Y’all may have noticed that I, er, do a lot of research. Like, a lot. So when Morgan Keyes (a friend and fellow writer) contacted me offering a guest post on the topic of how she researched herbal medicine for her upcoming middle grade book Darkbeast . . . I like to help friends, but the fact that I wanted to read her post may have also factored into me saying yes. 🙂
For those who want more than just the research guts, Morgan will also be giving away a copy of Darkbeast to one commenter, chosen at random. You have until 11:59 EDT tonight to leave a comment here and thus be eligible. No login required; just sign your comment with some kind of identifier, so we can tell the anonymouses apart!
In Darkbeast, twelve-year-old Keara runs away from home rather than sacrifice Caw, the raven darkbeast that she has been bound to magically all her life. Pursued by Inquisitors who would punish her for heresy, Keara joins a performing troupe of Travelers and tries to find a safe haven for herself and her companion.
In the novel, Keara’s mother is an accomplished herbalist who has vast stores of plant-based products that she uses to treat a wide variety of ailments. Keara has learned much at her mother’s knee, both about collecting various rare herbs and about selling the same. As with much of the knowledge we absorb from the world around us, Keara doesn’t realize how much she knows until she’s called upon to use her specialized information.
If only I had Keara’s information embedded in my own mind!
Instead, I needed to do a lot of research about herbs. I’m a trained researcher; I worked as a research librarian for nearly a dozen years before I started writing full time. For Darkbeast’s herblore, though, I used a different research foundation, one built in my very first professional job, as a lawyer.
Years ago, I was a lawyer representing many clients who manufactured food and nutritional items. My goal was often to convince the Federal Food and Drug Administration that my clients’ goods were “generally recognized as safe” (and therefore foods that could be marketed under a relatively relaxed food regimen, instead of the stricter controls for food additives, drugs, etc.) “Generally recognized as safe” could be proven in many ways, but one key option was showing that a plant had been consumed by humans for hundreds or thousands of years without any adverse effects.
As a result of the legal requirements, my office soon filled with a stunning array of cookbooks. I leveraged recipes, especially ones dating back a couple of centuries, to show that foods had been used for a long time, without anyone falling ill.
Of course, many of the foods I worked on had obscure ingredients – herbal non-nutritive sweeteners, for example. Those herbs weren’t likely to be listed in early cookbooks. Instead, I frequently researched medical treatments (even if an herb didn’t cure a disease, I could often cite it as a food reference.) I also read many anthropology studies that discussed ancient peoples’ use of ceremonial foods or early methods of food preservation.
Over the years, I’ve forgotten many of the specific titles that I relied on regularly in my law practice. And over the years, huge new libraries of information have become available over the Internet.
Imagine my pleasure, when I first started to build Keara’s stock of herbs, and a search of the phrase “medicinal herbs” yielded more than three million hits! I could readily limit the results by adding symptoms I wanted Keara and her mother to treat (“pleurisy”, for example, or “mental fog”). I could cut through the list by adding traits of the plant when that mattered (“yellow flower” or “triple leaf”). I could sift the results by restricting environmental information (“swamp” or “snow pack”).
And when the Internet didn’t give me the right information, or it gave me too much information, there was always the library’s grand collection of cookbooks (Dewey Decimal Number 641.5).
Of course, Darkbeast isn’t a treatise on the actual use of herbs. In fact, the vast majority of the herbs in the book are completely made up. But my background as a food lawyer leavened by my research skills as a librarian helped to make every herb ring true.
If you’re a writer, what’s the most challenging background research you’ve ever done? If you’re a reader, what fantasy novels have you read that were (or felt!) especially well-researched?
Morgan Keyes grew up in California, Texas, Georgia, and Minnesota, accompanied by parents, a brother, a dog, and a cat. Also, there were books. Lots and lots of books. Morgan now lives near Washington, D.C. In between trips to the Natural History Museum and the National Gallery of Art, she reads, travels, reads, writes, reads, cooks, reads, wrestles with cats, and reads. Because there are still books. Lots and lots of books.