Fun with science; or, Ye scurvy dogs!

One of the most fun – or frustrating, depending on the situation – aspects of writing is incorporating things you learn into your fiction. Especially if you’re something of a history geek, it can be a great brainstorming exercise to gather historical details and cobble them together into something usable for your story. There’s always the danger of going overboard with this: one way writers can look amateurish is by cramming every cool thing they think of into a story, whether it really serves the story or not. (This leads in part to the “kill your darlings” admonishment that occurs in so much writing advice. If something’s only there because you think it’s cool, maybe you need to delete it.) But adding interesting tidbits with a light hand can enrich a story, particularly a historical work or the quasi-historical settings created in fantasy.

One of my favorite bits of ship trivia translated itself into an entire chapter of The Source in the Desert, the second volume of my seafaring fantasy novels. I ran across this piece of historical information in the book Rough Medicine: Surgeons at Sea in the Age of Sail, a book I picked up just because it looked interesting, not yet knowing that I’d have a large portion of a new novel idea by the time I was done with it. One chapter of Rough Medicine focused on scurvy, which we now know from pirate-themed insults, but which was a devastating and deadly illness at the time. Plenty of quackery and useless treatments were popular, and it wasn’t until 1747 that a sea surgeon named James Lind decided to test them to see which were actually effective:

Lind selected twelve men with scurvy for special treatment…  two were given a quart of cider to drink, while two others had elixir of vitriol. Two more drank vinegar, and two were given seawater, while another two were dosed with an elixir of garlic, mustard seed, horseradish, balsam of Peru, and myrrh. The last couple were given oranges and lemons, and these were the men who were up and about and nursing the others six days later.

This is widely believed to have been the first controlled scientific experiment in history. Isn’t that awesome?

By the time this little historical/scientific tidbit worked its way into my story, I’d created an entirely new fictitious world to set it in, and turned Dr. Lind into a female physician named Bronwin, who finds herself battling not only scurvy but a hostile ship’s surgeon who challenges both her ability to practice as a woman and her entire approach to medicine. I also used the scene of the scurvy trial to dispatch some unsavory characters, and to give Bronwin a moral dilemma when it comes to treating said unsavory characters. I hope the ghost of the good doctor doesn’t mind.

What interesting bits of history, science, or other research have worked their way into your stories?