Roberta Rich, Special to National Post | 26/11/13 1:30 PM ET

I am highly distractible. Just trying to start this article I vacillated between fonts: Should I use Garamond, which is strong and elegant; or Times New Roman, business-like and plain; or Georgia, a beguiling compromise, the little black dress of fonts that will take you anywhere?

These picayune decisions are the ones that plague me. Once I finish with fussing and fulminating and straightening pencils—not that I ever use one—I start writing and am usually fine for a few hours. But I do get bogged down.

For example, about six months ago I was writing a scene in my latest book, set in 16th century Constantinople. My heroine, Hannah, a resourceful and hardworking midwife, was making soap. As I wrote the scene, she poured beef tallow into a steaming cauldron of lye. Wait a danged minute, I thought, stalling halfway through the chapter, waiting for inspiration. If she’s not doing this right, I will hear about it from every savonnier and their dog. So I went to my go-to website for time wasting, YouTube, and watched several videos on how to make soap.

One American soap maker located in the Deep South was making soap in a cauldron on the banks of what looked like a cottonmouth-infested bayou. Say, I thought, that looks like fun. Before you could say fats + lye= soap, I had ten batches of soap curing on cookie racks in my basement. My poor heroine, in the meantime, was frozen in time and space, with arm upraised still about to make the egregious mistake of pouring tallow into hot lye.

Fresh from my success as a savonnier, I thought about skin care. I had been doing research — that bottomless well of avoidance behaviour — on the Imperial Harem in Constantinople during the 16th century. The girls of the harem were no less enamoured of beauty products than we are. And they had slaves to depilitate and pluck and henna and massage and cream them to their hearts’ content. I came across many formulae for potions, lotions, creams and body butters. Many recipes were of limited usefulness. A depilatory paste made of lye, lemons and arsenic anyone? But olive oil, beeswax and almond oil? It sounded harmless. I tinkered with it. A lot. And so a whole new obsession was born, one that I can say is a worthy adjunct to my novel writing.

Where will my avoidance program send me next? Tomorrow I am flying to Hungary to research my fourth book. In Budapest there are a number of “noses”: men and women who formulate a perfume especially for you. Why not become a perfumiere, if only for a month or so?

No profession is too obscure, no research too troublesome, no recipe too arcane, no practice too implausible. Lead ladening to forecast the future? How does that work? Where can I source molten lead?

This, dear reader, is one of the many joys of being an historical novelist.


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