I’ve spent a good deal of time researching history for my science fiction writing, which is funny, really, because history was my least favorite subject in school. But when you’re writing a story, somehow it takes on a completely different focus, becomes less dry and dusty and more malleable. And I’ve done it quite a lot by now, actually:
- Burnout (postWWII to the present, military and space)
- The Fetish (Native American post-European history)
- “The Bunker,” Dreams of Steam (Victorian era UK and USA)
- The Displaced Detective Series (Victorian era London)
- The Adventures of Aemelia Gearheart (as-yet unpublished; Victorian era Europe, Asia Australia, Revolutionary War America)
- Extraction Point (scientific history, Middle Ages to present)
- The Sherlock Holmes: Gentleman Aegis Series (coming soon; Victorian era worldwide)
For our purposes, let’s focus on the Displaced Detective series. The Displaced Detective series has been described as “Sherlock Holmes meets the X-Files,” in that it is a series of science fiction mysteries in which Sherlock Holmes is yanked from an alternate reality into the modern day and can’t be sent home again. Instead he settles into the 21st century and, together with the chief scientist of the project that brought him there, solves scientifically oriented mysteries. So I had to start with a purely Victorian British man, and compare and contrast his world with a modern American one. It entailed considerable research on the Victorian era, and London specifically.
Did you know that if you went to Great Britain and got a hotel room on the first floor, you’d need to look for the elevator, or the stairs? That’s right. Their ground floor is our 1st floor. Their 1st floor is our 2nd floor! In the Victorian era (and in Baker Street!) the ground floor in London would house the servants, kitchen, possibly the water pump (if it was indoors) – and of course, Mrs. Hudson’s living area, as well as possibly a shop of some sort on the street. But the principal, formal living area would be on the first floor and above. We know this is where Holmes’ rooms were, as well as the sitting-room; Watson’s bedroom was on a floor above this, judging by references in the stories.
Also it’s good to know that Baker Street had an Upper (north) end and a Lower (south) end. Upper Baker Street had no numbers, nor any real dwellings, in Victorian days. In fact, it didn’t get numbers until about 1932 or thereabouts. So 221b never really existed in our world. What exists where 221b should be? That’s heavily debated, and the property keeps changing hands, but there is a large block of buildings that started out as a bank headquarters sitting where the number should actually be. The mailing address is heavily debated between the bank and the Sherlock Holmes Museum, a little way farther up Baker Street.
So did the Baker Street Irregulars really exist? As a matter of fact — yes, they did, but not as street urchins. In WWII the headquarters of the Special Operations Executive, an espionage, reconnaissance and surveillance organization that eventually merged into MI6, and with which certain “names” (such as the late Sir Christopher Lee, and the celebrated author Ian Fleming) were reputed to have worked, was located in Lower Baker Street. It took on the nickname of the Baker Street Irregulars, which is not to be confused with the international fan organization of the same name.
Is there an Underground station nearby that Holmes and Watson could have used? Yes, the Baker Street Station, one of the world’s oldest — and which was refurbished and remodeled in recent years so that one part of the station (which connects two Underground lines) is Sherlockian-themed, and the other once again displays its original Victorian styling.
Is there anywhere nearby where Holmes and Watson could have simply strolled, as is mentioned in a couple of the Conan Doyle stories? Yes, Regents Park is at the upper end of Baker Street and is quite large.
What about household furnishings? Well, the ones that would most puzzle us today are actually all still in existence but use different names. The gasogene (aka domestic time bomb) was a seltzer maker. It consisted of two bottles held together with wicker or wire, one containing tartaric acid and sodium bicarbonate which reacted to produce carbon dioxide, and the other containing water. When the handle was depressed, carbonated water emerged for mixing into drinks – when the thing didn’t explode from pressure buildup, that is. The tantalus was simply a liquor cabinet, often portable (in an awkward, bulky sort of way). It contained crystal decanters rather than bottles, with metal labels on chains. The gasogene was typically kept here too. The tantalus was usually kept locked unless it was being used to pour drinks. (No sense in encouraging the hired help to raid the liquor cabinet, you know! Seriously, that would have been one of the rationales behind keeping it locked, in the day.)
Alcohol and Tobacco
If a gentleman were out and about, he might have ale, beer, or stout, typically at a pub. After dinner, or at his club, it was whisky, scotch or brandy, usually with a cigarette, cigar, or pipe. The combination was used because tobacco potentiates any other drug with which it was used, so the host could provide a nice buzz with much less expensive alcohol. (It was also why opium was usually smoked with tobacco in a hookah. An expensive drug, as it was imported, the tobacco enabled the same high with a lesser amount.) Cigarettes were hand-rolled, and there were tricks to handling a pipe: lighting it, keeping it going, and maintaining it are all more difficult than one would think if one hasn’t tried it.
How do I know? I learned to smoke a pipe expressly to be able to write Holmes’ use of it properly. This includes sipping whisky or brandy with it, which resulted in my learning first-hand how well tobacco potentiates the alcohol! I am NOT a heavy drinker, and I have never been so drunk before or since, nor do I wish to be.
There are a myriad of variations on a pipe. Holmes is usually depicted smoking a Meerschaum Calabash pipe, but this dates from the first stage portrayal of Holmes by William Gillette. He found that such a pipe had several useful advantages for stage use:
- It was heavily curved, and so the bowl stayed out of the way of the face. This both enabled the audience to see the actor better, and the actor’s expressions and emoting to come through as a consequence. (It is sometimes debated how much of Gillette’s ego went into the choice.)
- It was well balanced, and allowed the actor to speak around it even with it in his mouth, sometimes even without the aid of hands.
In all likelihood, however, Holmes would have smoked a long-stemmed briar pipe.
Then there is something called the dottle. This is the slightly charred, often soggy remains of the bowlful of tobacco left at the bottom after smoking. It can be removed, dried, and smoked, though it is often a bit harsh. Doyle tells us that Holmes had a habit of collecting the dottle from a day’s worth of pipe use, drying it on a corner of the fireplace mantel, then using this as his first-thing-in-the-morning smoke.
Lighting tobacco could be a risky proposition in those days. A smoker would have used a match, a hot coal held awkwardly in fireplace tongs, or possibly the jet of a gas lamp. There WAS the precursor of a modern lighter: the fusee, a kind of a flintlock or flare; it was bulky and dangerous, especially if the smoker possessed a beard.
For emergencies, brandy was used to “revive” a victim, I presume in much the same manner smelling-salts were and are used. Modern well-known liquors were available at the time, such as Glenlivet (a relatively new distillery at the time) and Hennessey, a British brandy as opposed to a French cognac, but it is the same beverage for all intents and purposes. (The difference arises from the requirement that “cognac” be applied only to those products of a certain region of France.) I thought Holmes might be an Anglophile, although possibly not; his grandmother was French (Vernet). Besides, Watson references brandy, not cognac. As a result, I chose Hennessey for my experiments with after-dinner tobacco pipes and brandy.
Clothing and modes of dress
A gentleman's dress varied depending on where he was or where he was going. If he was in the city, his outerwear would include an overcoat, top hat, frock coat, ascot, cane, and possibly spats. But if he were in, or traveling to, the country, he would attire himself in tweeds; a boater, deerstalker or flat cap; and an overcoat, cloak, Inverness cape, or duster-type coat, depending upon weather. All of these would fasten with buttons or hooks & eyes; there were no zippers and no belts. Trousers were held up with suspenders, or “braces” as they were usually called. Jeans were just being invented, and were not used in the UK. The cloth was produced in France (twill de Nimes — “denim”). The first cowboy hats by Stetson in the US had avid competition by Christy's in the UK, who is still a provider to the Crown.
A proper gentleman such as Holmes would be attired from the skin up as follows: vest and pants (these today would be called boxers and undershirt – NOT a t-shirt, but a tank-top style), stockings (socks), a shirt with replaceable collar (ring around the collar? Throw it away and get another), button-up trousers (modern pants, trousers, or slacks, but with a button fly) held up by braces (suspenders), a double-pocketed waistcoat (“WES-kət,” now known as a vest), and if in public or with visitors, a suit-coat of various styles, and a tie of some sort, approximating the modern bow or regular tie, or something even fancier. The tie was often referred to as a cravat. Shoes were leather, usually ankle height, and buttoned up. Note also that some men of the era wore corsets, although there is no evidence that Holmes or Watson did so.
Accessories would include cufflinks and a pocket-watch. The watch was properly placed in one waistcoat pocket; the chain (if the wearer was of sufficient means to afford a long chain) was threaded through a buttonhole in the waistcoat and over to the other pocket. On the other end of the long chain would be some necessary trinket such as a pipe tool (for cleaning and/or tamping one’s pipe) or a jack-knife (pocket knife), and this would be tucked into the waistcoat pocket opposite the pocket-watch. If the wearer could not afford such, then a single swag ran from the waistcoat pocket to hook around one of the waistcoat buttons. In addition, when going out, no London gentleman would be caught dead without his cane (young or old, handicapped or no), kid leather gloves, and silk hat (top hat). Optional accessories included studs instead of shirt buttons, a stick pin for the cravat, spats (to protect expensive leather shoes from the mud on the streets and in the gutters, which not infrequently still contained the contents of chamber pots, at least in certain parts of London), watch fobs, and overcoats and wool scarves in winter.
The only skin which showed on a PROPER Victorian male or female in public – if they were of any station at all – was the skin of the face and upper neck.
The era had very little running water. Instead they used pitcher and basin, with water from a pump (often outdoors). There were, of course, no hot showers, but there were clawfoot tubs with water lugged from the ground floor; if heated water was desired, it was heated on a wood or gas stove.
Straight razors and soap with a brush to lather it did for shaving; the “safety razor” had just been invented — the ancestor to the modern razor. In addition, one could get periodic touchups by the corner barber.
Toothbrushes were uncommon but existed, made of natural materials (wood, boar bristle). No toothpaste — they used tooth powder made by their neighborhood chemist (apothecary, pharmacy). This powder ranged from baking soda to powdered pumice and sometimes did as much harm as good. The first commercial deodorant came into being about this time — Mum, later known as Ban, it was a paste or cream applied by the fingers. Colognes, aftershave, personal fragrances, all were compounded at the chemist's. Aftershave was probably no more than a simple alcohol and/or witch hazel blend with possibly fragrance added. For men, bay rum was a popular fragrance of the day; women’s fragrances tended toward the single-note florals.
Non-London Research: Colorado
Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs (~6000ft) pre-white-man were literally areas of springs, some of which are naturally carbonated, all of which are artesian. They were natural winter havens for Native Americans (mostly Utes). Ute Pass (US 24) was used by the Utes to get to the summertime pasturage behind the Front Range, in the high meadows (~9000-10,000ft). Lots of bison were in the area then, at low and high altitudes, so there was plenty of food.
- glass windows
- 2 stories
- 4 bedrooms
- ornate Victorian furnishings
- a milk house, chicken house, and stables!
She even ran the local mercantile and was a contemporary of Holmes — or rather, would have been.
Cripple Creek & Victor were gold/silver boomtowns. They sit in the middle of an ancient volcanic crater, where to this day, miners dig into the volcanic neck for ore. (Yes, I’ve been down in one of the gold mines in the area.)
Non-London Research: RAF Bentwaters & RAF Woodbridge
Now we get into WWII history. RAF Bentwaters & RAF Woodbridge (used in books 3 & 4, The Rendlesham Incident & Endings and Beginnings) were built for emergency landings returning from Germany over the Channel. The ancient Rendlesham Forest is in between the two bases. There was even an accidental German bomber landing there due to an inexperienced crew! They got turned around, lost over the Channel, and thought they were over Nazi Germany. The crew was immediately taken into custody as prisoners of war, and the aircraft was stripped down for secrets.
In the late 20th century they became NATO bases. In late 1980, “England's Roswell” occurred. UFO appearances were documented by base security, and soldiers’ IR night goggles indicated a “hole” in the center of the unidentified object. Under regression hypnosis, a military sergeant indicated the beings were time travelers. There were many explanations, but there was enough there for me to take it and run for The Rendlesham Incident & Endings and Beginnings!
Where Did I Find All That?
Lots of places, really. In most of this research, I found that Google was my bestest friend. Sometimes it takes a bit of trial and error to find the right combination of keywords on which to search, though. It’s definitely worth sitting down with the browser open to your search engine and trying different combinations and permutations of keywords on your subject. Sometimes you need to exercise a bit of discretion on the results; I try to avoid the obviously over-the-top websites — you know the ones I mean — unless, of course, I am actively LOOKING for something over-the-top.
Wikipedia is a surprisingly good jumping-off point. Given my background, education, and experience, I know enough of certain sciences to tell if a Wiki article is “on” or not, and if I can trust it; history and culture, different ball game. However, within certain limits it can give you an overview of your subject (don’t trust political commentary, etc.), and the references at the bottom of the article are invaluable. You can chase reference trees for hours, if you aren’t careful and lose track of time. And learn a lot in the doing. I know, because I have!
Travel is one of my favorite sources of information. I love to travel and explore, and often used business trips as a springboard for exploration. The extensive knowledge of the Colorado Springs area I use in the Displaced Detective books, as being one of the homes of the detectives, is partly because of such business trips, and partly because I had a friend living in the area at the time. It was easy to tack on a weekend to the business trip, taking advantage of my friend’s spare bedroom, and explore the area, sometimes with her, sometimes on my own. There are very few places in Colorado that I mention in the books that I have not visited myself. And I have several future books in the series planned around other locales I have visited as well, such as New Orleans and the Pacific Northwest.
Believe it or not, I’ve been learning to use social media as a really good source of information. For instance, I now have a selection of Facebook groups where, if I’m stuck on a particular detail, I can post a question and have expert historians, keepers of museums, and re-enactors, all providing feedback on the “sticking point” — and I’m soon past it and writing on!
This is just a sample of the information my research has uncovered, as well as how I dug it all out, and I continue to explore history, looking for cool things to work into stories. It’s been a fun ride so far, and I’ve no doubt it will continue to be!
Stephanie Osborn, the Interstellar Woman of Mystery, is a veteran of more than 20 years in the civilian space program, with graduate and undergraduate degrees in four sciences: astronomy, physics, chemistry and mathematics, and she is “fluent” in several more, including geology and anatomy. She has authored, co-authored, or contributed to more than 20 books, including the celebrated science-fiction mystery, Burnout: The mystery of Space Shuttle STS-281. She is the co-author of the Cresperian Saga book series, and currently writes the critically acclaimed Displaced Detective Series, described as “Sherlock Holmes meets The X-Files.” In addition to her writing, the Interstellar Woman of Mystery now happily “pays it forward,” teaching math and science through numerous media including radio, podcasting and public speaking, as well as working with SIGMA, the science-fiction think tank.
(© 2013, 2015 Stephanie Osborn)