Rachel Louise Martin, PhD
That Tell-Tale Drop of Blood: Casey Cep's Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper
And now it’s the season when Queen Anne’s lace bobs in the ditches and lines the edges of abandoned parking lots and runs like ribbons through the fallow fields of Tennessee.
Yesterday, I stopped to gather a bouquet of the wild flowers. I had driven down to Sewanee to crash some of the writer’s conference’s public events. I was planning to stay for the evening readings, but then Michael Knight gave a mid-morning craft lecture about imagery. He shared a bit of advice a poet friend had once given him: “Literature begins with a vivid image and ends with a vivid image and everything in between is just talk.” I guess that’s another way of saying show, don’t tell.
I walked away with so many ideas that I decided to leave after lunch. I took the backroads home, pulling over beside a flood plain piled high with Queen Anne’s lace. While I picked an armload of weeds, pausing to knock away the ants that had climbed the stalks looking for pollen, I thought about what he’d said.
Queen Anne’s lace is the Americanized nickname for the weed; elsewhere in the world it’s known as bird’s nest weed, bee’s nest, devils plague, rantipole, herbe a dinde, yarkuki and wild carrot. Yep, like the garden carrot. It’s such a close relative, the weed can still cross-pollinate with its domestic cousin. Queen Anne’s lace is even edible, at least for most people. The Romans roasted up its roots. Early American colonists (and modern home-vintners) used its flowers to make wine. Some folks today fry up its blooms to toss into salads or grate up the roots to make a wild carrot cake or put it into a cocktail.*
But there are other carrot cousins as well — poison hemlock which killed Socrates and common yarrow — that also have bell-shaped heads of tiny white blooms. These plants should not be eaten. There’s one reliable way to tell them apart. Nestled in the heart of Queen Anne’s umbrel, just slightly off-of-center, will be a tiny aubergine floret.
Supposedly the floret happened when Britain’s Queen Anne, the first Stuart queen, pricked her finger while tatting lace, leaving a single drop of royal purple blood staining her delicate handiwork. Or perhaps that was a different Queen Anne, the last Stuart queen, who ordered the ladies of the court to produce a lace as fine as the flower of the wild carrot (they failed). Or maybe it was named for Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary and the patron saint of lace makers.
The florets evolution is no more certain. Some scientists believe that the darkened flower is supposed to look like an insect, which might convince flying creatures that its pollen is good for eating. Or it might provoke a predatory wasp to pounce, thinking it’ll get a juicy anty meal. Or maybe it just makes the plant more attractive to passing pollinators. Or maybe it does nothing whatsoever to help the plant reproduce.
I’m afraid those paragraphs about the wild carrot seem about as useful as yesterday’s country ramble. I’ve been wrestling with this idea — that images and details and sensory impressions matter, even, or maybe especially, in nonfiction — for the last several years. I love the concept, but in practice, I worry that my use of it is largely nonsensical. In last week’s post, I told you I drive a Prius. Should I have said it’s a white Prius? A white 2010 Prius? With cloth-grey seats? And two missing hubcaps? I don’t think those additions would have meant anything, but I don’t really know. Maybe you didn’t know anything about the car.
Then I read an author who wields the ancillary facts like a rapier, deftly presaging the readers’ questions, and I suffer from an almost paralyzing case of writer’s envy.
This is what happened to me when I read Casey Cep’s Furious Hours. That book, y’all … This isn’t a book review, but buy it and read it. It helps that she found a fabulous story, first writing the true crime novel Harper Lee never managed to write and then exploring why Lee couldn’t complete the project. But the book’s magnificence is rooted in her use of detail and image.