I have the perfect cure for a sore throat: cut it!

It shouldn’t be surprising to learn this quirky advice comes from none other than suspense-guru Alfred Hitchcock. Although at times it may seem the only viable alternative, the actual act is illegal, immoral, messy and, bottom line, not very practical. This leaves me still unable to find relief for my oldest son who’s currently suffering from a cold and an accompanying violent sore throat. I haven’t actually spoken to him, felt his forehead or peered in his mouth—he’s off at college, living in a dorm—but I do get updates on his life from his facebook status. Modern technology may not be able to cure the common cold, but it can certainly keep us informed when a loved one is sick.

After I learned about his illness, we exchanged a number of text messages. I sent condolences, encouragement and suggestions. He sent lists of symptoms, failed remedies and complaints. I offered the usual proposals—tea with honey, gargling with warm salt water, advil. He hates tea, salt water is disgusting and advil didn’t work. Sleep was rejected. He has term papers to write and exams to study for (funny, he had enough free time for facebook and texting!) Besides, his throat hurts so badly that sleep is impossible.

Since he’s rebuffed my modern home remedies, maybe I should offer a few from the 19th century. After all, my characters use them all the time with fairly good results. Granted, these are fictional characters… but the homeopathic solutions are real and since nothing else has worked, I figure it’s worth a try.

The most common herbal therapy was bark from slippery elm trees. The inner bark apparently contains a substance called mucilage that swells when mixed with water and will coat the throat to soothe a sore throat. I’m guessing my son would nix any preparation involving slime.

Another popular remedy was marshmallow root tea. (This is an herb, not the fluffy white item common in s’mores.) Add 1 tablespoon of dried root to 8 ounces of boiling water. Herbalists recommend drinking up to three cups a day.

For a tonic that doesn’t necessitate a trip to a health food store, (a foreign concept to my son who exists on Chef Boyardee, Nerds and energy drinks), he could prepare a concoction of lemon, apple cider vinegar, cayenne pepper and honey. And drink four cups a day.

He declined conventional tea. I doubt he’ll go for these.

The other popular 19th century remedies are, needless to say, now illegal… at least without a prescription. As recently as the turn of the century (1899 to 1900, that is!) there were a plethora of common tinctures available to treat every ailment from infant teething to sore throat and cough. One of the most popular and widely used was Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. The NY Times (October 5, 1861) published an advertisement/article with testimonials by parents whose suffering children had finally found relief with Mrs. Winslow’s magic. The article endorsed this wonderful elixir “sold by druggists throughout the world for only 25 cents/bottle.” Unfortunately, the ‘magic’ is a hefty dose of morphine. In fact, most of the elixirs back then contained one or more of the following: morphine, heroin, opium, alcohol or cannabis. I doubt the sore throat actually went away, but I’m guessing the afflicted patient no longer cared.

As Hitchcock’s advice is impractical, and Mrs. Winslow’s is both illegal and, in all likelihood, harmful, I suppose he’ll have to do what the rest of the world does… tough it out. In the absence of either modern or ancient cure, he’ll just have to allow time and mother nature to heal it. Then again, he’s probably feeling better already. I just haven’t had a chance to check his facebook status for an update.


The phrase “to see the elephant” means to have a new experience, although it was commonly used during the Civil war to mean going off to battle for the first time.

I’m a junkie. I admit it. I’m addicted to words— the sounds, the complexities, the innuendoes, the variety. Yes, I’m impressed that Hemingway could write an entire short story in six words—I can’t even write a shopping list in six words—but I prefer the more lyrical prose of Faulkner. And that’s all right. As Les Edgerton says in his how-to book, Finding Your Voice:

If the voice in your head when you’re musing over something uses rich, complex language, then that’s your voice. Try to remain true to that voice in your work.”

Thank you, Les, for giving me permission to do what others have tried to drill out of me. I write historical fiction set in the mid-19th century. I love finding words that were once commonplace but are now archaic. Some of my favorites are absquatulate, exfluncticate, catawamptiously chewed up, and seeing the elephant. The challenge is in sneaking them past the modern reader.

Beginning in kindergarten, we drill our kids on spelling, calling out the words until they can spell like the Webster dictionary. We expect them to them to memorize theorems and formulas in math and science. They learn vocabulary for foreign languages. But, we pander to the modern belief that difficult words don’t belong in novels. When my children had to read Great Expectations in middle school, they whined and balked. It’s too hard. Once the teacher dissected the story for them through Dickens’ language, they admitted they actually liked the novel.

Language changes over the centuries. Instead of running from it, embrace it! One of my favorite slang terms from the 19th century is absquatulate. Don’t panic… I’ll use it in a sentence (as my former English teachers might demand), and I’m sure the meaning will be clear. This sentence is pulled from an 1843 article in the Missouri Reporter: “A can of oysters was discovered in our office by a friend and he absquatulated with it.”  (absquatulate: to run off, disappear, take off)

Although I desperately want to use this word in one of my novels, a part of me hesitates. Teachers and writer friends alike warn me that modern readers don’t like trying to figure out the meaning of a word they don’t know, even if the context is quite clear given the rest of the sentence. They like it even less if they have to stop and look it up in a dictionary! Whenever I submit a passage to my critique group or to a writing class, if it has an unfamiliar word in it, I’m certain to receive gentle criticism.

“That word threw me out of my fictive dream,” one student said.

“Your words are too complicated,” another said. (Never mind that they are perfectly in keeping with the POV character.)

Which brings up an important distinction. I’m not suggesting using flowery phrases and intricate language just to prove the author is literate. The language must fit the character who uses it. A garbage collector on the brink of suicide would never contemplate shooting himself to escape this “mortal coil,” but an English professor might.

In one of my short stories, the genteel grandmother recites an ancient family legend with roots in the antebellum South. She tells her granddaughter, “The ring was left there to adumbrate her love.” Get rid of that word, my critics all cried. (Except for one wise teacher who noted that the word fit the tone and time period of the story.)

I know I’m not the only one who struggles with this concept. Do we pander to the modern desire for everything to be easy? I doubt William Faulkner hesitated before using words like meretricious and uninfusable and inextricable simply because he feared his readers might be put off by his language. My favorite response to this question, however, appeared in the introduction of a modern reprint of Ivanhoe. Historical novelist Diana Gabaldon wrote:

“Sir Walter’s brilliant ear for rhythms of speech and his use of context generally make clear the tone of what’s being said and capture perfectly the sense of the conversation whether the terms are clear or not—but he’d never get away with it in these days, when pandering to illiteracy and ignorance so often takes the place of artistry… But the readers won’t know what that word means,” cry aspiring historical novelists. I’m sure Sir Walter’s shade joins me in the answering cry, “So let them look it up!”

As an aspiring writer, I want very much to be published. I hope I can find some balance between the beauty of the language and the taste of the audience. For now, though, I think I’ll absquatulate with a diet Dr. Pepper and sit under the shade of my magnolia tree and enjoy some of Faulkner’s lyrical prose.

I belong to that exclusive group of parents (membership extended to anyone who’s taught a teenager how to drive) who have reached for the invisible brake on the floor of the passenger seat or gripped the armrest until their knuckles turn white… only to be met with a roll of the eyes and a “chill out, Mom.”

I was amused, therefore, to learn that this worry over the speed at which our children drive is not a modern concern. Even in the horse-and-buggy days, parents were still gripping the edge of the carriage and praying to arrive safely at their destination.  In his biography about his father, Recollections and Letters of Robert E. Lee, Rob Jr. writes of a similar experience, made even more ironic by the fact that this parent, a general who’d faced death many times over, was unnerved by something as mundane as his son’s driving!

It seems that after the war, General Lee traveled with his youngest son to visit a cousin at a farm thirty miles away. (Traveling of course being a whole lot more cumbersome in the 19th century.) The pair took their horse and buggy on a steamer from West Point, Virginia (Not the military academy!) to Cappahoosic, a wharf on the York River. From there, it was still a nine-mile trip to the relative’s farm. When they debarked, Rob, Jr thought his father looked a bit wan and, out of concern for his health, set out for the farm at great haste. Rob writes “As the sun went down, it became chilly and I drove quite rapidly, anxious to get my father out of the night air as soon as possible. He said nothing at the time, nor did I know that he noticed my unusual speed. But afterward he remarked on it to several persons saying: ‘I think Rob drives unnecessarily fast.’”

The story caught my attention—not because a tough-as-nails general was uneasy about the danger his son’s driving represented—but because it illustrates the oft-repeated truth that nothing ever really changes, that parenthood is a fraternity that transcends time. I’m sure that, far into the future, when teenagers are careening about in George Jetson space cars, their parents will be trying to slam on an invisible brake and praying for a safe landing.

In the meantime, I have two more children who have yet to reach the driving-age milestone. There’s a slight chance that I’ll develop stronger nerves in the next few years, but history isn’t in my favor on that.

In one of my favorite plays, Inherit the Wind, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, the defense lawyer, Henry Drummond, tells the court, “Progress has never been a bargain. You’ve got to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man behind a counter who says, “All right, you can have a telephone; but you’ll have to give up privacy, the charm of distance. Madam, you may vote; but at a price; you lose the right to retreat behind a powder puff or a petticoat. Mister, you may conquer the air; but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline!”

I think about that passage a lot these days. My children’s idea of multitasking consists of texting friends, watching clips on YouTube and catching up on facebook, while listening to an iPod. No one, it seems has the need to actually talk to another human being anymore. It’s not just the kids, either. How many times, when you make a phone call to a business do you get a real person? And how many times do you get an automated recording instructing you which button to push? Yes there are advantages to all of these modern conveniences, but what have we sacrificed in the process?

My husband just bought me a new car with a built in GPS system. Now I can’t get lost. I suppose it has its benefits—if I’m lost in a strange city… but I still prefer my old system. In my version, I simply pull off the road at the nearest convenience store or gas station and simply ask. I usually get more than just directions. Sometimes I find out there’s construction ahead, and I’m given alternate directions. Sometimes I get really lucky and the helpful contact will tell me to “be sure and stop by Martha’s country store on the corner and get you some of her homemade jam.”  Sometimes I simply get a smile and a “have a nice day.” But regardless, I’ve made a connection, however brief, with another human being. And I generally leave with the renewed feeling that we’re not alone on this journey.

When we picked up the new car, my husband programmed the GPS for me before I left the lot. The dealership was thirty minutes from our house, on the opposite side of town, and I was unfamiliar with the roads. I was trying to concentrate on the highway, listening to the automated voice tell me where to turn, when the phone rang. Of course, he’d programmed my cell phone into the Bluetooth. I managed to find the button to answer it after a few rings without driving off the road, but the phone call momentarily replaced the directions on the GPS, and I had no idea which button to push to get back to my map. I knew I was approaching the exit, but which one did I take? North or South? When I finished talking to the caller, I knew I’d taken the wrong exit, but I didn’t panic. There was a gas station at the next turn-off.

I got directions to I-20, a diet Dr. Pepper and a smile. See if my GPS can beat that!

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