Thursday, April 26, 2018

Flora, Rose, Violet: Researching popular flower names for “olden times”

When I heard Flora was the topic for April, I didn’t think of my backyard. Instead, I thought of era-appropriate names for the women characters who populate the setting I write about—the late 1800s U.S.

Flora sounds so “old-fashioned.” Surely there was a blooming of Floras, Florences, Roses, Violets, Daisys, and all those floral-type names during this era? Faced with that question, I did what I usually do when musing on the unknown: I went a-researching and geeked out a bit…

My first stop was the Social Security Administration, which has a great site for researching popular baby names for any decade going back to 1880. I pulled up the ranking of names for babies born in the 1880s in the U.S. here.

And then, I made a little chart of all the flower names I could identify, plus the ranking for "Inez," the name of my Silver Rush series protagonist:

 Most popular name for baby girls? Mary. Out of 1,399,571 female births, 91,668 little ones were Marys. (Ida came in at 7th most popular, Bertha came in at 8th place.)

Now, because I was curious (and falling into the rabbit-hole of research), I went looking for other "popular name" lists. Here are the top flower names for female babies born in 1880 in England and Wales, culled from this web post on the British Baby Names site:

Many, many more flower names here! But no Inez. Oh well.

Most popular female name in 1880? Get ready… Mary. (Bertha rolls in at 41st.)

Now, I started pondering. My Inez would have been born 1860. Maybe I should step back a bit and explore what flower names were popular when she was born.

The U.S. census didn’t have a compilation, so I ended up at the Given Name Frequency Project website, which looks at popular names through the decades, starting in 1801 in the U.S. Here's what I found for flower-related names (and my protagonist's name) on the page listing the most popular women's names for 1861–1870:

And here you have the floral results for England and Wales in 1860:

Again, flower names are much more common across the Atlantic.
Additionally, here are some fascinating popular non-flower names that caught my eye: Thirza (100), Kezia (110), Dorcas (140), Tryphena (174), Drusilla (191).

For even more appropriate-character-naming fun, you can go to Baby Name Voyager, enter any name, and see how its frequency rises and falls over time from 1880 to 2016. I took snapshots of the graphs for “Flora” and “Inez,” because... well, why not??

If nothing else, all this might give you a different perspective on character names such as Flora (or Thirza or Bertha!).

 When naming characters, it’s always nice to know if a moniker will cause others to blink (“Well, that’s unusual!”) or if it won’t raise an eyebrow. For instance, “Tiffany” is very common today, but doesn’t even register on Baby Voyager before 1950.

So, what about you? Do you have names you long to give to a character but just haven’t found the “right” time (or place) yet?

Ann Parker authors the award-winning Silver Rush historical mystery series published by Poisoned Pen Press. During the day, she wrangles words for a living as a science editor/writer and marketing communications specialist (which is basically a fancy term for ìeditor/writerî). Her midnight hours are devoted to scribbling fiction. Visit for more information.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Flora on the Dinner Table

With the emphasis we hear and read regarding the health benefits of a plant-strong diet, we would be remiss were we not to mention edible flora and how we can use them in our writing. For instance, in my second book a main character is vegan, and her food choices are woven into the story line. Whether the genre is romance, thriller, murder mystery, fantasy, or some other, flora on the table can play a minor or a major role, perhaps adding an interesting twist when employed as a method to sicken or even eliminate one or more characters.

Consider the nightshade family: white, yellow, red, or purple potato (not sweet potato or yam); tomato; all kinds of sweet and spicy peppers; eggplant, okra; tomatillos; goji berries; paprika; and cayenne pepper.This partial list represents the wide range of foods that fall into this category. Popular as many of them are in various cuisines, they come with a mixed blessing because they contain alkaloids such as solanine that, in large quantities, are toxic. Even the poison can have beneficial applications; for example, the nightshade plant itself is the source of belladonna, a well-known poison that has useful medicinal properties when appropriately administered.

Most of the potato's solanine resides in and just under the skin, with sprouting spuds being higher in content and more likely to cause illness. The flesh of the potato, however, is less toxic. Some people are highly sensitive to the nightshade family, and may suffer a variety of symptoms that can be alleviated by removing all nightshade-related foods from their diets.

The importance of the potato as a food source became painfully apparent during the Irish potato famine in the mid 1800s, when a quarter of the population left the country or died of starvation as the result of several successive years of crop failures. Years ago, I edited a novel by L. Katherine Daily, Fruits of the Famine, a fascinating historical fiction story that was inspired by this devastating event.

Certain poisonous flower bulbs resemble foods such as onions and should not be stored near edibles. I recall reading about a family that had placed such bulbs under the kitchen sink alongside the onions, and an unsuspecting grandmother used one of the bulbs in preparing a meal. All family members were sickened and two or three died as I recall.

Salads are a prime example of flora on the table. All sorts of edible
greens, as well as carrots, celery, olives, and a host of other veggies can fill a bowl with tasty goodness at gatherings of family and friends. Salads combining a variety sweet fruits and sometimes nuts and seeds make a wonderful dessert. Served with other foods or as a main course, salads can create a backdrop for characters as they move through a story—or be served at clandestine meetings of various players to disguise the true purpose of their presence.

Vegetable soups warm the body and can even soothe an aching heart. On a chilly day or during a storm, a cup of hot soup is just the thing to ward off the negative effects of inclement weather. Vegetable stews, shepherds pie, and veggie lasagnas can be the centerpiece of a family meal, even for those of little financial means.

We mustn't forget the lowly mushroom. Because a number of wild varieties are highly poisonous, one who gathers them must be educated in recognizing those safe to eat, lest their anticipated meal could be their last. From ordinary varieties found in the produce departments of most grocery stores to exotic ones prepared by chefs in fine restaurants, they add a lovely touch to a meal and a tantalizing potential to add another element to a story line.

How do you use edible (and not so edible) flora in your stories?

Editor Linda Lane has returned to her first love—writing—while maintaining her editing work. Her novels fall into the literary category because they are character driven rather than plot driven, but their quick pace reminds the reader of genre fiction. They also contain elements of romance, mystery, and romance. You can contact her at websites: and

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

A Cup of Poison, M'dear?

This month’s theme is flora in novels. I know many writers who build their stories around gardens and flowers, but I’m not one of them. One of the most famous was Nero Wolfe, created by Rex Stout. Wolfe rarely left his New York west side townhouse for anything that would keep him from tending to his orchids. Flowers have also been popular in titles: The Black Dahlia, White Oleander, and The Name of the Rose to name a few. I wracked my brain to recall if I had used any type of flora in my books, and I found a couple: poisons, of course.

In my latest novel, The Scent of Murder (spoiler alert if anyone intends to read the fourth book in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series—blatant self-promotion here, pardon), I use both the scent of flowers in perfume, a deadly flower’s poison, and a highly spiced fruit from a pepper plant, capsaicin.

My heroine, Diana Racine, tracks down the scent of a perfume at a New Orleans perfumery, where the scent had been concocted specifically for one of the characters in the story. While she is in the shop finding out about her specific request, the specialist who, like a wine expert can separate the different ingredients in a wine, Le Nez―French for The Nose―can do the same for perfume. Diana finds out what she wants to know, but while there, Monsieur LeBec creates a perfume specifically for her that’s a mixture of jasmine, sandalwood, and bergamot, along with a soupçon of a few other ingredients. He calls the perfume Diana and deems it dangerous like its namesake.

Image result for aconitumAconitum, commonly known as aconite, is a poison extracted from over 250 plants of the buttercup family. Some of the names you might recognize are monkshood, wolf's bane, leopard's bane, mousebane, women's bane, and devil's helmet. I admit, I had never heard of any of those flowers, but they served the purpose in my murder mystery. The Chinese use the plant roots for medicinal purposes after processing, but even then, the risk of toxic poisoning is highly possible. It's also used as a homeopathic to treat anxiety and other conditions.

Image result for chilli plant capsaicinCapsaicin is what makes chili peppers hot. The ingredient is also used in muscle pain relievers. In full strength, it can burn the heck out of your skin. I’ve used a form of the component I bought in the bird store in my bird food to deter squirrels. Birds apparently aren’t bothered by capsaicin, but squirrels don’t like it. I added the hot pepper liquid to my bird food when I left home for a few days, and there was still seed in the feeders when I returned home. Unadulterated bird food wouldn’t have lasted a day, though I think there's one little bandit who's cultivated a taste for it. But I digress.

Many flowers, for all their beauty, can be deadly, not only to humans but to pets. Here are a few: almost all lilies except daylilies, bleeding heart, bloodroot, daffodil, foxglove (from which the heart medication digitalis is made), hydrangea, iris, larkspur (delphinium), marigold, morning glory, mountain laurel, amaryllis, alstroemeria (my personal favorite because they last so long), tulip, yarrow, hemlock, and the aforementioned wolf’s bane (aconitum). Other leaf plants can be toxic to pets, so best to check what you have in your house, especially if you have cats.

Flower poisons have been used extensively in literature. Agatha Christie supposedly said, “Give me a decent bottle of poison, and I’ll construct the perfect crime.” She used arsenic, strychnine, hemlock, potassium cyanide, to name a few. She even used ricin in the form of castor oil seeds before anyone ever heard of it. It doesn’t take much research to find the perfect poison, but Agatha Christie did it before Google and the wealth of Internet information. I was a bit upset that she had used aconitum, but then she was the mistress of murder. I would expect nothing less.

Polly Iyer is the author of nine novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and Indiscretion, and four books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, Backlash and The Scent of Murder. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Resources to Enhance Setting Descriptions

When I wrote my first amateur-sleuth mystery, The Prairie Grass Murders, I chose central Illinois for a large part of my story. I grew up there, was familiar with the terrain, and felt I could make setting important enough to the story that it would almost qualify as a character.

To accomplish that goal, I made an element of the native flora and its environmental issue a key part of the plot. The tallgrass prairies have slowly disappeared under the onslaught of farms and towns, factories and parking lots. Attempts to recreate stands of tallgrass prairie and invite the living creatures that inhabit those fields to return have been quite successful. Apparently the land does not forget its past.

My father was interested in the land’s history and worked on community projects and committees to restore natural areas wherever possible. The Harry L. Swartz Campground is part of the Middle Fork River Forest Preserve in east central Illinois. From the website:

The campground was named in honor of one of the past presidents of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District. Harry L. Swartz was instrumental in focusing the District's efforts toward the preservation of natural resources around the Middle Fork River in Champaign County.

The Illinois Nature Preserves Commission works all over the state in conjunction with individuals, towns, and counties. There is a section of tallgrass prairie preserved at Middle Fork, part of the Champaign County contribution.  Is there a better reason for me to use that part of Illinois where I grew up as the setting for some of my books?

Once I started writing, I needed more information about that part of Illinois, including better definitions of tallgrass versus other grassland flora, the trees and shrubs so common to the area, even wildflowers. I began my search at the library and at the sites of online booksellers.

The best book I found for my purposes was The Audobon Society Nature Guide called Grasslands. In addition to the wildflowers, trees, and grasses, this guide includes information and photographs of the birds and insects of these lands.

Toward the front of the book is a map that shows the historical locations of tallgrass prairie, the mixed prairies, shortgrass prairie, desert grasslands, intermountain grasslands, and the California Grasslands. If you write books set anywhere from western Indiana to California, this guide would be a great source of information to add depth and authenticity to your descriptions.

There is a separate section for each of the types listed above, and because I was interested in the Illinois prairies, I studied the Tallgrass Prairie division in the book as well as the introduction and general grasslands comments. I learned stuff like:

Stretches of undisturbed tallgrass rolled and undulated in the breezes much like the waves of an ocean, and the sight was often disconcerting to pioneers who felt as though they were setting sail in rough waters.

The tallgrass prairie lands of Illinois are part of a Prairie Peninsula as the grasslands jutted into terrain surrounded by forests.

Fascinating, right? We won't even get into the bugs and rodents that frequented these grasslands. After all, the Blood-Red Pencil theme this month is flora.

The bad/good news about the nature guides is they’re not that easy to find. The one I used, Grasslands, is available used online and this may be true of the others as well. If you can find a copy of any of the nature guides that would be helpful to your story, grab it up and treasure it with your best writing resource books. Used book stores, library book sales, and online booksellers are your best bet.

Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017), a finalist for the 2018 Colorado Book Awards.

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Landscaping Your Story World

I once read a book in which an author waxed prolific about plants for pages upon pages. It did nothing to inform the plot, he just loved plants. I don't remember the title, author, or story line, just the excruciating experience.

So my first piece of advice is resist detailed botany lectures unless the specifics of a plant play a part as a poison, medical experiment, or man-eating villain.

Whether your story world is real or fictional, the challenge is to make the setting come alive for readers who have never been there.

Here are a few examples:

“As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of winestains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.” —Willa Cather, My Ántonia

"It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, arid vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness." — Charles Dickens, Hard Times

"I look down at the narrow canal of water that feeds into the fountain in the central courtyard. It's clogged with fragrant white gardenias.The marble urns that line the hallway are filled with the same assortment of white lilies, lilacs, and roses as the urns in the courtyard. The air is thick with the sweet smell of so many flowers, some of which, like the white lilacs and lilies, must cost a fortune because they are out of season." — Carol Goodman, The Drowning Tree

"Aniri's father had brought it back from Chira, the seaside resort where volcanic mountains edged the rocky eastern shores of Dharia, spilling inky lava and creating black diamond beaches."— Susan Kaye Quinn, First Daughter

"The incessant surf grew muted as we thrashed through a nearly impenetrable tangle of black pines and chestnuts. Weeds and leaf mold clogged the forest floor. The plants looked wilted and diseased in the dim light. Some leaves suffered blight, others were too pale. Multicolored fungi clung to rotting bark. Mushrooms sprouted everywhere. None were edible. Everything reeked of decay."— Diana Hurwitz, Mythikas Island Book Two: Persephone

"A towering, crumbling fortress encircled a flat, grassy courtyard. It was deserted and desolate and the forest had moved in. Saplings rooted between the cobbled floor stones. Vines crept up the cracks. Bright blooms poked their heads above encroaching grass. A pair of leaning cypress pines stood sentinel near a gap in the wall." — Diana Hurwitz, Mythikas Island Book Three: Aphrodite
Your setting might feature rolling prairie, sparse desert, concrete jungles, majestic redwoods, towering pines, or swaying palm trees. When using common terms, remember some readers don't have the same frame of reference. Help them "see" what you see.

In describing made-up plants and flowers, a name is not enough. You should give some indication of what they look like.

Without descriptions: "She stepped from the rover onto the ground. Tanka grass and Palada trees stretched toward Alba Mon in the distance."

With descriptions: "She stepped from the rover onto the chalky red sand. Plumes of brown tanka grass waved in the arid breeze beneath the twisted stems of spike-leaved Palada trees. The sparse vegetation stretched for miles toward the jagged Alba Mons mountain range and the location of the base camp."

There will be times when your verbal camera zooms out or pans a vista to set the scene. There will be times when you highlight details. Skillful use of your verbal camera and descriptive terms can add emotion and set the mood.

Whether you take your readers into the heart of Africa, a magical school in England, or an outpost on Mars, deft selection of details and skilled weaving of descriptions make your story world memorable.

Read more about utilizing descriptions of nature in your story world:

Describing the Beauty of Nature

How to Describe a Landscape

The Rural Setting Thesaurus

The Urban Setting Thesaurus

For more tips on world building check out the newly released Story Building Blocks: Build A World Workbook.

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

April Showers, May Flowers, and the Role of Flora in Writing

April is "flora" month at Blood Red Pencil. Many of us have heard that April showers bring May flowers, but how about April flowers?

Depending on the part of the country (or world) we live in, we may or may
not have the opportunity to enjoy early spring flowers in April. Whimsical
weather that time of year, as well as opposite seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres and the length of those seasons, dictate when (and if) such flowers will grow in our climate.

Flora—the term encompasses all plant life—has played a significant role in both literature and song. We have "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," "The Rose," "Edelweiss," "Green, Green Grass of Home," and these are but a few of the musical tributes to flora. Poets, too, incorporate plant life in their works. Consider "The Daffodils" by William Wordsworth and "Trees" by Joyce Kilmer." Then there are the books: Wilson Rawls' Where the Red Fern Grows and Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Flora provides a touchstone most people can relate to. This makes nearly all varieties fair game for the writer. Trees, flowers, grass, wheat fields in Kansas—they all create images in the minds of readers. When a book mentions a rope swing hanging from a maple tree or a snowball bush at the side of Grandma's house, imaginations swing into play. Colorful autumn leaves spark many memories. A blooming cactus, well described and significantly related to the story, can carry a reader who has never visited a desert down a path of discovery.

The covers of my first two books depict roses. While not all my novels will be wrapped in flora, these two roses play important roles in the stories behind them. I found it very interesting when writing them that the flowers, even better than words, could express the emotions of certain characters.

Do you use flora in your writing? If so, how do you make it move your story forward? Do you believe it's important for the cover to have relevance to what's inside?

Editor Linda Lane has returned to her first love—writing—while maintaining her editing work. Her novels fall into the literary category because they are character driven rather than plot driven, but their quick pace reminds the reader of genre fiction. They also contain elements of romance, mystery, and thriller. You can contact her at and