Friday, July 3, 2009

DOG Street Ghosts - The Pasteur & Galt Apothecary

I've had a request to talk about my research in Williamsburg, where my 3rd novel, POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, was set. That particular research had so many facets, this could turn into a dissertation, so I'll just tell you about one at a time.

Williamsburg seems the ideal setting for historical fiction. In fact, one of my favorite novels, Barbara Michael's Patriot's Dream is set there. So when Barbara Peters (Poisoned Pen) suggested that I set a Pat Montella mystery in Williamsburg, I thought "Sure, I could do that." 18th century America is my favorite time and place, history-wise, and I'd already been to Williamsburg five times.

My Pat books (a.k.a. The Possessed Mystery Series) all have two plots, one historical, one present day, and they're connected by a central theme and at least one ghost. In BY BLOOD POSSESSED, for instance, the central theme is the effect of war on family. At the time I began planning POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, I was feeling the need to avenge myself upon certain doctors and the healthcare system in general. The theme of the Williamsburg book, I decided, would be medicine, then and now. So the first place I headed when I ventured south to Williamsburg for research was the Pasteur & Galt Apothecary on Duke of Gloucester Street (called DOG Street by William and Mary's students).

The interpreter I found inside was a pleasant woman in trim colonial dress. What warmed me to her was her expression when I started asking questions like "What were mercuric salts prescribed for? What was the normal dose? And are they toxic enough to kill a man?" She smiled as if to say, "You'd better have a really good reason for asking."

I gave my standard spiel about being a mystery writer, etc. and to her credit, she still didn't look as if she believed me, but she took down my address and we exchanged email addresses.

What I didn't know at the time was I'd hooked up with Kris Dippre, one of the foremost experts on medicine in early America. A week after I returned home a large envelope appeared on my doorstep containing chapters from a Domestic Medicine: or The Family Physician, published in Philadelphia in 1774. From this, I was able to bend my brain around contrary 18th century beliefs on the causes of disease, and to give one of my ghosts a distinguishing feature: scoliosis of the spine, from being put into stays at too early an age.

Kris continued to answer my questions via email. Of everyone I contacted at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, she helped me most. I sent her a copy of POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY as a thank you and, a month later, received a copy of another book which had just seen print -- PHYSICK: The Professional Practice of Medicine in Williamsburg, written by Kris and the staff of the Pasteur & Galt Apothecary, which I recommend to anyone researching the topic. (Wish I'd had it two years earlier.)



Terry Odell said...

We had the opportunity to visit Colonial Williamsburg on several occasions, and I thoroughly enjoyed those visits to the past. Your book should be fascinating.

Patricia Stoltey said...

I can imagine the, "And just exactly why are you asking?" look you received when you began asking those questions. Looking forward to reading more from you, Elena. As for hopping from topic to topic, I love that.


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