Scientific Magic

Rice_MagicintheStars276Pat here:

Before I can put the first word to the page of a new book, I need research. The characters may be hopping up and down in my mind, shouting their ire, but they’re still too unformed for me to “see” them—and I don’t mean their appearance.

As a for instance—the heroine of the Magic book I’m currently plotting has already appeared in other volumes, so I know what she looks like, and I know something of her personality and background. I know what she wants. But I have utterly no clue how she can go after it because this is 1830, after all, and they don’t have the internet or Craigslist. I don’t want to give her away just yet, until I’m ready to write (yeah, I’m one of those authors who can’t talk about plot until after a book is written). 

Nachet_collection;_Barrel_of_old_Nurenberg_microscope._Wellcome_M0000205But this time, I’m not writing one of my Ives heroes (pause for silent weeping). He’s scientific, yes, but I needed a titled nobleman and the Ives family has more bastards than titles. I had some odd idea that he might be a physician, or possibly someone who works with microscopes. Until I can “see” what he does, I can’t do anything. So I started by researching microscopes.

Yes, they had microscopes in 1830, but they were pretty crude. Even in the 2nd century BC the Greeks knew that water bends light. By 100 AD, the Romans could create glass that was thick in the middle and thin on the edge and learned this lens could magnify an image. Although, since they called them burning glasses, I suspect they spent more time trying to create fire with them.

The microscope above is an old German monocular, probably from the early 1700s. The one below left is a solar microscope by Peter Dolland of London from about 1790, considered one of the finest makers of microscopes at the time. But think–solar…London. Does not compute, right?

It wasn’t until the 17th century that Leeuwenhoek invented anything close to a microscope, and that was only a single lens. Low quality glass and lack of light created distortions that prevented microscopes from real 1780-1790,_solar_microscope_by_Peter_Dolland,_London,_England_-_Golub_Collection_of_Antique_Microscopes_-_DSC04810usefulness until nearly 1870, unfortunate for my hero. Although several glass problems were resolved by 1830, lighting wasn’t, and that limits usage. So in my time period, the best use of microscopes was determining the existence of cells and their structures—interesting but not exactly hero material. My guy might be able to discover a bacterium if he uses glass manufactured by my fictional Ives experts, but how do I work that into the story in my head?

To tell the truth, I don’t know yet. I’m now researching arsenic and medicine and tuberculosis and my characters are about to pitch fits. Anyone want to make a story of all this? Or I could just make my hero a gambling lout who changes his spots… But then I’d have to research gambling! Anyone know any good books on any of these topics?

(and this post is playing hide-and-seek today, sorry. Hope it shows this time around!)

Kill Your Regency Hero with Wallpaper


I’m still working on the proposal for the next book so I’m really not yet ready to murder my hero. He’s still charming and blithe and hiding his problems instead of giving me or my heroine grief. But while I was researching, I came across this charming tidbit about Regency wallpaper—the greens are poisonous.

The most relevant article is here:
Essentially, around 1812 a vivid new emerald green paint was developed using a chemical composition containing arsenic. Arsenic was used for many things at the time, including a treatment for syphilis. Unfortunately, the treatment could lead to Parisgreen headaches, confusion and drowsiness. If continued the usual arsenic poisoning symptoms would ensue, such as convulsions, diarrhea, vomiting, blood in the urine, cramping muscles, hair loss, stomach pain, and eventually coma and death.

Arsenic treatments were seldom continued long enough to kill, but arsenic in the wallpaper, combined with the damp climate of England, created a kind of mold that people inhaled daily, for years. They did notice that people who grew sickly in winter when it was dampest seemed to revive when moved to a sunny, dry climate. But no one thought to examine the wallpaper—even after the arsenic theory was developed—until the Victorian era. Even then, it was widely disregarded and the chemicals used to develop the pigment were continued in use to kill barnacles on ships and as insecticide. Now, c’mon—paint your walls and kill insects?  Ouch. (a more scientific explanation)   Regencywallpaperw

Paris green was a similar oil pigment formulation used by Impressionists as late as the early 20th century. Cézanne developed severe diabetes, which is a symptom of chronic arsenic poisoning.  Monet’s blindness and Van Gogh's neurological disorders could also be related to their use of Paris Green, as well as lead pigments, Cezanne mercury-based vermillion, and solvents such as turpentine. (In other words, he painted himself crazy.)

So maybe instead of murdering my hero with wallpaper, I could just develop a sickly sister or mother, then cure her with sunshine! Or maybe I need to research diabetes in the Regency era… Of course, they also used that green in fabrics—kill someone with a favorite shawl?  Regencyshawls

And here we thought we were the ones who developed pollution! Who knew environmental hazards could kill our ancestors? How can we possibly solve environmental contamination when even the natural elements conspire against us? Anyone else know some great ways to murder people naturally? (Oh, and there’s always lead-based paint…)

Isn’t it fun to be a writer?