This Ain’t Your Grandma’s History Lesson

Detail makes the difference between boring and terrific writing. It’s the difference between a pencil sketch and a lush oil painting. As a writer, words are your paint. Use all the colors.
Rhys Alexander

Brrrring! The school bell has rung.

Welcome children.  Come into the classroom of all things interesting, grotesque and unusual.

Interesting tidbit number one- Did you know that the oil of swallows was popular for repairing sunken muscles? No? I thought not. “Take young swallows out of their nests, rosemary tips, bay leaves; cut off the wings, and tails, put them into a stone mortar and lay the herbs upon them and beat them all to pieces, guts, feathers, bones and all…” This was groundbreaking medicine in the 1600’s. I found this scientific discovery in a book called Weird History 101 by John Richard Stephens.

I’m sharing this with you, not because I want you to grind up a swallow, but because we can use interesting  bits of information like this throughout our stories. For instance, one of my characters is from a rich southern family and uses old sayings and odd snippets of history to make his persona unique. I’ve slowly compiled several of these sayings into a homemade dictionary of sorts for Ghost to pull from when the time is right. He also finds great wisdom in the stories his grandfather told him when he was knee high to a grasshopper.(I’m channeling Ghost.) I drew on tales told in Weird History as well as in Lost Treasures of American History by W.C. Jameson. The quirky nature of his speech offers a depth to Ghost that would have been difficult to convey by more traditional means.

I came upon this idea as I perused the bargain racks in some large book stores. How do I add something original, something that makes my story just a little bit more interesting to read? I found the answer scattered throughout half price cookbooks. Who knew? I’ve now started a collection of “textbooks” that you wouldn’t find in a regular classroom.

One day I discovered a book entitled The Element Encyclopedia of 1000 Spells by Judika Illes. What if I wanted Odilia, a mystical healer in my second book, to create Marie Laveau Water? Ms. Laveau was the undisputed queen of Voodoo in New Orleans in the early 1800s and used this for cleansing spells. Well, this was right up Odilia’s alley. You need one cup of rain water, spring water, rose water, and Holy water coupled with twenty drops of essential oil of lavender. All this great information and for under $8! I also had 999 other items I could slam into my book to create a wonderful, spiritual woman I loved writing about.

What else do I have in my unusual collection of textbooks? How about 101 Incredible Experiments For The Weekend Scientist by Rob Beattie. And you wonder where McGyver got his scientific know how. There’s also Criminal Investigation-Evidence, Clues, and Forensic Science by John D. Wright (found that one behind a book on making earth worm farms.) It has step-by-step guides on examining a body at a crime scene and how DNA is matched to the bad guy.

One of my new favorites is by Geoffrey Abbott called What A Way To Go. The book lists the history and methods of putting people to death. 66 ways of torturous death to be exact. Maybe my bad guy can employ the Bastinado method- the victim is lightly caned in an exacting rhythm until they lose their mind which is then followed by precise strokes designed to tear long strips of flesh away from the body. It takes a very loonnnnnnggggg time to die. Oh yes, I almost forgot, if you were particularly naughty, they would pour boiling water over the exposed sinew before allowing you to die. Wow! I don’t think I could come up with bad guy material like that if I tried.

Brrring! There’s the bell again.

Your homework is to find something extraordinary to infuse into your story. Research is the key to bringing it alive. I expect you all to get As.

13 Responses to This Ain’t Your Grandma’s History Lesson

  1. William says:

    You scare me sometimes, Stacey, you really do….:)


  2. Ruth says:

    Interesting little tidbits, I think I may have to “explore” you library. and if a few books are missing… well I am looking into hiding in plain sight. Seriously, Stacy that is very useful information, I have a very old cookbook with a bit of history in it, I may have to pull it out and read it for research.



  3. Jody says:

    One of my ancestors had his nose cut off. Then they poured hot candlewax into his eyes to see if he was still alive.

    He lived, but deserted his family and hightailed back to England to hide out for the rest of his life.

    We’ve never been a real attractive family, but yikes, don’t you think that was a bit much?


  4. Tess says:

    Very interesting!!! Gotta go study a witch doctor now! Great post, Stacey!


  5. LMWilson says:

    The things you find in the name of research! I love the tangents, when you start down one path and branch off onto something completely new, just because it is interesting. Great post!


  6. Ciara Gold says:

    Too fun. Half Price Books is my best friend. I love hunting for those oddities, too. Cool post.


  7. kim hornsby says:

    I love this idea…it reminds me i don’t have enough of it in my current MS for an old Japanese man who quotes proverbs. Thanks…Kim


  8. Jody: Wow, talk about a lousy nose job!


  9. jbrayweber says:

    LOL, I knew I liked you, Stacey. Love Geoffrey Abbott’s off the wall death and torture books. 🙂
    Great blog, too!


  10. Love it. Thanks for sharing.



  11. I’m glad you all enjoyed the post- you wouldn’t believe the strange things I’ve found out about reading these books. I wish I could have shared more, but didn’t want to bore the troops.
    I’m sorry that I couldn’t respond to each comment, but I’m on the road and don’t have access to the internet. I’ll be better next week- promise!


  12. Diane Holmes says:

    Oh, honey, you worry me, you and your gleeful search for gruesome history! Great article.


  13. SEE! You belong in the rubber room! I knew it.

    Great topic. Research is my weak spot. I loathe it. But maybe not for the reasons you would think. The things you described are what make me hate getting into research because I lose myself in it.

    Great post, Stacey.


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