Guest Post: Morgan Keyes on herbal research (with bonus giveaway!)

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. ๐Ÿ™‚

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 โ€“ 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 can be found online at her website or on Facebook.

Darkbeast is for sale in bricks-and-mortar and online bookstores, including: Amazon | B & N | Indiebound

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.

0 Responses to “Guest Post: Morgan Keyes on herbal research (with bonus giveaway!)”

  1. princessmei

    what a beautiful cover

    The book sounds very fun and the cover art is just lovely. I hope she’s pleased with it. I always thought it would be worrisome to work so hard on a story and then have to risk art that just doesn’t fit your ideas.


    • Anonymous

      Re: what a beautiful cover

      Thanks for the kind words! I *am* pleased with the cover — I think Caw’s expression, especially, is perfect (and that shade of blue in the background is one of my favorites!)

      (Alas, a lot of the time, I find covers not pleasing, but I know they’re intended to function as “advertisements” for what’s inside, more than as a satisfying art experience standing alone…)

    • Anonymous

      Re: what a beautiful cover

      Whoops – that was me replying above!


  2. magegirl

    I always love research posts, so thanks! I really felt Shades of Milk and Honey was well researched. It really felt like it would fit right in with Jane Austen’s work.

    • Anonymous

      Hmm… and it’s on my to-be-read stack! Good news on the research front ๐Ÿ™‚


  3. mrissa

    For me the hardest research is anything to do with a 1950s Finland setting for a fantasy novel. There isn’t a lot in English about the details of cultural experience there–there’s some stuff about the politics, but it’s repetitive, and worse, a lot of it is flat-out wrong. (Hint: unless the author is debunking the term “Finlandization” thoroughly, you have a dud. Go find someone else to read.)

    • Anonymous

      ::grin:: Is this your own work? Or someone else’s, that I have not yet discovered?

      And I don’t know “Finlandization” – is it related to “Balkanization” somehow?


      • mrissa

        My own work, trying to find a home.

        “Finlandization” is a Cold War term that means the very opposite of what actually happened to Finland. It’s about Finland supposedly having come under the thumb of the Soviet Union…except Finland didn’t. It was not a Warsaw Pact country, it wasn’t even “sort of” a Warsaw Pact country, it was pretty genuinely neutral. And to have that kind of term come sneeringly from big stompy superpowers with apparently very little perspective about the difference between knuckling under and negotiating the world as not a big stompy superpower was pretty frustrating and insulting for a lot of Finns and Finnophiles. So if you see the term “Finlandization” in a book about 20th century Finland and it’s not immediately problematized, you know you’ve got an author who has not done a lot of research on Finnish perspective.

        • Anonymous

          Thank you! I just don’t understand how there can be people in the world who don’t love learning new things… Your explanation let little pieces of my existing knowledge drift into place closer to other bits of knowledge. Thanks! (And good luck with that work, trying to find a home!)


  4. eve_prime

    โ€œFood lawyerโ€ sounds like an interesting job. Congrats on the new book!

    As a reader, one series that bugged me in terms of how it handled research was the Jean Auel Clan of the Cave Bear books. The research may well have been meticulous โ€“ it looked that way โ€“ but she just plunked down big โ€œmodulesโ€ of it rather than integrating it smoothly into the text.

    • Anonymous

      Many thanks! Food-lawyering was interesting (if a bit unnerving, realizing how some things make it into our food supply…)

      I think there’s a real danger for authors who over-research their books – they want to share *everything* they ever learned, so there are great big chunks of exposition…

      • eve_prime

        I guess I’m glad I haven’t been a food lawyer, then; ignorance may be bliss (or at least a vaguer state of apprehension).

        I guess one solution for the research-sharing problem could be a companion volume of all that material, for the diehard fans. At least, I’ll bear that in mind, in case I ever find myself in the happy position of too much to say!

        • Anonymous

          And these days, of course, there are online supplements to print novels. I put together a DARKBEAST ENCYCLOPEDIA – – to help me organize the material I relied on for worldbuilding. I could easily expand on those entries, providing more information (but I mostly have left them bare-bones, as almost mnemonic devices.) Ah, to have the time to do all the things I want to do!


  5. rachelmanija

    Kij Johnson’s Heian Japan novels feel incredibly well-researched: not merely the details, but the tone. There’s a bit in The Fox Woman where a husband and wife have just moved. Their first night in their new home, he sends her a sexy note written on soft paper meant to evoke the tissues used to clean up after lovemaking. His wife is excited, but her own box of paper is still packed, so she has to borrow paper from her maid. Her husband sees the shiny, unsexy paper she used and takes it as a rebuff.

    Now that’s research. That whole scene depended entirely not only on the knowledge of things, but on how people used them and what they meant emotionally.

  6. laylalawlor

    Oh, this book sounds good! I absolutely love meticulously researched books (well, assuming there is a good story to go along with it *g*). And even though I know how hard it is to avoid errors, it does really throw me when I’m reading a book in which the author didn’t put in that effort and I run across something that I know is false. (Recent example: I was reading a book in which the heroine inherits the old family home in Salem and spends a part of the book going through all her family’s old papers and letters from the 1600s, and there were references to the heroine opening “envelopes” all over the place. Aargh! Envelopes as such are a 19th-century invention. At most they’d use another piece of paper to wrap the letter, and rarely even that, because paper was expensive.)

    • Anonymous

      It’s frustrating when authors get details like that wrong — and the sad thing is that the author might have spent *ages* researching other parts of the story, but it never even occurred to her that envelopes would not be used. Sometimes, of course, the challenge in research is knowing what we don’t know…

      Thanks for the kind words about DARKBEAST!


      • laylalawlor

        You’re welcome! The book does sound quite good. ๐Ÿ™‚

        And yes, it’s those things we think we know that trip us up the worst. I’m sympathetic to the author, because I understand how a mistake like that could be made (and I’m sure I’ve glided blithely past other historical errors in other books that happened not to include factoids that fall into my areas of interest…).

  7. livejournal

    Using My Wicked Past For Good

    User referenced to your post from Using My Wicked Past For Good saying: […] to write DARKBEAST. To find out how, check out my post at Marie Brennan’s blog, Swan Tower […]

  8. gelsey

    Ah, research is one thing that can definitely intimidate me as I contemplate some of the ideas in my head. I think I over-worry about it, though it’s null point since I don’t have time to write right now.

    I’ve seen this book mentioned in a couple of places; definitely want to read it!

    • Anonymous

      ::grin:: I hope that you enjoy it, if you check out DARKBEAST!

      Some authors let themselves be consumed by research before they ever start writing. Others (and I include myself in this class) tend to dip into research as we need it, rather than completing vast swaths beforehand.) I suspect that if I wrote alternate- or secret histories, I’d have to do a lot more research up front – and then those books might never get written…


  9. Anonymous

    I don’t know if it was good research on McCaffrey’s part or the wishful thinking of my teen-aged self, but I loved Pern and wanted to live there.

    Congrats on the new book. It looks like a lot of fun.

    dulcibelle [at] earthlink [dot] net

    • Anonymous

      I haven’t re-read Pern in years – I don’t have a sense of how much *research* went into the worldbuilding as opposed to how much crafting of the world itself. (I mean, did Anne really figure out orbitals etc, to calculate Threadfall, or did she figure out descriptive details to make so many of our teen-aged selves want to live there?)


  10. bookblather

    That is a gorgeous cover, and definitely a book worth looking up.

    The most challenging background research I’ve ever done was probably… mm, I was trying to find out once what a Elizabethan noblewoman would wear in the last months of a pregnancy, and that was HARD. I wound up having to go to my local Renaissance Faire and ask the resident costume historian, because I literally could not find the information online or in my local library. I don’t know if I was looking in the wrong place or if Elizabethan writers were just not fond of writing about ladies having babies, but it was very, very hard.

    Now that I’ve had some librarian training, research has gotten considerably easier. But I think I’ll always remember that one.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the kind comments about the cover (I’m pleased with it, but I take no credit for it ๐Ÿ™‚ )

      Once I started my work as a librarian, I realized how spectacularly difficult some types of research truly are. The questions that snagged me over and over again were valuation questions — trying to determine the value of a one-of-a-kind statue by an obscure 19th c. French artist, for example… (And yeah, to some extent that’s the job of an appraiser, but that doesn’t keep patrons from asking for the information!)

      And then there are the endless categories of information lost forever because no one thought it noteworthy…

  11. diatryma

    I have been reading a fairly academic book on polio for years now. It’s interesting, but definitely not written for a popular audience. And it’s not even really meaningful research, just a side note I may not even use.

    • Anonymous

      I find that some of my reading like that resurfaces *years* later, in vastly different form. It ends up being “seed” research (planting seeds for future imaginings) more than specific facts applied in specific scientific ways.

  12. Anonymous

    Happy birthday!

    I take some measure of credit for the fanfic. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  13. Anonymous


    Congrats on accomplishing so much (you make me cringe, as my thirty-second birthday will arrive in November and I’m still flinging myself at agents, much less selling books and stories and making appearances:) and here’s to accomplishing much MUCH more in the future! As hard as you work, you definitely deserve to air the achievements unabashedly at least once a year!

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