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The Ten Rights of Medicalized Fiction (Part 2): Drug Administration.

Medication in Fiction.

A character’s injuries or illnesses need not take up much of the word count of a novel, but what does occur to that character, and how the condition is medically treated need to be correct. This is true no matter where in the Parallel Universe a story takes place. A bit of basic pharmacology can help prevent medication gaffes in fiction. Here are some medication administration facts that can be appropriately applied to fictional healthcare:

The Right Drug: No single drug can be the perfect remedy for all illnesses or injuries.

The Right Dose: Adults, children and animals need different amounts of medication.

The Right Time: No drug effects a cure with just one dose, and doses must be regular. 

The Right Route: Each drug must be given the right way (orally, topically, injected or inhaled), to get into the body and exert its proper effect.

It’s also important to know that any natural animal, vegetable or mineral substance that is ingested in only a tiny amount that is expected to yield a physical effect is not a food, it’s a drug.

All drugs, whether they’re synthetic or natural in origin, have desired effects and side effects. Some of those side effects are adverse effects – those which are undesirable or even harmful. There is no substance that can be used as a medication or remedy that has only benign, desirable effects. Magic potions are passé, so please leave them to Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm (unless, of course, you, too, are writing fairy tales).

(Above, left to right: Hans, Jake and Bill.)

If your story takes place at the beginning of the 20th Century or earlier, you need to know what kinds of remedies were used back then. Most were in the form of tinctures, oils, extracts, or the powdered parts of common plants and minerals, many of which are highly poisonous, and in their unrefined state just as likely to kill as to cure. A dose of some of a remedy may be good, but it has never been the case that more is better. Your fictional doctor or shaman therefore needs to give the right prescription and advice to the character who’s being treated.

One good early drug information source is the Squibb’s Materia Medica, 1906 Edition. This book is available scanned at the Internet Archive, along with the 1919 Edition.

Squibb lists remedies derived from plants, as well as the “new” synthetic medications (made from coal tar), and medicinal uses for substances with which nowadays nobody in his right mind would dose himself. It presents a good picture of the state of the pharmaceutical industry in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

NB: If all you want from Squibb is the plant-derived stuff, I have available for sale a limited quantity of a book in which are listed all of the botanical entries from the 1906 materia medica. Contact me via the comment form below this post, to learn how to order a copy.

There are also currently published compilations of Native American, traditional Chinese, and other ethnic formularies.

But if you’re writing a mid-20th or 21st Century story, you need to know about modern drugs, or else know whom to ask about them (I was pleased to have been able to assist Seumas Gallacher, writer of thrillers, with a question he had about the use of a drug). If you prefer not to consult a professional, then invest in a reliable drug reference book. It doesn’t have to be a pharmacology textbook; a drug handbook that’s published for nurses will provide almost everything you need to know. The book illustrated here is what I think is the best available, which I used when I was in practice. It doesn’t have to be the newest edition (they’re updated yearly, and tend to be pricey); items that are a few years old are cheap and plentiful in used book stores, and you won’t miss anything important.

I do not recommend using a PDR (Physician’s Desk Reference) because although the book is huge, not every participating pharmaceutical company provides the same detail of information, and because the entries in a PDR are simply reproductions of package inserts, which may not be the kind of information you need.

You can also find reliable modern reference guides to herbal and other therapies, which report the state of current research into the safety and efficacy of non-standard over-the-counter remedies and treatments.

Even if you’re writing about life on another planet in the Parallel Universe, it will help your story’s plausibility if you adhere to earthly medication principles you’ll find in the resources discussed here. Your readers, all of whom have been sick or hurt at some time in their lives, will find more to empathize with your characters, if they can find patterns similar to their own in the fictional treatments and recoveries they read about.

Inquire here about obtaining a copy of Botanical Remedies:

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