MedHum Monday Presents: The Power of Story

DailyDose_darkstrokeThe language of logical arguments, of proofs, is the language of the limited self we know and can manipulate. But the language of parable and poetry, of storytelling, moves from the imprisoned language of the provable into the freed language of what I must, for lack of another word, continue to call faith. —Madeleine L’Engle

Story is far older than the art of science and psychology, and will always be the elder in the equation no matter how much time passes. —Clarissa Pinkola Estes

What makes story so powerful to us? Why do we retell and retell them? Look back upon your life, and know that even our histories are revisionist. With each new addition to our lives, the backstory shifts to accommodate. Write it down and record it all you like, we have far more in common with the bards who tailored and expanded their tales in the telling than we do with mere mechanical memory. It’s little wonder that stories help us understand ourselves, our time, and the history that came before us.

I teach a class called Gothic Science: Discovery and Dread in the 18th century. As I work in a medical history museum, I have access–and can give students access–to all manner of wondrous texts and artifacts. But I begin the semester by having them read a novel, and not even a period novel. It’s Lazarus Curse by Tessa Harris (she’s appeared on this blog’s counterpart, the Fiction Reboot). Surely this is misleading, some might suggest; why not start with some 18th century novel, if you plan to discuss fiction at all… Well, I do that, too. We end the semester by reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But entering into a course of complicated historical science readings requires some preparation. Before launching them into Sloane, Willis, and Locke–or Hunter, Smellie, and the anatomists–or Galvani and Volta–I want them to “see” and “feel” the era we’re about to study. What better way than through the historical mystery presented by Harris? Jamaican slaves end up on dissection tables, botanical explorers go missing, and a dangerous plant seems to have the power to resurrect the dead… And along the way, the students see the social, cultural, and scientific world of eighteenth century England.

It moves them, the students. They come with questions–why sail to far away places and risk danger just for plants? How did class and race affect who was treated (medically) and by whom? What did this mean for our understanding of humanity? That is, who counts? And most importantly, how did the desire for discovery lead so often to dread (and the repercussions of fearing the “other”)? We move on to non-fiction from there, and the science finds a foothold because the story teaches us to care.

This is true in other ways, as well. I write both fiction and non-fiction, myself. I’ve worked on the history of disease and how syphilis may have influenced the vampire mythology as it emerged in Dracula (see podcast–or Unnatural Reproductions). I also write a middle-grade series from the opposite perspective: what if vampirism was, itself, a disease… a disorder of the blood? In the Jacob Maresbeth Chronicles (High Stakes, Villagers, and The Vatican), the titular character faces off to something even more frightening than stake-wielding Van Helsings: a medical establishment dedicated to funding pharma at any cost. We tend to villanize the ill, to make monsters out of those things we don’t understand. It’s not always easy to see that in the midst, say, of a newscast on the Ebola outbreak… but the distance, perspective, and empathy that fiction provides can help us see ourselves, and our fears, with fresh eyes.

It moves us, as L’Engle explains, beyond the limits of self. This is the power of story. May we remember that today and everyday.


MedHum Mondays Presents: Spanning Genres

Nature and Time, copyright Schillace

Q: What do you call a medical humanities scholar having an identity crisis?

A: Interdisciplinary.

I’m a PhD, a researcher and curator for a medical history museum, an editor for an anthropology journal, and a fiction writer. I’m frequently asked how that’s even possible… surely these things are too disparate to work?

Not as much as you might think. I spent this past weekend at the 40th annual World Fantasy Convention in Washington D.C. If you’re not familiar, WFC is an annual gathering of professional writers, editors, agents, collectors, and others interested in the field of Light and Dark Fantasy art and literature. It’s also a wonderful place to meet and catch up with your fiction colleagues, and in that way, is not unlike most of the academic conferences I attend. There are other similarities, too; for instance, I sat in on a panel about the ethical treatment of historical figures in fiction–and that’s not radically different from the discussions I encountered at the American Association for the History of Medicine. When we write history, fiction or non-fiction, we find ourselves having to channel key figures, to hear and recreate their voices, and to do so without compromising truth.

Oh, there’s that tricky word again… “truth.” It’s often accompanied with it’s equally problematic brother, objectivity. In a recent conversation about my cultural history of death (Feb 2015), I was asked how I could be objective if I was also choosing what to represent, which stories to tell, which details to include…and which to leave out. “I’m not objective,” I explained. “No one is.”

Trial history of Lizzy Borden

But that’s not the whole story, either, is it? In my life as an academic–with my PhD in literary history and my curatorial work for the medical history museum–I am always striving for objectivity. Historians are sticklers for facts and details. But even with all the facts aligned, we must tell a story, provide a narrative. And on the other side, when writing fiction, we nonetheless aim to provide a kind of truth, however we understand that.

“We have a responsibility to the collective understanding of historical figures,” said panelist David Coe (D.B. Jackson). “I don’t own Samuel Adams. If I want to use him in my fiction, I have to be faithful to what history says about him, and how he is received and understood by the public.” Historians also have an ethical responsibility; if facts emerge that cast a historical figure in a radically different light, we cannot be afraid to share this new information. On the other hand, we must never manufacture our own conjecture as though it were factual. (A case in point might be the spurious claim that 18th century anatomist and physician William Hunter murdered his patients, something which has been thoroughly debunked from numerous quarters, but which still occasionally shows up in print as “fact.” For more, see here.)

The Analysis Machine, copyright Schillace

Fiction and non-fiction writing may seem divergent, but my work on the academic and non-academic side of the word processor bring me often to the same set of questions. My work on the anthropology journal brings me back to them, too, as does museum exhibit creation, where we must tell big stories in small spaces. Curiosity and attention to what we include and exclude, what stories we tell and which ones we don’t, should not be niche specific. Ethics and narrative don’t just belong to medical humanities. They belong to humanity, period.

So, here’s to conferences and colleagues that remind us of our mutual interests–and our mutual needs. Do I sometimes feel I’m suffering an identity crisis? Somewhere between grading papers, writing fiction, proofing monographs and editing anthropology…yes, yes, I do. But that’s okay. The more people I meet, the more I am convinced that, deep down, it’s what we are all doing all the time.

The Reboot presents E. C. Ambrose: The Dark Apostle and Book Promotion

FictionReboot2Welcome back to the Fiction Reboot! Today I am happy to announce the latest release from E. C. Abrose: Elisha Magus: The Dark Apostle! You may remember Ambrose from his previous visit to the Reboot with his first book, Elisha Barber.

Today, Ambrose is back to talk about the fine art of promoting your work once it has been published (not an easy task!) All writers want to know: how do I get this story into the world? Welcome E. C., with some answers!


I think the key to effectively marketing your book is knowing what it has to offer that sets it apart, being able to articulate that core in a way that’s powerful and fast, and then reaching out to the people most likely to respond to it. When you have your book’s core in a memorable form, then you’re able to share it early and often, and make it easier for others to share it, too.

I attend a lot of science fiction and fantasy readers’ conventions (not media events, but ones run by fans who love books), and I have the same conversation repeatedly. It goes something like this:

Me, on meeting a new writer: So, what do you write?

Stranger: fantasy. (or, even more vaguely, “Science fiction and fantasy.”)

Me. . . Uh. . . that tells me exactly nothing about your work, much less why I would want to buy or read it.

The other side of that conversation:

Stranger: So, what do you write?

Me: Dark historical fantasy about medieval surgery.

Stranger: Sounds creepy (or exciting or different or disgusting or –) or, I’ve never read a book about that. . .

Basically, like every promo opportunity, this is a chance to create openings for the potential reader to learn more and ask more.

Marketing starts with understanding your book—where does it fit in the world of reading? (“historical fantasy”) And what makes it stand out from that area? (“about medieval surgery”) Now you have what the real ad-men call your unique selling proposition. You can use it as above, in person as the start of your elevator speech; use it as a theme on your website, emails, or social media profiles; put it in advertising or copy, and use it to focus your marketing approach. Brainstorm some places to reach readers who might be especially excited about what you’re offering.

A few months before Elisha Barber launched, I looked for compatible blog and review sites in line with the novel’s core (medieval history sites, sites about historical medicine or literary medicine) and found some folks I could connect with, who would already be excited about some aspect of my work. On my own blog, I also focus on the interactions between history and fantasy, and frequently talk about medical issues in history. I wrote an article about the brighter side of medieval surgery for Renaissance Magazine, a glossy publication aimed at Ren Faire enthusiasts. I have a collection of medieval-style surgical tools which I bring to appearances—and mention in my emails and press releases to spark Elaine Isaacinterest from the media.

I used my tagline at one of those “speed dating” type events for people in the arts—to attract the attention of my local NPR affiliate station host, and get an interview that spiked my ranking big-time.

Basically, I’ve been building my brand and carving a niche that sets me apart from other fantasy authors. I made an off-beat book trailer extolling the virtues of medieval medicine which opens with the line “Are you worried about health care?” For the sequel, Elisha Magus, I’m expanding the brand in some fun ways. At Readercon in Burlington, MA, I’ll be giving away copies of the mass market edition of Elisha Barber to anyone who donates at the Heinlein Society Blood Drive.   I’ll also be sharing a panel with my medical advisor for the series.

One idea I haven’t acted on yet: doing a costumed talk as a barber-surgeon at libraries, and perhaps filming it for my local access cable channel.

The more distinctive your message, the more likely it is to get attention—and nothing brings people out like offering minty maggots to those who attend your readings. . .


In Elisha MElisha_Magus(1)agus, the barber-surgeon, feared and hunted for the spectacular magic that ended a war, finds himself under the protection of a duke, and offered the duke’s daughter, Rosalynn, in marriage. Elisha escorts Rosalynn to a retreat in the New Forest, hoping to recover the dread talisman stolen by his lover and teacher, Brigit, after the battle. Elisha learns more about the shadowy nature of witches and the truth of his own power: that he has become so close to Death that he is indivisible from it—a power that Brigit is desperate to learn. Does his knowledge make him a necromancer, feeding on the fear and pain of others?

When he befriends the discredited Prince Thomas, Elisha has the chance to forge a more just nation, but his enemies grow stronger and more vicious, wielding the power of death to craft a reign of horrors that will blacken the future of England—and maybe the world.

Also look for book one of The Dark Apostle, Elisha Barber, now in paperback!

E. C. Ambrose links