Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring...

Have nothing to do with the case.
Mikado - WS Gilbert

Laburnam Walk
Photo of Temple Newsam House, courtesy of TripAdvisor

I usually bedeck my books with flowers, both wild and cultivated. More often than not, they do indeed have nothing to do with the case. They’re part of the setting, marking the seasons, differentiating between town and country gardens, hedgerows, meadows, moors, and woods.

Sometimes, though, they have other purposes. In Heirs of the Body, the 21st Daisy Dalrymple mystery (just reissued by Minotaur in trade paperback), I use a pleached walk of laburnam to suggest the threat of poisoning. The seeds are deadly. In fact, I use the walk for a different purpose, and another plant is used later in the book to poison one of my characters.

In another book, I killed a victim with oleander he himself had nurtured and cherished in his conservatory.

Perhaps the most fun I’ve had with flowers was when I used them to indicate character and illustrate a relationship. In Anthem for Doomed Youth, DCI Alec Fletcher goes to question a victim’s widow:
“The front garden was laid out with military precision. A rectangular patch of lawn on each side of the brick path had rectangular flowerbeds centred in each lawn, edged with low, rectangular box hedges, as was the path. The beds were planted with rigid rows of magenta rose-campion and sternly staked red-hot pokers.

The widow is already planning to tear out the lawn, the box, the campion—hideous colour!—the lot. I’m putting in a forsythia, and rambler roses, and... What else sprawls all over the place?’

“‘Well, buddleia, madam, but they be mortal untidy!’

“‘Just what I want, a bit of untidiness in my life. Nasturtiums! Trailing geraniums!’”
The smell of flowers can be very evocative, too. My Regency Lavender Lady took its title from the fragrance of the home-made lotion the heroine uses. Later, when the hero smells the lavender sold by a street pedlar, it takes him straight back to the moment he first saw her and makes him decide he must overcome the breach between them.

Even if you use plants in your writing only as window-dressing, it’s good to be specific: not a river lined with trees but a river lined with willows; huge Cedars of Lebanon framing the mansion’s facade rather than the generic “evergreens” (I had to ask the artist to correct the shape of the trees on the new cover of Death at Wentwater Court); spicy-scented crysanthemums instead of autumn flowers. Your reader may not know the difference between peonies and poppies, but the names make the scene come alive.

Carola Dunn is author of the Daisy Dalrymple Mysteries, Cornish Mysteries, and multitudinous Regencies.


  1. It's also important to make sure the flora you mention actually grows in the book's setting. Thanks to my sister-in-law who was vetting my Oregon setting, I didn't have my hero noticing trees that didn't grow on that side of the mountains. And I had the right street trees blooming at the right time of year when my heroine strolled down Main Street.

    1. Absolutely--though with Oregon weather you can never be quite sure...

  2. Not being a gardener, plant names, other than the most basic, are all Latin to me which translates into "the beds were full of blah, blah, blah." I don't mind plant names, but I do prefer some color/shape/smell description added for definition. Plants can define a setting such as spanish moss and palm trees in the south and redwood forests in the Pacific northwest. And botany is always useful in murder.

  3. Yes, yes, yes! Flowers, trees, etc., ground a story and solidify the setting. They can also have story-specific uses beyond poisoning--for example, a signature, intimidation, and so forth. All readers may not know what grows where and whether or not it is poison, but some will. When you get it right, you likely get a fan who's going to be waiting for your next book.

  4. I love when authors talk about the way things smell. Nothing draws me into a scene more instantly. In my novel, a potted gardenia bush nurtured in a garden in a desert town plays a role. But thank you for reminding me, Carola, that although I also talk about the flora and fauna of the desert, I also need to do more to conjure the desert's smell.

  5. I'm may case, I'd have to depend on the reader not knowing the difference between peonies and poppies ... 'cause I sure as heck don't.

  6. Sorry about cHrysanthemums. I do know how to spell it (and just typed sMell by accident), unlike anemone/anenome???
    In general, I don't use the sense of smell enough--comes from having lived all my life with allergies that dim smells, I think. But in Superfluous Women (out in June), the smell/stench of the victim's body is an important part of the plot.


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