For me part of the fun of writing Regency-set novels is discovering some arcane little fact to weave into the storyline. I confess it—I’m a total history nerd, and love reading reference books, visiting specialty museums, looking at art and architecture—anything that takes me back to a different world! I soak up the ambiance like a sponge.
Now, inspiration can come from unexpected sources. I somehow stumbled over a small video on an item up for auction at Sotheby’s. I hit play and well, just knew the item had to be in one of my books. (you can see it here.) It’s a pistol. But no ordinary pistol. Instead of firing bullets, it shoots an exquisite little bird out of its barrel—no bang-bang, but beautiful birdsong! Okay, I imagine you see where this is going. A dramatic scene where the villain grabs the weapon, intent on putting a period to the heroine’s existence. With a manic laugh, she pulls the trigger . . .
Lord Davenport, the hero in Sinfully Yours, the second book of my “Hellions of High Street” trilogy is outward a jaded rake, but like Anna, my heroine, he has a secret passion—yes, crafting automata. There is a reason for this, but suffice it to say it was mostly so he could make a singing bird pistol!
The concept of a complex mechanical toy really fascinated me, so naturally I decided to do some deeper research. What I discovered was that “automata” have been intriguing people for centuries, and that there is a long and fascinating history to the craft—Greek mythology mentions that Hephaestus created Talus, a mechanical man made of brass. The island of Rhodes was renowned for its mechanical engineering during ancient times—the Greeks were renowned for their scientific and mathematical prowess. And according to Jewish tradition, King Solomon had a special throne were mechanical animals greeted him when he sat down—and an eagle placed a crown on his head!
In medieval times, the Arabs were famous for their intricate mechanical snakes, scorpions and other fanciful creations, including a water flushing mechanism that is used in modern toilets. The Europeans were also busy inventing things like monkey marionettes and mechanized birds for princely pleasure gardens. Automata were also popular in the Renaissance. Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks contain a detailed drawing for a mechanical man who twists his torso and move his arms. He also crafted a lion in honor of King Louis XII that walked and then opened its chest with a clawed paw to reveal a hidden coat of arms of France.
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the zenith of automata. Master inventors vied to create the most spectacularly complex “toys.” In 1649, when Louis XIV was still a boy, a French craftsman made him an elaborate miniature mechanized coach, complete with moving horses and footmen. And in 1737, the French engineer Jacques de Vaucanson, perhaps the most famous maker of automata, constructed a Digesting Duck that quacked, splashed in water and appeared to eat and void. Another highlight of the time was a chess-playing machine made by Wolfgang von Kempelen called The Turk. It was said to have defeated both Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin in head to head play. (Alas, the Turk was proved to be a hoax, as the large base was designed to have a person hidden inside who actually made all the moves.
Another mechanical wonder is The Writer, by Pierre Jaquet-Doz, which can be programmed to write 40 different letters. He dips his pen in ink and drafts a lovely script on paper, carefully dotting “i”s and crossing “t”s.
One of my favorite mechanized creations is Tipoo’s Tiger, made in 1792 by the son of an Indian sultan. (Those of you who have read the Richard Sharpe series will recognize it from Sharpe’s Tiger.) It depicts a large Bengal tiger savaging an Englishman—the victim flaps his hand while the tiger emits savage growls. (Can you blame the Sultan!)
What about you—do you like learning about esoteric subjects in your historical novels, or learning the details of a long-ago profession? Or do you find them a distraction to the main plot? Have you a favorite oddity—an exotic hobby or profession—that you’ve learned about in a novel? I’ll be giving away a free e-book of Sinfully Yours to one lucky reader who leaves a comment here between now and Saturday evening.