Let’s talk about herbs.
No, let’s talk about some herbs. Not in the basil-mint-dill sense, no. When the woodsman cooks a rabbit, he uses ‘some savory herb’. When your character has a cough, the healer she visits lives in a cottage festooned with ‘some healing herbs’ and gives her ‘some herb’ to help her recover, presumably different from the ‘some herb’ used when another character is bandaged after a knife fight. The caravan is redolent with the scents of ‘some exotic spice’ because spices are apparently more exotic than herbs.
‘Some herbs’ are very hard-working… and this means they don’t work at all.
It doesn’t matter how you dress them up. If you use ‘some herbs’ you are handwaving and dragging down the story– not much, not all the time, but that little bit of drag adds up. It means you have modern medicine growing on a bush and you haven’t even bothered to pretend. It means you haven’t given thought to what your characters are eating; those herb-flavored rabbits may as well be Egg McMuffins. It means you have missed an opportunity.
First rule: be specific. Name your herbs. Know what they do. You don’t need to do a ton of research into this, not for a single line, but you should do some. Willow bark tea contains salicylic acid, which is more or less aspirin, so that’s good for headaches and reducing fever, but thins the blood some. Wild onions look kind of like tulips in the spring forest and smell interesting when you walk on them. Lemon balm can be used to repel mosquitoes and make tea, presumably not all at once.
“But wait!” you say, “my character doesn’t know that. He’s an idiot farmboy* with no medical or kitchen training! It’s not ignorance, it’s characterization!”
(*I am using this particular type of story as an example; it is low-hanging fruit.)
To which I reply, “Yes, and that’s good. You have found a way to make your character rounder… except every other character in the story has that same characteristic. How can I tell that this character, who just got ‘some herbs’ from a hedgewitch, is legitimately ignorant, while that one, who has a sachet of ‘some fragrant herb’ in her underwear drawer, is not? Is every single person in this world uninterested in plants?”
This leads me to my second rule: be intentional.
It’s not enough to have your idiot farmboy be an idiot. You have to make him an idiot on purpose– you have to show that he’s an idiot because you want to show it. Know what you’re doing when you say that a character doesn’t know what she’s eating. Is it because the person she is doesn’t know, or because you don’t? When bread is baked with ‘some herbs’ in, it might be because your nobles don’t give any thought to their own food and blithely assume that they will always have such delicious meals. It might be because the baker moved to a new city and is terribly homesick, and making the oven smell like home is the best she can do. It might be because the cook is inexperienced and accidentally grabbed an unlabeled jar and now the bread is three-quarters inedible, but everyone is starving and so they are grimly eating it and not letting on that it tastes like ashes and tarragon.
But be honest: did you think of those things before your character brought out the loaf?
Be specific: this rosemary bread. Be intentional: it is rosemary bread to show that the characters are well-off.
Be specific: this is comfrey, and it’s used to help bones heal. Be intentional: the character doesn’t know that because she’s delirious with fever; she only knows how it tastes. Bonus use: now that you know it’s comfrey, you can add in Surprise Liver Damage!
Be specific: this is lavender soap. Be intentional: the character doesn’t know what it’s called, but it reminds him of more peaceful times, and eventually he gives it to someone who does recognize it in trade for a new pair of boots.
Be specific. Be intentional. Every little bit counts.
Writing Exercise, Ish, and here we see why I don’t do them often: Go to Wikipedia and look up a few herbs. Pick one that sounds interesting. Write a scene in which that herb makes a difference– not the Search for the Golden Garlic, but a scene where it matters that you are using this plant and not that one.
I’m Catherine Krahe. I’ve been staff at Alpha for the last few years, which means I get to hang out with some incredibly talented writers among the pros, staff, and students. It also means that for those two weeks in July, I talk about writing a lot. My posts here will be expansions of some of that conversation, a little more formal than chats on the patio at two in the morning, a little less formal than my hour-long talks. I plan to elaborate on my basic Rules of Writing– be specific, be intentional, be short– and move on from there.