Down the Research Rabbit Hole #4 – with JT Clay

Research Rabbit Holes can be fabulously inspirational, or horribly time wasting. They can take you in directions that are wildly irrelevant to your story, or can help you add layers of authenticity and meaning to your work. In this series of blog posts I’m sharing some of my favourite journeys down these Research Rabbit Holes, and I’ve also asked some other writers about their experiences falling into these diabolical black holes of eternal fascination.

Today’s guest is JT Clay, who writes books as bitingly funny as they are thrilling and adventure-packed. Prior to focussing her career on writing, she worked in counter-terrorism and law before switching to waste management, which generated much more dinner-party debate. People care about rubbish. She now works as a technical writer and looks after her mixed-species family. A Single Girl’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse won a 2010 Olvar Wood Fellowship Award and is her first published novel. She lives in Canberra, which she claims is not as dull as people say, but she is notorious for making things up.

Pork Sausage

My first novel, A Single Girl’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, involved more research than you’d imagine. I watched Bear Grylls on repeat, read up on SAS survival techniques and hung out in zombie chat rooms (which are exactly as weird as you’d expect).

Lately, I’ve been working on a time-travel farce set in Auckland in the Roaring Twenties. Although a sci-fi comedy, I approached it like a historical project. I read textbooks, biographies and fiction written during and about the period. I browsed old photos. I watched reams of period TV and endured The Great Gatsby in many, many formats. I kept a log of anachronistic terms and discovered, for instance, that back then you could take your gimp in hand and make love, in public, without social or legal repercussions.

So when Leife asked me to blog about research, I jumped at the chance. I’d already done the groundwork.

When I began writing this time-travel farce, I gave myself a three-week research holiday, during which I wrote only notes. No outlines, no scenes, no dialogue. No fiction. Between the library and the Internet, this research cost only my time.

A lot of primary material lives online. I watched Charlie Chaplin reels. I perused posters exhorting men to ‘grow a mustache – that’s one thing the girls can’t do!’ I listened to old Dippermouth sing and heard a Model T Ford sputter down the road. I read the ‘Auckland Star’ and ‘New Zealand Truth’ for the month of February 1923. I found a recipe for asparagus ices.

What can’t you get off the Internet?

Smells, it turns out. My biggest problem was working out what the place smelled like. I tried searching the Web for scratch ‘n’ sniff sites. Don’t do it. The results are unsavoury.

So I did what any decent author does. I made it up. As a result, I’m much more sympathetic to all those fantasy novels that open with a standard stinky wharf description. They may not be original, but they’re tangible, and more importantly, they meet reader expectations.

I’ve learned about those.

There’s a duel in my novel. If you’re thinking that a duel in 1923 Auckland sounds unlikely, you’d be right. But not impossible, with Auckland’s final duel being fought in 1935.

I couldn’t decide whether my hero would select pistols or swords. Then I heard about Bismarck’s sausage duel, featuring two pork sausages, one laced with roundworm. More of an eating contest really, but an exciting one.

And why not? I was writing a farce, after all. A specialist historian had offered to review the whole thing for free. All I had to do was take copious notes so that, when he challenged the pork sausage incident, I could defend myself.

But first, I tried it out on my partner. The idea, not the pork sausage. The ‘scratch n sniff’ Web search had turned me off practical experimentation by this stage.

My partner nixed it.

But it really happened! Or it would have, if Bismarck hadn’t chickened out.

He didn’t care. It didn’t matter. Too silly, he said. Stick to the pistols.

So I slouched off and learned how to fire a Webley Mark IV revolver via an Internet demonstration delivered by an alarmingly bearded Texan who sounded familiar. I may have met him before in a zombie chat room.

What’s the moral? Do your research, but remember – authenticity beats accuracy every time.


J.T. Clay
Author of A Single Girl’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse