You know when you’re writing and you’re trying not to get distracted by details or even character names if you can’t come up with one, so you end up with a scene like this?
Diana sniffs the ground at the base of the tree, “Whoah, that’s weird… I’ve never smelled…”
She doesn’t get the chance to finish that sentence because that’s the moment I notice the eyes all around us and jump in front of her, teeth bared. It’s not wolves. They’re too low to the ground. And they’re not growling. They’re whistling.
Have you ever seen a human wig? Terrifying things. Bodiless beings of hair and net that seem to levitate on the mammal who wears them. Imagine a long-haired blonde wig stepping out of the shadow of the forest. But this wig has red eyes. And his equally hairy friends are carrying what looks like the lids of catfood tins, decorated with symbols I don’t recognize.
He casts his weird red eyes over us, from the dirtiest corgi you’ve ever seen, to a small hissing rabbit pointing a stick at them with visceral malice, and me, the obvious threat of the team.
“I am AWESOME WARRIOR NAME” the long-haired wig says, his voice eerily reminding me of Pallas, that deep baritone coming out of a body that really didn’t seem to be able to contain it, “you have trespassed into our territory, and must leave.”
Now, spoiler alert, I had envisioned these new hairy threats as chinchillas. I like the word, I like the idea of a squadron of chinchillas for Emmy to deal with. But until this week when I read the scene over again and started to do some research, I didn’t know that the mammal in my head didn’t match the mammal in real life.
Chinchillas are not known to be hairy animals that look like wigs. It turns out, I was thinking of Peruvian long-haired guinea pigs.
A squadron of guinea pigs just doesn’t have the same ring as a squadron of chinchillas. I mean, I think most normal humans think NEITHER of those sound especially terrifying but I really love the visual image of this squadron of wigs running into battle.
Should I just get over the coolness of the word ‘chinchilla’ and go with the guinea pigs?
Once in a while someone does you a huge favour in the research department and this is one of those times:
Despite having lived in London for the first six years of my life, and visited the city for a few days at a time in the years since, this was the first time I got to focus on research for my Portia Adams series.
Here is my Sherlockian itinerary:
Click below to see pics and my take on each of those fabulous locations, but suffice to say, I’m feeling even more inspired to keep writing about Portia’s adventures in London!
Sherlock Holmes Museum (at the actual 221 B Baker Street)
Actually located on Baker Street (unlike where the current BBC Sherlock is filmed on North Gower Street in London), the private museum had to get special permission from the City of Westminster to call itself 221B even though it is located between numbers 237 and 241. Downstairs you will find the shop of wonderful memorabilia, but upstairs they have attempted to recreate the original canon-descriptions of the offices of Holmes and Watson circa the 1880s. You find the sitting room, Sherlock’s little laboratory and Dr. Watson’s room laid out with medical books and equipment. It’s lovely and quaint but SO tiny. It made me really wonder how two men could plausibly live in such a tiny space. Not sure if the dimensions are different than those Conan-Doyle intended or if a lifetime of living in Canada has spoiled me for open-spaces.
Holmes exhibit at the Museum of London
This was just a lucky coincidence that my trip to London lined up with this exhibit at the London Museum. Sub-titled “The man who never lived and will never die” it features some fantastic original Conan-Doyle manuscripts, all kinds of movie posters, an interview with the author about his creation and vintage costumes and a lot of little details even I (an aficionado if there ever was one!) didn’t know. Like for example: did you know that the original names of the detective duo were J Sherrinford Holmes and Ormond Sacker? I knew about Sherinnford, but wow, Ormond Sacker instead of John Watson? Yikes.
Old Scotland Yard (and new Scotland Yard)
Now called the Norman Shaw buildings, Old Scotland Yard is both romantically beautiful and very business-like in its architecture.
I sat on a bench at 4 Whitehall Place for a half hour imagining Portia running up and down in pursuit of clues and following Brian around as he does his work.
10 Downing Street
I should have known this I suppose, but when you get to Downing street, you are confronted by a large fenced in area and you can go no further. It was disappointing, but when I turned around I saw a lovely sculpture dedicated to the women for World War II, so I felt rewarded for hiking all the way to that location.
This park is huge, I don’t think I had an appreciation for Portia and Nerissa’s favourite stomping ground until I actually walked around for 5 hours in it! It’s gorgeous and green (even in March) and filled with people, critters and ponds. I could see spending hours writing on a park bench if it were a bit warmer.
Back in Portia’s day, the area of London called ‘The Strand’ was the centre of nightlife and theatre. She visits the area often because King’s College’s main campus is located here, and she takes a few classes, and meets up with friends there. These days it has theatres, lots of shops and is a major tourist hot-spot. I visited King’s College on the Thames and it is a beautiful campus with white stone buildings and lovely statues of Sappho and Sophocles. I think Portia, Beans and Gavin would have spent many a happy hour on this campus.
So, I walked across Westminster Bridge, where the jewels were actually tossed into the Thames, and where Portia does her midnight stakeout. It was busy in the middle of the day, but when you lean over the side, you can imagine what it was like 100 years ago because it quite simply has not changed that much. Well, except for the garbage. Back in Portia’s day the Thames was still being used as a sewer, a garbage dump and God knows what else. In 1957 it was actually declared ‘biologically dead’ if you can imagine.
Waterloo Bridge I crossed while on a tour bus (when your feet get tired, it’s the best way to travel!) and London Bridge I hopped off and walked across on my way to the Monument to the Great Fire of London.
The following is a guest post by men’s style expert Pedro Mendes.
The 1930s are widely considered the apex of modern men’s style. After the restrictive and drab dress of the Victorians and Edwardians, but before the grey uniformity of post-WW2, the 1930s saw men’s fashion express itself like never before, and perhaps, like never since. Despite the Great Depression, this was not a time of deprivation in clothing – like the rationing to come in the 40s that almost killed three-piece and cemented flat-front pants. Instead, the biggest change from the 1920s was a sobering of colours and patterns. The wild abandon of the Gatsby era was toned down, with a return to more sober greys, blues and subtle patterns. That’s not to say that there wasn’t colour in the 1930s, it just wasn’t the rainbow of the previous decade.
The other great development that was born in 1930s London was the “drape” suit. Meant to enhance and exaggerate the male form, more fabric was used in the torso and the jacket was shaped to nip in at the waist while tapering in the sleeve. Pants continued to be wide, but again tapered at the ankle. It all was meant to broaden the shoulders and lengthen the legs, making men look more muscular and manly. Perhaps this was an emotional reaction to the Depression – all the unemployment had undermined men’s self-worth and their roles in society. But more likely it was simply an evolution in taste as English tailoring began to be influenced by Italians – who used more fabric, less structure, and a severe V shape in their tailoring.
Over in the United States, young men started challenging the norm by wearing blazers and sport jackets in town, mixing athletic wear with suits and ties. Button-down collars with ties and tweeds, Fair Isle sweaters and the more relaxed “sack suit.” As society became more casual, and young people, especially in university and college started to have more influence on fashion, odd jackets became more acceptable. Some of this look was itself influenced by England’s Prince of Wales on his journeys across the pond. Unlike his father, the Price was a much more casual and relaxed dresser and a huge influence on British style.
All of the above, however, relates mostly to the upper and moneyed classes. The regular person on the street kept wearing what they had been wearing for years, unlike today when clothes are regularly thrown away and replaced every year or two. Perhaps you could afford to have a suit made at a local tailor and so you could follow the trends of the day, which at the time were reinforced by Hollywood movies. One way the average person was able to afford more clothing than before the Depression was the widespread popularity and availability of off-the-rack. But whereas today you can find some off-the-rack of exceptional quality, the first mass produced suits, when seen with a keen eye, were miles away from custom work.
Pedro Mendes is an expert in men’s style and the editor of The Hogtown Rake, which you should check out and follow immediately!
I have no idea how it took this long to stumble across this, but check out this awesome photo gallery of Scotland Yard over the decades on Time Magazine’s website:
I was doing research at the time into police training in the 1930s, so here are some of my findings:
My friend Joyce Grant is an expert in teaching kids (see her website Teaching Kids News for an example of her prowess in the field) and suggested I start a Teacher’s Guide for Jewel of the Thames. She’s right, I’ve also had this request from teachers themselves.
So I’m reading up on some Guide’s for books written for the same age group (12+) – if anyone has a suggestion, please add it to the comments below?
Meanwhile, here is where I am collecting useful links:
I’m watching Foyle’s War these days (another addictive BBC program) and I was getting confused by all the slang used to describe money and decided to make myself a primer for my own writing.
One shilling equals 12 pennies.
A bob is slang for a shilling.
A quid is slang for the pound (which equals 100 pennies)
A half-crown equals 2 shillings and sixpence (or six pennies which is what pence stands for)
One crown equals 5 shillings.
A halfpenny equals exactly that (half a penny) but it wasn’t created till 1971 (and is therefore not relevant to Foyle or Portia Adams)
A farthing equals a quarter of a penny and could be divided even down to a quarter farthing (which was 1/16th of a penny!)
A groat equals fourpence (four pennies)
A florin is a two-shilling coin and the slang is a two-bob bit.
A guinea is a gold coin worth 21 shillings
Any I’m forgetting friends?
This blog post is inspired by the incredible Beverly Wolov, whom I met at the GridLock Conference last month. During a panel discussion she revealed her gift of fashion history, and I had to stop her afterwards to talk to her about the 1930s, Portia, and all the fashion issues I have. If you know me at all, you know my preferred outfit is a comic-book t-shirt and jeans, but I am expected to write descriptive scenes about Portia and the fashion she would be wearing in 1930s London.
Amazing list of advice on research for your books by my friend Christine — bookmark her website!
Thorough research is the 4th of The 7 Reasonable Rules of Writing. Details will differ, according to exactly what our Muse has tasked us with writing: be it historical fiction, fictionalized history, contemporary life, or even fantasy world-building, which must achieve consistency and continuity between its wholly imaginary historical and contemporary aspects. But in general, this is the kind of research that writers should expect to conduct:
Verify vocabulary. Outside of misspellings (including homophones and apostrophe errors), there’s nothing quite so jarring to a reader who’s in the know, than encountering anachronistic or culturally uncharacteristic bits of verbiage. Pay attention to the etymology your dictionary provides, and in particular, the dates. (My 1941 Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary also supplies a helpful “new word” list.)
Sometimes readers quibble over local semantics. Writers who are accustomed to the U. S. cultural and linguistic melting-pot should know that there’s no such thing…
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