Tuesday, July 7, 2009


Continuing July's theme of "amazing discoveries made while researching our books"

Whenever I write nonfiction, I always use the Meat and Salt Method. The Meat is what sticks to your ribs and raises kids' SAT scores. It includes the very most important facts in a book; names of major players, pivotal events, and the dates and places where the action is. But I ask you...what good is Meat without any Salt? Salt lets me sprinkle in all the spicy little surprises that flavor a story and vault its characters to life. While digging up research material, I'm regularly blown away by Salty bits that no one seems to know yet. Here are a few favorite examples:

During his exploration of the American West, Meriwether Lewis wrote that the Chinook Indians flattened their infants' heads so much that they measured only 2 inches from front to back and were even thinner at the top. (Head flattening didn't lower the babies' intelligence one bit....but don't try this at home.)

Grownups had to look good too. Chinook women made their legs look fashionably fat by tying cords so tightly around their ankles that the circulation was cut off and their legs swelled right up.

And Lewis's co-captain William Clark may have been a brilliant explorer, but he was a terrible speller. I counted 17 different ways he spelled the word "mosquito" in his journal, and sometimes he spelled it 2 or 3 different ways on the same page.

The fireworks you saw this weekend aren't just for 4th of July celebrations. Back in 1601, they helped John Smith become a Captain. Way before he ever sailed to Colonial Jamestown, he was a young soldier in a small outmanned Austrian army. To beat the huge Turkish army, he set off a long string of fireworks atop a ridge. This noisy trick lit up the skies and fooled the Turks into thinking that thousands of Austrian soldiers were firing guns at them. They charged the fireworks by mistakes and John Smith's army ambushed them from behind. For thinking up this winning maneuver, John Smith was made the captain of 250 horsemen.

Ben Franklin never patented his inventions because he wanted everyone to use them for free. One time his house was struck by a tremendous bolt of lightning, but it didn't catch on fire. His greatest free invention, the lightning rod, had saved his family's bacon, and nobody even knew it until years later when Ben was having some work done on his roof and discovered that the nine inch copper point on the rod had melted almost entirely away.

Charles Darwin found that flamingos in South America actually thrive by drinking saltwater, and he discovered toads in the middle of a desert that can "drink" dew through their skin.

As gold seekers headed to California during the great Gold Rush of 1849, they ran into plenty more problems with drinking water. A woman sailing from New York via a shortcut through Nicaragua joked that "The water was of the very poorest kind. We called it 'Alligator Soup.' " I've mentioned this when commenting on an INK blog before, but after another passenger's ship rounded Cape Horn, the water had become so bad that he had to find a way of killing the bugs before drinking them. And when all food and water ran out as folks herded cows across Death Valley, another woman reported that "The old man traveling with us had a straw mattress. A small portion was dealt out to the cattle to keep the poor things from starving.

Speaking of cattle, when there was way too much water, cowboys on the Old Chisholm Trail used to cross muddy rivers by running on their cows' backs.

Proper patriots certainly didn't agree that God gave King George III the divine right to rule America. But the guy was never the stupid insane tyrant that my teachers and the Declaration of Independence said he'd been during the American Revolution. That's pure propaganda. Fact is, G III was the most well educated male ruler England had ever had! My research also revealed that he gave an enormous amount of his own money to charities, disguised himself as a peasant farmer so that he could secretly hand out gold coins to the poor, and worked to improve their education to boot. He opened his excellent free library to scholars, had a powerful telescope built, practiced cutting-edge scientific farming, and set up a Royal Academy of the Arts. Even though he usually agreed with them, it was the British Parliament, not King George, that made the laws and levied the taxes Americans hated. And although George had inherited a rare disease called porphyria that would rob him of his sanity in his old age, his mind was basically just fine during the Revolutionary War. Like his one-time enemy George Washington, G III was even admired by his countrymen as "the Father of the People."

See what I mean? It's all about the Salt.


Mark Herr said...

I love this kind of stuff. Thank goodness this is not the kind of salt my doctor warns me about.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Thanks, Mark....it's my little guilt-free pleasure.

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