Emma Newman is an award-winning British author of urban fantasy as well as my favorite science fiction novel from last year, Planetfall. The fourth book in her Split Worlds alternate history series, A Little Knowledge, just came out at the beginning of this month. Please welcome her this week to Geek Speaks…Fiction!
Researching a novel is a both wonderful and dangerous thing. It can open up possibilities that might not have occurred to you, but it can also take root as the perfect procrastination behavior. If you’re not careful, hunting down a detail for a scene can turn into a two-hour tumble down an informational rabbit hole. The other danger, of course, is wanting to include all the juicy things you’ve discovered in the novel. You often only need ten percent or less of what you’ve actually discovered, so the important things like pacing, characterization, and tension aren’t choked by a surfeit of detail.
The Split Worlds series offered many opportunities to tumble down rabbit holes. The novels are set in three different slices of reality: “Mundanus,” which is our normal, present-day world, “Exilium,” which is effectively a magical prison for the Fae, and between the two lies “The Nether” (short for “neither here nor there”). The Nether is a pocket reality created by magical means, in which secret mirror versions of cities such as London, Bath, and Oxford exist in a place where feuding dynastic families live, (colloquially known as “the Fae-touched”) trying to keep their Fae patrons happy and not dying or being horribly cursed in the process. It’s not a nice place to live, despite the fact that no one ages there. It’s more like a beautiful, gilded cage in which society resembles Georgian England in its values, with a few dollops of Victorian morality thrown in.
In the second book of the series (Any Other Name), two of the main characters move to Londinium, the magical Nether reflection of London. There’s a scene in which they attend a dinner party with high political stakes, but I also wanted it to give the reader a glimpse into the past too. With people not aging in the Nether, they carry on living in the way they were accustomed to when they grew up in Mundanus (the Fae-touched are raised as children in Mundanus before moving fully into the Nether when they come of age). The hosts of the dinner party have been alive for over three hundred years, so I wanted the scene to show elements of the way things were done in the Georgian era. I felt that it would not only add depth and flavor to the scene but also remind the reader that the Nether really does do things differently to Mundanus, even though they exist at the same time.
Researching Georgian dinner parties led me down one of those rabbit holes. I discovered that they favored separating out food that we now eat together into distinct courses. For example, starting with soup, as we still do in formal dining sometimes, with courses for fish, meat, salad, and others all separated out. That’s woven into the scene with just the odd mention of four courses of the meal having passed, comments on the soup, that sort of thing. Something that really amused me was that the Georgians viewed the pineapple as such an amazing example of exotic fruit that they displayed them in their homes like ornaments, and some households allegedly allowed them to rot rather than eat them! Whilst I loved that little detail, it didn’t quite fit with the scene so didn’t make it into the book.
There was one fact that I really geeked over and did make it into the book, purely because I was so shocked by it! I stumbled across information about how it was perfectly acceptable in that period for gentlemen to get up in the middle of a conversation, after dinner, say, go to a particular cabinet in the corner of the room and pee in a pot housed within. This astounded me! (I later discovered that in the beautiful palace of Versailles, at the height of its royal use, the fancy nobles would relieve themselves on straw piled up behind screens–even in the grand Hall of Mirrors! But I digress…)
It struck me how much our attitudes to what is and isn’t acceptable public behavior have changed. Yes, of course, men have urinals and are not averse to being in the room with another man whilst relieving themselves, but that’s in a very particular and separate room of the house, not in a room for socializing!
I feel that there has to be a good reason for including a nugget of information like this has, especially one which is jarring to a modern reader. Yes, it’s perfectly in keeping with the behavior of those there in the room with him in the Nether, but to have the male protagonist do it would have struck the wrong note for the reader, and I think would have subconsciously undermined the sense of refined elegance of the host if he had done it. So I had one of the guests who was rude, drunk, and “had the table manners of a goat” pee in the cupboard pot during after dinner port to underscore how gross he is.
So there you go; being an urban fantasy writer can sometimes lead you to the strangest bits of history to nerd over. It also has the added bonus of entertaining children with tales of where grown men were allowed to pee in posh company.
Emma Newman writes dark short stories and science fiction and urban fantasy novels. She won the British Fantasy Society Best Short Story Award 2015 and Between Two Thorns, the first book in Emma’s Split Worlds urban fantasy series, was shortlisted for the BFS Best Novel and Best Newcomer 2014 awards. Her first science-fiction novel, Planetfall, was published by Roc in 2015. Emma is an audiobook narrator and also co-writes and hosts the Hugo-nominated podcast Tea and Jeopardy, which involves tea, cake, mild peril and singing chickens. Her hobbies include dressmaking and playing RPGs. She blogs at www.enewman.co.uk and can be found as @emapocalyptic on Twitter.