Thursday, January 6, 2011

Details: The Cure For Stuffy Writing

A Bad Case of Stripes
David Shannon

"You make me sick!" Clara told me one day. We'd been sitting at the computer together when I noticed her incredible stamina and vigor. Since I don't believe in perfect people, I used the germs on my fingertips to give her strep throat. Tap, tap, tap—my typing gave her chills!

Clara lives in a book I'm writing. Nausea came on, fever and dysentery—that's what they called diarrhea in 1929—so she consulted a doctor. He prescribed an ice bag for her stomach, together with a salt water gargle and horehound tea for her throat. Alice, her teenage daughter and traveling companion, was instructed to bathe her limbs with vinegar.

Several days later, Clara's ear became infected; the doctor put her in the hospital and drained the pus with a syringe every few hours. A private room with a bath at the American Hospital of Paris (Boulevard Victor Hugo) was $17 in October, 1929. She was there for three weeks before a surgery that left her deaf in one ear, but relieved her pain and saved her life.

These are minor details in Clara's fictional story—she was in Europe searching for her husband's killer—but the details are accurate. If she'd been treated with penicillin, her strep throat would have been minor, too, but inaccurate. "This book is making me sick!" you'd say. "Antibiotics weren't even invented until 1945." However, readers will follow nuggets of truth into an author's imagination.

Clara's husband Max (who we know was murdered) supposedly died of an insulin overdose in Moscow. Diabetics know that before 1922, diabetes really was a death sentence. The discovery of insulin changed people's lives overnight. By the time we meet Max in 1929, he could give himself insulin shots using a needle he sharpened weekly on a pumice stone and sterilized daily in boiling water. Dosage was determined by the color of his urine. Because I want readers to buy into the fiction of Max spying on Stalin, I'm lacing it with these facts, which are also clues to the mystery.

Is your writing making anybody sick? Make sure you check with Dr. Google before your World War II nurse takes her Prozac. It wasn't invented until 1987. In the 1950's her doc may have prescribed electric shock therapy and diagnosed her as neurotic—now that's depressing.

Readers lose confidence in an author who misuses historical facts. We can't put the Civil War in the 1840's or Pearl Harbor in 1931, even if we're writing fiction. A blogger who quotes JFK as saying "We have nothing to fear but fear itself" will lose credibility from readers who know and love FDR. (Details, details.)

Don't let all this give you a headache. Pick a topic you're interested in, plug it into your book, and head for the library. Research is a prescription for gripping writing. (Hey, did you know grippe is an old-fashioned word for the flu? I gotta look that up!)

Now it's your turn.

Do you know an old-fashioned remedy? I'll start you off: Spit on a mosquito bite to make it stop itching. Please leave your cure in the comments.


Linsey said...

Oh, my all time favorite "antique" remedy is ipecac for croup.

kenju said...

Apply castor oil for a sprained ankle - and it works!!

Diane said...

A friend of mine was writing a book set in the time of Shakespeare, who was a very minor character in the book. At the end she quotes one of his sonnets - at least she thought it was his, it was really one of Robert Browining's. It was glaring to me. (She fixed it.) It's easy to get mixed up.


Oh, My - how antique is antique. Ipecac was prescribed for my son's croup in 1961.
BTW - have not been visting here for a while - love your new look.

Brook said...

Pay big bucks for a manicure and you'll stop biting your nails.

Grandma Shelley said...

Brooke's remedy worked for me!

Claire said...

Prayer. It's old-fashioned but it totally works.

Heffalump said...


I don't know many old fashioned remedies.

Raejean said...

I don't know any old-fashioned remedies off the top of my head, but I wanted to thank you for your blog. I enjoy reading it so much, I included it on my list of Most Inspirational Blogs of 2010.

~Kristina said...

A spoonful of real honey to calm a cough works in our house. Garlic in socks overnight also helps boost the immune system.

Susan Adcox said...

Anyone remember taking Dr. Caldwell's for constipation? We actually liked the way it tasted.

Beck said...

I discovered a rememdy I'm not sure is old-fashioned, but really works! If you get blood on fabric, immediately spit on it, rub a little then rinse with cool water. Blood comes right out! But it only works with your own blood/spit. Weird, eh?