...in which I share some of my favorite medieval research resources and methods for the benefit of others interested in also writing about the Middle Ages

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Sometimes What You Need Is a Little Serendipity

I promised in my last post that I would share my “backup source” for my choice of water hemlock as the poison I used in my novel, Loyalty’s Web. Sometimes backup sources (or any sources, for that matter) come about by simple “luck”…serendipity, if you will. Prior to my discovery of Deadly Doses (see January 5, 2008 post), I focused my search for an appropriate medieval poison on various books about herbs, especially since I wanted to incorporate some “healing” techniques in my story, as well. While useful for the latter, what I quickly discovered is that most generalized books about herbs are not very interested in helping you poison someone, even if that someone is a fictional character. Consequently, the herb books I bought mostly proved to be a bust for my poison angle…with one exception. The Herb Book, by John Lust.

The sequence of events went like this: I bought a book entitled Medieval English Gardens (the subject of my next post). In this book, one of the herbs that attracted my attention was a plant called “angelica”, which among other things, was used to ward off plague, made into cordials and perfumes, and eaten as after-dinner sweets. Intrigued by this plant, I turned to my copy of The Herb Book to see what it had to say about angelica. Lo and behold, to my utter surprise, what did I find written under “Cautions” for the herb but this statement: “Wild angelica can be confused with European water hemlock, which is poisonous.”

This was the “Aha! moment” when I knew for a certainty that water hemlock, aka cowbane, would without doubt be the poison of choice for my story. After all, if the would-be poisoner were challenged, he or she could always claim “accidental confusion” between the noxious (cowbane) and the benign (angelica).

My first draft of Loyalty’s Web was written some years before the internet became nearly as common as air in our lives, hence my dependence at the time on printed sources, such as The Herb Book. Nowadays, I could go to the internet to find more information on water hemlock. (Be sure to Google for “European water hemlock”, otherwise you’ll go straight to the American version.) You can even find photographs of the plant (see http://www.all-creatures.org/picb/wfshl-waterhemlock.html), whereas all I originally had was a word description and my imagination.

Even so, I’m not sure that modern technology would have led me to the angelica/water hemlock link any more directly than my fortuitous reading of my little paperback Herb Book. After all, it never would have occurred to me to search for a link until I had accidentally stumbled across it in the first place!

So whichever route your research takes…the old-fashioned printed word or the internet…sometimes nothing trumps pure and simple “luck” in discovering some critical detail to click a plot-point into place.

Note: The Herb Book, by John Lust, remains widely available. Arranged alphabetically with drawings, each herb listing includes: Common Names; Medicinal Parts; Description; Properties and Uses, including CAUTIONS (helpful for an author with a character interested in misusing a plant); and Preparation and Dosage.

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