I love research. I even love research when I have a perfectly delightful plot that falls apart when research proves it couldn’t have happened. Working out what might be historically probable instead, or at least plausible, has allowed me to drop down many an exciting rabbit hole into research wonderland.
For example, in my current work-in-progress, A Raging Madness, my hero Alex has a leg full of shrapnel, and is currently helping my heroine to escape from relatives who are determined to lock her up in an asylum for the mentally unwell.
Shrapnel? What kind of shrapnel? What munitions carried shrapnel at that time? What battles were they used in? How were shrapnel wounds treated? What was the long term prognosis? How about complications?
It took me a while to find a suitable battle, but eventually I put Alex the right place to be on the business end of a canister shell, a cannon ball with a weak outer shell filled with scrap metal. When the cannon fired, the shell burst apart, and a broad fan of metal caused devastation among the enemy troops. And, in my case, on the body of the assigned escort of a British diplomat who was observing the battle. (And, no, it was not called shrapnel at the time.)
Ella, my heroine, was the daughter of an army doctor, and I figured she’d solve all of Alex’s problems by removing the shrapnel. But not so. Then, even more than now, removing shrapnel or even bullets (unless they are lead) was a very bad idea.
Even today, going in after a splinter of metal might cause more harm than good, and the world is full of people walking around with bomb fragments buried inside. Back then, with no antibiotics and no anaesthetics, the treatment of choice was to leave the mess alone.
Over time, one of three things would happen. The body and the shrapnel would adjust to one another. The body would reject the shrapnel, moving it piece by piece slowly out to the surface. An abscess would form, and the poisons from the infection would kill the patient unless someone acted to drain the abscess.
Hurrah! I had my intervention. Poor Alex developed an abscess.
But escape? Alex can barely walk, let alone ride. Ella is recovering from addiction to the laudanum that her relatives have been force-feeding her. (Another rabbit-hole: what does laudanum withdrawal look like? Feel like?)
I needed a plausible way for two such invalids to escape.
I chose a canal narrowboat for a number of reasons.
One: I loved the idea of the villains haring all over the countryside looking for them while they ran away by the slowest form of non-pedestrian transport ever invented.
Two: I’ve always wanted to go on a canal cruise, and this way I got to watch YouTube clips and call it working.
Three: By 1807, when my story is set, the canal network stretched from the Mersey (with access to Manchester and Liverpool) all the way to London. Travelling by narrowboat was feasible. Canals were a supremely profitable way to move goods in the early 19th century, and had been for a number of years. At a steady walking speed, a horse could move fifty times as much weight on a boat as it could on a road. The canals provided still water and tow paths to ease the travel, and locks, tunnels, and viaducts to overcome obstacles. Later, canal boats were mechanised, and later still the railways put the canals out of business. But in 1807, Alex and Ella hitched a lift with a charming Liverpool Irishman called Big Dan.
Four: I could put my hero and my heroine in close confines, calling themselves married, for five to six weeks. Not only did they have heaps of time to talk and even to succumb (or nearly succumb) to their
mutual attraction, they were also in deep trouble (or Ella was) if anyone found out. They used false names. They stayed away from fashionable places. But even so, their novelist made sure that someone with no love for Alex saw enough to cause trouble.
Five: The time frame let Alex develop an abscess and recover from the operation, all before he needed to be on hand to save Ella when rumours spread about the two of them and their canal interlude.
And down the rabbit hole I went.