Guest: Nancy Herriman

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.

CLB_searcherforthedead_final_3 copyFirst 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.’

Frau mit Kind in einem Garten bei der Anisernte.
Woman and child harvesting anise. Photo credit to Austrian National Library

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.

NancyHerrimanPhotoReaders: 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

43 Thoughts

  1. Sounds like a lovely book. Any ARCs left? You can see from my question what fascinates me.

  2. Great post, Nancy! Some of the ninteenth century tonics I’ve researched had starling ingredients – sure, give your kid some heroin for his nerves or take a cocaine syrup to pep you up!

    1. My critique partner is a retired ER nurse who’s told me that cocaine was still a common ingredient in children’s medications they used when she first started working.

  3. I loved the Cadfael books, partly because the “remedies” used were…interesting. Or had interesting side effects (yes, by all means–let’s use this monkshood liniment for aches that just happens to be poison if you ingest it).

    SEARCHER OF THE DEAD sounds fascinating!

    1. I killed off a victim in one of my 1860s San Francisco short stories with a chemical commonly used to remove stains!

  4. I must confess – Nancy Herriman is a new to me author, but one that I’d love to get to know through her books, especially ‘Searcher of the Dead’. With a recommendation from Edith Maxwell, an author I adore and admire, I know this author has to be one to be read.

    What fascinates or interest me? I can honestly say it has to be the amount of research that goes into making a book true to real facts and events. When you know an author has fully done their research for the book, then you trust that the facts or events as they are portrayed in the book are accurate which makes the book 100% more enjoyable to me. There’s no wondering if a statement is just part of the writer’s imagination, made up to make the story work. You know that actual events or facts have been incorporated into the storyline. So for authors like Edith and Nancy, I thank you for all the behind the scene work you do to make your books so true to life and such great books to read.

    As for something that interests me no book connected, I would have to say that it’s baking. Hubby and I both love to get in the kitchen working together to bake some delicious goodie. I often think back to years past and wonder who thought of mixing this with this and how much of each ingredient to make something wonderful come from the kitchen. I also think of the primitive conditions they had to work with as well. I’ve done lots of research along with my thinking to see where recipes came from and old ways of cooking. I will continue to research new recipes and try new things all in the name of research you see.  However, I guess I didn’t get away from books with my interest after all did I since most cooking involves the use of cookBOOKS.

    Thank you every so much for the chance to win a copy of “’Searcher of the Dead’. I’d very much love the opportunity to read what sounds like an amazing book and get to know Nancy through her book.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

    1. I love old recipes too, Kay. We are so spoiled with what’s available to us now in the kitchen.

  5. The cover of Searcher of the Dead is so gorgeous! Congratulations on the new series. A story of lost Hemingway manuscripts intrigued me and I used it in book six.

  6. I love historical mysteries and, like Kay, really appreciate when the research that has gone into the book is thorough. The Cadfael mysteries are some of my favorites. And I loved Edith’s latest (along with all her other books.) I’m looking forward to adding yet another series to my TBR stack! Congrats on a new series.

  7. This sounds like a fascinating series! I have to admit that I’m fascinated by the workings of the human brain and its capacity to adapt. And the fact that there is so much we don’t know and are still discovering fascinates me as well. Thank you for the giveaway and congratulations on the new series!

    1. I forgot to mention how much the workings of the human brain interest me, too. I’ve read just about everything I can find on it for the past 40 years. Fascinating. Having that knowledge makes dealing with people so much easier.

  8. I enjoy historical mysteries because, like you, I enjoy the research. My WIP is based in the early 1900s. Besides herbal and opioid treatments I like to include a disease or two, like smallpox, as part of the plot. Have you used any of your engineering background to construct a plot?

    1. I haven’t used my engineering background, Rosemarie. I’ve never quite figured out how to! 😉

  9. This book sounds fascinating! I love history, particularly British history, and enjoy reading accounts of what life was like in earlier times. This is definitely a book that I’ll be adding to my TBR pile.

  10. My husband would say that everything fascinates me. Every day life in any era interests me. Early days of medicine, too. Thank you for the chance to win.

    1. My husband can’t drag me out of museums. I’ll focus forever on the smallest details! 😉

  11. Welcome Nancy! This new series sounds fascinating. I admire all of you historical novelists a great deal. I’d love the research, but I also know that your readers expect accuracy. Lots to weave into a story. Happily, you do it well. Best of luck with the book!

  12. US History is an interest of mine, but it seems like many of the historical series are set in England. I wonder why that is. That is changing some in recent years. I know your first series was set in San Francisco, Edith’s series is set in MA, and Jessie had one set in Maine. So they are out there, but are often harder to find.

    1. I’ve heard that American historicals undersell ones set in England and the publishers aren’t as excited about them. Times might be changing, though, as I see more books set in turn-of-the-century New York City and Chicago these days.

  13. I am fascinated by flowers, birds, butterflies & bees. Sounds like an interesting new series.

  14. I’m fascinated by weather patterns & all the things that effect weather patterns.. It amazes me that there can be such extremes in weather from week to week (& often day to day) in the same geographical area.

  15. Hi Nancy, the new book sounds fascinating–congratulations! One of my ongoing interests is the history of handcrafts, most especially knitting from around the world. The actual knitting may be getting closer to an obsession. I can’t leave the house without a small project and, of course, a book!

  16. We read a book about Theodore Roosevelt’s childhood where his parents gave him coffee for his asthma. My mother used to have a cup of instant coffee if she got wheezy sometimes. She didn’t like to use her inhaler too much. The coffee worked though. Also read the Susanna Appleby series by Kathy Lynn Emerson. I love history and mysteries.

  17. I work in medical research and THAT is why your books intrigue me! I also do human tissue procurement…and that’s all I’ll say about that! The amount of time and the extensive research you do for your novels is fabulous! Love your books set in old San Francisco. I spent some time in The City just driving around and seeing what you described the historic city would ‘look’ like. What an eye opener! When family come to visit and want to go to SF, I now have some historic tidbits to share! I live about an hour south of The City! Can’t wait for this new series!

  18. I love the sound of your book. I like Museum Cataloging and handling historical objects including old china and clothes. One of the most unique things I handled was a large glass pitcher which had been stapled back together and still served liquid in…c. 1800…research is my passion also…they both go together fortunately. Thanks for the chance.

    1. I love looking at old objects, too. We have small items that have been handed down in the family and I treasure them.

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