Book research: the weird and the wonderful

Weird and wonderful llama
Llama holiday selfie (pixabay.com)
Since I finished the first draft of my book three weeks ago, I have been reading, writing and reading about writing. As much as I love all of those things, I fancied a bit of a change, so I have spent the morning trawling through my book research board on Pinterest. In my first ever blog post, I promised a link or two to some of the weird and wonderful things I have discovered about the Inca Empire, the Victorians and the circus in the course of my research.

I have previously posted on spring-time festivals in both periods covered by my book, but it gets much weirder (and much more wonderful) than that.

Here are some of my favourite things I have discovered so far…

Weird beginnings

Did you know that guinea pig is considered a delicacy (yes, the kind you eat) in Peru? I’m sure you might have if you have been there as it continues to be consumed to this day. As it stands, my book opens with the sentence “Umina bit into the guinea pig”. Umina is the protagonist in the Inca portion of my book, and she was biting into a guinea pig because… well, I won’t spoil the surprise.

Sightseeing llamas

I have included a link to this photo for no reason other than it makes me smile every time I see it. I can’t help but envisage a group of llamas deciding to visit Machu Picchu, getting there and saying “It’s smaller than it looks in pictures”. Not that llamas can talk obviously…

Crossing the bridge when you come to it

…or not. I don’t mind heights, so I would probably be perfectly willing to amble across this traditional, Inca-style rope bridge. Bridges such as this were replaced on a regular basis in the Inca Empire as part of the mit’a (or labour tax) that was expected of all healthy adults, and, perhaps surprisingly, were strong enough to carry battalions of Spaniards on horseback. This particular bridge crosses the Apurimac river in Peru and is still reconstructed by locals every year.

The rope is woven from vegetation, so let’s hope the plants used to construct it don’t get any ideas from the section below…

Killer tomatoes

I had a handwritten shortlist of poisonous plants on my coffee table for about a fortnight so I was really hoping nobody I knew became ill in mysterious circumstances that prompted the police to search my house. And yes, before you ask, it WAS related to the writing of my book.

As well as finding out what I needed for one of my chapters, I read some interesting things about toxic crops more generally. Most people are aware deadly nightshade isn’t the best plant to go near (I mean, the clue’s in the name for a start). Something I didn’t know though was that cows and rabbits can seemingly ingest it with no ill effects. Putting deadly nightshade firmly aside, it turns out that even many of the plants we know and love as foodstuffs have done some very bad things. Kidney beans prepared in a slow cooker can be highly toxic, nutmeg – at very high doses – can have hallucinogenic properties, and at least one person has apparently been killed by an infusion made from tomato leaves.

In this light, my childhood phobia of salad actually seems quite sensible…

Pepper’s Ghost

If you have read any of my previous blog posts, you will probably be aware I am a fan of all things supernatural. Which is great, because – thanks to my research into a Victorian carnival mainstay – I now know how to make my own ghost

A picturesque ending

Victorian photographs are endlessly fascinating, amusing and terrifying. There are numerous examples of clowns, contortionists and fortune tellers on my Pinterest board. One thing you won’t find, despite their prevalence at the time, is commemorative photographs of the dead (don’t make the mistake I just did – Googling this latter while you are at home by yourself). I won’t share a link to the particularly macabre page I just looked at, partly because there is a lot of speculation around the authenticity of most of the images said to be of this type found on the internet, and partly because I don’t want to be responsible for anybody else’s insomnia. Suffice it to say that the pictures aren’t made any less chilling by the fact that most of them are probably just photographs of regular, living people.

Unlike some of the more vital Victorian subjects (including babies), I have never been offered opium or laudanum to encourage me to sit still when having my photo taken (usually a glass of wine or prosecco does me just fine). Then again, my wedding photos weren’t quite as nightmare-inducing as this one, even towards the end of the day when hair was skewiff, eyeliner was smudged and dress was torn.

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These are just a few of my favourite weird and wonderful facts, but I hope you’ll agree it’s easy to see why I get sidetracked when researching a period or place. The Wikipedia trails and hours of reading can be useful though – aside from the sightseeing llamas, the majority of the above have been incorporated into my book in some way. (I would love to write about sightseeing llamas though – maybe a future children’s book?!) As soon as I am finished editing this book, I plan to start researching the ideas I have for my next. So watch this space for freaky and fantastical facts about ancient Iceland, emotions and mind control…

-Kirsty