Questionable Minds: historical research

Questionable Minds draws heavily on fiction, as I mentioned in my last post about the book. But it’s set in a historical period and while mentalist powers will undoubtedly change that history by 1900, in 1888 things are still close to real history. And I’ve borrowed quite a bit from history.First, as my antagonist, I have Jack the Ripper. Perhaps the most infamous serial killer in history — though to a large extent that’s because he’s the first modern one — he’s the big bad in this story. There are many theories about who he really was but his identity here is entirely the product of my imagination. My resource for the details is Donald Rumbelow’s excellent Complete Jack the Ripper. Rumbelow isn’t pushing any particular theory of his own which makes the book that much more credible.

Madame Helena Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, plays a supporting role. In our world she’s a huckster with a compelling line of mysticism; in my book she’s one of the primary teachers of psi-disciplines (I’ll get into that side of things in a later post), passing on the wisdom of her spirit guides. My main source for research was Peter Washington’s Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon.

Writing in a historical period requires getting the flavor of assorted little details: food, polite dining, clothes, how you address a duke, card games. Daniel Pool’s What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew is really the go-to source for all such information. Written primarily to explain Victorian society to people who still read Trollope, Austen or Dickens, it works well for writers to. Matthew Bunson’s Encyclopedia Sherlockiana, making similar explanations to Holmes fans, was another useful asset.

Sarah Wise’s The Italian Boy is set several decades earlier than Questionable Minds but it’s very good at showing the deep resistance England had to creating a big, professional police force and how strange much of modern policing seemed to the English at the time. The idea police were rather seedy thugs remained strong for a long time, and that plays a role in shaping the clairvoyant Miss Grey and her goals.

The British Empire was, of course, a huge deal for the Victorians, and would remain so on into the 20th century. Novelist George MacDonald Fraser (no relation) has written about how huge it loomed in British minds in the 1930s; one of my older teachers spoke of the colonies gaining independence with a great sadness. Not everyone was down with this Simon’s hated half-brother, Francis Duquesne, is devoted to undermining the Empire in the name of freedom worldwide (how? Well, read the book and see). There were real-world anti-colonial groups in England back in the day; while I don’t do much with them in Questionable Minds, if I ever write the sequel that will play a large part.

I’ll discuss class and gender in my next post on the book, along with the history of mentalist powers.

#SFWApro. Cover by Sam Collins.

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