giving up one thing to get another

I used to be a costumer.

Let me back up. I am a costumer. My love of costume and fashion goes way back, and I started sewing in high school as a means of getting EXACTLY the outfit I imagined. Over the years I’ve turned my hand to everything from modern patterns to science fiction and historical costume, the latter especially a wonderful outlet for my restless need to research.

Fitted Gown
English fitted gown, ca 16th c.
Elizabethan partlet with blackwork embroidery

I not only enjoy sewing but do it well: I can draft my own patterns and alter existing ones; I’m comfortable dyeing, hand sewing, and even the odd bit of embroidery. Given that my day job has me moving pixels around a screen 40 hours a week it’s a refreshing change to work with something physical.

So you have some idea how big a deal it is for me to set it aside.

Farscape duster
Duster from tv show “Farscape”
Sleeveless doublet with trim, ca. 16th c.

Once I got serious about The Book ™ I realized I’d have to stop sewing. Fact: there are only 24 hours in a day. Eight of those I must sleep (and I really must; one of the cruel tricks of being over 35 is that I can’t function on 5 hours a night anymore); another 8 I must work to keep a roof over my head. ~Two days a week I fence and giving it up isn’t an option because I get cranky if I don’t exercise regularly. I also have husband, family, and friends who I enjoy spending time with. Something had to give.

My coach once gave me a valuable piece of advice: you give up one thing to get another. He meant this in the context of fencing: if you go on the offense you give up defense; if you defend one side you automatically leave another open. There is no one perfect act that gives you EVERYTHING, and I’ve found that this holds true for other aspects of my life.

Once the first draft is complete I’ll reward myself with a sewing project even if it’s just garment dyeing or a quick and dirty commercial pattern. Until then all creative energies must go towards the book.

This will be even more true for the next 6 weeks as the HNS conference folks finally got their requirements for cold reads/critiques to me. I need 10 more-or-less finished pages by May 31 to send to my mentor, so even the “pouring sand into the sandbox” of first drafting will be taking a back seat.

Wish me luck.

as above, so below: the big messy subject of alchemy

One of the (many) subjects I’m researching for the book is Renaissance alchemy. Both John Dee and Edward Kelley practiced it and the latter made his name in Bohemia when he successfully “transmuted” gold. As such I need to have some idea of what they were really doing.

Getting my head around this topic remains a chore. I had to wade through a ton of books that looked promising only to discover they were about something completely different (nineteenth century and later “new age” fads using alchemical transmutation as a metaphor for self improvement) or only tangentially related (medicinal alchemy – fascinating! – but no). Facsimiles and translations of historic primary sources exist (the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Digital Image Collection has high-res scans) but the language and imagery are so laden with symbolism that they are almost impenetrable to non-academics.

Finally I located what may be the only “beginner’s” guide to good old-fashioned gold transmuting-type alchemy, Lawrence Principe’s Secrets of Alchemy. It covers the history of alchemy (transmutation and otherwise) from ancient times to the twentieth century and clearly explains the rationale behind beliefs that seem ridiculous to modern minds.

To hilariously simplify: early modern alchemists assumed that all metals were compounded from salt, sulfur, and mercury. Starting from this incorrect assumption it followed logically that altering the proportions or qualities of one or more of these could turn one metal into another.

They weren’t just guessing or making stuff up randomly either. Practitioners were methodical in their experiments and recorded recipes and outcomes. Of course nobody really turned lead into gold but their results were dramatic enough to suggest it was possible.

Principe followed a few historic recipes himself and came up with results similar to what was described, provided he used period-accurate supplies (raw ore instead of purified modern chemicals). William Newman’s Chymistry of Isaac Newton project performed some of Newton’s experiments and includes both videos of their experiments and a modern explanation of what’s really going on.

What I need for my story are:

1) a process (or slight of hand) that produces convincing fake gold, and

2) a process that results in enough pure gold for Kelley to think he’s actually transmuted gold

And my chemistry-illiterate self needs to write these in a way that is both engaging and believable without getting bogged down in detail that will bore the reader.

Oh yeah. This will be fun.

Selected sources:

Harkness, Deborah. The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution. Yale University Press, 2007.

Newman, William R., editor. The Chymistry of Isaac Newton ( Retrieved April 7, 2015.

Principe, Lawrence M. The Secrets of Alchemy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

For the psychological angle: Jung, Carl. Psychology and Alchemy. Princeton University Press, 1977.

For the history of medicine angle: Ball, Philip. The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.