Sorry. I'm writing, just not writing as much about writing as I planned. We're enjoying a huge pecan harvest here, and dealing with these wonderful nuts (my job: shucking) is cutting into my blogging time. Also, I'm weaving, which effectively accounts for the rest. You can read about all of that kind of stuff here.
I've been wanting to write here about what I think of as the "embroideries" of the China books: the herbs, herb lore, and recipes that so many people enjoy. When I started the series in 1992, mysteries, by and large, didn't include these domestic "extras." The focus was mostly on the plot, ma'am, just the plot and not much else. In fact, in the 1930s, much-revered mystery author Dorothy Sayers decreed that the mystery shouldn't even include any romance, since it was a distraction from the story--meaning, from the mystery plot. No extras, please, no embroideries. Nothing that might distract the detective from the pursuit of the perpetrator. Plot comes first, last, and always in these early mysteries.
But over time, the whodunnit has ceased to be merely a plot-driven puzzle. By the time I started the China series, readers had become more interested in characterization, and since there were many more women readers (and since publishers were interested in selling books to these readers), it became possible for women characters in mysteries to do practice some of the domestic arts. With her herbs and the emphasis on foods, China was among the first of these "domestic" mystery divas (although I like to think that she's edgier than most of the other domestic detectives). She wasn't quite the first gardening sleuth; that honor goes to Celia Grant, the protagonist in a 10-book British horticulture series that ended in the mid-90s. And I wasn't the first to include recipes in mysteries: Virginia Rich did that in her first Eugenia Potter mystery in 1984, and she did a darn good job of it, too. But China has certainly continued longer than most. And if you ask me, the "embroideries" go a long way toward explaining her success. (Sorry about that, Dorothy Sayers.) Judging from my mail, lots of people read China's mysteries just for the recipes.
But I have never wanted to use the plants and foods in these books as merely distracting extras that keep the reader entertained while the detective searches for clues. For me, the challenge has always been not just to "embroider" the mysteries with odd bits about plants and cookery, but to build this material into the plot, characterizations, settings, and all the other business of a novel. I want my embroideries to be useful.
Plants are particularly wonderful in this regard, because they carry so much additional baggage. Many plants have strongly symbolic meanings--wormwood, for instance (the title of the book I'm working on), which carries the traditional connotations of bitter repentance, unhappiness, sorrow, and guilt. Or nightshade (the title of the April 2008 release), a plant family that is deeply ambiguous, containing dire poisons (belladonna, datura, henbane) and nourishing food (tomato, potato, eggplant). Plants aren't just beautiful, they do things. Bloodroot stains like blood and you can't wash it out. Dill keeps the witches (and evil) away. Rosemary helps us remember. So I try to build these characteristics into the books, a practice that usually, in the course of the research, teaches me much more than I already knew and helps me to broaden my characters and give their actions a deeper significance.
Wormwood is strongly symbolic. Here is the headnote to Chapter 4 (it may not stay there): The name wormwood is said to have derived from the legend of the Garden of Eden, where it sprang up from the track made by the serpent as it was driven out of the garden. When Adam and Eve were expelled, too, wormwood formed a dense hedge, barring their return.
Think about this in terms of the Shaker village I'm writing about, a kind of Utopia (at least, that's how it looked from the outside), a paradise. But there's a serpent in this paradise (isn't there always)? And once you've been tempted, have fallen, and been evicted, you'll never get back in--wormwood (bitter guilt) will keep you out. I love the way symbolic elements like these, derived from the plants themselves, suggest stories. For me, discovering the stories hidden in these "embroideries" is a wonderful part of the writing process.
Writing log. 20 writing days, 29,000 words--which means that I am about one-third finished with the book. Time for the first body to appear. (My dear D-I-L kids me about finding the body around page 100 in every book--and yes, here it is.
Reading note. I was gravely warned by some of my female acquaintances that no woman could expect to be regarded as a lady after she had written a book. —Lydia Marie Child, author of The American Frugal Housewife (1802-1880)