East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The pinball effect

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On the 19th of October 1903, at the Princess Theater in Manchester (UK), Ellen Terry opened as Beatrice in Bill Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, that happens to be one of my two favorite Shakespearean plays, but this is another story.
Admittedly, a Beatrice somewhat long in the tooth, considering that Terry was born in 1847 and was therefore 56 years old at the time.

This bit of information is particularly interesting because I am writing a story – called The Adventure of the Manchester Mummies – set (also) in Manchester in the late autumn of 1903 – and knowing that Ellen Terry was in town with a Shakespeare play has absolutely nothing to do with the story I am writing, and I doubt I will ever use the information, but is the sort of strange fact that surfaces while one is looking for something completely different – train timetables, in this case.

Because the first scene I wrote about the story – that will not necessarily be the first scene in the story – has doctor John Watson on a train on his way from London to Manchester, trying (unsuccessfully, of course), to apply Holmes deductive methods to the young woman he is sharing the train compartment with.

It’s a good page of writing I did today, it’s light and fun and it serves its purpose – establishing a character and giving me an opportunity to try an do a Conan Doyle voice – but soon I realized I had no idea of the train timetables.
From what station it would leave? Would it stop along the way? Where? And out of the carriage window, what time of the day is it?
Is it light or dusk?

Of course I can wing it – nobody, I am sure, even the most die hard Sherlockian – would ever go and check if I fudged the railway times, but I do not care.
It’s the sort of little detail I need to try and get right. For myself.
It’s the sort of psychological crutch I need to launch myself into the story.
Silly, I know.

So I went to the all-powerful Google, and did a bit of research, and found out about Ellen Terry’s show instead.
That has nothing to do with the story, and yet helped me define the exact dates for the story. No longer “late autumn of 1903” but “October 1903, between the 19th and the 14th”.

Science historian James Burke described a phenomenon called “pinball effect”, when an idea goes on to “activate” a cascade of other inventions and discoveries in an apparent random pattern. Research for a story works the same way – maybe we don’t find what we were looking for, but we find what we needed to know.
It’s quite interesting, and part of the fun.
But I still need my railway timetables…

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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