Monday, June 4, 2012

My life as a research monkey

Say what you will about us writers; we were readers first. Most of the writers I know got into it out of a love of the written word—sometimes a desperate one, as in my case. I began writing my first novel at the age of eight because I was burning through the children’s room at my local library entirely too fast, and I was afraid that I would run out of books to read if I didn’t start making some of my own, stat. So reading comes naturally to us, and we love it.

Which is a good thing, because ye gods, do we have to do research.

Masks is set in modern-day Los Angeles, my lifelong home, so a certain amount of the research is done for me. I know what the hills look like in summer, how a Santa Ana wind smells, where to find an abandoned aircraft hangar or an empty flood-control channel. I have a working vocabulary of curse words in four or five languages spoken by the locals. I can describe the subway without pausing to look anything up, and I know what it’s like to be packed into a Rapid bus hurtling down Wilshire Boulevard at foolhardy speeds.

At the other end of the spectrum, the world of The Novel is completely made up. I’ve devoted many hours to figuring out how the weather patterns work, and the literacy system, and the technology, and even what kind of birds you’d find in certain bushes. And I’m the ultimate authority on all of that. All that information is sitting inside my head or in my notebooks, and because no one else has lived in my fictional world, no one can correct me unless I get the real-world science wrong—make the rain fall up instead of down, put the wrong kind of birds in the wrong kind of ecosystem, that sort of thing.

In the middle falls the Street of Bakers project, and an awful lot of research.

While Street of Bakers has strong elements of science fiction and fantasy—it is steampunk—it’s also firmly rooted in a real time and place. Victorian London really existed, and modern London exists today. Millions of people have visited or lived in the places I’m writing about, an ocean away from me, and know millions of details that I don’t. I’ve never been out of my own country—I didn’t even have a passport until I was in my late twenties, and I’ve never used it. (This isn’t the American snobbery you’ve heard so much about, by the way—I don’t actually ignore other countries, or assume I wouldn’t get anything out of visiting them. I’ve simply never had the money to travel for pleasure, and I never get more than a day or so off work at a time, which makes it tough to travel to anywhere other than Mexico. Someday, though …) So I do research.

I haunt a nearby university library for books of maps so I can build up my knowledge of London’s geography. I’m reading my way through Liza Picard’s Victorian London, learning about sewers and velocipedes and corsetry and whatall. And then there are the websites—costumers’ sites for fashion tips, archive websites for street-level maps, even a botany website that can find me a white willow tree in modern London at two in the morning. (An early plot point requires Watson to get hold of some willow bark in a hurry.) It’s a good thing I’ve got that writerly love of reading; otherwise I’d never get through all this.

In some ways, though, I’m glad I’m doing it. I probably haven’t read this much reference material since I was in college, and I’m rediscovering the quiet joy of reading books I never would have discovered on my own. Ever since I was little, I’ve enjoyed stuffing my brain with seemingly useless but interesting information, and this project is giving me a magnificent excuse. I’ve recently discovered an urgent need to re-read Harry Houdini’s book on stage magic; how often can I pass that off as work? And that’s not even counting the sheer joy of Sherlockiana—from a deep re-reading of Doyle’s canon to modern pastiche collections like Michael Kurland’s Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Years to outliers like Anthony Boucher’s The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars and Fred Saberhagen’s The Holmes-Dracula File. How many people can legitimately say they’re doing research by reading a novel about Sherlock Holmes teaming up with Dracula? I haven’t had this much fun since I regularly had to study smallpox vaccinations and ancient Greek statuary.

And it seems to be paying off, at least a little. Recently a beta reader on an early chapter of the project complimented me on my portrayal of a completely made-up part of the London Underground; even though the design of the car was entirely fictional and the line I described didn’t open until a couple of years after the story is set (I added a historical event that moved up the opening date), she was impressed with how clearly I described the sounds, smells, and sensations of a short Tube trip. “How long did you live in London?” she asked me.

I just smiled.

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