Writing stories set in the past can be exciting and educational for a writer. (So many facts to spout at parties! Bore your friends and complete strangers! Have the fondue station to yourself!)
"Hey, did I tell you about that story about the effects of the Immigration Act of 1924 on…wait, where are you going?
There's melted cheese here!"
Sometimes, though, it can be frustrating and slow-going.
For instance, on Monday, I was working on a scene in DIVINERS TWO, ELECTRIC BUGALOO*, in which someone drives a car down the street. Seems simple enough, right? That’s what I thought, too. I opened my paragraph with a mention of the sound of the wheels on the rain-slicked streets. Hmm, I thought. So it’s raining in this scene. Are they listening to the rain or to the radio—oh wait. There was no car radio in 1926, was there?** And if it’s raining, they’ll need to clear the rain away from the glass…did 1920’s cars have windshield wipers?
My fingers twitched over the keys. Just go on with the story and fix that point later, I scolded myself. (I scold myself often. I am a Scoldilocks.) But I found that I couldn’t go on. I really needed to sink in and feel, see, hear, and smell that scene. And to do that, I needed to know everything about this car from the 1920s on this rainy night in New York City.
Off to Google I went. Here’s what I found: Cars did have windshield wipers. In the early 1920s, they were manual. Yes, you’d have to flick the little switch back and forth to clear away the wet. (This does not seem like much fun to me, and I am already thinking about hair and humidity issues.) By the latter 1920s, windshield wipers were largely vacuum operated: http://www.secondchancegarage.com/public/history-windshield-wipers.cfm
So this tells me how hard I want the rain to fall: If it’s too hard, the driver probably has to pull over. If it’s just sort of spitting or misty, it’s perfect weather for my scene without the distraction of "Let me interrupt the creepy to just mess…with…this…darn…wiper…Hold on, Evil, having some visibility issues here…" Details, details.
Anyway, I spent a good twenty minutes on this one small moment for two sentences in what will probably be a 600-page novel. Do the math. This is why I don't get out much.
But while research can certainly pin you down or force you to come up with creative ways around a sticky point—“Those high-falutin’ windshield wipers were invented by a crazy automotive wizard and that's why they're so super-fast!”—Most times, research can set you free.
When I was researching REBEL ANGELS, the second book in the Gemma Doyle Trilogy, I knew I wanted to have scenes set at Bethlem Royal Hospital, a.k.a. Bedlam. I corresponded with Colin Gale, the archivist there, who directed me to some wonderful resources. It was while reading these interesting case histories that I came across something truly extraordinary: Bethlem Royal Hospital hosted periodic dances open to the public. You read that right—they opened the doors of the asylum to the public for a dance. It was believed that such social activities were important for the well-being of the patients. (By the late 19th-century, treatment of the mentally ill at BRH was much kinder than it was in the horrific days of the 18th-century when it earned its nickname.) This single discovery, which I never in a million years would’ve imagined, opened up all sorts of possibilities for interaction. I was able to have the patient, a young woman named Nell, deliver vital information to the girls in a rather theatrical way in a public forum. Plus, it was a criminal amount of fun to write.
But back to DIVINERS, Book the Second, and that itchy little fact about the windshield wipers. Why so much attention to detail for a throwaway moment? Well, maybe because I’m a geek. (True) Maybe because God is in the details, as they say. (Also true.) Maybe it’s a form of procrastination, um, kind of like writing a blog about research instead of writing the actual book. (Why, that’s CRAZY TALK!) Maybe because I’ve made mistakes before and it bothers the hell out of me when I do. (Sadly, true. And thank you to the kind folks who have taken the time to school me when I’ve been wrong about something.) When that happens, I feel like I’ve messed with the reader’s trust. I’ve punched a hole in the world I’m trying to construct—it’s a loose brick that can send part of a wall tumbling. But also, I really want to know for myself, because it helps me become a part of that world if I know the limits and the possibilities.
And for the record, I’m really grateful for automatic windshield wipers and car radio.
*Do not worry. This is not going to be the actual title of the second DIVINERS book. But it is what David Levithan calls it to make me giggle.
**Did they have car radios, though? This was the second question brought up by this one sentence I was trying to write. Once again, I went on the hunt and found this: http://www.radiomuseum.org/forum/first_car_radios_history_and_development_of_early_car_radios.html This would seem to suggest that they did or that they could have been around, but the iffy-ness around the dates means that I will have to do more research if I want to state conclusively that these two characters are listening to the radio in the car in early 1927. You always want more than one source.