History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

21 September 2011

Welcome, Rose Lerner!

I'd like to extend a warm welcome to Rose Lerner. Some of you may remember her from her critically acclaimed first book, In for a Penny. Her long-awaited second book, A Lily Among Thorns (doesn't she have the best titles?) is now in stores. Just to make things more interesting, she has a hero with a rather unusual profession-- and she's here to talk to us about him today. She has also very generously agreed to give away a copy of A Lily Among Thorns to someone who comments on this post.

Welcome, Rose!

The hero of my new book, A Lily Among Thorns, Solomon Hathaway, is a chemist who manufactures dyes for the family tailoring shop. My memories of high school chemistry mostly involve being extremely afraid I would spill acid or cyanide on myself--I'm neurotic and a klutz, bad combination--and the little I did know didn't help me much with writing a Regency scientist.

Even after all my research, the occasional elementary mistake had to be corrected by scientific friends. Everyone's seen liquid nitrogen at some point, right? Wrong. A biochemist friend informed that no one had ever turned nitrogen liquid yet in 1815. I could mention liquid sulfur, but even that was a fairly recent discovery. (Wikipedia informs me that, "In the late 18th century, furniture makers used molten sulfur to produce decorative inlays in their craft. Because of the sulfur dioxide produced during the process of melting sulfur, the craft of sulfur inlays was soon abandoned.")

So I went to the library and checked out The Philosophy of Experimental Chemistry, Vol. 2 by James Cutbush, published in Philadelphia in 1813. It discusses common elements and compounds and their use, and suggests many practical experiments for the student or hobbyist.

While not much of what I read actually made it into the book, it really helped me understand what sorts of things a Regency chemist might have in their laboratory and the type of language they'd use to talk about their work. Some things sounded surprisingly modern, but among that were scattered terms like "sweet spirit of vitriol," "algorath's powder," and "Ethiop's mineral." That last one made it into the book: Solomon uses it to describe the heroine's dark hair. It's really an old term for a hydrosulphuret of mercury.

Here are a couple other bits from the book that originated in Cutbush's Philosophy. In the first one, Serena's estranged father has just shown up, throwing around some really awful threats. It's still early in the book, so Solomon makes a good faith effort to stay out of it, for about five seconds:

"Solomon clenched his fist. It wasn’t his business. He turned to Lady Serena, waiting for her to put her father in his place. But she didn’t. She just stood there. Her eyes reminded Solomon of an experiment he’d done with frozen mercury. He’d put a tiny chip in a glass of water, and in an instant had been left with a block of ice, and at the center a living drop of quicksilver. He was abruptly and blindly angry."

Cutbush says: "Experiment 4. If a lump of frozen mercury be dropped into a cup of warm water, it will become fluid, and the fluid water in the same instant will become solid.
Rationale. The temperature of the water is reduced by the solid mercury to 32 or below 32°, which therefore freezes, whilst the frozen mercury absorbs the caloric of the water, and becomes fluid."

In another, Solomon's talked Serena into wearing a dress made with fabric from his uncle's shop to a high-profile event as an advertisement for his dyes. She's got a pretty scandalous past and tends to stick to conservative fashion choices to compensate, so she's a little nervous, but Solomon has come through: "The severe cut of the thin wool gave her height, and the deep apricot color made her hair and skin glow; yet neither the cloth nor the color seemed too rich for a hard-working woman of business. The long, full sleeves were gathered in three places by white ribbon covered with delicate gilt flourishes."

Cutbush says: "Experiment 26. If a white sattin [sic] ribbon be moistened with a diluted solution of gold in nitro-muriatic acid, and then exposed, while moist, to a current of hydrogen gas, the gold will be reduced and the ribbon become gilt with the metal.
Remark. If the silk be dry no effect takes place. By means of a camel hair pencil the gold may be so applied as to exhibit regular ornaments, or figures, when reduced."

Early on in Lily, I use the phrase "the bluish-white sheen of arsenic." According to Cutbush, pure arsenic is bluish-white. When sublimed in contact with air it becomes the "white arsenic of the shops," which I thought sounded extremely glamorous. I don't know why I find it so hard to imagine being able to go out and buy arsenic at the shops when there are plenty of poisonous things readily available for purchase today, but there it is.

If you're interested in checking out Cutbush yourself, he's been scanned into Google books. Here are a few bonus experiments I copied out that have absolutely nothing to do with my book, but that are fascinating:

"Experiment 15. If a solution of nitrate of silver be applied to any animal or vegetable substance, it will be stained of a black colour.
Experiment 16. If half an ounce of nitrate of silver be dissolved in 16 ounces of distilled water, the solution for blacking hair will be formed.
Remark. This is applied to the hair once or twice a-day, and when it has been used for a few days, the hair will become of a durable black colour."

I really don't think I want that in my hair. I'm curious what sort of color it creates, though.

"On the principle of silver combining with sulphur, Mr Hatchett informs us, is practised a deception in England by diminishing the current silver coin. It is done, says he, in the following manner: They expose the coin to the fumes of burning sulphur, by which a black crust of sulphuretted silver is soon formed, which by a slight but quick blow, comes off like a scale, leaving the coin so little affected, that the operation may sometimes be repeated twice or thrice, without much hazard of detection." Sneaky!

"Experiment 14. Draw a landscape with Indian ink, and paint the foliage of the vegetables with muriate of cobalt, the same as that used in Experiment 12, and some of the flowers with acetate of cobalt, and others with muriate of copper. While this picture is cold it will appear to be merely an outline of a landscape or winter scene, but on holding it near the fire it will be transformed to a beautiful summer landscape: this again will appear gradually to lose its verdure, and resume its winter dress, on being removed to a cold situation." I love everything about this.

Any particularly vivid memories of chemistry class? Tell me! I'll be giving away a trade paperback copy of A Lily Among Thorns to a commenter chosen at random!

To learn more about Rose and her books, you can visit her on her website here.


Blogger jaybeebee said...

First I have to say how much I enjoyed In for a Penny. Delightful!

My memories of high school chemistry revolve around my first lab partner. He and I were having too much fun so we were split up. It must have been for the best because I got a good grade in the class and after college I married the guy. Many years later, we still make each other laugh.

8:44 PM  
Blogger jaybeebee said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:45 PM  
Blogger Rose Lerner said...

Thanks, jaybeebee. And awwww, that's the cutest chemistry story I've ever heard, definitely!

10:48 AM  
Blogger Melanie said...

Hello Rose,

Just wanted to stop by and wish you a happy tour, and I'll try to follow it. I must say that I liked your book because of the hero's unique proffesion but also your prose just touched my heart and I am looking forward to reading your first novel.

Thank you for the post. It's amazing how much we learn from the research and I've always enjoyed reading author's notes at the end of the story, almost as much as the story itself :)

As for chemistry, I can tell you with all honesty, I hated it with every fiber of my being. Test's were lerned and passed only because I had good memory, but the meaning of it escaped me and was over my head!

If you have the time, I would be honored and love to host you on my blog.

My best wishes always,


11:16 AM  
Blogger ClaudiaGC said...

Hi Rose!

I loved In for a Penny and was really sad when your next book got delayed for so long.
As for chemistry classes, I quite liked them. All the experimenting was really fun and diversified.

claudigc at msn dot com

11:21 AM  
Blogger LSUReader said...

I was terrible in chemistry class! So, thank you very much, but I've permanently blocked those memories.

I loved Rose's first book and look forward to reading this one. Thanks for visiting. (Email in profile.)

2:41 PM  
Blogger Alyssa Everett said...

I loved Solomon's geeky passion for chemistry! I don't have any good stories from chemistry class in school, but when I was a kid, if a thermometer broke everyone would play with the mercury it had contained, dividing it into little beads and then rolling them into a big bead again. Now if a kid plays with mercury, it's such an environmental hazard you're supposed to seal their clothes in plastic bags and immediately dispose of them. I miss the good old days of blissful ignorance.

3:16 PM  
Blogger Dee said...

Wow. Congrats on your second book. I loved the first!

Chemistry classes were interesting. I won't say I ever got the subject but enjoyed the labs (mostly, when not dealing with truly hazardous stuff). Still can't believe had enough credits to minor in it. My high school hard-core science averse self is still in shock.

Running off now to add this to my books to purchase list.

6:27 PM  
Blogger Rose Lerner said...

Melanie--thanks so much! I'd be happy to stop by your blog, e-mail me at lerner(dot)rose(at)gmail(dot)com and we'll figure something out.

I also skated by in chemistry based on having a good memory--I did understand the concepts, mostly, but I just found applying it practically so MESSY. At least when you're cooking nothing is going to eat through your skin.

Claudia--I know it was frustrating. But fortunately we have arrived! I'm glad you liked PENNY.

I liked biology better than chemistry, I think. Not sure why.

LSUReader--nothing quite like good old repression! I think I've done that with most of my music classes--not because they were bad, but because I was so, so terrible at them.

Alyssa--Hi! Thanks for stopping by. :) Wow, when did people figure out how toxic mercury is? It was impressed on me VERY firmly when I was a kid that I was never ever to touch it, that it would go right through your skin, etc...when I found out they used to feed it to children as medicine (I think I came across this information some time in high school) I almost fainted with horror. It IS really, really cool-looking though, isn't it?

Dee--thanks! Yeah, I never ever thought I would be a math major (comparative literature was my goal for most of high school), and then when it was time to choose a major I looked at my transcript and realized I only needed three more classes...Funny how that happens.

9:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I voluntarily took chemistry and organic chem a few years back at community college. Nobody could understand that. lol

Looking forward to Lily, I really enjoyed In for a Penny.

5:21 AM  
Blogger CrystalGB said...

I always enjoyed chemistry classes. It was always fun to do experiments.

5:35 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

So good to see you here on the blog again! Congrats on the new book.

7:44 AM  
Blogger Rose Lerner said...

Growlycub--Thanks! It's funny, when I used to tell people I was studying math, 90% of the reactions were, "I hate math!" I always thought it was a little rude, TBH. Did you enjoy the classes?

Crystal--Good on you! The one thing I do remember really enjoying was the centrifuge. So cool!

Isobel--Thanks, it's so good to be back! You guys run an amazing blog.

8:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rose, the regular Chem classes yes, very much. Unfortunately, the prof for organic chem was not good, so that was a wasted course.

8:59 AM  
Blogger Rose Lerner said...

Dee, you won the signed copy of LILY! E-mail me at lerner dot rose at gmail dot com to claim your prize!

10:14 AM  

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