At this point, it’s probably fairly obvious how obsessive I am about the little details when worldbuilding. With some of my larger WIPs I have a bad tendency to spend more time determining things about the world that are unlikely to actually have a direct impact on the story than actually drafting and writing. This is usually justified with the mentality that maybe at some point when the story itself has expanded more, I’ll be glad I have this information already organized and written out.
And in the meantime, a lot of the things I end up doing for my own fantasy worlds translates well into writing articles for my awesome reader base. ❤ So today I want to look at herbs and herbal medicine, with the second part of this mini-series being a list of common herbs that translate well into fantasy. I might also do a third part detailing some of the common processing methods we have for herbs, such as how to make tinctures and what exactly constitutes a brew.
Modern medicines are largely derived from the plants and animals in the world around us, but getting a prescription from your local pharmacy doesn’t have quite the same awe factor that is inherent in gathering plants from the outdoors and processing them in small amounts in one of literally dozens of ways. Depending on how technologically advanced your world is, “medicine” could be any number of things, all the way from a traditional, old school tribal shaman to a grimy slum city dealer dispensing pills with mystery contents. It can also be more than herbals, but we’re going to stay focused in one direction for now.
Whatever level of advancement, technique and availability you decide on, here are some additional tips to make any fictional plants you might make a more integral part of your world.
Make a catalog – Always, always, always write out anything you develop, even if you’re just brainstorming it. You want any lists you create the have any names the herb is known by (maybe what it’s actually called and what it’s commonly known as are two different things); where it can be found; in what season it can be found; what parts of the plant are useful for what purposes; common ways to break the plant down; common applications; how dangerous it can be (when used correctly and incorrectly); what other herbs is can safely be mixed with; and if it is a poison, what is its antidote?
Herb strength and side effects – A good rule of thumb is that a herb either has at least one side effect or it’s too weak by itself to deal with anything more than an annoyance. Have you ever heard that ginger is good for an upset stomach? This is true, but it has to be a certain kind of upset stomach; ginger doesn’t, for instance, help when you have food poisoning. Herbs that are stronger, either because they are more potent or their amount in use is greater, are probably going to do more than one thing.
Categorizing – Especially if you’re going to create a good number of fictional plants, you should consider also creating a way for yourself and/or your characters to categorize them. Some defining features that would be easy to do this with are: location, ease of access, level of toxicity, use or physical appearance.
Multi-use plants – Something else to keep in mind is that for every root, stem, flower, bulb and leaf, there can be multiple ways to process it, store it and use it, and these differences might change not only the original plants effectiveness but also how it interacts with other herbs. For instance, in my trilogy world, there’s a plant called Allie’s Flower. It’s so called because of its pretty lavender colored flowers and before its deadly uses had been discovered, young girls would often string them together to make flower garlands in the early spring. When eaten raw and in amounts greater than one or two flowers, it causes violent vomiting and bleeding from the ears, but when the flower and stem are boiled with two other fictional herbs and then removed from the brew, it can be drunk as a tea to help ease menstrual bleeding.
Actually, here’s a little side note; be logical with the uses and potential effects that you create. You don’t have to be a professional herbalist to develop fictional concoctions, but do make the effort to be consistent.
Environmental significance – You also need to decide how prominent herb based healing, and those who use them by extension, are going to be. Are healers who wander the woods collecting all sorts of obscure things commonplace? Are they members of a clergy? Are they stigmatized as witches? Are there levels of skill, and any place to acquire formal training? Does the land in your main character’s vicinity have the ability to support the variety of plant life necessary to build a fictional herb chest, and if not then how does the travel time effect the plants?
Purpose in use – Understand that people dabble with herbs for one of two reasons, though to degrees from casual curiosity to all seriousness: to either help someone or hurt someone. Someone looking for a poison to tip their arrowheads in is going to approach herbs differently than someone looking to make a tincture to alleviate an illness. Both are equally important for developing your flora and the people who utilize them.
Have you ever written your own plant or medicine? What did your characters end up using it for?