What the heck is a caltrop?

In one of my stories, I referred to a mass of caltrops, flung outward by an explosion of gunpowder. The reaction by the vast majority of my readers was, "What the heck is a caltrop? I had to Google that." This was repeated recently by one of my beta readers, who was also unfamiliar with this little gem of medieval warfare.

Clearly, just because I might be familiar with caltrops, and I know the difference between a flintlock and a wheellock, should I assume my readers are as well? While it might serve to aid simplicity by choosing another, more familiar object, it's also instructive to see how other writers have dealt with this issue. I raised this with a top-flight reference librarian, and received an answer today.

I present, therefore, a section of "One Corpse Too Many" by Ellis Peters, one of the Brother Cadfael mysteries:
"There's a herdsman's hut there in the piece where the track is in the woodland, though only along the edge, the fields still close. We were in this stretch when Nick's horse fell lame. I lit down to see, for he went very badly, and he had picked up a caltrop, and was cut to the bone."

"Caltrops?" said Brother Cadfael, startled. "On such a forest path, away from any field of battle?" For those unobtrusive martial cruelties, made in such a shape as to be scattered under the hooves of cavalry, and leaving always one crippling spike upturned, surely had no part to play on a narrow forest ride.

"Caltrops," said Torold positively. "I don't speak simply from the wound, the thing was there embedded, I know, I wrenched it out."
There you have it. I'm not sure how precise this explanation is, but you get the idea that it's unobtrusive, sharp and cripplingly dangerous. For my own story, I'll have to add in a bit more description than "razor-sharp caltrops", but not too much more. My thanks to the the reference librarian - the chocolate is on its way.

Caltrops, by the way, are still used by modern armies for anti-vehicle applications (to puncture tires), and by guerrilla warfare groups to slow the advance of non-motorized ground troops. They'll go through the sole of a boot just as easily as into a horse's foot.

p.s. I sometimes use unusual words. I don't like to make my readers work for the punchline, but I'm not opposed to it, either.

===== Feel free to comment on this or any other post.


  1. That's a good way to add an explanation into a book, and yes it's right. Shape and size varies, but it's FUNCTION (to spear/poke/cripple feet or hooves) is always the same. Nasty business.

    I once used the word "pullet," in a passage and was criticised for using obscure language. Not everyone knew that a pullet is a kind of chicken.

  2. Don't worry about it too much. I gave up trying to figure out what you write a long time ago.

  3. I think it wholly depends on your audience, and whether they appreciate new words or not.

    I happen to know what a caltrop is, but I also enjoy learning new words. I get that not every does, but I don't think you should cripple your writing either. Adding enough description so that the definition is clear in context is fine, but I think there's a point of absurdity, too.

    You mentioned "firing razor sharp caltrops out of a cannon." If you have no clue what a caltrop is, it doesn't take much imagination to realize it is tool of destruction. If you know what it is, it's a sharper image, but it doesn't change what's going with the action.

    I just think we spend too much time pandering to the middle and lower level so we don't use too big of a word instead of writing the story with crafted language. i realize too often words are used as the spear of pretension, but there is a balance there as well.

    So use caltrop, use it without regret, and don't feel like you must define every word that readers may or may not know.

    Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go caltrop the lawn to keep the kids out!

  4. I know what a caltrop is, and what they're for, but that doesn't mean anyone else would. I think it was Monica who suggested "a d4 on the floor" as a description, although that wouldn't work unless the characters were themselves gamers.

    I think Niven used a version of them in "Lucifer's Hammer," although they were home-made from nails driven through wooden dowels.

  5. I recently referred to the burrs that plague my favorite ultimate frisbee field as "nature's little caltrops." I think everyone got my meaning, but many of my fellow ulti players have also played D&D (or the like) and are familiar with concept.

    Personally, I have no problem with unfamiliar words. If I absolutely can't figure them out by context, I'll eventually look them up.

    I encountered a similar, but easily solvable, problem when I had a character eating a kolache for breakfast. Strangely, one reader said they looked it up, but obviously not on the internet...

  6. @ Monica: I don't try to confuse readers, but I don't want to pull punches, either. (As it happens, I know what a pullet is.)

    @ Red: I'm a mystery wrapped in an enigma.

    @ D. Paul: I think it wholly depends on your audience, and whether they appreciate new words or not. Too true! I admit that my ideal reader is NOT someone who will throw the book across the room for being too "difficult". I like to think I give enough context for odd words, but then, I'm not always aware that I'm using words that are odd.

    @ FARfetched: I've seen different versions used in fiction. One I remember was a kind of sea star whose skeleton dried into caltrops. Made walks on the beach pretty tricky...

    @ Katherine: It's a genre context thing, to be sure. The sword-and-sorcery crowd are much more likely to be familiar with them than the horror fans or cozy mystery readers. It's not just the extent to which readers are comfortable with unusual words. Must remember than for the future.


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