Monday, July 23, 2012

The Art of the Borgias (Fun with History, Part 1)


For as long as I can remember, I have loved history. So even though my first efforts at novel writing happened to involve science fiction, it was pretty much inevitable that as soon as I settled down and got serious, I would turn to the past. My first published novel can be considered a bridging story—contemporary technology applied to a classic tale set during the French Revolution, with a double romance (past and present) and a dash of humor as the expectations of the present clash with those of past. But from here on, it’s history all the way.

History offers a novelist certain advantages: no police force to interrupt crimes in progress; no awkward modern devices that make it impossible for characters to miss one another like proverbial ships in the night; no handy-dandy fingerprinting or DNA tests to bring a long, winding mystery to a screeching halt on page 3; lots of warfare and skullduggery to keep a novel moving.

But history also has one big disadvantage: as a writer, I can’t assume that basic things that I take for granted existed in the past. Things like the germ theory of disease, the understanding of gravity, the eternal existence of Russian nesting dolls (as a lovely friend pointed out to me when she read one of my drafts, they first appeared in 1898—who knew?). Hence the need for—and, I must admit, the fun of—research.

Moreover, historical research of the type needed for a novel is not always easy. Sources seldom record what things smelled like or sounded like or even looked like; they tend to focus on higher matters of state and society. When I decided my plot required me to poison a character, I had several fundamental questions to answer. What poisons were available in this particular region in this particular year? If I picked a food-based poison, how would the criminal get the poison past the tasters and into the victim? Which of the available toxins produced the right symptoms with the right timing? And given the complete absence of chemical testing, who would detect the crime and find the solution? People knew about poison in the 16th century. Indeed, they often suspected it in any case of severe gastric distress. (Another favorite explanation was witchcraft.) But plausibly identifying which poison and how the victim ingested it required skills few people had. And even if I could call the local police station and ask (hardly a good idea), their answer would not tell me how people living in the 16th-century steppe would handle the problem.

Enter a wonderful book called Deadly Doses: A Writer’s Guide to Poisons. Within two hours I had six different plants that might reasonably have found their way into my unfortunate character. Now I only need to finish Medieval Islamic Medicine and a guide to shamanic practice to develop a sense of how my other characters would have responded to this situation.

It may take a while longer to convince my family that it’s safe to accept food from my hands....

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