Edith here, on vacation in DC but delighted to welcome my fellow historical novelist Nancy Herriman to the blog. Nancy has several mysteries in her A Mystery of Old San Francisco series, which I love, but this is a new book in a new era – seventeenth century – in a new series, and I can’t wait to read it (it arrived on my Kindle three days ago…)! Take it away, Nancy.
Thanks to the Wickeds for having me on their blog again. It’s always an honor. And I’ll be giving away a copy of Searcher of the Dead to one of the commenters on this post.
First off, here’s a bit about Book 1 in my newest series:
Herbalist Bess Ellyott flees London after her husband is murdered, but the peace she has found in the quiet Wiltshire countryside is short-lived. Her brother-in-law, a prosperous merchant, is himself found dead—dangling from a tree, a rope about his neck. A supposed suicide. Clues suggest otherwise to Bess. Was he the victim of a rival wool merchant, jealous of her brother-in-law’s success? Or worse, had he become entangled in traitorous schemes to undermine the Church of England?
Bess is uncertain that she can trust the town constable to help her find the truth. Christopher Harwoode will cross members of his own family to uncover the killer…whose next target may very well be Queen Elizabeth I herself.
In my writing, I have two passions. One is setting my books in historical times. I have tried numerous times to write a contemporary novel and, so far, failed. I vow to keep trying, though! The other is an interest in how medicine is practiced, especially in the past. This is no surprise to anyone who has ever read one of my books. My heroines, my sleuths are always healers of some sort. In my San Francisco series, Celia Davies is a nurse. In my new Bess Ellyott books, which are set in Tudor England, my sleuth is an herbalist.
I’m far from alone in combining these two interests in a mystery novel. In the Father Cadfael books, which are set in Medieval England, the clever monk is also an herbalist. Ruth Downie’s Medicus series employs a doctor as sleuth in ancient Roman-occupied Britain. And, of course, we have Edith Maxwell’s wonderful Quaker Midwife mysteries! Just to name a few.
Medical professionals make good sleuths, in my opinion. I suppose I’d better have that opinion, as I make such regular use of them! Trained to observe symptoms of disease, they’re also well-equipped to identify when a death might be suspicious. Furthermore, my historical heroines exist in times and places that limited what they, as women, could do. Being an herbalist or a midwife or a nurse provides more opportunities than what other women of their worlds might possess.
My greatest joy, though, is what I learn while I’m researching my novels. For instance, medieval practitioners attempted more surgeries than I’d ever imagined (and without anesthesia, of course). I pity their desperate patients. Also, the ancient belief in the four humors—blood, yellow bile, black bile, phlegm—dictated what cures to use, and that balancing ‘hot/cold’ and ‘dry/wet’ was the solution to every problem. It’s an idea reflected in the saying, which dates to the 1570s, that people should ‘feed a cold, starve a fever.’
For my latest series, I’ve been studying old herbals so I can write accurately about the sorts of cures Bess Ellyott would have made. Some, such as those that used honey, might have actually worked (pure honey is a natural antiseptic). A much better recommendation than to slap cow or sheep dung on a wound. Well into the late 19th-century it was still easy to buy quack remedies, and nearly every one sold by the corner apothecary contained opiates. You might not get better, but you might be so sedated you wouldn’t notice.
As for the grossest research I’ve done, well, that involved reading up on the process of decay in corpses. Not something that should be done while eating. There was also the time I reviewed articles and photographs to be able to describe what happens to a body after a fall from a great height. The stuff you can find on the internet. Amazing. And icky.
In the end, I’m grateful to be able to tell the stories of healers, especially the women who worked (and sometimes continue to work) in the shadows of their male counterparts. Brave and intriguing women. Who also make excellent sleuths.
Readers: it’s your turn. Please share something that interests or fascinates you.
Nancy Herriman retired from an engineering career to take up the pen. She hasn’t looked back. Her work has won the RWA Daphne du Maurier award, and Publishers Weekly calls the first in her Bess Ellyott mysteries, Searcher of the Dead, “satisfying” and “fascinating,” and says “readers who relish details of daily life in a Tudor town…will enjoy this story.” When not writing, she enjoys singing, gabbing about writing, and eating dark chocolate. She currently lives in Central Ohio. You can learn more at www.nancyherriman.com