Austen Authors first anniversary bash

Austen Authors, that grab bag of Austen fans whose writing is inspired by Jane Austen’s classic works, will be celebrating our first anniversary for six days, September 5 through 10!  It all began when veteran writers Sharon Lathan and Abigail Reynolds began tossing around the idea of a group blog when they met at writers conferences.  After a couple of years they decided to make their dream a reality, and Austen Authors was born!  Today there are 25 members of Austen Authors who each bring their own views and experiences to the blog.

So, join us in our celebration! Virtual champagne will be provided to all celebrants, as well as virtual dark chocolate from Belgium with 85 % cocoa, and melted to the perfect temperature for dipping fresh strawberries.   Well…perhaps that is a bit of exaggeration, but the party is not! Click the Anniversary badge to the left and find out how you can join the fun!


The history of opium in medical practice.

Poppy photo courtesy Shaun Dovey

Pain relief has been one of the primary goals of medical care since humankind began and physicians have been debating the best way to accomplish this goal since ancient Egyptian physicians first wrote down their treatments and discussed them with their colleagues.  Opium, derived from the sticky sap in the immature seed pods of the opium poppy, was the most widely used medication in the Georgian, Regency, and Victorian Era for two very good reasons: it relieved pain and it was inexpensive.

Laudanum, a strong tincture containing 10% opium contained all the alkaloids of opium, primarily morphine, was widely used and could be obtained without a prescription.  It was very potent and was used for both pain and to quiet “nervous” disorders, which we would now call anxiety disorders.  It was also the only medication available to help people sleep.  Morphine and its derivatives work by binding to receptors in the brain which normally bind natural endorphins, produced by the body to relieve pain.  The action of morphine is much stronger than endorphins and will override the action of the endorphins.  Not surprisingly, most households of the gentry and upper classes would have this useful drug in the house in case of need.

Another formulation containing tincture of opium was paregoric.  This was a complex mixture first formulated by Jakob Le Mort in the early 18th Century for the treatment of asthma, and contained “honey, licorice, flowers of Benjamin, opium, camphor, oil of aniseed, salt of tartar and spirit of wine.” By the 19th Century, paregoric was primarily used for gastrointestinal disorders such as diarrhea and the intestinal cramps associated with it (usually called abdominal colic at that time).  In this case, a side effect of the opium was what provided the relief:  opium and all of it’s relatives (including heroin, oxycodone, hydrocodone and codeine) cause the intestines to stop their peristalsis, the rhythmic progression of contractions which move the  ingested food through the length of the intestines, promoting breakdown and mixing of food into a form which could be absorbed into the rest of the body.  Cramping during a bout of diarrhea is caused by lack of coordination or spasm in these muscles, resulting in pain and expulsion of the waste products before the colon can absorb the excess water and make stools of a normal consistency.

The downside to this very effective class of pain relievers is constipation (also from suppression of peristalsis), drowsiness, and the potential for addiction. With the ready availability of laudanum and paregoric, addiction was a significant risk for users.

Both laudanum and paregoric are still available in the US and England (although by prescription only) but they are rarely prescribed since the development of non-narcotic anti-diarrheal agents such as loperamide in the mid-Twentieth Century.

18th Century medicine: how a poisonous flower became a life-saver

Common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

As the 18th Century gave way to the 19th, the list of medications available to treat patients was very limited and many diseases were treated with non-pharmaceutical methods, such as bleeding and poultices.  Physicians generally practiced in cities where they could command a steady income, and apothecaries (pharmacists) treated those who did not have access to trained physicians.  In addition, there were often women who had learned traditional lore about herbs and their actions and would treat patients.  Not surprisingly, the trained physicians regarded these herbal healers (sometimes called witches) with disdain and discounted the ability of their possets and extracts to treat patients.  This is the story of what happened when a physician was open-minded enough to see what occurred  when an elderly herbalist treated one of his patients who was afflicted with congestive heart failure.

William Withering (1741-1799) was a traditional practitioner who had studied at the prestigious Edinburgh Medical School and was eventually named physician to Birmingham Hospital.  One of the frustrations of medical practice was the inability to treat dropsy, a now archaic term for edema, or swelling, and caused by heart failure, liver failure or kidney failure.  Cardiac dropsy, now called c0ngestive heart failure, was caused by the heart weakening and being unable to move the fluid load of the body as well as is necessary for health.  This failure would also limit how well the kidneys could excrete excess fluid as not enough blood was reaching them.  Patients would develop swelling in their ankles, which would become worse and worse until the heart failed completely or developed an irregular beat and the patient died.

When Withering’s patient was treated by the herbalist, he noticed that the patient improved.  He talked to the herbalist and found that she was using a concoction containing 20 different herbs for the dropsy.  He was an inquisitive physician, and tested the various ingredients alone until he deduced which one was actually active in cardiac dropsy:  an extract from the leaves of the common foxglove (digitalis pupurea).

Foxglove is a common and attractive garden flower, and was well-known to be highly poisonous if ingested; consuming just one of the upper leaves was enough to kill an adult human.  Withering carefully studied the dosage and action of the extract of foxglove leaves (called digitalin or digitalis) and found that it induced the heart to beat both more steadily and more strongly.  This improvement in the efficiency of the heart action helped reduce the swelling in patients and allowed them to return to a more normal life.  William Withering is thus credited with one of the major breakthroughs in medical therapeutics in 1785, but the road to medical history was not without a few bumps.  One of the patients that Withering had studied was referred by Withering’s friend Erasmus Darwin, and Darwin jumped in ahead of Withering in the publication of the results of the digitalis tests.  Fortunately, Withering had submitted his paper to the College of Physicians in London two months earlier, so he is given credit for the study.  Not surprisingly, his friendship with Erasmus Darwin did not survive.

As is well known in modern medicine, any medication can be toxic if taken in excess.  The dose that is high enough to be effective and low enough to not be toxic is called the therapeutic window.  Unfortunately, the therapeutic window for digitalis is very narrow so the dose must be very tightly controlled to produce the physiologic effect needed without harming the patient.  One of the difficulties with using digitalis that was extracted from foxglove in the 18th and 19th Centuries, was that the amount of the drug contained in the plant would vary with age of the plant and soil and weather conditions, so it had to be used very cautiously, and many herbalists avoided it.

Digitalis is still used to treat weak and irregular heart function and the activity of the medication is now standardized, but it must still be used with great caution.  Signs of overdose include nausea, vomiting, severe headache, diarrhea, hallucinations and other cerebral dysfunctions (included an unusual visual disturbance which causes everything to appear more yellow than normal).  The heart rate can be increased or decreased in an overdose, depending on how high the blood level is.  Newer medicines that have a more favorable therapeutic window are usually used today, but digitalis still has a place in the physician’s armamentarium.

19th Century medicine: what’s with the blood-letting?

Anyone who reads pre-Twentieth Century literature or watches period films has come across an episode in which a character is ill and they are bled by their doctor.  I have been asked many times if doctors really did this, why they did it, and what it was supposed to do.  Indeed, bleeding, either by opening a vein or using leeches to suck out the blood, was a major treatment for a number of disorders before the second half of the 19th Century, when a massive wave of medical scientific discoveries completely changed the practice of medicine and the practice of bleeding gradually died out.  I posted a similar article on The Book Rat in June, 2011.

Medical science in England before the modern era was based on concepts first delineated by ancient Greek physicians, such as Hippocrates and Galen. These principles were distilled into the holistic medicine (treatment of the entire body or constitution) practiced in the Georgian and Regency Eras. Human health was a situation where the patient’s constitution was balanced between “weakness” and “plethora.” In modern use, the word plethora means “a large amount, or many,” but in medical terminology it meant an excess of  heat, blood, body fluids, etc.  Plethora was diagnosed in conditions where the patient became more red, warm or swollen,  and might include fevers, localized infections such as cellulitis (where affected areas of skin become red and swollen), inflammatory arthritis (such as gout), and pregnancy (where the skin is typically more pink and warm than usual because of the increased blood volume during pregnancy).  Weakness, on the other hand, was any condition that would make the patient paler, thinner or weaker: blood loss, fainting, chills, or wasting diseases.  Because physicians in the 18th and 19th Centuries did not do any surgical procedures (you could not be a gentleman if you worked with your hands), the actual blood-letting was done by surgeons.

The treatment of plethora included changes in diet to avoid anything which was thought to be “heating”, and generally meant anything red, rich or fatty, or stimulating. Foods to be avoided included red meat, eggs, spices, and “stimulants” such as wine, coffee, and tea. “Cooling” foods were encouraged, such as fruits and vegetables, and simply prepared white meats, such as chicken and fish, and bland foods such as gruel (a sort of runny cereal made by boiling oats or other grain in milk or water). In addition, physicians would take blood from patients to directly remove the “excess” blood that was engorging their bodies and causing them to be red and hot.  This treatment would be likely to help patients with gout, where there is an excess of uric acid in the blood (see my post on Gout).  This results in red, hot joints, most commonly in the big toe and the knee.

Fever was a common medical problem because of the lack of antibiotics and vaccinations (except for smallpox vaccination, which was widespread by the Regency Era).  With this theory of health and disease states, bleeding a patient who was hot and feverish to decrease the fever made perfect sense to pre-modern practitioners.  Ironically, blood-letting was often used after gunshot wounds to prevent a fever from the almost inevitable wound infection which resulted from having the ball and bits of clothing fibers implanted in the body.  One wonders how many gunshot accidents resulted in death because the surgeon finished off the patient after the bleeding from the wound stopped.

Pregnancy was considered to be a plethoric condition and women in this “interesting condition” were often given “cooling” diets to promote health. Because these would include plenty of fruits and vegetables, it would often improve constipation, which is common in pregnancy, and this  was taken as encouragement that the diet was working as it should.  Fortunately for the health of the patients and their infants, most women did not follow these diets as strictly as their physicians would have liked. Women who had a history of miscarriage or infertility would be more likely to rigorously follow the suggestions of their physician, and to change physicians if their condition did not improve to find one whose care they liked better.

Patients who were pale and weak, such those who were having chills in the early stages of a cold or who had wasting diseases such as tuberculosis, were encouraged to have a “heating” diet and could eat as much red meat and drink as much wine, especially red wine, as they wished to warm an overly cool and weakened constitution.  They would also be treated with heating treatments, such as mustard foot baths or mustard plasters to the chest. In this case, of course, blood-letting was not used.

So, infections such as malaria, bacterial wound infections, or influenza (all of which are characterized by fever) would be treated as plethora, while infections such as tuberculosis, which causes chronic cough and gradual wasting, would be treated as weakness.  People who were weakened by blood loss might be treated with blood-letting and fed with gruel rather than with red meat, which would help restore their iron stores needed to replace their blood loss.  Today, blood-letting is used to treat hemochromatosis (an inherited problem which causes the storage of too much iron, damaging the liver), polycythemia vera (excess red blood cell production, which can increase the risk of stroke), and porphyria.

Blood-letting shown in medieval illuminated manuscript

An interesting historical side note to this treatment was the condition of the Prince Regent and his father, King George III. The king is well known for the periods of insanity from which he suffered, which eventually became permanent and required that the Prince of Wales become Regent.  A number of medical historians believe that King George III suffered from a form of porphyria, an inherited disease in which the patient lacks one of the enzymes required to break down hemoglobin into smaller molecules which can then be excreted by the kidneys. The major symptoms of hereditary porphyrias are abdominal pain and psychiatric symptoms.  The treatment for porphyria, still used today, is to remove blood from patients on a regular basis until they are slightly anemic and thereby decrease the number of porphyrins in their blood.  This treatment is done at blood center and is just like donating blood, except that the blood removed is discarded. The Prince Regent had a long history of various types of illness, including frequent abdominal pain, and he was a great believer in blood-letting, having it done whenever he felt unwell. His symptoms might have been from his unrestrained eating and drinking, but if they were an indication of porphyria, his enthusiasm for having his blood let might have prevented him from developing the severe mental symptoms from which his father suffered.

The Dog Days of Summer

Muzzy and Mommy

Until a few years ago, my husband and I had always had small dogs, all of them less than 20 lbs. Over the years we discussed getting a large dog, but we were undecided what kind. We liked labs, but they seemed, somehow, very ordinary. We decided, finally, that what we would really like is a Newfoundland. If we were to go large, let us go GIANT! Besides, we like hairy dogs and what could be hairier than a dog which looks like a bear?

Then, six years ago an acquaintance had a litter of Newf puppies. We decided the time was right- we have a big fenced yard and a house with enough room to move around, even with a dog as big as a full-grown human. I picked out a black male from the litter and brought him home July third of 2005. He was 10 weeks old and as big as a cocker spaniel. We decided to name him Muzzy after a gigantic, hairy alien in the BBC Language Course (he introduces himself by saying, “Hi, I’m Muzzy…BIG Muzzy”) When we arrive home I put him in the back yard and went in the house for a few minutes. When I returned, he was lying underneath the sprinkler, letting the water flow back and forth across him. Yep. He was definitely a Newf.

My three beasts...

Our other dog, a Yorkie named Kai, was used to being in a multi-pet family and had no problem adding to the pack. However, Kai, who is definitely the leader of the dog pack, gradually began to realize that this newcomer was going to be a problem. Muzzy is a very submissive dog and he accepted that Kai was the boss, but as the disparity in their sizes became greater and greater their relationship altered a little. Muzzy would lay flat on the floor so Kai could stand on his hind legs and put his paws on the top of Muzzy’s head and lick his face, showing that he was the boss. However, when Muzzy, still a puppy, wanted to play, he could easily knock Kai over in his exuberance and physically Kai could not dominate him. One time, he playfully picked up Kai by the long hair on his back (needless to say, we jumped in to rescue him!). Kai made good use of hidey-holes such as behind the couch to escape when Muzzy got too carried away when playing.

During the first two years of his life, we kept Muzzy gated into our kitchen/family room area to prevent chewing and housebreaking problems (which didn’t occur…) and Kai would take advantage of this and show his power by stealing Muzzy’s chewbones, jumping over the gate and then hiding them in the living room. He also ate Muzzy’s food, even though he had to stand up on his hind legs as high as he could to reach his head into the raised dish where the food was. (He still does this). In general, Muzzy will politely sit there and wait for him to finish. On a few rare occasions he has become annoyed with the little pipsqueak for stealing his food and lets out what can only be described as a roar and goes after him, sending the humans in the room into scrambling mode.

Don’t get the idea that Kai was just a “taker” in this relationship. He taught Muzzy to bark at animals outside in the woods. First, Kai would bark like a maniac at a deer. Next time, Muzzy would run up an look at Kai when he barked. The time after that, Muzzy ran up and started barking at Kai. Finally, Muzzy realized that Kai was barking at something and looked out the window so he could bark too. We were so appreciative of Kai for this help training his brother!

Muzzy and Mommy

Last year I thought I would take some more author photos while my photographer friend was visiting and I thought it would be fun to put the dogs in the photo. The entire time of the shoot Kai was racing around, jumping up to lick Muzzy’s face, leaping off my lap, jumping in the air to look at the camera…well, you get the idea. Finally, I clamped Kai between my ankles and we got a great photo with Muzzy (160 lbs) lying nobly with his gigantic paws crossed next to me. When you see this serene photo, think of Kai, all 8 lbs of him, wiggling to get free from between my clamped ankles while the photo was shot.

Why Jane Austen?

Welcome visitors to Austenesque Extravaganza Touring Thursday!

I began my journey as an Austenesque writer in 2006 when my eldest child left for college. No more swim meets, no more tennis tournaments, no more musicals, no more plays, no more Debate tournaments…well, you get the idea! I still had one child at home but he is severely autistic and was not in all the extracurricular activities that my eldest was, and he also went to bed very early (still does…). I had been leery about buying Austen sequels and retellings because I did not know which ones to choose- there were so many! I finally decided to buy Pamela Aiden’s Fitzwilliam Darcy Trilogy and promptly sank into the joy of learning more about my favorite Austen hero.

After reading this now classic work a couple of times I realized that I had my own ideas about where the story would go after the end of Pride and Prejudice and they had been release by reading Ms. Aiden’s book. I took my laptop into my elder son’s now unused bedroom and started writing. I didn’t tell anyone that I was doing this- I did not want to talk about it until I was sure that I would be able to hang on writing until the end of the story. My husband is a fanatical tennis player and plays almost every day, and I work part-time, so I would only write when he was at work or tennis and I would stop when I heard the garage door open. Yes, it is rather like the behavior of an addict hiding her needles!

I finally neared the end of the manuscript and had discussed publishing options with my friend Lauren Small (author of Choke Creek) and decided that self-publishing was my best option. I looked at the self-publishing houses and picked iUniverse because it is a subsidiary of Barnes and Noble so I thought that it would probably not go into bankruptcy while I was working with them. At this point I was going to commit to paying some significant money for publication, so I thought I should tell my husband.

We have a regular “date” on Tuesday evenings, so after we finished eating dinner I cleared my throat and said, “There is something I need to tell you.” His eyebrows rose at this (I don’t even want to know what his first thoughts might have been at this statement!). I told him that I had written a sequel to Pride and Prejudice and was going to publish it. For about 30 seconds he stared at me with his mouth slightly agape, then he said, “You know, you just might be able to sell that.” He has had more reminders than he would ever choose to have about the popularity of Jane Austen, so the topic was not a surprise to him, but I was pleased to see that I had succeeded in taking him aback- not an easy thing to do with an eye surgeon who has seen pretty much everything.

I went on to publish with iUniverse, buying the editing services that I thought I needed with this first attempt. I titled it And This Our Life: Chronicles of the Darcy Family from one of my favorite Shakespeare quotations and had a photographer friend take the cover photo. The cover model is the daughter of my minister, who I saw in church one day (when I should have been listening to the sermon…) with her hair up, and I realized that she was the epitome of Georgiana Darcy in my mind. I called her to see if she would model for the cover and, at the end of the call, said, “Don’t worry about the clothes.” Fortunately, she knows me well enough to trust that I was not wanting nude or porn pictures…I sewed a Regency gown and the photographer and I did her hair and accessories and took about 300 pictures with a black background. We picked one with her looking down and holding a fan I brought back from a trip to China and iUniverse used it for the cover. Apparently they liked the black background because they kept it and I loved the look, however, I later noticed that just about every new book I saw had a black cover…oh, well.

Several months later I was contacted by an agent who was looking for Jane Austen-related titles and I signed with him and sold the book to Sourcebooks. They wanted a rewrite to change the point-of-view to Georgiana’s and I liked the idea, so spent 3 weeks completely rewriting the book, recycling some scenes and creating new ones for the rest, while I waited for them to decide if they wanted to buy it. They took the rewrite without significant further changes, and Mr. Darcy’s Little Sister was born.

The future? Well, I have several more Austen related stories I would like to tell, as well as some other historical fiction and a modern suspense series. I confess that I still love the Regency Era as it is unique and not well known, in spite of the amazing things that happened during that short period in history. So many books and so little time…

Interview with Jennifer Becton

Author Jennifer Becton

Today I am interviewing Jennifer Becton, hot new author, whose latest book, Absolute Liability, is now in the top 100 in sales on Amazon’s Kindle Store.

Carey:   Jennifer, I know you have also published a Jane Austen sequel about Charlotte Collins, what else have you written?

Jennifer:  Until I published Charlotte Collins, I had written primarily nonfiction articles for various regional publications. These articles fell into one of two categories: Southern lifestyle or equestrian. So writing an Austen sequel was a big departure from my other published work. In addition to Charlotte, I have also attempted one piece of literary fiction, which is in dire need of major rewrites or perhaps dynamite, and I have completed two other novels: Absolute Liability (A Southern Fraud Thriller) and Caroline Bingley, another Austen sequel that will be out in early September 2011. I also have one short story available: “Maria Lucas.”

Carey: Dynamite, now that’s something I have never tried when my plot was struggling!  Tell me, why did you start your own publishing company?

Charlotte Collins, 2010

Jennifer:  I have worked for thirteen years in the traditional publishing industry as a proofreader and editor, so when I decided to pursue publication of Charlotte Collins, I went the traditional route: querying agents and publishers. One publisher liked the book, but said she thought the market for Austen’s minor characters was too small. I disagreed, of course, and she said that if I could prove there was a market by selling 1,000 copies, she would reconsider. So I began my own publishing company—Whiteley Press—and published my own book using the traditional methods I’d learned through my work. Charlotte sold the required number of copies in slightly more than four months, but the publisher still declined on the basis of market size. This rejection turned out to be a great benefit to me because I loved publishing so much that I decided to continue with Whiteley Press and have since sold more than 10,000 books, and in the future, I plan to add anthologies and nonfiction to my self-published catalogue.

Carey:   You are the goddess of internet promotion. How much time do you spend online everyday promoting your books?

Jennifer:  Goddess of internet promotion? I don’t know about that, but depending on my writing schedule, I devote between two and eight hours each day to marketing. This includes social media, interviews, website creation, and blogging. My techniques don’t resemble traditional marketing. I do not use any print ads, bookmarks, or commercials; I do buy ad space at pertinent websites occasionally. Most of my marketing is done simply by making friends through social media, like Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. I don’t get out there and sell, sell, sell; I talk to people and hope they become interested in my books.

Absolute Liability, 2011

Carey:   Why did you set Absolute Liability in the area of insurance fraud?  Do you have experience in the insurance industry that you were able to use?

Jennifer:  Insurance fraud is not exactly a popular topic, is it? But when I contemplated writing a mystery, I neither wanted to write a cozy, in which a non-police person has to solve a crime, nor a police procedural, in which I was required to follow law enforcement protocols to the letter. My main character had to be a professional law enforcement official, but not one of the usual type; I wanted her to be unique. In addition, I wanted to incorporate funny criminals with my more dangerous ones. And in my research, some of the most ridiculous crimes were insurance-fraud related. I do not have professional insurance experience, but my in-laws do run an independent insurance agency, so I have sources to consult on the minutia of the industry.

Carey:  That’s a clever idea- it is hard to reinvent the wheel when it comes to mystery/suspense books.  What other types of books are you interested in writing?

Jennifer:  I’ve always wanted to write a spy novel, and I’m in the research phases now. And of course that’s a difficulty in itself. How does one learn about secret organizations? I’m spying on spies.

Carey:  Hope we are not going to be seeing you on CNN for stalking CIA agents…What do you like to read?

Jennifer:  I go through phases. For a while, I read a lot of Regency novels, especially Jane Austen. Then, I read vampire novels and comedic mysteries, but I’ve moved on and am currently reading The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. I may try sci-fi or fantasy next.

Carey:  That’s quite an eclectic mix!  Do you prefer to read paper or electronic books?

Maria Lucas, 2011

Jennifer:  I enjoy both. I own a Kindle and love it more than I expected. The e-ink screen is non-reflective and easy on the eyes, and the device is convenient and effortless to hold. I still buy paperbacks and enjoy those too. I’ve never been a fan of hardcover books because they are so difficult to keep open, hold, and transport, so I’d probably buy an e-book over a hardback, but it’s a toss-up between paperbacks and e-books for me.

Carey:  That sounds exactly like my feelings about my Kindle- I like it more than I expect.  I never thought I would be and electronic reader, but it is easy on the eyes…and when you get to be my age mass market paperbacks have print that is way too small!    Any advice for those promoting their own books?

Jennifer:   Make friends. That’s the best advice I can give on the subject of social media marketing. A great deal of what I do online looks like I’m wasting time and chatting with people. I am chatting, but it’s not a waste of time. It’s marketing. Social media marketing is about developing relationships, not putting the hard-sell on people. I try to make 80 percent of my social media posts personal and only 20 percent direct marketing. This results in the cultivation of a passionate group of friends and fans who will tell their friends about your books and whose books (or products) you will want to promote in return. And it’s just plain fun.

Carey:  Sounds like great advice, Jennifer.  Thanks for coming and sharing your insights with us, and I hope Absolute Liability keeps going to number 1!

You can find out more about Jennifer Becton at her blog,   or at Austen Authors.   She is also on Twitter, Facebook, and Google +