As a writer, I’m concerned that people take me seriously. That’s why, for years, I butted my head against chin-stroking efforts filled (I hoped) with drama and pathos. When I resurrected Norton Pumblesmythe, a character I made up as a joke, it felt like admitting defeat. Then I wondered what I was pining for. Did I really want my work to be analysed by bored students in years to come? Dissected like a butterfly stuck to a board? Never! If I was to return to Pumblesmythe’s world, though, I knew I had to do it properly; and that meant research. I didn’t study history at school so my knowledge of the Victorian era was limited to ‘something something Isambard Kingdom Brunel something something top hats’ Fortunately, I loved it, the Victorian era was madder than I could’ve hoped; yet it did raise questions.
Pumblesmythe’s adventures had become a blend of fact and fantasy, one liable to give way to the other at any moment. Would people believe I had researched or that I was making everything up? That worry tormented me when I spent two hours finding out whether a specific bridge was open in 1845, all for a couple of paragraphs in the story. You see, I didn’t just want people to laugh anymore; I wanted to reach those who dreaded dry historical tomes as much as I did. I had begun to feel oddly patriotic, reading of Britain’s great achievements. I even wished I had an excuse to use a cane (a few months before I had to with fibromyalgia. I got zinged pretty good there).
We all know not to use too much research, it drowns the reader, but too little is just as damaging. Where is the balance and how do you find it? It knocked me sideways when a reader for “Terror Beyond Measure” thought that I’d made up the legend of fifty Berkeley Square. I didn’t blame him, the story had an intentionally fantastic and comical tone, but he smashed the joyful little image I had of people reading the glossary and going ‘Oh, so that was real!’ Of course, one reader is not every reader, and I still have faith in the formula. I just hope that faith is enough to sustain me the next time I have to read up on the distribution of street gas lighting in 1850’s London.