I did virtually no specific research for The Godless World, but things are a bit different now. The Edinburgh Dead requires me to drag myself away from the computer now and again, and do some proper work. There is, incredible as it might seem, some stuff that – as far as I can tell, anyway – the internet does not yet know, which suits me just fine because I seriously like a bit of research: digging around in old books (courtesy of the excellent National Library of Scotland) or, as I was doing yesterday morning, descending into the bowels of Edinburgh City Chambers in search of the City Archives. And once I got there I spent a very happy couple of hours perusing an unpublished phD thesis from 1996 on the subject of the 19th century beginnings of Edinburgh’s police force. Now and again this writing lark is very cool. (this depends, obviously on your definition of cool: and yes, mine does include discovering and reading vaguely obscure documents in slightly strange places. I’m funny like that.)
It’s a strange feeling, making fiction – and fantastical, dark fiction at that – out of bits of real history. It’s trespassing in the lives of real people, and putting words into their mouths and deeds – sometimes downright villainous ones – into their hands. It feels like taking a liberty with their memory, even the ones who were downright disreputable and murderous in reality. The city itself, though, is a much easier subject to work with. Edinburgh’s soaked to its rocky bones in history, much of it darker and stranger than anything a mere writer could come up with, and using it as the stage for a drama feels entirely natural and appropriate.
I’ve got the perfect excuse, now, to wander around Edinburgh’s Old Town, tracking down ancient alleyways that have been the scenes of murder, debauchery and mystery for hundreds of years. Even now, in the midst of the Festival(s), when the main streets are so full of tourists you can hardly move, the canyon-like closes are still and quiet and full of atmosphere. They feel old, and patient. Perfect venues for fictions.
And while I’m wandering around with my head in the 19th century, searching out the bits of the past that have survived, pondering the dastardly deeds – real and invented – that I’ll populate these byways with, everyone else is milling about in a crazy, Festival-fuelled present in which mermaids pose beside statues of great philosophers (David Hume, famous son of Edinburgh, in this case)
Funny old world.
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