Writing a Novel? Don’t Be Afraid to Get Muddy

POISON PEN(NER) Fans of historical fiction are familiar with the vehicles authors use to transport a story from the present to the past: A bundle of letters tied with ribbon, hidden in a steamer trunk; black-and-white pictures, tucked into a grandmother’s jewelry box, or better yet, her diary; a newspaper or map stashed in the rafters.

Sarah Penner went with a grittier approach in her debut novel, “The Lost Apothecary,” which is No. 11 on the hardcover fiction list. In present-day London, an aspiring historian joins a mudlarking expedition on the banks of the Thames; there, she discovers a small blue vial that leads her to a 200-year-old mystery involving a poison-dispensing apothecary and a 12-year-old girl who makes a deadly mistake.

You may be wondering, what in the world is mudlarking? “It’s like beachcombing, but you’re looking for historical artifacts instead of sea glass or gold,” Penner explained in a phone interview. “Every day the River Thames rises 23 to 24 feet. That turns over the riverbed. You can find anything from Roman coins to old clay pipes to leather shoes from the Tudor era. There are animal bones and little sewing pens the Victorians used. About two years ago, someone found a human skeleton.”

Suddenly those letters languishing in the attic seem like small potatoes! (Future mudlarkers, take note: You’ll need to secure a “foreshore permit” from the Port of London Authority. Restrictions apply.)

Penner described her own riverbank adventure with the fondness of a person recalling a scrumptious meal or a Technicolor sunset. It was the summer of 2019; she was on the water in central London. She stumbled upon several pottery shards and a little piece of a clay pipe, which she brought home to St. Petersburg, Fla. Now, when she’s doing virtual events for “The Lost Apothecary,” she’ll conduct “a little show and tell” with her audience.

"Every so often I’ll sift through and wonder, what bowl or plate was this part of,” said Penner, who has worked in finance for 14 years and was inspired to enroll in a creative writing class after attending a lecture by Elizabeth Gilbert during her “Big Magic” book tour. "I’ll think, who ate from this pottery? How long ago, where did they live, who were they married to, did they have children? There are these histories buried in the sand, waiting for the tide to come up or go back down and then for someone like you or me to find them.”

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