Part of the writer’s work in creating believable fiction is to include just enough detail to make a setting or scene believable. Details add interest, but too many, and your story becomes swamped; too few, and your story feels empty. Details can bring a story to life; they can add authenticity; used well, they can transport the reader onto the page, and beyond.
Like any good writer, I’m always on the lookout for a detail I can scribble down in my notebook. I might not need it now; I might not need it next year. But the detail is there, waiting for its turn to be used.
I currently have no plans to write a story set in the medieval Scottish Borders (historical fiction authors have nothing to worry about just yet), but on a day out last week to expand my acquaintance with Scotland, I found myself swamped with exciting snippets of history to hoover up and empty out later into my notebook.
Melrose Abbey is a fantastic old ruin. It gains bonus points for having a sole surviving spiral stair to the top of a tower which offers dizzying views and close encounters with pained-looking gargoyles; it gains more for the absorbing details it shares about the life of its medieval retinue of Cistercian monks.
Spoiler alert: the rest of this post goes a bit lavatorial from here….
Folk – by which I mean me – always seem fascinated by the ins and – mostly – outs of an astronaut’s personal needs. It’s one of those questions you can guarantee someone will ask an astronaut giving a talk: “How do you go to the toilet?” I imagine its got something to do with nappies.
Likewise, people – ungallant, treasonous people – often wonder how the Queen deals with those prolonged visits and royal functions. I mean, at her age… you know… things don’t always function as well as they once did. I’m not suggesting the monarch’s solution has anything whatsoever to do with nappies; but she must have some means of dealing with the royal ablutions.
So imagine my joy when I discovered that the Cistercian monks of 14th century Melrose Abbey had an ingenious solution to servicing their bladders, and, more importantly, one which wouldn’t impinge on their duty in servicing their Lord. Not only is this snippet of medieval history utterly fascinating, but it also gains entry into the “intriguing details to be used (or not) in a piece of writing sometime in the future” section of my writer’s notebook.
Reader, follower, lover of fine historical detail, I give you the medieval, male, portable urinal:
Hidden beneath their monk’s robes, this handy, totally portable peeing pot, would enable the abbey’s residents to maintain their composure, and a comfortable bladder, throughout their long daily devotions. And there were a lot of those. Eight trips to the hassock in all, beginning at 2am with matins, following which came lauds, prime, terce, sext, nones, vespers and compline, after which the monks would retire for the night. With that many devotions to attend, imagine how grateful they would be to have to hand a convenient, transportable, personal urinal. Although I’d imagine they would have required a certain degree of skill, not to mention dexterity, to hit their target with 100% accuracy, all the while communing with God and definitely not drawing attention to the activity beneath their robes. Still, probably preferable to the communal latrines.
Who would have thought a wee trip to the Borders would have turned up such an intriguing and interesting item?
I’m not intending to write a historical novel at the moment, but if I can’t find a way to insert a monk’s portable urinal into a middle grade story – especially a comedy – then I’m not the writer I hope I am.
Remember writers, the devil’s in the detail. But hopefully not inside a monk’s pot; because then they’d have been spending rather too much time peeing, and not nearly enough praying.