Herbs, herbs, herbs, I’m so sick of herbs….
Let’s talk about herbs.
No, let’s talk about some herbs. Not in the basil-mint-dill sense, no. When the woodsman cooks a rabbit, he uses ‘some savory herb’. When your character has a cough, the healer she visits lives in a cottage festooned with ‘some healing herbs’ and gives her ‘some herb’ to help her recover, presumably different from the ‘some herb’ used when another character is bandaged after a knife fight. The caravan is redolent with the scents of ‘some exotic spice’ because spices are apparently more exotic than herbs.
‘Some herbs’ are very hard-working… and this means they don’t work at all.
It doesn’t matter how you dress them up. If you use ‘some herbs’ you are handwaving and dragging down the story– not much, not all the time, but that little bit of drag adds up. It means you have modern medicine growing on a bush and you haven’t even bothered to pretend. It means you haven’t given thought to what your characters are eating; those herb-flavored rabbits may as well be Egg McMuffins. It means you have missed an opportunity.
First rule: be specific. Name your herbs. Know what they do. You don’t need to do a ton of research into this, not for a single line, but you should do some. Willow bark tea contains salicylic acid, which is more or less aspirin, so that’s good for headaches and reducing fever, but thins the blood some. Wild onions look kind of like tulips in the spring forest and smell interesting when you walk on them. Lemon balm can be used to repel mosquitoes and make tea, presumably not all at once.
“But wait!” you say, “my character doesn’t know that. He’s an idiot farmboy* with no medical or kitchen training! It’s not ignorance, it’s characterization!”
(*I am using this particular type of story as an example; it is low-hanging fruit.)
To which I reply, “Yes, and that’s good. You have found a way to make your character rounder… except every other character in the story has that same characteristic. How can I tell that this character, who just got ‘some herbs’ from a hedgewitch, is legitimately ignorant, while that one, who has a sachet of ‘some fragrant herb’ in her underwear drawer, is not? Is every single person in this world uninterested in plants?”
This leads me to my second rule: be intentional.
It’s not enough to have your idiot farmboy be an idiot. You have to make him an idiot on purpose– you have to show that he’s an idiot because you want to show it. Know what you’re doing when you say that a character doesn’t know what she’s eating. Is it because the person she is doesn’t know, or because you don’t? When bread is baked with ‘some herbs’ in, it might be because your nobles don’t give any thought to their own food and blithely assume that they will always have such delicious meals. It might be because the baker moved to a new city and is terribly homesick, and making the oven smell like home is the best she can do. It might be because the cook is inexperienced and accidentally grabbed an unlabeled jar and now the bread is three-quarters inedible, but everyone is starving and so they are grimly eating it and not letting on that it tastes like ashes and tarragon.
But be honest: did you think of those things before your character brought out the loaf?
Be specific: this rosemary bread. Be intentional: it is rosemary bread to show that the characters are well-off.
Be specific: this is comfrey, and it’s used to help bones heal. Be intentional: the character doesn’t know that because she’s delirious with fever; she only knows how it tastes. Bonus use: now that you know it’s comfrey, you can add in Surprise Liver Damage!
Be specific: this is lavender soap. Be intentional: the character doesn’t know what it’s called, but it reminds him of more peaceful times, and eventually he gives it to someone who does recognize it in trade for a new pair of boots.
Be specific. Be intentional. Every little bit counts.
Writing Exercise, Ish, and here we see why I don’t do them often: Go to Wikipedia and look up a few herbs. Pick one that sounds interesting. Write a scene in which that herb makes a difference– not the Search for the Golden Garlic, but a scene where it matters that you are using this plant and not that one.
I’m Catherine Krahe. I’ve been staff at Alpha for the last few years, which means I get to hang out with some incredibly talented writers among the pros, staff, and students. It also means that for those two weeks in July, I talk about writing a lot. My posts here will be expansions of some of that conversation, a little more formal than chats on the patio at two in the morning, a little less formal than my hour-long talks. I plan to elaborate on my basic Rules of Writing– be specific, be intentional, be short– and move on from there.
July 11, 2010 @ 4:27 pm
Well said. One thing I would add, though – think carefully about whether you’re using real herbs or not. If your story is actually set in some fantasy version of Europe, then use real herbs native to the region. If it isn’t, make up your own.
But use this rule of thumb – if you’re making up something wholecloth, it should always take more time and more effort than using a real world equivalent. That’s because you should be researching real herbs, including names, effects, characteristics, appearances, and side effects, and then developing your own with the same level of detail.
July 12, 2010 @ 12:24 pm
I think that many times, people make up herbs because they don’t want to research or don’t think they can find a plant with the appropriate poetic properties. It’s more apparent with large predators– it’s not enough for there to be badgers, wolverines, lynx (lynges?), cougars, wolves, coyotes, bears, and shrews about in your typical based-on-Europe Fantasyland Forest, there must also be a Special Scary Animal that is bigger, faster, stronger, and has more useful pointy bits.
I roll my eyes as if I don’t do the exact same thing. I may have to atone by making my next Scary Beast 2.0 a moose or something.
Actually, being specific about these things also helps the worldbuilding. Many readers, myself included, assume default Fantasyland and certain rules for SF, and if it’s not made clear from the beginning that this is not that default, I at least get a bit confused. If you’re specific about your herbs, you make it clear that the story’s actually set in South America or Australia.
July 12, 2010 @ 1:03 pm
Not wanting to do research is probably a big factor, but I think a lack of confidence is also in there. Even with research, the more specific you are, the more likely it is that somehow, somewhere, you’re going to get something wrong. And no one wants to pick the wrong specific detail and look silly.
Of course, it’s better to take that risk and have a vivid and interesting story, and it’s even better to do enough research that you feel comfortable putting those details in. (I really need to take my own advice on this point, but I’m only halfway through the first draft, so I’m not going to be too hard on myself right now.)
July 13, 2010 @ 3:48 pm
Sarah, I think that creating a beast out of research anxiety really only moves the potential for error around. You can make up a Beast 2.0 that does exactly what you want, but it’s still in an ecosystem, which means research to get that right.
A lot of writing choices are like that. It’s not, “Doing X is fraught with peril, so do Y,” but, “Doing X badly is fraught with peril, so do it well. Or do Y well, because if you do Y badly that’s also fraught with peril.” Peril all round!
July 14, 2010 @ 6:34 am
Oh, you’re quite right–a Beast 2.0 requires just as much research, if not more. I wasn’t thinking of writers who make things up out of whole cloth (sorry, should’ve been clearer), but rather the ones who leave everything very handwave-y and vague, and leave it up to the reader to fill in the many blanks. It feels safer, even though of course it’s not, really.
April 13, 2011 @ 12:32 pm
Hi there! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and say I really enjoy reading your posts. Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that go over the same topics? Thanks for your time!