May 3rd, 2005

calm blue ocean


About ten years back, I posted to a discussion on medieval poisons and poisoning. That discussion, prompted by the sort of question we routinely get asked here ("What fast-acting poisons might have been used in medieval times?) was archived on a webpage somewhere. (As it happens, without my knowledge or permission, although I'd probably have granted it if asked.)

A few years later, a complete stranger emailed me, out of the blue, because she believed her husband was poisoning her and she wanted my opinion on her symptoms. What made this especially creepy was that amongst the usual generic "I don't feel well, but I get better when he's away" stuff, she mentioned that her eyes were smelling of garlic. Not the sort of thing the average hypochondriac would make up, and it's one of the tell-tale signs of arsenic poisoning.

Maybe she'd researched the symptoms of arsenic poisoning and then mailed me, pretending ignorance and wanting attention. Maybe she really was being poisoned. Either way, she badly needed professional help - maybe a toxicologist and a cop, maybe a psychiatrist. I'm not qualified as any of those things; while I have a doctorate in a medical field and a fair bit of medical trivia, I'm not a medical doctor either. In the end I told her "Might be arsenic poisoning, keep hair samples if you have any and go talk to a doctor or the police about this ASAP". But I would've been a lot happier, and she'd probably have done just as well, if she'd gone there in the first place. (I never did find out how that ended, because she stopped mailing me back after that; she told me she'd kept the hair that fell out when she was ill, so if it was arsenic poisoning she should've had good evidence for it.)

What I learned from that is that even when a question's asked for purely hypothetical purposes, to add realism to a story, and it's answered in the same vein, there is still the possibility that somebody else looking for real-world advice will seize on that. This can be a very dangerous thing, because the standard of advice that's adequate for writing fiction is very different from that required IRL. To pick a recent example, I'm quite happy to tell somebody writing a story "if you want to control pain with opium, an 80 mg dose is plausible", but this is just a typical number. IRL, there are a lot of atypical people, and blindly applying that sort of advice can very well kill somebody.

(Not to mention that many of the things that are explained here are illegal and/or immoral IRL, and we don't always know that the information is going to be used for its stated purpose - how would we feel if weise had come on here looking for information on police procedures for school shootings, for instance?)

So, getting around to the point at last: would it be a good idea to have a disclaimer in the community info? Something along these lines, maybe:

Information provided in this community is offered as a service to authors trying to write credible fiction. It should not be used as a substitute for professional legal/medical/scientific/etc advice in real-world situations, and its accuracy is not guaranteed. Material on illegal activities is likewise presented only for fictional purposes. Don't try this at home.

South American Harbours

In one of my stories a very dangerous supernatural creature (a huge cat-like predator) is smuggled from Africa to the United States. I was thinking that the organisation smuggling it would use a ship to bring it to South America. In South America a circus would take over harbouring the creature (they can buy the meat required to feed it without causing raised eye-brows), and the circus would then travel north until they reach LA. A mage would be hired to give the animal the appearance of a lion or tiger, whenever customs officials take a look.

Which South American industrial harbour would be best suited? It should be big and busy. I suck at geography.
Also, I am assuming that a circus that features attractions like elephants and tigers has a supply of tranquilizers to drug the animals should they escape or go nuts in the arena. Does anybody know what kind of drugs are used? Do they get administered by dart gun?

I googled the term 'circus' and got a little overwhelmed. If anyone knows a good site that informs about circuses and how they are run (as opposed to sites that advertise a particular circus), I'd be very grateful.

Fields of study in the 1920's

Okay, so I've tried to look this up, but with little success.

I have a character who is a professor of ancient art, specifically Asian art. Now, today, he would most likely have a doctorate in either Art History or Asian Studies, probably Art History because he doesn't much care about anything *but* the art, but my impression is that these are new fields, and the story is set in the 1930's. He would have finished his degree in the mid-1920's; he is an American, but it would not be totally inconsistent for him to have been educated in Britain. So what would he in fact have his degree in/be a professor of? He does some field research, so archeology is a possibility, but his focus is specifically art, rather than more generic artifacts.

Anyone know what this would be, or where I could find out? I'd be very grateful.
make-believe (Rainbow Dash)

Anybody good at sounding like crotchety old bats?

I have a story where the main character, Jia, is taking her biological seven-year-old daughter Jewel (the kid was adopted at birth, but it was basically an open adoption) to meet her grandparents for the first time. The family is Chinese-American, and so the disapproval when Jia finally admitted she was pregnant at 16 was a little extreme.

My problem is that I have no idea what the parents will have to say after Jia finally breaks and demands to know why they won't acknowledge Jewel as family, as their granddaughter.

What I have so far:

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ETA: Thanks, everybody! It's finally finished, and with a few minor changes. If anyone's interested, I posted it in my journal here.

Peanut allergies as plot devices, w00t.

1. A character has passed out from blood loss. The wound has been bandaged and the bleeding stopped, but her fellow characters desperately need her awake, liek, now. Would the amount of epinephrine in an Epipen be sufficient to jolt her awake for a few minutes? Would this be a Bad Idea? Is there an easier way to get her to wake up quickly?
2. Since this is going to be an event-filled night, the character with the Epipen does not have time to stop home and get a spare. Which is bad news, because he ends up having a serious allergic reaction later on. Barring calling an ambulance [the police are after them] what's the best way to keep someone in anaphylactic shock from dying without an Epipen? It'd be possible for one of the other characters to run to the nearest drugstore and get some ephedra or antihistamines or something, but nearly impossible to administer them orally, since he'd be puking his guts up.