Paul Welch

On Fantasy, Writing & the Journey to Publication

Make Your Writing Groggy – How Spirits Can Add Characterization

I am a bit of a geek. I’m not ashamed to admit it, and one of the things I like to “geek out” on is random (some would argue useless) information. There I’ll be, having a perfectly normal conversation…

Friend: “How goes today?”
Me: “Not bad, and you?”
Friend: “Ahh, I’m feeling a tad bit groggy.”

…and my brain suddenly gets hijacked. Where does the expression “groggy” come from? What’s it all about? What does “groggy” really mean?

And I’ll spend the next twenty minutes futzing around online in order to satisfy my curiosity.

Today, I wanted to share a brief history of GROG. Why? Because it’s neat, and neat stuff rocks.

I spent five years working in the liquor industry, so I’ve got a little bit of knowledge when it comes to spirits. I tend to include spirits in my writing, and I find the inclusion of “adult beverages “can inject a lot into a story.

Three characters walk into a bar.

  • Susette orders a light, fruity white wine.
  • Benson orders an 18-year old oak-cask whisky.
  • Charles orders an ounce of over-proof spirits.

When we read this, our brains conjure up an idea of what these characters are like and what sort of personality they might have. We also get a sense of age, socio-economical status, and perhaps even temperament. Immediately, conclusions are drawn. We’re left with an impression.

It’s a great, simple tool to help flesh out a characterization without overloading the reader with “telling” descriptors. And if you want to add comedy to the mix, you simply go against stereotype. You have the big, battle-hardened warrior order something that’s counter-intuitive, like strawberry wine. It’s instant comedy gold. (Well, maybe not gold… but you get the point.)

Now back to my groggy friend.

Grog is a type of spirit, and it tends to appear in fantasy novels – especially pirate fantasy, or any fantasy tale where the characters find themselves a-sailin’ on the seas..

Back in the days of yore, when sailors went to sea, they needed to bring fresh water as it wasn’t practical to distill fresh water from the salty seas. Water was stored in wooden barrels, which would develop both algae and bacteria. Over months at sea, that water would get pretty vile, and so beer or wine was added in an attempt to make it more palatable. But that involves transporting even more barrels of liquid, and after many months aboard a ship, the risk of spoilage would increase. And since sailors were issued a daily ration of beer, the amount of storage space required to transport the casks – water, beer, wine, brandy, etc. – caused a serious cargo problem.

Rum eventually replace beer and wine/brandy as the drink of choice upon the sea, but it was given to the sailor straight – and as a spirit with a high alcohol content, it caused some undesirable behaviors.  Some sailors would hoard their rations and then go on a bender, resulting in illness – “I’m feeling groggy” – and a severe lack of discipline. And likely a song or two sung off key. But that’s beside the point.

The decision was made to dilute the rum with water, as the final mixture had a shorter shelf-life than the rum alone. This solved the undesirable behavior, and thus became the standard practice. And if you’re curious, the ratio of water to rum was generally 4:1.

Seeing as the stored water wasn’t very tasty, a little bit of citrus – lemon or lime juice, typically – was added. So now we’ve got a tasty blend of foul water, rum, with a dash of citrus… and a ship full of satisfied – and lightly buzzed – sailors. As an added bonus: no more scurvy! And so, grog was officially invented and became common practice until the 1970’s.

And for those who care about etymology, “grog” is said to have taken its name from the nickname of “Old Grog” given to British Admiral Vernon because of his sense of style. It seems Old Vernon enjoyed the stylings of a kind of heavy coat of grogram – a coarse, weather-proof fabric. Vernon was stingy and had mandated the dilution of rum rations with water in 1740, and the term “grog” was used in a derisive way.

Personally, I’m not a fan of grog. I’ve tried it, and I find it tastes too much like Pinesol™. Or at least, it tastes what I imagine Pinesol™ to taste like, as I’ve never tried it. Honestly. Stop judging me. (No, seriously: don’t drink Pinesol™.)

Have you ever used spirits in your writing as a characterization aid? Do you notice it in the books you read? What sort of impression does it give? Share your thoughts in the comments below – I’d love to hear your ideas!

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