Research. The best part of my writing day.
No, really. I’m finishing Deborah Hayden’s Pox, a fascinating book on syphilis and its sufferers. I’m a sucker for medical history and forensic medicine. I discovered Berton Roueche’s Medical Detectives series when I was in junior high school (Eleven Blue Men, The Incurable Wound, The Man Who Grew Two Breasts); the stories in these books have a slightly dated quality since many of them were written in the 1950s. They are basically public health puzzlers (a number of which have, in fact, been used as the germs for House episodes): eleven bums from NYC’s bowery turn up in ERs around the city, sky-blue and delirious; an HVAC installer comes down with anthrax; children in a rural school start coming down with an unidentified fever. Part of what’s fascinating now is that–while these stories were cutting edge, or close to cutting edge when they came out, they’re almost quaint, technology-wise. It’s useful to be reminded of how far medicine has come since 1950, and how many attitudes have changed. It’s a particularly useful reminder for those of us who play with the past.
Another example: for Valentine’s day my husband gave me a book called The Sublime Engine, a history of the heart in medicine and as a metaphor. In the opening pages of the book there’s a passage describing early man realizing that there’s something living in his chest, something that responds to activity or emotion, something that is a part of him. It’s the beginning of the long human fascination with the heart, and as a writer I read this passage with a kind of awe, because it’s just something I never thought of before.
I have an A-Z of Regency London (A-Zs, pronounced A-to-Zeds, are English maps and guidebooks) in which I can get absolutely lost, because the shape of the city has changed hugely in the last two hundred years. I look up and the afternoon is gone while I was wandering in streets that don’t exist any more. Research will do that to you.
But back to syphilis. The Sleeping Partner (aka ST3) involves, in part, a military disaster with medical ramifications. I got to do lots of research on that. But at the same time I was keeping in mind the pox, which was a constant threat to women involved in prostitution (and women married to men who frequented prostitutes, and men who frequented women who frequented men who frequented prostitutes, and…). As I read Pox I begin to wonder how anyone remained uninfected. Given where Sarah Tolerance lives and who some of her friends and relations are, it is inevitable, perhaps, that syphilis will raise its figurative head. They did have what we refer to these days as “protection” in the Regency–condoms were used for disease protection more than for contraception–but not everyone used them. What did they use for contraception? Oh, that’s another afternoon of research entirely, and I really do need to get some writing done or there won’t be an ST4…
Sometimes I have to make a rule: no research today. But one of the many reasons I love my job is that it lets me wander around picking up stray bits of knowledge, the way children pick up bits of string that might be useful later. Somehow, they always are.