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Grounding the Fantasy of The Apothecary’s Curse in Historical Authenticity

There’s an old Paper Lace song from the ’70s called “The Night Chicago Died.” It refers to the “east side” of Chicago. Except. There IS no East Side of Chicago. The East Side of Chicago is called Lake Michigan. There’s a North Side, a South Side, a Northwest Side and a West Side, but no “East Side.” Full stop. Always enjoyed that song, but it always caused a snicker when, as kids, we would play (or sing) the song.

The same is true for all fiction: novels, short stories, television scripts and series. Nothing takes you out of a story faster than screwing up the setting. Conversely, nothing grounds fiction better than a sense of authenticity. And nothing provides authenticity better than knowing whereof and who-of and how-of you speak.

In writing The Apothecary’s Curse, I took great pains to research every assertion, setting, and, yes, even, word I used. Was the word “hooligan” in common use in 1837 London? What did an apothecary do in London? What was King James’s VI take on the supernatural back at the very end of the sixteenth century?

There’s a pivotal scene in The Apothecary’s Curse where my main character has a motorcycle accident north of Chicago along the Lake Michigan coast. People who do not live in Chicago (or perhaps some that do) are often unaware that to the far north of the City, along the lake, the terrain is far from the flatland with which Chicago is often associated. There are high bluffs, deep ravines, plunging eighty, one hundred, even one hundred fifty feet to the rocky shore. Who’d have thought?
I used the idea because I knew people would find it strange, and maybe a bit fantastical (after all The Apothecary’s Curse is a fantasy), but before I put a number on the height of the cliff, I researched everything I knew (and didn’t know about the shoreline and the quite mystical ravines that line the shore from Wilmette to the Wisconsin border).

Although I know the Chicago setting quite well, and felt comfortable playing with it, the same is not true of the early Victorian setting of 1837-1842 London. I chose Smithfield Market as the location for Gaelan Erceldoune’s Apothecary Shop for some very specific reasons. Smithfield is a place where the immortal Gaelan could be more or less anonymous. Having moved locations after ten years in the posher environs of Hay Hill, he needs to reboot his life, and Smithfield is perfect. He’s also needed there. Few physicians (mostly gentlemen) would dare not dirty their hands in the “vile zoology” that is Smithfield (and by the way, that is exactly how accounts for the time describe place, so I copped the description and put into the story).

Also, Gaelan’s heritage comes into play here (although not so much in Apothecary’s Curse as it will in the second book, which looks back on when Gaelan first moved to Smithfield in 1826 (11 years before events in The Apothecary’s Curse). My research uncovered the fact that William Wallace (AKA, The Wallace, a Scottish hero) was executed in Smithfield, perhaps even right on the very same corner that Gaelan’s shop sits. Hmm. So the locale was very carefully chosen.

William Wallace was a contemporary and confederate of Lord Thomas Learmont de Ercildoune, Gaelan’s ancestor–a figure that is steeped in supernatural legend, but who also existed in medieval Scotland! History, meet mythology, meet fantasy!

So, by placing the fantasy in a real location with a real history related to the ancestor of a historical figure, I hope that grounds the story in history as well as the legend that so pervades the story.

I also underlaid the story with real people in cameos who lived during the times in which the story takes place (or in its back story): Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his medical mentor Joseph Bell (who is related to Gaelan’s frenemy Simon Bell), Sir Isaac Newton, Paracelsus (though only indirectly). There is also a scene midway through the novel in which I wanted to trigger an argument between Gaelan (who’s always up for a good verbal row) and Simon’s cousin Dr. James Bell.

I had a particular date in 1842 in mind, so I scoured the London Times from July 1842 and came up with the perfect news item: an assassination attempt on Queen Victoria by a mentally and physically disabled, shunned little man. Gaelan, of course, would side with the disabled man, who, after all shot paper “bullets” at the queen.

All of this is to say that no matter whether you’re writing historical fiction (for which accuracy is an imperative when dealing in the “actual” factual world) or speculative fiction, everything has to make sense (at least within the world you’ve built. And if the world you’ve built is fantastical, but set (even partially) in the real world, attention to detail, gentle use of tropes, diction, setting–and fact, can give your fantastical creation an air of authenticity.

Barbara Barnett


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