Down the Rabbit Hole: A Cautionary Tale by Karen J Carlisle

Down the Rabbit Hole: A Cautionary Tale.
(Researching Viola Stewart’s Adventures.)

Guest blog post by Karen J Carlisle.

I’ve always loved researching, learning new little factoids and exciting titbits, especially when it was for my own satisfaction. It started with world-building when I ran D&D games in the early 80s and expanded into historical clothing and construction in the 90s (my historical re-creation phase). Now I get to combine them with my passion for writing. The results are speculative, alternate histories in the form of Victorian steampunk mysteries.

Suzie asked me to give a glimpse at how and why I research. But, proceed with caution. It’s a slippery slope when first you delve…

  1. Choose a nineteenth century, typically-Victorian topic:

First I choose a topic (or hook), something quintessentially Victorian, something that intrigues me. (Sometimes the topic picks me.)

So far, I’ve written about Jack the Ripper, nineteenth century Egyptology (they were obsessed with mummies), Victorian beach holidays, dirigibles (there’s always dirigibles!), time travel and photography. Then there’s Victorian science – things they thought to be true, some of which have since been proven to be flights of fancy – like optograms (photographs taken of the back of the eye and supposedly recording the last thing seen in life).

  1. Research:

I’ll be the first to admit I am a confirmed info-aholic. I need to know what I’m writing about before I can start twisting it around. Stunt artists use a similar principle: you need to know how to ride a horse before you can muck around and look like you can’t. Ernest Hemmingway called this the Iceberg theory: the reader/audience only sees a fraction of a writer’s work.

The more I know before I start, the more ideas slip into the story, sometimes subconsciously. Like easter eggs you find in a video. An example is a plot device I used to have Inspector Abberline ‘bond’ with Viola in ‘Doctor Jack’. Abberline had clockwork mechanicals on a shelf in his office. Viola loves mechanicals. Perfect! Later a reader asked me: why clockwork mechanicals? I had no other answer than: it felt right. Months later, when I was re-reading some of the research I had done for the story, it clicked. Abberline had been a clockmaker before he became a policeman. I had read the information, absorbed it and used it unknowingly. Serendipity is one of the things I love about writing.

I’ve researched photography and moving pictures in form of the Magic Lantern, anarchists, Mars, Victorian science fiction, nineteenth century medical and morgue procedures and the state of Police investigative procedures in the late nineteenth century. Research for the final book in The Adventures of Viola Stewart series, include: Victorian beach holidays, nineteenth century water therapy for depression, the Loch Ness monster, Madame Tussaud’s, local flora and geography of St Andrews.

Currently I’m researching nineteenth century magic and illusions, hysteria, hypnotism, mesmerism, Venice and Carnivale.

I admit I do a Wikipedia search to get an overview of the topic. (Note: don’t believe everything you read. I’ve lost count of how many webpages I’ve found with identical – and often incorrect – ‘facts’ cut, pasted and repeated endlessly from questionable sources. However, sometimes this can set me off on a new plot course.) I find the best information in the bibliography where I can find links to original research papers, contemporary texts or obscure books. Next I do a google search, using keywords found. Museum, library or research sites are good places to check. I do library searches to find reference books, and order in books from interstate if needed. I’m fortunate that my local library has a local historian on staff, and has organised historical tours of the area.

I also watch a lot of documentaries. A. Lot. Of documentaries. Just check the dates and do extra research to confirm older ones still have current theories.

And don’t forget the human element. Many of my friends have gone on to do PhDs and have amazing careers. Over the years I’ve been privileged to meet people with eclectic areas of expertise. Don’t discount this fountain of knowledge. Many people love to share their knowledge.

But I’m pedantic. I have been known to research the colour of smoke produced by a particular explosive, even resorting to contacting scientist friends on Facebook when I couldn’t find an answer. I even found a reference book with detailed chemical analysis of gases produced after firing a specific pistol, of a specific date, just so I could describe the smell of the particulates after firing. (I own that book now. It’s listed below) Maybe it’s the scientist in me? But I want to get the science correct – or at least consistent with how the Victorians perceived it at the time.

Research books and papers can also be found online, such as a pdf of Scottish Land Surveys (19-5-709) – for the soil composition around St Andrews, Scotland. (Well, Viola was going to be climbing into the bowels of a cliff…)

My current obsession is a digital copy of Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions including Trick Photography – a tell-all on tricks, published in 1897. (

  1. Settings

I use a lot of maps from the late 1880s: maps of cities, London Zoo (1888), plans of buildings, to get the layout of my settings.

Viola and her friends often move through London’s streets as they investigate the mysteries. In the nineteenth century, London was a patchwork of various levels of society, sometimes smashed up against each other. You could turn a corner from an upperclass street into one of rundown tenements.

To give some semblance of authenticity, I use a combination of Boothes Poverty Maps (1889) and Google Maps to follow them, describing the architecture and streets on the way. Boothes Poverty map lists the income of any given street, so I know if it was a slum or upper class dwellings at the time. To add to confusion, many buildings were blitzed during World War II. I use second hand books on Victorian architecture to help recreate original buildings that have been modernised or rebuilt.

  1. Twist history and facts:

This is the speculative element. I devise my own theories on Jack the Ripper, exploit the Mummy’s curse and find nefarious uses for the popular entertainments of the time. I feel the need to inject authenticity in my stories to counterbalance the added speculative elements, alternate science and twisted history. If I do the research on the small things then, just perhaps, the reader will accept the twists – no matter how fantastic they may be.

This is possibly where I should insert a caveat: I (may) delve down in research rabbit holes a little too deeply. But that is my choice, my writing comfort zone.

  1. Find a contemporary novel, vaguely related to the topic, for Viola to read:

My research is not confined to setting and plot. Viola was enticed into the world of detectiving by the Sherlock Holmes story, ‘A Study in Scarlet’. In ‘The Illusioneer & Other Tales’, she is reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Mystery of Cloomber Hall’(1888), set in Scotland, where the protagonist is lured into a pit. This is echoed in my novella, ‘From the Depths’. ‘Tomorrow, When I Die’ featured two contemporary stories: ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1824) and a short story – and HG Well’s first foray into time travel – The Chronic Argonauts (1888) both hint at the topic for this story. And yes, I did find them online and I did read them. How could I not? But, like Abberline’s clockwork mechanicals, the contemporary novels also can influence my story, creating unexpected Easter eggs for those who know the background material. See, isn’t writing fun!

  1. Research some more:

Well, I did warn you about research rabbit holes. It’s just as well I chose a genre where all this research is useful…

Finally, here are just a few useful sites and books to facilitate those kindred spirits with research addictions:


  1. Boothe’s poverty map online
  2. Casebook (Scientific dissertations on Jack the Ripper)
  3. Dates:
  4. Google maps (to walk around, get timings and directions)
  5. Jack the Ripper 1888
  6. Project Guttenberg:
  7. The Public Domain Review:
  8. Library of congress
  9. The Victorian web
  10. The Map House

Some books from my library:

  1. Boothes Poverty Map, 1889. Old House Books, 2013. ISBN: 978-1-90840-280-6
  2. Dickens, Charles (Jnr). Dickens Dictionary of London, 1888. Old House Books, 1993. ISBN: 978-1-873590-04-1
  3. Hubbard, Kate. Serving Victoria. ISBN 978-0062269928
  4. Smyth Wallace, James. Chemical Analysis of Firearms, Ammunition and Gunshot Residue. CRC Press. 2008. ISBN:978-4200-6966


Book Information:

The Adventures of Viola Stewart: The Illusioneer & Other Tales

Viola Stewart returns for a third set of adventures, The Illusioneer & Other Tales:

Viola needs a holiday. But, even at the beach, or while partying on the grand tour of Europe… there are things afoot.
Seeing is believing… or is it?

The Illusioneer & Other Tales: The Adventures of Viola Stewart Journal #3 is currently scheduled for release in late October/early November.

For more information, sign up for Karen’s newsletter.

Or for a chance to win an eBook of one of Viola’s adventures visit her website


Karen J Carlisle is an imagineer and writer of steampunk, Victorian mysteries and fantasy. She was short-listed in Australian Literature Review’s 2013 Murder/Mystery Short Story Competition and published her first novella, Doctor Jack & Other Tales, in 2015. Her short story, Hunted, featured in the Adelaide Fringe exhibition, ‘A Trail of Tales’.

Karen J Carlisle

Karen lives in Adelaide with her family and the ghost of her ancient Devon Rex cat.

She’s always loved dark chocolate and rarely refuses a cup of tea.

Where to find Karen:





And you can find hints of current research threads on my Pinterest page:

Summary: Australian female authors by alphabet

While I have internet I’m taking the opportunity to do this summary for you. It should have appeared yesterday but that’s another story.

A is for Debra Adelaide

B is for Jesse Blackadder

C is for Isobelle Carmody

D is for Ursula Dubosarsky

E is for Hazel Edwards

F is for Mem Fox

G is for Kerry Greenwood

H is for Traci Harding

I is for Tania Ingram

J is for Noëlle Janaczewska

K is for Thalia Kalkipsakis

L is for Ginny Lowndes

M is for Sophie Masson

N is for Julie Nickerson

O is for Mietta O’Donnell

P is for Christine Paice

Q is for Tarella Quin Daskein

R is for Heather Rossiter

S is for Taku Scrutton

T is for Tangea Tansley

V is for Valerie Volk

W is for Edel Wignell

X is for Xanthé Mallett

Y is for Beth Yahp

Z is for Fay Zwicky

Q is for Tarella Quin Daskein

Thanks to some friends I’ve now got an author for Q.

Tarella Quin Daskein often published under her maiden name of Tarella Quin. You might know of her good friend and illustrator, Ida Rentoul Outhwaite.

Quin wrote many fairy stories. They number amongst the best in Australian literature at the time. Her works were carefully detailed and innovative but she didn’t pull her punches and children actually died in her works, unlike nowadays where there is generally a happily ever after.

She has an entry in The Bibliography of Australian Literature showing her works and a four line biography and also in the International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature, although I haven’t been able to view this entry.

Growing up on sheep and dairy farms in both NSW and Victoria would have fueled her stories, most especially the romance novels about outback life.

I had some issues finding information about her. She was born in 1877 in Wilcannia and died in 1934. I do wonder if she’s one of those writers whose books need resurrecting and reading in detail.

Z is for Fay Zwicky

Picnic by Fay Zwicky

Poetry is an interesting creation. It’s something I have issues with but also great admiration for anyone who can write it. Fay Zwicky has spent more than 60 years writing poetry and in 2005 the committee of the Patrick White Award decided her efforts had not been recognised appropriately. When they rang Zwicky thought it was a hoax, she doesn’t expect recognition.

One of her most famous works is called Kaddish. It was written as an elegy for her father who drowned without having had Kaddish recited for him. The Kaddish (prayer, not poem) is a very beautiful prayer which is recited when someone dies and then at various points in the mourning process. It’s not Hebrew but Aramaic and rather than talking about the deceased it actually talks about the living, I’m not sure why it generally has me in tears. One day I’ll find Zwicky’s poem and read that to see if it has the same effect on me there.

As Zwicky is fourth generation Australian and born in Melbourne I’m prepared to bet she knows my family. Having said that she has lived in Perth for many years and I’m sure would be absolutely horrified to find I’ve used her in this series. She seems to be a quiet lady who just ‘gets things done’ and doesn’t expect anything else.

She’s been writing during an interesting phase in Australian Jewish writing and has made some pertinent observations about the ways Jewish female writers are marginalised in Australian literature in her book The Lyre in the Pawnshop. I would have linked to that for you to look at but I can’t find it available for sale as a new book.

I’d like to meet her.

Videos from OzComicCon

People were very patient with me at OzComicCon. I have 10 interviews for you to enjoy. You’ll notice the slight amusement at the end when I unveiled my signature question. Despite my low technology everything came out fairly well.

Ander Louis

C.S. Pacat

Troy Barnes

Craig Bruyn

Marianne de Pierres

Nath Stones

Melanie Tomlin

Isobelle Carmody

Doug Holgate

Michel Mulipola