
I’m in a writers’ group with Krista D. Ball, and when she explained what she was working on, I wasn’t alone at being filled with a mixture of excitement and envy. I wasn’t jealous because I could have written this book – I couldn’t have – but because it’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime fantastic ideas that you know is going to be a huge hit.
What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank is a writers’ guide, a cookbook, and a history of food all rolled into one. Its primary aim is to help authors of fantasy (and historical fiction) be more accurate in their use of food. Underneath that is an entertaining, anecdote-filled adventure into our culinary past. And it’s funny too – sample chapter title: There Is a Horde of Orcs Chasing Me. Can We Stop for Some Rabbit Stew?
I bought my copy the second it came out and I’m about a fifth of the way through. In short, it’s brilliant. Krista has a light touch and squeezes in a ton of useful information – which makes an entertaining book for writers and readers alike. It’s clear from reading it that some of the research was very… hands on. I asked Krista to come along and explain a little more. Here’s Krista:
Research, Novels, and Pig Fat
Research is one of those love it-hate it-avoid it choices that many genre writers face at some point. Research can be as simple as a web search about how viruses are transmitted to something as complex as the socio-political impact of the French Revolution on peasant farmers. From that sentence, you can probably guess where I lean!
In 2011, I was asked to write a non-fiction writer’s guide about food history – What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank: A Fantasy Lover’s Food Guide. I knew there was a need for such a book; I’d done time as a slush reader. The internet is littered with incorrect information concerning food history. Plus, many people don’t know where to even start. They base their assumptions on movies and television, or other novels where the accuracy may or may not be above par. I’ve personally received many emails over the years asking for help on various topics such as what sailors on a Man-of-War would eat, or if a Regency heroine could drink coffee with her breakfast.
It has been a while since I’d gotten deep into the research, so it was good to be back at for this book. I learned a few things quickly, however. Information access has sure changed since I was in university. Back then, I’d be reading newspapers from the 1850s and carts full of books. Now? Whenever you ask a question online, someone “helpfully” tells you to Google it – and usually provides you a snarky link of them searching for the topic.
But, did you know that the internet can be wrong? It’s often wrong, in fact, if you are looking in the wrong places. It’s difficult to tell who is writing the information. While researching my book, I had people share their favourite links on various topics. One of them? After some digging, was written by a group of junior high students as a class project. Most people just look at content, when they should be looking at source.
Part of my frustration with research is that I only learn how things were done. People boiled pig fat and made lard. Ok, great, but what is that process like? For me, that’s a question I had to find out. After all, I was writing a book and doing the research so others wouldn’t need to, right? And aren’t all of the writing gurus telling we writers to address all of the senses? I could not not investigate food history without providing the scents and textures!
I purchase a whole pig every year from a free-range farmer and had asked them for the kidney fat; apparently, the best for flaky pie crusts. I chopped the fat up, giving myself carpal tunnel. I didn’t wear gloves, so my hands had a grease layer. Worse, I kept touching my face (a bad habit) and a week later had an acne outbreak that rivaled that of any teenager.
I got the oven heated up and started rendering the fat. The smell…oh wow. In Jane Austen’s Emma, Mrs. Elton talks about wax candles in the schoolroom. I never really got why that was a selling point. Wow. If tallow candles smell half as bad as that behind-the-fast-food-joint grease stench that filled my house, ugh. Wax me up!
I got my hot fat cooled enough to handle and started pouring it into a funnel. Of course, I bumped the edge of it and coated myself, the floor, the stove, the fridge, and the dog in about two litres of cooling pig fat. The dog was very, very happy about this situation and spent the day happily licking her paws. The cats were equally amused, as the dog’s back end provided a communal lardpop to lick as they walked by.
Yeah. It was a mess. Don’t try it at home.
Undeterred, I tried my hand at milling my own flour. Fifteen minutes to grind two tablespoons of flour with a bunch of rock chips in it. Or, what about when I tried to make mushroom ketchup so that my readers would know what it tasted like? Here’s a hint: fermenting mushrooms on a countertop is bad when you have cats. Really, really bad. However, bone marrow cooks up well in the fireplace, as long as you wrap it in birch bark. Bet you didn’t know that!
So why am I saying all this? Well, sometimes I think we writers need to experience the things we write about. Instead of just reading about horseback riding, why not go take a lesson? Sure, you might be terrified of horses, but you’ll know how it feels being at the mercy of a one-tonne animal. Try some boiled salt beef and tack bread (called hard bread where I’m from) to see how your guts feel; your hero’s story will be all the more authentic.
Smell the rosehips. Make your own ink. Bake a loaf of bread. Live your fiction for a couple of hours. Don’t just experience life; experience history, too.
Krista was born and raised in Deer Lake, Newfoundland, where she learned how to use a chainsaw, chop wood, and make raspberry jam. After obtaining a B.A. in British History from Mount Allison University, Krista moved to Edmonton, AB where she currently lives. Somehow, she’s picked up an engineer, two kids, six cats, and a very understanding corgi off ebay. Her credit card has been since taken away but you can find her causing trouble on Twitter and at her website.
The paperback will be out in a few weeks, and I’ll be ordering a few of those as well for Christmas presents. It will be available on the other retailers very shortly, but for now it’s only up at Amazon (links to other retailers will be here in a few days).
If the above hasn’t given you enough impetus to check out What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank let me say this: once you read the blurb, you will check out the sample. And once you do that, you will be buying this book. It’s that good.
Yes, it’s $7.99, but a huge amount of research has gone into it. It’s worth every penny because you won’t just read this once, you’ll return to it again and again. And it will make your books infinitely richer.
One final thing. A little birdy tells me that Krista made a bet with fellow author Debora Geary that she wouldn’t sell more than 175 copies in November. If Krista loses, she has to sing You Are My Sunshine. On YouTube.
For the love of all things holy, make it happen.