Friday, May 11, 2007

Devil's Dung


My primary herb garden.

I grow about two dozen kinds of herbs.

The beneficials, the blessed, the bouquet garni.

Mostly for ordinary culinary purposes like salads, soups and jellies.

My mint, sage and rosemary jellies make a very nice condiment, if I do say so myself.

Naturally I have a small library of herb lore and history which includes quaint information on superstition and sorcery as well as the medicinal and cosmetic virtues of various plants through the centuries. And now there's the internet.

The title of this post comes from a common name for asafoetida.

One of the plant's traditional properties was to assist in the banishment of evils spirits, demons and negative energy.

Said information allowed me to insert in my WIP - after the necessary identifying ground work earlier - the following dialogue:

Morning, Lillie, you look like shit.
Thanks. You smell like it.

During the process of research for a suitable protective herb, I realized something: many books I've read which include spells, charms and potions as an important plot point are irritatingly vague regarding specifics.

The wizard/witch/adept/savant mixes herbs. Or roots. Or oils. As if the writer airily believes the generalization is enough for versimilitude.

The omission makes me distrust their world building when they can't be bothered either to research or just make it up.

40 comments:

writtenwyrdd said...

In my vampire trunk novel, I have the heroine using asfoedita and other herbs in water to foil the evil vampires.

I had to ponder whether to make the magical elements of the story reflect what pagans I know and love would do for a spell or for vampire repellant, and decided that I'd add some info in that would reflect that thinking, but not a lot. This because, well, you can't make vampire repellant.

But if you want to read some decently written wiccan stuff, read the Diana Tregard stories by Mercedes Lackey. I thought she did a pretty good job of describing the ritual stuff, a la the Gardnerians, et al.

For the general run of pagans, there is little to no knowledge of asfoedita, probably because we all hate the smell so much. But I am told that it's the best thing to use to clear foul energies. Just don't use it in winter when you cannot air the house out!

Bernita said...

I have some of Lackey's "Elemental Masters" series. Not her best work in my opinion.

As I understand it, asafoetida is more often used in sorcery and the "left-hand path" - but that's really irrelevant to my point.
One does not have to describe a car, for example, as a blue and white,'58 chevvy, with 250 hp and fins, etc - but the colour and make is better than just "car."

December Quinn said...

You have to be careful about describing things too much, though, too, because you'll get picky, snotty pagans like me who'll scoff when Wiccan writers try to pretend ancient people worshipped the way they do.

writtenwyrdd said...

I agree, those aren't her best work, but I did think the description of ritual magic was well above the average waving about of magical implements or thinking hard and sending power.

I'm more pragmatic: What works, works, and the intention is all there is to define left- or right-handedness. So asfoedita is just a mighty strong cleanser. But then, I've found a fresh coat of paint does a pretty good job, too!

The Rowan Gant books by M.R. Sellars have more authentic neopagan stuff, but I honestly don't like the books themselves at ALL.

Bernita said...

December, you'll also get picky, snotty people like me who knows there are many Wiccan/pagan traditions, and one ritual does not fit all, either now or then.

writtenwyrdd said...

December, herding pagans is like herding cats. For every pagan you get a different opinion--which is a good reason for vagueness, I suppose. Of course, you could also just make shit up and invent things like they do in Charmed and Buffy!

Bernita said...

I don't think it is good excuse, Written, for expecting the reader to be inpressed by words like "herbs" and "spells" without a few specifics - even if they make stuff up.
There's nothing particularly "secret" about the basic stuff after all.

writtenwyrdd said...

Oh, I was speaking of making up herbs and rituals, making complex things completly out of whole cloth. Not being vague. I'm with you on hating totally vague descriptions of any sort of activity that isn't totally mundane. I mean, if you were to lovingly describe morning bathroom rituals...yech. But I'm with you that anything new, exotic or magical should be given life with vivid prose and careful details. Otherwise it's just bad worldbuilding.

Jaye Wells said...

I always try to include some sort of sensory detail--a scent or color--when I include these elements. However, I don't want someone getting distracted from the story by including any unnecessary details about the herbs and such.

Frank Baron said...

Too much detail can sometimes spoil a broth. Readers can get bogged down.

I can also see some publishers being wary of printing specific recipes for spells, charms or potions lest Jane Credulous Reader follow the directions, answer a phone call, and return to find her cat has expired.

Lovely, lovely garden. :)

Bernita said...

Jaye, I'd be happy with just a name at times. Real or not.
But a characteristic is nice.
As in Hamlet: rosemary - for remembrance.
Not suggesting an info dump treatise straight from Gerard or Pliny.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Frank.
And too little detail makes a story bland.
And in this case, snaps my suspenders.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

How absolutely beautiful. Your garden inspires me...

Rick said...

I think the difference here is between people who cook and people who don't. I don't, and I could easily have fallen into this trap. Spices are generic to me - they have exotic names, they come in elegant little jars, mostly they smell good or at least interesting, and once they were treasure fit for a galleon's hold.

All of which is cool, but I don't regularly handle spices and herbs - I don't know them as individuals the way kitchen people do. I hadn't even though, really, of how much of a continuum there is between cooking and mixing potions and the like.

Much to keep in mind here, and perhaps it bears on why I don't much like magic in the first place.

Charles Gramlich said...

A beautiful picture of your herb garden. Have you ever read anything by Rexanne Becnel? She's a local writer in New Orleans who grows her own herb garden and mentions them throughout her work. A couple of her titles that I've read with lots of herbs in them were "The Rose of Blacksword" and "Where Magic Dwells."

Steve G said...

The only thing I know about herbsis that they come on the salad.

raine said...

Ditto on loving the garden.
My cat would be in heaven there...

And yes, some detail is important. I sometimes get the attitude, 'well, if you didn't think it was important, why mention it at all?'

MissWrite said...

Oh your garden is simply stunning! And I agree you must 'know' about what you write. If you are going to 'throw' in a line about herbs, or brews, or spears, or swords... while you may not need to know by experience, you sure as heck better know by research. It chucks believability right out the window just like you say, if it's obvious the writer knows not of what she speaks even in the simplest of things.

I remember once reading a manuscript where someone mentioned a country doctor owning a thorobred who pulled his buggy. The mare was 7 feet tall... wow, that's amazing! Not only do thorobreds not come in that size but horses aren't measured in 'feet'. That was on the first page, and I didn't read any further. Suspension of disbelief thrown right out the window. This guy did not know what he was talking about and I wanted no more to do with the story.

Bernita said...

Thank you, SS. They smell nice too.

Rick, another point, besides the fantasy/magic element, is that "simples" were the physick for many people, up to and including the century just past.A fact that historical writers have to remember.

Thank you, Charles. Am not sure - I tend to forget writer's names - but the titles sound vaguely familiar.

The literature of herbs, Steve, is another of those backdoors to history.

Have some wild catnip too, Raine!
Yes, just skip the whole business of the mortar and pestle, the anointing, the sprinkling, etc.
I think the writer who slings out generalities miss a bet.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Tami.
I know very little about horses, but even I know that - just from reading.

Robyn said...

The only things I remember about herbs from the novels I've read is that willow bark tea is a painkiller, and tansy root induces abortion. I suppose the herbs/oils/what have you would need a reason for being mentioned to make it interesting for me. Or at least that the mixing and brewing takes time, effort, and timing or it goes horribly wrong.

writtenwyrdd said...

I think I know an example of the information being just right-- not too detailed but not too generic.

In Poison Study, by Maria Snyder, she has a lot of mention of various fictional poisons and related things such as the symptoms, prep, etc. But this is all fictional stuff so far as I could tell. Yet it seems real, and not over the top.

BTW it's just a good book all around. I can't wait for the sequel to be in p.b.

Bernita said...

White willow bark is the forerunner of our aspirin, Robyn, containing salicin which is probably converted to salicylic acid in the body.
Yep, tansy plant is considered an abortificant - also used for worms.
I merely mention that an exorcisor wears it as a protective, and that it stinks.

Sounds good, Written.

Gabriele C. said...

Lol, my poultices work. Albeit without magic mumblings. The doctors in my books use the humoralpathology, and if you suffrer from melencolia aka the black bile, you better eat a lot of venison and drink red wine. ;)

Lovely garden.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Gabriele.
I think I feel melancholia coming on this evening and will try your cure.

LadyBronco said...

I am mint-green with envy!

You have an absolutely gorgeous garden, Bernita.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Lady B.
Was lucky enough to get my paws on cobble stones to path and low wall it.

Trevor Record said...

I appreciate the effort some writers go to when crafting worlds. Done well, it adds a lot of texture to a novel. The herb garden makes me think of Rosemary's baby.

Bernita said...

"Texture" is a good word for it, Trevor.

Sam said...

Just this Christmas one of my son's friends gave me a book on herbal lore and witchraft (not sure of the message here, lol) But it's fascinating. All in French, so I have to look up the names in English half the time) But they have spells for almost all the plants and trees growing here in France. A very helpful book.

Sam said...

Forgot to say yuor garden is Gorgeous!!

Bernita said...

Thank you, Sam - an improvement on the driveway that once occupied that space.

Herbals are full of plot bunnies, as you've no doubt discovered - a regular warren of them.

Ballpoint Wren said...

Beautiful garden, Bernita. And a bottle of asafoetida is sitting inside my kitchen cabinet even now!

I took a few cooking lessons from a very good friend who happens to hail from Gujarat, where asafoetida has nothing to do with vampires but everything to do with a good plate of chow.

And speaking of spice cabinets, here is a picture of my Gujarati friend's most frequently used spices.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Bonnie.
I use four or five of those ( though not regularly) and grow coriander.
Rocket fuel is about right!

Scott from Oregon said...

Oh my!

You used my favorite word of all time- verisimilitude- with enormous accuracy and aplomb, and you posted a picture of your herb garden, which is my all time favorite type of garden!

Heaven! Pure heaven!

Bernita said...

And when the fountain tinkles and burbles, Scott, it is so pleasant.
In this one I grow chives, artemisia, thyme, lavender, parsley, sweet basil, sweet marjoram, sage, bergamont, and hyssop.

Scott from Oregon said...

If you are a meat eater, sweet marjoram, bacon bits and thinly sliced then diced lemon will knock your socks off in a white sauce...

I had a solar fountain in my fish pond my dog fetched and ate this morning...

Bernita said...

Sounds yum, Scott.
I am carnivorous.

freddie said...

Your garden is gorgeous.

Do you think you could recommend or post a few titles of the books you describe? I'm always on the lookout for books like this.

Bernita said...

Freddie,
"Old-Fashioned Herbal Remedies" by W.T Fernie M.D., 1980, published by Coles Publishing Company, is a nice one.