This is a true, but long-winded story all about writing and some of the research that went into The Dickens Mirror —because, man, I did a ton — so you might want to go grab a Coke or cup of coffee. Go ahead; I’ll wait.
Back again? All comfy? All right, so true story: I’m in North Carolina on tour for Ashes, and visiting an independent bookstore. By this point, I’m tinkering with The Dark Passages; I have some fledgling ideas about White Space and the genesis of the Dickens Mirror device (which grew out of a story Kate Dickens told about her dad and his use of mirrors while he wrote). I know that I want to write a trilogy, and I’m thinking that, for sure, the second book will take place in Victorian London. At the time, I didn’t know I’d be smooshing two books into one as my editor later suggested — prescient, considering what happened to Egmont USA — but my brain was definitely primed to learn as much about that time period as possible.
So I’m in this bookstore, and the owner mentioned this terrific nonfiction book all about the development of artificial light. I snapped it up because I realized that if I wanted to properly set time and place, I needed to understand things like how houses were lit, when the Lambeth gasworks became operative (as one example), how long whale oil was used for lamps, that kind of thing.
Well, Jane Brox’s book Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light was tremendous. I devoured the whole thing in about a day. What particularly grabbed my interest was her discussion of the different grades of whale oil: how that affected the quality of light, its color, the amount of soot, the smell. That got me to thinking about whaling in general, and that industry in Victorian times and then that eventually led me . . . wait, I promise there’s a point to this . . . that jogged loose something I remembered reading about Arthur Conan Doyle. Now, I wasn’t sure I would use him in my series yet; I was tinkering with him, Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins . . . there were a whole slew of very famous literary types running around in those days, and I’d been devouring book after book on them and the period. But I thought what I remembered was that Doyle had served on a whaler as a ship’s surgeon for a year while he was still a student.
It turned out that I was right. In fact, the journal Doyle kept while onboard came out right around the time I was researching this book. So that was a piece of terrific serendipity because it dovetailed with my reading on the history of whaling and the type of light that people might have been using around this time. But then, I picked up on something else: that a lot of sailors had tattoos in the Victorian period, and most were, as you might imagine, pretty lewd. Tattooing itself didn’t become fashionable in England until Edward, Prince of Wales, got himself a tattoo while in Jerusalem (this was in 1862). By the 1880s, tatts were much more commonplace.
But since Doyle had been on a whaler, I thought, well, I’ll give my alternative Doyle a tatt. At first, the tattoo was only supposed to be a character detail, like the color of his hair and the shape of his moustache. Except when I got to thinking about what his tattoo ought to be, none of the real tatts that most sailors sported felt right. Eventually, I hit on a black hellhound tattoo that I modeled after the real Doyle’s description in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Giving Doyle a tattoo was a lark, though, just for kicks.
Only a weird thing happened: that tattoo got a voice. Black Dog turned into this perverse character, a symbol of everything that’s evil and rotten in my alternative Doyle, the guy who might have been if he’d stumbled into an Ilsa J. Bick novel — and I had a blast developing this character that was never in my original outline but materialized seemingly out of thin air.
Now why did I give you this long-winded story? Because . . . when you are researching for a novel, you don’t necessarily know if what you’re reading or learning will do you one whit of good, and you must be prepared to allow things to snowball: for one fact to lead to another and then another and then another. You may actually start researching one thing only to discover that a related topic is much more important, but you must remain nimble and flexible enough to make that sideways jog. If you are the type of person who can keep a lot of arcane facts in her head, your unconscious will work to make links and connections. I mean, look at Black Dog. I went from a book on light to books on whaling to Doyle’s journal to the history of tattooing (and to actually seeing real tattoos, skin and all, of the time period at the Wellcome Collection in London) and then, finally, to creating Black Dog.
And I got there because of research: because I read a bunch of stuff that I allowed to marinate and simmer. My husband thinks of raccoons when I tell him about things like this; you know, how raccoons go out and collect bits of rubbish. Me, I prefer to think of myself as a bit of a magpie. Whether it’s a fact or phrase or morsel of effluvia, I see something pretty or interesting and think, Oh, yes, I’ll just take that. Oh, and look here’s something shiny . . . I’ll just take that, too.
So let’s talk research for a second. I don’t know about y’all, but one of the things I just love about being a writer is I get to learn all this arcane stuff. I can spend time reading books on just about any subject and call it “research.” Come to think of it, all of life is research for a writer because you’ll just never know what you’ll use, or what — after it’s spent a good long time in your dark and juicy unconscious — will work its way to the surface as an idea or setting detail that adds richness and color to your novel.
What about what type of research to do? Short answer: no one can actually tell you. I’ve read authors who talk about reading books of the time period so they can find character voice; I know that others go walk the streets of wherever and keep detailed notebooks (I do the former but not the latter; my handwriting sucks and I find that I’m not sure what to write down; I’d rather just experience). Still others hire research assistants. (Me, I’m not that rich.)
I approached my research for this series the way I approach setting a scene in general: by incorporating sensory detail. So while I knew I needed to understand history, nothing beats actually going somewhere and gathering as much sensory detail as you can: what things look, smell, taste, feel, sound like. I had to see London and walk the streets and stroll from Lambeth Bridge down to the site of the old Bethlem Royal Hospital (it’s now the Imperial War Museum). I arranged to take a tour of the old chapel, a setting that figured prominently in White Space. (The tunnels in The Dickens Mirror were both a) historically accurate and b) my own invention because I just happened to have done my psychiatric training at a place that was actually around when Dickens was; in fact, Dickens came for a visit, and the tunnels I knew as a resident existed then.) I walked the streets in and around the hospital so I understood what was where, how long it might take to get from A to B on foot, that kind of thing. I got a set of maps from the time period, so I could plot which square was where. I hung out at the Metropolitan Police Museum and studied their uniform collections, visited the old dorms and stables. I went to Edinburgh so I could see where Doyle grew up.
But it was while I was in a pub a block down from the old hospital that I overheard a couple of guys talking. Their conversation wasn’t particularly memorable, but it was filled with a ton of slang I didn’t know — and it just hit me, all of a sudden: I bet Victorians had slang terms they threw around, too. So I tracked down compendiums of slang from the time period as well as a whole slew of other stuff (books on medical instruments, visits to the Royal College of Surgeons museum that has a fabulous collection of medical instruments, etc.).
Ah, but now you see the trap, right? When do you know if you’ve done enough research? Short answer: you don’t. There simply comes a time when you must stop researching and start writing. You can still research as you write; I do that all the time. But you still must write, even if it means that you go back and make changes. This is where deadlines, either imposed by your contract or, better yet, you, come into play. Make a deadline when you have to begin, and stick to it. If you find that you simply can’t — that you’re uncomfortable with your lack of knowledge — then start another book or story or set of stories. Write something that doesn’t require research. I’m dead serious — and why? Because you’re a writer, not a researcher. Research can bring your writing to a standstill, and you simply can’t afford that because it will always be just one more thing, one more fact, one more building, one more book. You have to know when to stop and then gauge how much of what you learned actually needs to be on the page. In other words, you need to figure out what you can get away with yet still inject enough verisimilitude to sell the story.
For that, you must read other people’s books to see what they’ve done and how they’ve cut corners (because they all do; they’re not writing PhD theses, after all). Then you decide what you need to set the scene. You have to understand your process; how you approach world building because this is something you do whether you set a story on another planet or in a small town or in an alternative London. As I said, for me, it’s sensory; it’s how people dress, eat, speak, what slang they use, how gas light looks different than that from a candle, what kind of tattoos people sported, and what sort of candy they liked. All very mundane, everyday things, and yet all that helps you set place and time with small details that will help your readers settle into the story.
In terms of what to put on the page, here’s a very simple rule of thumb and one I use: just as you would never flip on a switch and then ruminate on the history of electricity or how your house is wired, so your characters should always do or refer to things that your reader can subsequently understand via context. In other words, instead of you know, Bob moments — you know, when one character turns to another and launches into a mini-disquisition on whatever that’s just one huge info-dump — anything that is unfamiliar is better explained in the natural course of things. For example, my editor for The Dickens Mirror was very concerned that I should define what a retort in a gasworks was because the term shows up on one page, but you really don’t get what it is until the next page. Well, I refused. It wouldn’t be natural for my character to turn to another for a you know, Bob moment: Gee, you know, Bob, doesn’t it just beat all we don’t use those retorts any more to heat coal and generate gas? But what is natural is for the character to eye a retort and think about the bodies they’ll dump there to use as fuel for gas rather than the old days when they used coal.
See the difference? You get the fact across without highlighting that you’ve just fed your reader a fact.
So, if you’re going to do historicals or science-y fiction books, anything where there are facts that anyone can check, research is essential. There is nothing worse for a reader than being smacked in the face and thrown out of a story by something they know isn’t true. I will always remember the moment I read some scene where a diver cleared her mask the wrong way; having done a lot of diving, I know that mask would’ve flooded. Kicked me right out of the story.
The problem is that research is also a huge time sink. Worse, research and that obsessive drive to gather just one more fact or follow one more lead can actually keep you from getting any real work done. Sorry to say this, but it’s true: every hour you spend researching any topic is another hour that you’re not putting words on a page. No matter how much effort you may spend in tracking down one arcane fact, this does not translate to actual, real, tangible output — and it is output for which you’re paid. That is the great bugaboo about research: you might crave knowledge; you can convince yourself that you really need to know x, y, and z. You can easily trick yourself into believing that research is writing.
I am here to tell you that it is not. In fact, for some people, “doing research” may be more properly seen as avoidance: as putting off the moment you sit before a blank screen and try to fill it with words. But that’s a whole other essay.
The other thing research can do in terms of biting you in the ass is that some writers just can’t abide having spent all this time gathering all these facts — and not letting you know about it. Their books read like encyclopedias, with every irrelevant fact trotted out. You know what I’m talking about. I remember one sci-fi series where it was clear that the writer wanted you to know just how much he knew and how hard he’d worked to gather all this material and assimilate all this knowledge. The problem is . . . forcing facts down your readers’ throats is not only inhuman, but it makes for an incredibly boring book.
I guess what I’d say is that there’s no magical answer here. How much research you do depends on how much you already know and what you think you can get away with.
I once heard Lee Child make the claim that if you say something often enough and with enough authority, people will believe you. Here’s what I would say: yes, and do enough research to make your world believable to you. Convince yourself, and the rest will follow.
About The Dickens Mirror
Critically acclaimed author of The Ashes Trilogy, Ilsa J. Bick takes her new Dark Passages series to an alternative Victorian London where Emma Lindsay continues to wade through blurred realities now that she has lost everything: her way, her reality, her friends. In this London, Emma will find alternative versions of her friends from the White Space—and even Arthur Conan Doyle.
Emma Lindsay finds herself with nowhere to go, no place to call home. Her friends are dead. Eric, the perfect boy she wrote into being, and his brother, Casey, are lost to the Dark Passages. With no way of knowing where she belongs, she commands the cynosure, a beacon and lens that allows for safe passage between the Many Worlds, to put her where she might find her friends—find Eric—again. What she never anticipated was waking up in the body of Little Lizzie, all grown up—or that, in this alternative London, Elizabeth McDermott is mad.
In this London, Tony and Rima are “rats,” teens who gather the dead to be used for fuel. Their friend, Bode, is an attendant at Bedlam, where Elizabeth has been committed after being rescued by Arthur Conan Doyle, a drug-addicted constable.
Tormented by the voices of all the many characters based on her, all Elizabeth wants is to get rid of the pieces under her skin once and for all. While professing to treat Elizabeth, her physician, Dr. Kramer, has actually drugged her to allow Emma—who’s blinked to this London before—to emerge as the dominant personality…because Kramer has plans. Elizabeth is the key to finding and accessing the Dickens Mirror.
But Elizabeth is dying, and if Emma can’t find a way out, everyone as they exist in this London, as well as the twelve-year-old version of herself and the shadows—what remains of Eric, Casey, and Rima that she pulled with her from the Dark Passages—will die with her.
ILSA J. BICK is a child psychiatrist, film scholar, surgeon wannabe, former Air Force major, and now an award-winning author of dozens of short stories and novels, including her critically acclaimed Ashes Trilogy, Draw the Dark, Drowning Instinct, and
The Sin-Eater’s Confession. White Space, the first volume of her Dark Passages horror/fantasy duology, is currently long-listed for the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a YA Novel. The sequel, The Dickens Mirror, hit shelves on March 10, 2015.
Ilsa lives with her long-suffering husband and other furry creatures near a Hebrew cemetery in rural Wisconsin. One thing she loves about the neighbors: they’re very quiet and only come around for sugar once in a blue moon.
Drop by her website, www.ilsajbick.com, for her Sundays’ cake and Friday’s cocktail recipes as well as other assorted maunderings; or find her on Facebook, Goodreads, Twitter (@ilsajbick), or Instagram (@ilsajbick).