A NaNoWriMo Eggs-periment

Sometime in the mid-1500s as the Spanish Inquisition held a firm grip on Naples, Renaissance man and notable genius of cryptography Giovanni Battista della Porta discovered a useful little trick. Several of his clever friends had been imprisoned for presumably not being quite Catholic enough and della Porta needed to get messages to them.

egg head
16th century egg head Giovanni Battista della Porta. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Everything that entered through the prison walls was carefully checked, with the exception of food deliveries. So, della Porta allegedly used a combination of vinegar and alum to write messages onto eggs. The special ink disappeared when the eggs were boiled, but the letters transferred through the semi-permeable shell and imprinted themselves on the membrane of the egg.

All della Porta’s nerdy heretic friends had to do was to carefully peel the egg, read the message, and eat the evidence. Not bad, and definitely more subtle than writing “Hoppy Easter” in white crayon before dyeing, which is how I usually convey secret egg messages.

Now I’ve found plenty of references to this little eggs-periment (see what I did there?), but what I haven’t been able to discover is what the messages might have been, or how della Porta’s friends knew to look for them, though I suppose if you peel and egg and discover words on the white, you probably go ahead and read them.

I am probably not the person you want sneaking you hidden messages in prison.

Were these escape plans? Tricks for correctly answering inquisitors’ questions to secure release? Clever microfiction featuring a dashing 16th century polymath who breaks his friends out of prison? Egg salad recipes? Alas, the world will likely never know, because egg messages rarely last very long.

But there are lots of words that go unread in the world, and not just the brilliant ones languishing between the covers of small potatoes authors you’ve never heard of. Just this past month thousands of writers joined in on National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and produced millions upon millions of words, many of which are brilliant, and a lot of them will never be read.

Because this was a sprint, and for many it was probably a slog. Some writers made it to the finish line of their goal (or will in the next thirty-eight hours) and many did not. I’m happy to be among those who completed the challenge, but what I can tell you is that you will never see most of the words I wrote.

Confession: One of my biggest fears is that I’ll die with an unrevised novel on my hard drive and it will get published. Fortunately, I’m pretty sure my family knows better. Also I’m not famous enough for anyone to care what I have left unpublished. So, you know, thank goodness for that. photo credit: wuestenigel Close Up of Woman’s Hand on the Laptop at the Office via photopin (license)

They might as well be written in invisible ink on an egg white. Of course, they are here in my computer, all 50,000+ of them, waiting for me to trim and polish and hard boil. Only after I’ve done that will I allow anyone else to start peeling back the shell and reading them.

It’ll be a while. I’m excited about the book I just spent a huge number of hours drafting, but it’ll be many times that number of hours before I manage to turn it into something I’m proud to share. For now I’ll set is aside and let the hastily scribbled words soak into the eggshell while I change direction for a bit and write something completely different. Maybe I’ll see if I can put together some microfiction. I have a great idea for a story featuring a dashing 16th century polymath who breaks his friends out of prison using only a bowl of egg salad.

15 thoughts on “A NaNoWriMo Eggs-periment

  1. I’m currently stuck on the opening sentence for NaNoWriMo but still have 12 hours left (New Zealand time)…
    Just think of the hundreds of literati over future centuries who will scramble to “finish” your unfinished novel. Jane Austen’s unfinished novel “Sanditon” is one of my favourites – so your family must not destroy your MS when you kick the bucket.

    1. I hope that’s one very long, run-on sentence! Also, my family knows that I will haunt them if any unfinished work surfaces, but my youngest is proving to be a pretty creative and talented writer so maybe he can have a go at finishing up any incomplete works.

  2. Congrats on finishing NaNo!

    Since I wasn’t “officially” participating this year, I’m pleased enough with my almost 32,000 words, and will continue to peck away at it until first draft is complete.

  3. Marcia Gaye

    How eggstremely eggciting! Why aren’t we all writing secret messages on boiled eggs?? Maybe because nobody actually eats boiled eggs unless they are smashed into egg salad? Perhaps because alum is hard to come by here; maybe it’s easier to find in Britain where it is al-u-min-I-um but still not eggspecially tasty?

    1. To the best of my knowledge no one has been able to successfully replicate the egg messages. Kristie Macrakis, the author of Prisoners, Lovers, and Spies: The Story of Invisible Ink from Herodotus to Al-Qaeda even went so far as to offer a reward for anyone who could make it work. Alas, she’s had no luck.

  4. A 16th century prison break involving egg salad sounds like an eggsellent idea! You could make it a comedy as long as everybody got the yolk. 🙂 I had to say that. Er – well, maybe I didn’t…

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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