Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Remember When . . . The Names Weren't Around Yet?

The Apothecary by Pietro Longhi, 1752
One of the things I've always enjoyed reading in historical novels, and now weaving into my own, is when the author describes a condition that we know the name for, but which hadn't been a recognized diagnosis at the time.

For example, in the awesomely fantabulous and breathtaking Love's Reckoning by Laura Franz that I just finished, one of the characters falls and smacks her head and is then plagued by debilitating headaches for months afterward. We know that she had a concussion. They just knew she was pained again and needed headache powders.

Similarly, I have a character in Ring of Secrets who history describes as having "black moods" and "bouts of anxiousness." He was aware of this within himself and tried to offset it, but he couldn't control it. Today, we know this would be some form of depression, perhaps even bipolar disease. I obviously took a few liberties with describing these bouts of this historical figure, since he didn't exactly document his day-by-day life with his condition--and as I read through my galleys of Ring of Secrets for the first time the last two days, I had to smile at this guy. My best friend/critique partner commented when she first read his chapters, "Wow. That kind of nerves seem like a bad idea for a spy..."

So very true. And therefore a trait I wouldn't have thought to give him, I think. But that one was all truth, and it was just up to me to explore how he may have balanced that with the espionage "business" to which he was called.

And, go figure, I'm doing something similar in Whispers from the Shadows. I've talked before, I think, about how my heroine is experiencing extreme sleep deprivation in the first half of the book. Studies have been done on insomnia now, of course, but the extremes are still shrouded in mystery because it's too dangerous to mess around with. Still, we have words like "panic attack" and "night terror" to describe some of the side effects. Words not around in 1814. So obviously, I get to find other words to expound on her experiences.

But you know, though the vocabulary hadn't been developed yet, the observations were still there. Plenty of people had talked about "black moods," though they had no treatment for it. And my hero in book 2, a brig's captain, thinks how he's seen plenty of terrible consequences of sleeplessness during his days on the open water, has heard tales of the trauma it can produce.

And always, discovering what they knew at certain points of the past, how they would have treated it, and what they would have called what are everyday conditions now remains a challenge to learn and a lot of fun to include. =)

Now back I go to galleys! I need to try to squeeze two more reads in before I send this baby back. =)


  1. Sounds like LOTS of fun to research - and figure out how to express! The ultimate in show-not-tell, eh?

  2. Oh I love this in historical fiction also! I like to try and figure out what it is. (sometimes it's obvious, sometimes it isn't.) My favorite are the psychological ones because people could potentially be treated so badly for these disorders. One favorite was a man who lived with Aspergers but his whole childhood was spent in an asylum where he underwent ridiculous and horrible procedures. Of course this was fiction, but based on research. So sad. Makes me wonder what we will know in another 100 years! :)