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Research Springboard

I’m currently bouncing back and forth between two major writing projects that are so different that they really do serve as a break from one another: the language of each is quite distinct, the characters and their trajectories rather different, and so it works for me, right now, to switch from one project to the other when I start to run out of steam on whichever one I’m currently working on.

At the moment, I’m working is about alchemy and conspiracy, a story that begins at the height of the Gin Craze; that is, a time period I used to know not very much about. I still don’t know as much as I need, but doing research for a historical novel can be fun. My current experience is, I imagine, a bit like what conspiracy theory nutters do when they are concocting their malarkey. For one example, I have a character in London in 1736 who needs to go to the Continent, as he decides to take a side in a secret war he’s only just discovered is going on, when he stumbled onto a vast, dangerous conspiracy. Where shall he go?

While answering that question, I ended up launching myself into a particular line of research only to find pieces falling together in a familiar, wonderful way I suspect I’ve never discussed before here, so:

To start with: for various reasons, I was drawn to the idea of sending my protagonist to Trieste. Why? Well, it’s a sort of crossroads point, and a lot of writers I’m interested spent time in bits of Italy.

But for various reasons–some of them very important in terms of story logistics–Trieste didn’t feel like it would work as the first locale outside of England for my protagonist, so I began casting about for another destination for him to start with. He’s a brewer, and so, for me, the immediate thought was to send him to what is now Belgium… something that is even set up earlier in the London-specific part of the story I’ve already written. (He samples an “old Goozy” (a gueuze) at one of the more experimental of the London pubs he visits, and the proprietress, modeled on a homebrewer friend of mine in Korea, tells him it is of Belgian origin.)

Then came the excitement of the research springboard: when I began to research, I learned that both Trieste and the Low Countries were good choices for future locales in the novel, for a whole host of reasons–some of which would have compelled me to choose Trieste if I’d known about them previously, but which came to me as a pleasant surprise.

For example, as Jan Morris observes in Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, the city is a kind of not-place today, an interstitial sort of locale: a lot of Italians don’t even know it’s part of Italy, probably because it spent so much time being part of someplace else. Its onetime glory has faded now, but it was at the time of the Gin Craze a major Mediterranean port under the control of the Habsburg Monarchy, and crawling with Turkish merchants.

Emile Cammaerts’ history of Belgium is free on, so I downloaded a copy and dug into it. I could have just read through the 18th century portion of the book, but I decided to start at the start, fortunately. Belgium, like Trieste, was something of a crossroads in European history, as I already realized, but I’d had no idea just how often a foreign power had run Belgium. The French, the Spanish, the Habsburgs… and what do you know, but the Habsburgs were running the Lowlands during the time of the Gin Craze.

Not only that, but the divide in London between brewers and distillers, that’s a divide that actually informs the Lowlands, which were sort of all lumped together anyway. The Low Countries were something of a two-headed monster–the Romanized and the Germanized, the French and the Flemish. It’s the Germanized north (now, the Netherlands) from which the technology of Gin is brought to London. (The “technology of Gin” meaning not just distillation, but the commercial infrastructure for the gin distillation industry, including its purpose, which was to turn low-quality grain into a saleable product… a kind of economic alchemy, in other words.) And it’s the Romanized, if still diverse, southern part of the Low Countries — now Belgium — where a wild profusion of beer styles reigned.

Granted, that’s a bit ahistorical. Beer styles in the 1730s were probably a wild profusion of styles all over Europe. We don’t remember that thanks to the dieoff that followed the large-scale industrialization of the 20th century, but Belgium may not have been any more diverse than other places, at least in places beyond the reach of the Reinheitsgebot. Though, there is a funny tidbit I ran across online:

… one of the first officially vouched documentary of a German brewing right was given by Emperor Otto II to the church at Liege (now Belgium), awarded 974.

Which sort of suggests all kinds of fun things, given the fact that my story starts out as being a struggle between brewers and distillers over the London beverage market.

In any case, I was amazed–though I shouldn’t have been–when I stumbled upon a connection between the Low Countries and Trieste: they were both under Habsburg rule at the time. Not only that, but there’s a direct commercial link. The ports of the Low Countries–I think at this point it was Antwerp, especially–and Trieste were of course linked by commerce, but the port of Ostend was also directly linked to Trieste (and beyond) by the Ostend East India Company, a corporation set up to compete with the other Eastern trading companies already in business by that time (Dutch, French, and English, specifically).

The Ostend East India Company conducted trade between Ostend, Trieste, Bengal, and Canton. The company was shut down by 1731, five years before my story begins, as a concession by the Habsburgs to the English, but there’s plenty of room for underground connections, not only between Ostend and Trieste, but also to places like the port at Canton, back-alleys of Bengal opium factory districts, the slave pens of pre-revolutionary San Domingo, the wilds of the Congo, and so on.)

In any case, I’m now bringing myself up to speed on alchemy and how it connects with other magical ideas common during the Renaissance and into the Enlightenment. For this, I specifically chose the book The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science because the reviews I saw suggested it dealt less with what precedes the “and” in the subtitle (Paracelsus), and much more with what comes after it (namely, the world and ideas of Renaissance magic and science).

My story takes place a couple of centuries after Paracelsus’ time, but he’s an interesting, colorful, and important figure in alchemy. Plus, I figure a Paracelsus-like figure is something I can’t go wrong with… maybe even a descendant of the man, or something. But even if no such figure shows up in the story, it’s important research for me: even before commencing this research, I’d made references to certain of the man’s theories as part of the alchemy in my own narrative, so knowing more certainly won’t hurt.  But it’s nice to get a snapshot view of Paracelsus, Agrippa, and of the bizarre state of medical science in the 1500s (so far, at about 20% of the way through the book). Agrippa and Paracelsus alike seem to have been, well… a bit like a couple of Harlan Ellison-types within the sphere of Renaissance science/magic: that is, unapologetic loudmouthed pricks who never saw a fight they weren’t willing to jump into, managed to be a big deal in publishing within their own lifetimes, but soon enough ceased to seem to matter all that much to anyone at all, as everyone came to wonder why they were lauded so highly at all.

(For the record, if you’re looking for someone to blame homeopathy on, well, it’s a remix of an idea of Paracelsus, not that it originated with the man. Among other things, the man was the credulous curator of European and near-Eastern magical nonsense, folk myths, and junk science, mixed up willy-nilly with a number of useful insights and functional folk remedies. He was more than that, of course, but he was indeed that as well.)

I’ll follow up with another book I found online for free, William Godwin’s Lives of the Necromancers, an exhaustive study of alchemy, magic, and the occult from 1834 — about a century after the beginning of my novel-in-progress. If you’re wondering why you recognize names like Paracelsus and Agrippa, it’s probably because Godwin’s daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft-Shelley, mentioned them as the inspiration for the wicked experiments of Dr. Frankenstein. Apparently the Godwin is a bit dry, but thorough, so I’ll give it at least a good skim…

I also need to get myself up to speed on the Habsburgs, but they’re next on my list. The Habsburg Empire apparently was kind of a freakshow, so I imagine there will be ample material for my conspiracy theory in there. One book I ran across even promised some stuff specifically about alchemy (and other “weird” Habsburg insider info), so I’m likely to start there, but they’re also a pretty important bunch of people historically, and I know very little about them beyond what one learns in high school… so, plenty to read. This kind of shoots in the foot my plan of reading all the books I’d brought to Vietnam before we visit Korea, but it’s in the service of the writing, so I guess I can live with that.

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