One of the problems a writer faces when researching a novel is what to do with all the diamonds and doubloons they have left over. I'm not talking about royalty cheques (though it would be nice, just once, to be paid in gold doubloons); rather, I refer to all the extra ephemera that we writers gather from researching certain topics, like World War I or lightning patterns or chimpanzee sign language. There are many writerly tips about how to insert research into your book without boring the reader to death, but no one has any advice for what to do with all the wonderful leftovers. It's extremely frustrating because suddenly I, the author, know things that are of no use to the story but are still amazingly interesting.
I encountered this horrible dilemma while researching my latest series, The Hunchback Assignments, which is set in Victorian England. Has there ever been a more peculiar time in British history? I had to learn about sewer tunnels, the Tower of London, steam engines, cockney accents - all of which I used in the book. But what about all the other wonderful nuggets that I dug out and dropped on the ground?
For example, did you know that a Victorian invented the mousetrap? The most popular design of today is exactly the same one the Victorians used. Think of all the mice that would have lived if that trap had not been invented. But how could I have used this information in my novel? Have my character get his hand caught in a trap and curse James Henry Atkinson, the inventor of the "Little Nipper"? Humorous perhaps, but it would not have advanced the plot. So, no mousetraps.
Then there's the bell coffin. The Victorians had a curious relationship with death. Even the lowly butcher was buried with pomp and circumstance. And everyone, no matter what their social class, had a great fear of being buried alive. So clever Victorian undertakers offered for purchase a bell coffin. This coffin included a rope that would be placed in your dead, cold hand. The rope was attached to a bell above ground. If you woke up and found you had not entered the afterlife, you'd ring the bell and someone would dig you up. Thus you would be "saved by the bell."
I could spend hours pontificating on Thomas Crapper, a brave man who decided to embrace his name and become a plumber (yes, "to crap" back then meant what it means now). He became famous for making some of the finest flush toilets available. But do I want my character to sit on one of these? Toilet scenes are much harder to write than sex scenes. To mention Crapper & Company toilets would only bring the tone of the novel (and of this essay) down.
Or what do I do with this information? I learned that Queen Victoria was an extremely odd duck. She wore only black from the day of her husband's death in 1861 until she herself died in 1901. Black to every wedding. Black to every state event. She was the first Goth queen!
Victoria, oddly enough, died in the arms of her nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who would later lead the Germans against the British in World War I. Just another oddity of history that I can't use, since my book is set in 1873.
But here is the weirdest part, the part that gives me nightmares: The queen was laid out in her coffin in a white dress and a wedding veil (finally she wears white!). Then they placed alongside Victoria her husband's dressing gown, a photograph and a lock of hair from a previously deceased favourite servant, some trinkets and some flowers - and plaster casts of the hands of her husband and assorted other family members and servants. All those hands in a casket with a dead body! I really wanted to pass that image on. So there it is. You carry it for a while.
As you can see, it's endless. But what to do with it all? Well, I came up with a modestly clever idea. Social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace) have those fancy "status" updates - you know, those places where people write such things as "I had scrambled eggs for breakfast," or "I licked my deodorant." Well, I post my Odd Victorian Factoids (as I call them) in the status line of my accounts and collect the factoids on my website.
Why? To lead people to my website and make millions, of course. But also, if you're going to waste someone's time (even a few seconds) with a status update, then you ought to make it interesting.
The final thing I decided to do with all the scraps and lurid tales was to write an article about them. So, dear reader, thank you for indulging me.
Arthur Slade is the author of Dust, the winner of the 2001 Governor General's Award for Children's Literature. His latest book is The Hunchback Assignments.