‘Shrooms Along the Brandywine

Blog: What's the Big Idea?

‘Shrooms Along the Brandywine

The Brandywine Valley, where I live most of the time and where I’ve set Phu Goldberg’s adventures, has a number of interesting features.

  • It was the site of a bad loss for Major General George Washington in the Battle of the Brandywine at Chadds Ford, the resulting defeat at the hands of General Sir William Howe allowing the British to occupy the rebel capital of Philadelphia.
  • It is where the DuPont company was founded, still has its headquarters, and invented many well-known substances such as nylon and Lycra.
  • It contains Winterthur Museum, which houses one of the best collections of American furniture in the world.
  • It features Longwood Gardens, arguably the most famous botanic garden in America.

I might have worked a plot around any of these things — and plenty more — for Cadaver Blues, the first installment of the Phu Goldberg series, but it called out for something weirder.

When my family and I moved to the Brandywine Valley six years ago, none of the above surprised us — any tourist knows about them. But there was a bigger element hiding in plain sight: mushroom houses. It turns out that between two-thirds and three-quarters of all mushrooms grown in America come from the Valley. And, as with any modern endeavor, the methodology gets highly technical — lots of intellectual capital residing in the offices of these unassuming windowless structures.

It’s a huge business that residents come to know is everywhere in the air here. Literally. When the mushroom houses steam-sterilize their growth medium, which largely consists of manure, you can smell it for miles.

But something more basic appealed to me when crafting the plot for Cadaver Blues. Mushroom houses, of course, are dark and dank. In fact, they can be downright creepy inside.

It seems to me that the novelist always carries a question along the following lines in the back of his mind: Why make up creepy out of whole cloth when it’s right there in front of you for real?

So I had my main plot element — an industry unique to the Brandywine Valley where Phu could get creeped out, lost and almost die.

But there’s another rule worth remembering: Employ in the novel as much research as you need to make the story work and no more. So in Cadaver Blues I’ve only scratched the surface of all that I learned in the course of my research about mushroom houses.

As a result, you can bet, somewhere down the line, there will be another Phuoc Goldberg fiasco that delves into this unusual industry.

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