Just Browsing by Jan Edwards
I have written horror and crime for some years now and I do have a reasonable library of books to fall back on but sometimes those little details need to be checked, and it is so easy to do that online.
It occurred to me this week, however, that the browsing history of the average writer must ring bells somewhere on some watcher-server in some secret place.
It goes as no surprise to those who know me that I own up to being a compulsive researcher, spending hours looking into small details that are a sentence – nay half a sentence. Now on occasion that could be classed as classic displacement activity – but then again it never hurts to check.
In a recent read the female protagonist catches her skirt on the mistletoe. That sentence pulled me up sharp. Was she tiptoeing through the tree tops? Not that I could see. A quick search confirmed that mistletoe varieties native to the UK are to be found growing on trees. A minor point, and amusing in the images it conjured, though one that made me doubt the writer.
I have no doubt I’ve made a faux pas or two in my writing, and I have a suspicion it would be over something similarly trivial and in my writing group would be greeted with ‘I think you’ll find…’ in best E.L. Wisty style; accompanied by the tying of imaginary anorak hood.
With that in mind my current novella project has generated some interesting searches. Most are innocuous (if time consuming) and research in those areas are usually more fact ‘checking’ than ‘finding’ but there are a few odder items that would be far tougher to explain on my browser history.
My list this month runs:
- Maps: which always came under scrutiny. Google Earth is also useful though this time around they failed me when I found that a street named in the case history does not come up on any searches. How do you find a place that no longer exists? I am still working on that one! Picking the brains of French friends and colleagues may be come next.
- Hats: always fun to research. I do love a good hat and when writing anything pre-1960s is always a fabulous way of carbon dating your characters and it helps to start with a good image of your main character or characters. Some one at my writing group suggested my character should wear a cloche hat, but they are distinctly 1920s and this is ten years too early. A pillbox hat with small veil fitted the bill far more neatly.
- Hair: and knowing when the term ‘Marcel wave’ had given way to ‘Finger Waves’. Yes they are basically the same thing but terminology is all.
- Hairspray: not exactly dangerous to mention, but having a character spray her hair when aerosol cans had yet to come into general would be a bit of a booboo.
- Clothes: it goes without saying that naming a specific fashion will always add verisimilitude with very little said. We all know that beaded flappers say 1920s and hooped crinolines the mid 1800s. Once mentioned you have implanted a sense of era and need say little more. For me South Sea Bubble Loon pants will always say 1960s but maybe Mary Quant would say it for many more.
- Cigarettes: what brand what be smoked there and by whom? Not just brand names but those you would find in X or Y place at that time.
- Drinks: in having someone offered a cocktail what would it be? You would not find a bar tender mixing a ‘Sex on the Beach’ in 1935 as it was apparently invented in the 1980s. But you would quite possibly come across a ‘French 75’ which allegedly saw its origins in WW1. Yes you would find Martinis but as they were common place both then and now it would not define the era. Or of course it is set in Paris and there is always Pernod.
- Sacherine: which, contrary to my initial thoughts, did exist at that time.
- Music and Dance: as with hair and clothes it gives a sense of time and place. The bal musettes it seems had dance crazes and music very much of their own. Edith Piaf’s distinctive style did not come out of nowhere. Research highlighted the valse musette, which summons the required image in an instant.
- Myths & Legends: always a favourite. Oddly there seem very few specific to France listed in the usual reference sites. France has many legends, including much of the Arthurian saga, but there seems to be very little available online about the more obscure folklore elements.
- Religious Holidays: or to be more literal what would be normal for a Pentecost Sunday in Paris.
- Third Reich & the supernatural: Interesting stuff but ultimately a red herring when the mention in the novella is a single sentence. (Now we are getting a little hotter.)
- French political parties of the 1930s: another horror story all on its own as it turns out.
- French Police departments: What branches (Surete and/or Gendarmerie) covered which areas? Complicated at that time, and still are!
- Government Offices: a ministry dated pre 1939 is often not that same as will be found now.
- Secret Societies: of which there were many.
- Drugs: which recreational drugs were in common use in the bal musettes in that era? And how were they mostly being used? Snorting? Smoking? Injecting?
- Murder: specifically those in France. To be fair it was a specific murder but as the project is still secret I shall refrain from specifics. Suffice to say time and place had their share of searches.
- Pistols: and in particular small concealable weapons.
- Explosives: those available between the wars, which has caused me some real headaches.
Can you hear those alarms beginning to ring?
As always of course much of the information I unearth will sit in a file unused. Perhaps a word here, a sentence there, will find its way into the finished piece. Those little hints that build a sense of period and place but never so much that it comes close to factual dumping ground – which is a pet peeve with yours truly. The line between building and atmosphere and relaying three pages of back story and setting really is frequently not that fine.
At time of writing there are 17,000 words committed to (virtual) paper and my guidelines for the commissioned project state 20k to 25k so I am hoping most of the research phase is done with.
But then again… the exciting dénouement is still to arise. Given the subjects I have already covered I cannot imagine what else there could possibly be, but who knows…