The Pit Of Doom (AKA Research)
I am a research addict. I really am, especially when I’m supposed to be writing. Given even the slightest provocation I will cast aside whatever it was that I was working on and go off on a fascinating exploration into the history and uses of marmalade, or herring fisheries, or the invention of the beauty spot. In theory all this work should make the resulting novel much richer and more engaging to the reader: I’m not so sure.
Last month, for example, I spent a solid hour looking up the history of concrete. Concrete doesn’t even feature in the book I’m working on, but my protagonist had thought the word “concrete” and I wanted to make sure she wasn’t committing some heinous mental anachronism. So there went an hour of my life. I’m not even sorry: I now know several interesting facts that I hadn’t previously known about lime kilns, the combination of aggregates, illegal sand mines, and other things that had absolutely no bearing on the work at hand. It did absolutely nothing to improve the book and probably took up valuable brain space, and I don’t regret a bit of it.
The thing is, I shouldn’t be bothering with any of it. I intentionally set my book - and its nascent series - in an unspecified time so that I wouldn’t spend great swathes of my time scrolling through the odd corners of the internet looking for a reliable source on the etymology of “cornichon.” Well no, I didn’t. I set my book in an unspecified time and place because that’s when all the classic horror films that provided so much of my inspiration seemed to be set. Even the ones that started out with the date and location clearly stated on the screen. But the research thing was supposed to be a bonus.
It didn’t work. Even knowing that I am writing in what I mentally refer to as Hammer Time, I can’t resist the urge just to check, to see how feasible a thing might be in any given period, to make it, somehow, all hang nicely together. I wrote a list of period appropriate types of apple for The Vicar Man, and there isn’t a single actual apple in the book. I just wanted to make sure no apple-based commentary landed too wildly off target. I can’t help myself.
Clothes are the worst. I have stacks of books on the cut and creation of historical costume. I follow The Bill And Ted Test on Twitter, and Bernadette Banner, Megan Donner et al on Youtube. I flinch at the signs of modern underpinnings under a medieval kirtle, and shudder at half-dressed hair on a Regency heroine. Why, yes. I am a delight at parties.
Look: I grew up reading the novels of Georgette Heyer, with her meticulously researched attire, and wandering the costume exhibits of the V&A, and the result is that every time I write about a character with her shift hanging off her shoulders; hair dressed all anyhow; and laces where no lace should go, I feel the cold gaze of centuries of hardworking dressmakers boring into my soul. I write them that way anyway. I have to. If I feel guilt for perpetrating such obvious anachronisms (and they are anachronisms, unspecified period or not) it’s nothing to the shame I would feel for avoiding them. I have to be true to my setting and my setting, as I’ve said, is the realm of classic horror.
It’s a world of heaving bodices, of imperfectly hidden zips, of Regency frock coats in aniline dyes, and Victorian vampire brides whose back-combed curls brush the bloodstained necklines of their underwired negligées. A world of unrealities and uncertainties whose only guarantee is that somewhere, somehow, something wicked this way comes. On the screen the historical inconsistencies only add to the experience: as the story plays out the tastes and colours of the year in which it was filmed leak through, lending an odd, dreamlike quality to the experience. We cannot be quite sure when or where we are, or exactly what we are seeing. On the screen, even if that screen is the secondhand, semi-functional, shoebox-sized television-and-video two-in-one that is the only way I can watch my favourite videos any more, it is a delight. On the page I hope it translates into something resembling that experience, or at least something that doesn’t cause anyone to flinch too uncontrollably. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and check which breeds of duck could feasibly be found on a pond in an unspecified period in a non-specific corner of the world.