If this post looks familiar, it should! It appeared on the Hagstone Publishing website a few years ago in a slightly different form.
Many of the books and stories I love best take place in rural or wild settings. I especially enjoy lush descriptions of natural beauty and stories about healers, witches, and wise women. Unfortunately for me, many people who write these kinds of stories aren't actually familiar with plants at all, and their texts are riddled with botanical misinformation that breaks the story's spell and makes me irritable. And I know, I know, it's fiction. But I think the more fantastic your tale, the more important it is to create a strong sense of reality in your setting. Getting the mundane details right makes the unreal feel more real. I know not everyone cares about plants like I do, BUT we live in a world where information about them is widely available, and a few minutes online or at the library could prevent glaring errors that distract from an otherwise beautifully told tale.
So today I'm going to share some very basic plant information for fiction writers which I hope might help with getting some of those pesky details right.
1. Plants have very specific needs. Some plants like to grow in shade. Others need full sun. Some like to live in wet places, some in dry. For example: I've read novels (very good novels, I might add) that feature scenes in which the heroine gathers lavender in the forest. Lavender is at home in the Mediterranean. It likes full sun and loose, well drained soil. It might survive for a little while in the woods, but it would become straggly and spindly and would be unlikely to bloom.
2. Every plant blooms at a specific time of year. Bloom time depends on temperature, the amount of rainfall, and a number of other conditions. It may vary by several weeks in either direction depending on the weather, elevation, etc., but you can at least be pretty sure that violets will bloom in early spring, and lavender will bloom on or around midsummer (unless it's Spanish lavender, which can start blooming earlier and continue blooming later). So, when your heroine goes into the forest to collect lavender blossoms, she can't gather them at the same time as she gathers violets (which you actually CAN find in the forest, by the way). P.S. stay tuned, a post on plant bloom times is coming.
3. Herbal remedies, like most pharmaceuticals, usually require multiple doses before achieving a desired healing effect. When you have Strep Throat, and you go to the doctor for antibiotics, do you take only one dose and then all of your symptoms disappear and you are well again? Usually no: you take several doses, and recovery is gradual. It's the same with plants. While some herbs are very powerful and you'll notice a difference immediately (such as the quick relief of applying plantain to a bee sting), no herb is going to immediately make anyone 100% well. It takes time. So remember when you're deciding how many days it takes to get to the frozen mountaintop swamps to gather rosemary, you need a couple more days than you think you need to save your love interest. Because once your heroine returns, it will take a while for the plant to do its thing. (Please note: I can't speak to how applicable this is to poisons and antidotes. I haven't studied that area of herbalism at all. Mostly because I imagine it involves a lot of spectacular vomiting. But I know of people who have studied this subject, and if I wanted to write about it, I would contact them for help getting my facts straight.)
4. Strong medicinal herbs often taste terrible. So, if you want to put someone to sleep by giving her valerian, the wine you put it in will NOT taste strangely sweet (a description I read in another otherwise wonderful novel). It will taste like someone with really poor hygiene left their dirty socks in the wine barrel, or maybe their whole nasty fungus-covered foot. Of course, not all herbs taste bad. Some of them are delicious. Elderberries, rosehips, rose petals, violet flowers, and many more are delicious. But if it's a root, there's a good chance it tastes like dirt. If it's a toxic plant, it will probably taste extremely bitter or otherwise unpleasant. Of course there are exceptions. You will find them if you do your research.
5. If you just can't face the thought of researching plants, that's okay! You have other options available to you. One, you could choose not to write about specific plants and not to name names. You can still talk about verdant fields of fragrant flowers in general terms. Or, if you're writing fantasy - especially fantasy set in a fictional world - you can just make up new plants. It's a great way to exercise your imagination, and it's fun for the reader in the same way reading about mythical creatures is fun. Either option eliminates the risk of pulling the reader out of the story to roll their eyes and complain about your lack of knowledge to their wife, who is very tired of hearing the same tirade every week. Hypothetically speaking of course.
Obviously all these statements are generalizations. When it comes to plants, there are exceptions and deviations all over the place. Because plants, like people, are individuals. But look, if you're writing a novel and want to include some plants but know literally nothing about them? Ask someone who does know plants for some guidance. You could even ask me. If I don't know, I promise I'll point you towards someone who does.
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