Things I learned while not editing my novel by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

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I met my first Wikipedia surfer, almost 10 years ago. It was my first year at university. The polo-shirted boy explained that he spent hours clicking link after link. It wasted days of his life, he said and smiled. Back in my dorm, tucked into my duvet, I settled in with Wikipedia. I clicked a link. I read for a while, and then stopped. The site seemed useful, but I wasn’t entranced by the hyperlink pathway. 

Books, the real, physical, smellable things are what get to me. I’m not saying that physical books are better for you than online articles. It is just that books are delicious. I’m seduced by covers, by spines, by deckle edges, by endpapers, and French flaps.           

The desk I’ve chosen at Gladstone’s Library looks out on more books than I could read in a decade. Titles glint up at me in gold. Marbled edged pages glow. I’m supposed to be editing my own words. I’ve printed the manuscript and slashed through it with a biro. Now, I’m in the process of transcribing those edits to the digital version. But every now and then, I’m overcome. Itchy-fingered, I reach over to the shelf. There are so many tempting nibbles of fact. 

What follows are some of the more curious delights. 

The Smaller British Birds, H.G. and H.B. Adams 

Bird names:

Red-backed Shrike






Ortolan Bunting 

Ortolans eat rapidly, but will not eat enough to fatten. To fatten your Ortolan you must keep it in a small dark cage with only a small window. When a lantern is lifted to the window, it will believe it is sunrise and eat. After two hours in the dark, it will sleep, and the process can be repeated. ‘Ortolans thus treated become like little balls of fat in two days.’ It can then be cooked in the Italian manner. 

The Haunted Homes and Family Legends of Great Britain, John H. Ingram, 1886 

Ghosts names:

Devil Byron

Captain German Wheatcroft, of the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons

Henry Jacob

The Glasgow Hell Club


Dame Children 

One day, the brother of a Mrs. R— came to visit her in her home. He had returned from a day’s shooting and was impatient for his dinner. He began to call out that he was famished. Mrs. R— turned from her bed chamber to attend to him. But as she turned, she saw a ghostly woman standing in her doorway, the words Dame Children floating in phosphorus light. Mrs. R— was understandably startled. But again, her brother called out for his dinner. So, Mrs. R— screwed up her eyes and charged through the apparition. The account does not detail what she served her brother. 

Suggestions to Mothers on the Management of Their Children, A Mother, 1886 

Types of Milk:

Cow’s Milk

The Cream and Milk Food

Artificial Human Milk

Swiss Milk

Peptonised Milk

Ass’s Milk

Koumiss (Fermented Mare’s Milk)

Goat’s Milk

Artificial Ass’s Milk 

To make Artificial Ass’s Milk, you will need— six snails from a vineyard, three ounces of hartshorn shavings, three ounces of pearl barley, two pounds of distilled water. Boil until you have one pound of strained decoction. ‘The separator used from time immemorial has been the fourth stomach of the young calf.’ Add one fluid ounce of syrup of maidenhair. Mix. 

Crystal Gazing, Northcote W. Thomas, 1905 

Devices for Seeing Visions:

A piece of white paper

A black stone mirror

A candle flame seen through an egg-shaped crystal

A drop of human blood

Badger blood seen by moonlight

A crystal of the bigness of a small orange 

Magic mirror care – ‘The mirror is only to be handled by its owner or the magnetisms will be mixed; others may look at it in a box.’ Mirrors should be cleaned with soapsuds and polished with velvet. Do not expose it to direct sunlight.  

I do not know if or how any of these details will make it into a story or novel. Perhaps they won’t. Perhaps they’ll end up in yours. 

The pile of edits awaits at the end of the desk. I must be off to work. 

By Rowan Hisayo Buchanan