Do you know that ‘bobby’ is slang for a member of London’s police because Sir Robert
Peel established the force (in 1829), or that in England any geographical area that has ‘shire’ in
its name (think Devonshire) is similar to a county in America, or that you can say that you are
chuffed if you have pride in your accomplishments, or that a dorbel is a nincompoop, or that in
the early 1900’s women in England didn’t regularly wear earrings, or that In 1891 a stilt-walker
walked from Paris to Moscow in just under two months.
I didn’t know about all these things British and Continental, until I started doing
research for my historical fiction mystery novel Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives.
One of my friends jokingly calls me ‘Rickipedia’ because she thinks that I’ll probably be
able to give her the answer to any question she asks. I’m flattered by that, but the truth is that I
am able to answer many of her queries because I’m an excellent researcher – I know how to
mine libraries and the Internet and tap experts for information.
In retrospect, I am truly glad I have that ability because I had no idea how many people,
places, customs, clothes, names, languages and so many more things I would have to research
during the writing of the Scorbion novel.
About six years ago the plot for the opening of the book appeared in my head – no
characters, setting or time period, just a storyline for a mystery. Being a lifelong fan of Hercule
Poirot and Sherlock Holmes, I thought that it might be fun to place the story in the same
general era and environment in which they supposedly existed and create a new eccentric
detective who rivaled them with his abilities but was different enough from each to be his own
So, I set about to construct a ‘universe’ in which Poirot, Holmes and Watson overlapped
along with whatever new sleuth I invented – and that created the need to get the book
historically accurate, both in the real world and in their fictitious timelines. My goal was to stay
as true to the language, events and styles of the era and location as I could, and as a result most
everything in the book is accurate. But did that ever take a ton of research.
Before I tackled those issues of place and exact time, I wanted to establish who the
sleuth would be – his background, mannerisms, personality, appearance, and name. To have
him be worldly with a rich heritage I decided that while he would be an Englishman through
and through, he would be of Egyptian and Haitian descent, and I used that as a springboard to
research what a distinctive name might be for him. One that people might remember.
So, for his surname, I delved into Arabic/Egyptian family names and what their
meanings were. I found a fairly obscure one, Scorbion, that I liked the sound and look of –
because it was so close to scorpion it sounded familiar, yet it was unusual at the same time.
And, when I learned what the name stood for, I knew it was right for the character and his
father: the qualities of a Scorbion are independence, freedom, intelligence, entrepreneurship
and being open to new ideas.
I was still missing his first name, which I had wanted to relate to his mother in some
way. Since I had decided that his mother would be from Haiti, I researched what that country
was like in the 1800’s, and one of the things that I discovered was that a mountain and the
valley below it were named Pignon – in honor of the French explorer who first encountered the
area. So, in the story I placed Scorbion’s mother and her family in that valley, and it was where
she met his father. I loved the name Pignon and thought that the combination of Pignon and
Scorbion would make for an interesting and memorable character name.
As I began to write more and more of the book and the three cases that Scorbion
solved, I realized at virtually every turn that I had to do a significant amount of research to
make things authentic, starting with the dates that Poirot ‘lived’ and when he moved from
Belgium to England (although there isn’t unanimity on the dates), when Holmes ‘existed,’ and
the same for Dr. John Watson (who I postulated had met and befriended Scorbion).
But that was just the tip of the iceberg.
One of the scenes in the book takes place in the old American Wild West. I had to make
sure I accurately represented the clothing people wore, the look and feel of the frontier town,
the slang and idioms of that time and region, and the relationships between the settlers and
the Indigenous people. Not to mention the names and customs of those Indigenous Americans.
To do all that, after I did my extensive research, I asked a number of Native American friends to
fact check what I had written and to make sure it was authentic and respectful of their culture
and ancestors. One thing I learned is that while some of the tribes had permanent villages,
others – including the one in my story – lived in temporary encampments, and I had to adjust
the story accordingly.
At every turn in the writing of the book I had some sort of research I needed to do – one
character owned a bookshop so I need to know what books were popular in England in the day,
I had to make certain that the town’s art gallery was displaying paintings appropriate to the
time period, the characters had to wear clothing representative of a what people would have
sported in a small English countryside town in June of 1910, Scorbion’s police station had to be
authentic down to a Union Jack hanging on a wall, I had to determine what real-life events had
taken place just prior to the story and also those that were taking place as it unfolded so that it
would be historically correct.
I spent a good deal of time looking up British words and slang of the era and the
cadence that people spoke with. I had to make certain that I was not using words and
references that were American, or contemporary, but rather those that were British and of the
time period. Once I completed the book, I had three Brits read it and they corrected a number
of words and phrases that I had used incorrectly. For example, I used bloke, lad, chap and
fellow somewhat interchangeably until one of the Brits instructed me on the difference
between them, which caused me to make some last-minute changes (for example, ‘lad’ is
usually used for a younger person, ‘bloke’ is rougher or more common, ‘chap’ is more
upscale…but there are other differences too).
I did research into what barbershops of the time looked like and what implements the
barbers used, what manner of lighting was available in stores and homes (electric vs. gas), what
the state of using telephones was, what measurements and money were used in Britain at the
time (as an example, in that era Britain was using miles not kilometers), what foods people ate,
what materials buildings were made from, what furnishing were employed (especially in
business, where I found that the file cabinet had only recently come into use), what songs were
popular at that time and that might have been performed in a tavern, and what transportation
was in vogue including horse drawn carts and the earliest cranked motor cars.
One case that Scorbion solved involved a circus and a stilt walker. I had to learn what
stilts were made of in that era, how tall the stilts of the time were, what a circus would look like
in that day and age, methods of communication (post, telegraph, etc.), and the British names of
the jobs of all the circus people.
The book has quite a few characters in it, so I had to constantly research names – male
and female, given names and family names – that were popular in Britain at the time. It also has
many characters who work at different vocations, so I had to learn and then construct what a
countryside town in England would look like and what businesses would be operating in it.
I also spent time looking into what the politics, causes and issues of the time were, and
it led me to having one of the characters be involved in the suffragette movement, and an
acknowledgement of George V having ascended to the throne only the month before the
setting of the book.
One of the barbers was French and used French phrases, especially curses. While I know
some French, it took an on-line translation program, my wife (who speaks fluent French) and
another French speaker to make sure that all the idioms, phrases, words and sentences I used
Lastly, I learned that to enrich the story and truly make it feel authentic, there were
many ‘little things’ that needed to be incorporated to make that happen. Like the specific
maker of a wall clock, the food a police inspector would eat for lunch, the style of furniture
used in the region and period, the tools a blacksmith would employ, the material that clothes
were made from, and other small touches that a reader may not even be aware are in the story
but help make the book read true.
In conclusion, I say thank goodness for libraries and librarians, the Internet and the
kindness of experts – because without them all, Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives
would not be the book it is, and I can’t imagine how I’d have accomplished all the research I did.
If you visit my website, rickbleiweiss.com, you can meet the cast of characters and learn
more about the book and things I found in my research. Plus, there is a list of over 1300
independent bookstores, sorted by state, so that you can find one in your area.