...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

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Research Book Drawing

Most writers who build up extensive personal research libraries of their own, will eventually find themselves with accidental duplicates of valued research books. This was exactly the dilemma I found myself in recently when going through a disordered pile of books in my house. Somewhere along the way, I inadvertently purchased a second copy of Medieval Wordbook, by Madeleine Pelner Cosman. My first thought was to donate my second copy to a library, but since our own very small public library is unlikely to make room for so specialized a research book on their shelves, I came up with another idea.

I presume that most of you who read this blog, do so because (1) you are interested in writing, and (2) you are interested in the Middle Ages. And since I maintain this blog out of a desire to assist others who fall into the above two categories, therefore, I have decided to hold my first medieval research with joyce book drawing, in the hopes that my extra Medieval Wordbook will fall into the hands of someone who will actually use and appreciate it.

First, let me offer you a brief description of the book, by quoting from the back of the book jacket:

“Terms and expressions that have worked their way into our everyday speech are at the heart of Medieval Wordbook, a perfect reference for word lovers… Generously illustrated with elegant period drawings, the book explains all aspects of medieval life and language. Included in this work are such words as : bezoar [any Harry Potter fans out there?], blackmail, coroner, patter, hodge podge, and folio. Fully cross-referenced, [this book] is a boon companion to all of medieval culture, including expressions drawn from art and architecture, sex and science, costume and cookery, literature and magic, liturgy and astrology, warfare and ceremony. Medieval Wordbook is an ideal guide for anyone interested in the full panoply of medieval history.”

The entires are arranged alphabetically, in easy to read print, the exception being the index. If you and your eyes are over 40, you might want to be sure you have your reading glasses on hand.

You can read more about Medieval Wordbook on Amazon.com (type in “Medieval Wordbook Cosman”, and you’ll go right to it), but the book no longer appears to be in print, so I’m offering one of you a good deal here. All you have to do to enter my drawing for a FREE copy of Medieval Wordbook is to send an email to:


Type: “Medieval Wordbook drawing” in the subject line, and include your name and mailing address. Since I don’t know how many people actually read my blog, I’m going to set a deadline of March 14, with the winner to be drawn and announced on March 15 here on this very blogsite! If I haven’t heard from at least one of you by then, my local library will be receiving a donation for their next book sale.

P.S. Not only am I offering you a free copy of this book, I’m going to let you have my hardback version, which aside from a slightly rumpled-around-the-edges book jacket, is still in excellent condition!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

In the News: Loyalty's Web

Loyalty's Web is a finalist in the Whitney Awards Competition!
For more information, click on the banner below.

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.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Adding a Touch of Suspense by Slipping Some Poison in the Cup

Want to up the suspense of your medieval novel or short story? There’s nothing like a drop or two of poison in a character’s wine to make a reader sit up and take notice.

But where do we go to find information about medieval poisons?

An excellent starting point is Deadly Doses: A Writer’s Guide to Poisons, by Serita Deborah Stevens with Anne Klarner. Deadly Doses is part of the Howdunit Series published by Writers Digest Books.

Now, this book is not strictly about “medieval” poisons, so you must do a little searching to find an appropriate poison for your time period. But of the eleven chapters, several can be quickly eliminated from your search: “Houshold Poisons”, “Medical Poisons”, “Pesticides”, “Industrial Poisons”, and “Street Drugs” all belong to a more modern age, so there’s no need to waste precious research time on those sections.

That leaves “Poisonous Plants”, “Fragile Fungi”, and “Snakes, Spiders, and Other Living Things” as topics to explore.

For my novel, Loyalty’s Web, I found myself leaning towards some use of a poisonous plant. After a short chapter introduction, the chapter breaks down into the following poison subsections: “Quickly Fatal”; “Mistaken for Edible or Eaten by Mistake”; “Edible in Small Quantities, Certain Parts Edible, or Edible Certain Times of the Year”; “Flowering Plants”; and “Miscellaneous Plant Poisons”.

Each of these subsections is further broken down in the following super-sub categories:

“Name”, “Toxicity”, “Location”, “Deadly Parts”, “Effects and Symptoms”, “Reaction Time”, “Antidotes and Treatments”, and “Notes”.

The first thing I did was take a red pencil and mark the name of each plant under the “Location” category, that was listed as “native to Europe, Britain or England” or that may have been brought there by the Romans. The important thing is to be sure that whatever poison you choose was actually available to the people of the Middle Ages in the area of Europe that you are writing about. (I’ll talk about backup sources in my next post.)

Once you’ve whittled the possibilities down with a red pencil or other highlighter, you can focus your research on the additional information for each of the poisons you’ve marked, and gradually come to a decision about which poison will best serve the plot of your story.

Since I wanted to keep my readers guessing a bit about the poison angle at the beginning, I decided to go with a plant that could be “Mistaken for Edible or Eaten by Mistake”. I eventually settled on water hemlock, also known as cowbane. Although the “Location” information seemed to place water hemlock mostly in North America, a note in the first chapter to Deadly Doses, “A Short History of the Dreaded Art”, informed me that : “Water hemlock, foxglove, henbane, and the prussic acid of the almond tree were all found in the Parisian woods and meadows.” (Deadly Doses, p 6) This told me that the plant I wanted also grew in France (the location of Loyalty’s Web). It also taught me that it can be well worth your while to read “generalized” chapters about the background of your subject, before moving on to seemingly more pertinent “specialized” chapters. Valuable tips and facts are often “hidden” in Introductions and the like.

Once I’d settled on water hemlock, which I referred to by its nickname, cowbane, throughout my novel, I went on to glean the following information from its entry:

It had a toxicity level of 6, placing it in the “supertoxic” category, meaning that only a very, very small amount of the poison would cause death. I also learned that younger plants, growing in the springtime, are more poisonous, which again fit with the springtime setting of my novel.

Under “Deadly Parts”, I learned that although the entire plant is poisonous, most of the poison is contained in the roots and rootstock. So when I finally had a character uncover the “source” of the poison, I had her discover a portion of cowbane root that someone in the castle had been hiding. (Don’t want to give too much away here by telling you who!) The poison was also dissoluble in alcohol, which made it perfect for adding a few drops to a cup of wine.

Although it never went that far in my novel, if my hero had actually drunk his tainted cup of wine, this would have been the effect: “Restlessness and feelings of anxiety, pain in the stomach, nausea, violent vomiting, diarrhea, dilated pupils, labored breathing, sometimes frothing at the mouth, weak and rapid pulse, and violent convulsions terminated by death. Respiratory failure is the cause of death.” (Deadly Doses, p 61)

Death would occur between 20 minutes to an hour. (Given the process leading up to death, I think I’d rather go fast, than slow!)

There are antidotes and treatments, but most of them belong to a more modern age, and if the source of the poison had been concealed in something like wine, one would not have known what sort of antidote to try in the first place. Besides which, given the potentially fast-acting nature of the poison, a character would have to be very self-possessed, knoweldgable, and/or experienced to gather one’s wits quickly enough to act in time to save the victim.

This is just a single example of the kinds of valuable, detailed information available in Deadly Doses. As a starting point for authors of mystery, suspense, or who just like to throw in a bit of “surprise” to keep their readers guessing, I highly recommend Deadly Doses, by Serita Deborah Stevens and Anne Klarner.

This post has run on long enough, so I’ll stop here. Next time, I’ll share with you my “backup sources” and more on medieval plants.

Note: Deadly Doses is widely available in Used Books on Amazon.com. Writer’s Digest Books lists the title Howdunit: Book Of Poisons, by Serita Stevens and Anne Louise Bannon, which may well be the same as Deadly Doses with a new name, but not having a copy of my own, I can’t vouch for that. The description sounds very similar, and since my copy of Deadly Doses is 298 pages, and Book of Poisons lists at 368 pages, I’m guessing that Book of Poisons may merely be an updated version of Deadly Doses, with a new title. If so, this is definitely a book you will want to consider including in your library!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Posting delay...

Due to a scheduling conflict, my next medieval research blog will be posted on Saturday, January 5th. Please be sure to check back then, and thank you for your patience!