What is “essence”? I find out at the circus

Essence of the circus
Performer at Circus Zyair
When I saw that the circus was coming to town, I had to roll up for a ticket in the name of book research (or perhaps it’s just a decent excuse for an evening out, a bit like the time I went for dinner at Ceviche…).

I insist on flouting the advice to “write what you know”, so reading history books and memoirs and scrawling through vintage photos is absolutely necessary to me, but it’s clearly not the same as actually being there and experiencing history first-hand. Which is problematic, given time machines don’t exist yet (note the “yet” – I’m a sci-fi fan).

The library and my local Oxfam book shop have been a godsend since I started writing my book. There are many brilliant textbooks and essays (and even guides on living as a historical figure yourself in case that’s your kind of thing) out there, but there’s one thing even the best struggle to give you – the “essence” of a particular era or place. The unique feeling it inspires in you, or its zeitgeist if you will.

What is essence?

I suppose essence means many different things to many different people, but to me it can’t really be described in words. It’s walking down a jetty in the sun and suddenly realising you’re 1000 miles from home (or 1000 years when science fiction eventually becomes science fact). It’s the collective inhalation of candy floss–choked air as a tightrope walker stumbles in the middle of the ring. It’s probably one of the reasons Shakespeare‘s comedies don’t come across as particularly comedic to a lot of people nowadays.

Although layers comprising wicked humour, exotic foods and a love of the bizarre were added to it as the result of my research, my idea of the essence of the Victorian period came pretty fully formed from years of Dickens and Galsworthy. Inca Peru has required the use of a little more imagination. This is why, meagre consolation as it might be, I have jumped at the chance to eat at Peruvian restaurants and even cook Andean recipes like this at home. I think a trip to Peru would be the logical next step (hint hint to my husband if you are reading this).

The Inca Empire has been particularly difficult to research in the conventional way because there is relatively little information out there. They didn’t have a writing system (they used quipus – lengths of knotted, coloured string) and the main written historical accounts were set down by a conquering force as the empire was drawing to a close. I haven’t even found many examples of novels set in the Inca Empire as of yet (let me know if you know of any as I would be interested to read one!). I find photographs help a great deal though in my quest for essence, as do memoirs of epic journeys like John Harrison’s Cloud Road. It’s illuminating to read a first-hand account of what it’s like to drink coca tea or stand in an Inca temple complex, even if it is 500 years since the characters in my book would have done the same.

Essence is also what leads me to sit in a coffee shop screwing up my nose and sticking out my tongue in an attempt to mimic a character’s facial expression as I try to find the perfect words to describe it, but that makes me look silly so let’s not talk about that…

So did I find it?

So, back to the circus. Did my trip capture the essence of sitting in a big top in Victorian–era Peru? Yes and no. I ate popcorn. I sat on a wooden bench. There were scantily clad acrobats and clowns throwing objects that really ought not to be thrown. But there were also motor bikes and heavy metal and Styrofoam cups. We did, however, collectively inhale the candy floss-choked air when a tightrope walker stumbled in the middle of the ring, and that’s the important thing.

– Kirsty