Writing about Herbs and Dangerous Substances
Most mystery writers have toyed with the idea of writing about poison at one time or another. There have even been a number of workshops on various poisons at writers conferences. But poison has a definite Mr. Yuk warning. Writers and readers understand that these are dangerous and deadly substances—and often are hard procure. Writing about herbs, mushrooms, and other plants found in the wild, especially for cooking or healing purposes, however, brings its own burden.
As I have progressed through the writing of The Bowdancer Saga, I’ve written about herbs used to season food and wildcrafted plants to make healing teas. I even ventured into the realm of psychotropic mushrooms. I realized during the second book that someone just might want to try these herbs. That gave me pause.
What if someone read my books and decided to go into a farm field somewhere out on a hike in the wild and pick a plant and eat it or make a tea from it. What if they decided to dig up the root of the wild carrot, Queen Anne’s Lace, and expect to have a tasty Euell Gibbens wildcrafted supper, only to be found dead the next morning because they had dug water helmlock instead!
As a fantasy writer, I could have totally obscured the plants I used in my books, giving them exotic appearances and funny-sounding names. What I chose to do, however, was to use plants I was familiar with that I knew were safe and then to research others. Some of the names I used are common ones such as mint, blessed thistle, chamomile, wild sage, etc. And these are used as they are used in culinary dishes and healing teas. I did obscure meadowsweet as the mysterious Painfree because it can give users a nasty stomach ache. But I did mention willow bark tea, which is where pharmacologists first found aspirin.
Since I often read not just for the story but to learn something, I thought adding this kind of information would be interesting to my readers, too. I made sure the could be found in the environments I put them into and that they were safe to use for the various ailments they would treat or the foods they could be used with.
However, I felt a deep responsibility in writing about herbs and dangerous substances. I did not want to treat these plants with the casualness we would if picking up lettuce or celery in the supermarket. I mention when there is a danger of poisoning such as in the wild carrot-water helmlock confusion or even if touching the plant causes skin irritation.
I also wanted to make sure that the culinary uses of these herbs were also correct. Since I’ve used many of the plants I write about in cooking at home, that was easy to do. I also ran a couple of things by my son who is the executive chef and part owner of The Toasted Frog, a high-end martini bistro here. Also, I did not want to introduce an herb or spice that could not be found her on Earth during the general time period I had set in my mind when I write the stories. Though The Bowdancer Saga takes place on another world or dimension, it is similar to agrarian societies of the eleventh century CE.
I did, however, write about a psychedelic mushroom in the fourth book and had to do some careful research about it. I wanted to make sure it would have been found in the environment it was and would produce the hallucinatory effects and the nasty side effects. (Most of these mushrooms make users very sick and I always wondered why people would subject themselves to that torture, unless it was for a spiritual purpose.) What followed, I hoped, was in keeping with that research.
Though writers are often careful to make sure their poisons behave the way they do or their crime scene techniques are up to date, it is also important to make sure that any substance that is mentioned that can be consumed is just as accurately portrayed. Though our readers, for the most part, are not children and we need not put warning labels on our books, as writers we need to treat plants, especially wild plants, with as much accuracy and respect.
© Janie Franz 2010 all rights reserved