Alchemy, Magic and the Origins of Modern Science

I remembered a word I had heard the monks say, a word spoken with disapproval, a word as bad as a deadly sin. A word that was rich and alluring, a word describing something I knew to be wrong, but which I knew was exactly what lay in the pages before me. Alchemy.

– Elise starts to suspect something strange is going on in the

‘The Alchemist of Paris’

Alchemy is a word as alluring today as it was in the Middle Ages. But what exactly is alchemy?

Basic alchemy is about transforming natural elements into something new. The creation of bronze from mixing copper and tin must have seemed magical in ancient times.

Alchemy

The practice of alchemy dates back at least to Ancient Greece (the word derives from the ancient Greek (chumeia) meaning the casting of metals). Another great centre of alchemical learning was Alexandria. Alchemy was also practised in China, India and the Arab world, where the term ‘al-Kimiya’ derived from the Greek, gives us the word ‘alchemy’.

Did alchemist build the Cathedrals of Paris? Some believe so, including the mysterious scientist, Albert Price in ‘The Alchemist of Paris’

Did alchemists build the Cathedrals of Paris? Some believe so, including the characters in ‘The Alchemist of Paris’

As soon as people learned they could transform basic metals, the quest to create precious metals began. The rumour that alchemists had discovered the formula for gold, added to the mystique of alchemy in the Middle Ages. There was also a belief in the existence of the mysterious ‘Philosopher’s Stone’, a substance that could transform any metal to gold.

The study of alchemy led to many real discoveries and laid the foundation for modern chemistry and medicine. By burning, distilling, melting and condensing substances, scientists discovered phosphorous and nitric acid. Sir Isaac Newton and Phillipus Paracelsus were two scientists who studied alchemy and made many scientific breakthroughs.

Paris was said to be a centre of alchemical practice

Paris was said to be a centre of alchemical practice

In addition to metals, many alchemists also explored the medicinal possibilities of alchemy. One of the most potent rumours was the existence of aqua regia, the elixir of life, a drink that could convey not only eternal youth, but even immortality on the drinker….

However the writings of the ancient alchemists contained many warnings on the limits of the science. The dragon symbol often appeared in alchemical texts, representing the metaphorical ‘monster’ which could appear at any time during an experiment. Many alchemical experiments involved highly volatile mercury. Modern scientists wonder if the ancient alchemists were warning of the dangers of splitting the atom.

Alchemy lay the foundations for modern chemistry and medicine. But with its promise of gold, immortality and defying death, it has never ceased to capture the imagination.

If you want to read more about the history of science and alchemy, some great books I came across in my research are:

‘The Book of Alchemy’ by Francis Melville, 2002

‘The Elements: A Very Short Introduction’ by Philip Ball, 2004

Plotting my Way across the City (from a Writer’s Perspective)

One of the most evocative books I have ever read is “The Vampire Lestat”. Anne Rice made me want to run down the Paris boulevards with Lestat and Nicholas, sit in the smoky theatres and opera houses, and descend into the catacombs with Armand. Frankly, it even made me want to be a vampire, had the occasion presented itself.

The Conciergerie today

The Conciergerie today

The lush late eighteenth-century Paris described in “The Vampire Lestat” is before the modernisation plans of Haussmann, when many of the landmarks of modern Paris were built. The Paris of today is not quite the same Paris that Lestat and Armand roamed, but through Anne Rice’s brilliant descriptions and emotional writing, the city came alive.

Creating historical fiction is always a feat of imagination, with some research thrown in. The settings must fit the plot and be filled out from the imagination of the author. Sometimes an understanding of the lives and times of people of the era is enough. Other times, more detailed knowledge of geography is needed.

When my character Elise arrives in Paris in 1820 to work as a maid for the secretive Albert Price, in “The Alchemist of Paris”, she soon finds herself being sent all over Paris on mysterious errands to obtain items for Price’s experiments.

Price’s house is in Le Marais. As the plot progressed, I began to wonder, was it actually possible for Elise to go to all the places I wanted her to go?

The beginnings of my research

The beginnings of my research

I soon learned that people did not often travel between districts in Paris in the past, as we are accustomed to now. But as Elise is a servant, she would have been one of the many maids and workers walking unnoticed through the streets. As I planned out the story, Elise’s errands took her to:

  • A strange shop on the Île de la Cité
  • The house of a scientist and collector of Egyptian antiquities in Saint-Germain des Prés
  • A fancy store near the Pont au Change.
  • The side streets of Le Marais.
  • A forge by the river.

Last year, I was fortunate enough to spend a few days in Paris. I began to build up Elise’s world, making sure she could go on foot to the places she was meant to be.

I started each day from Le Marais walking: through the Place des Vosges toward the Seine; then across the Île St-Louis and the Île de la Cité; then on to Saint-Germain des Prés. Looping back to Le Marais each time, the geography of the story became possible.

Each walk revealed more locations and inspired more ideas. The older buildings could be included in the descriptions. The house in Saint-Germain des Prés was soon based on the Delacroix Museum.

When the plot took the characters further afield to the Tulieries Gardens or a cemetery on the edge of the city, I made sure they had a carriage at their disposal.

She might have been tired, but Elise could do what I made her do. After all, working for an alchemist isn’t easy.

*  *  *  *  *

Do you use maps when you plot your stories? Have you ever placed your characters in an impossible location?

“The Alchemist of Paris” is released on July 14, 2016. There are some Advanced Review Copies (PDF or .mobi) available through Choosy Bookworm along with some other great historical fiction reads! 

Your Novel Stinks! Including all the Senses in your Writing

The quickest way to immerse a reader in your character’s world is for the reader to experience that world through your character’s senses.

Most writers are familiar with the “show don’t tell” rule. The closer we are to the character’s actions and reactions, the more gripping the story becomes.

Sight and sound are easy to write. But what about including the other senses in your work – what does your character touch, taste and smell?

Scentsandsmells2

Here are three writing tips I have developed on how to include all the senses in my writing:

  • Use smells to build atmosphere. There’s positive smells (scents, perfume, aromas) and negative smells (stinks, odours and fumes). Layer the smells with what your characters see and hear to create a mood. A dark swamp becomes more sinister with the stench of rotting foliage. An apartment becomes more alluring with the sweet scent of fresh cut flowers.
  • Use smells to tell us something about the character. What is the character used to and what might they notice if they go somewhere different? Your character might be living in a medieval village next to a pigsty. Surrounded by these smells since birth, they probably never notice. But how would they feel if they went to a castle and breathed in the perfume of beeswax candles for the first time?
  • Think about scents and smells that you remember personally and the feelings they evoke. Do you remember the overpowering scent of fields in summer? Or the strong smell of seaweed on a beach in a heatwave? Work your memories and feelings into your character’s experiences.

© 2016 M. C. Dulac