The word ‘research’ probably conjures up images of dusty library archives, meticulously sourced bibliographies, and maybe even microfiche (if you’re of a certain age). But research for The Colonel and the Bee was some of the most fun I’ve had in writing a book.
Once I had my idea: a destitute acrobat and a flower-obsessed adventurer explore the world of the early 19th Century in a fantastically large hot air balloon, I needed some help filling in the details. The story wouldn’t be beholden to reality at every turn, but I’ve always thought a measure of science makes even the most outlandish fantasy that much better. It was time to do some research.
While I admit going to the Wikipedia well more than I should, I quickly found many other amazing sources of information. Ballooning by C. H. Gibbs-Smith, an antiquated look at the world of hot air ballooning before 1946, provided some great aeronautical theory and history of ballooning. In an ill-visited corner of the upper floor of The Last Bookstore in Downtown Los Angeles (a great place to check out if you’re ever in LA), I discovered Forty Favorite Flowers by Beverly Nichols, a 1970s guide to curious flowers and how they fare in an English garden. Aside from having a great old book smell, Forty Favorite Flowers helped bring the Colonel’s extensive horticultural knowledge into focus. A dictionary of Victorian slang delivered gems like “enthuzimuzzy” (much ado about nothing) and “butter upon bacon” (excessive extravagance), but it was Lina Rivera, The Colonel and the Bee’s editor, who contributed what is probably my favorite bit of Victorian wordage: “chuckaboo” (friend).
By far the most thrilling and enjoyable bit of research was a trip in a real hot air balloon. I took note of all the sensations and emotions that came with the unique way of flying, and paid close attention to the charismatic British pilot’s manner of speaking (“The crown line’s in a bit of a state!” and “A woman can understand a compliment in any language, can’t they?”). The difficulty in controlling a craft as unwieldy as a hot air balloon was made clear with our unscheduled landing on a golf course. Luckily, the irate owner was placated with a handy bottle of champagne.
Imagination might do most of the leg work when it comes to fiction, but I hope all these real-world details help further color the world Beatrix and the Colonel explore, and make for a more engaging and exciting read.
Patrick Canning on writing The Colonel and the bee
Beatrix, a spirited but abused acrobat in a traveling circus, seeks more than her prison-like employment offers. More than anything, she wants to know her place in the world of the halcyon 19th century, a time when the last dark corners of the map were being sketched out and travel still possessed a kind of magic.
One night in Switzerland, the mysterious Colonel James Bacchus attends Beatrix’s show. This larger-than-life English gentleman, reputed to have a voracious appetite for female conquests, is most notable for traveling the world in a four-story hot air balloon called The Ox.
Beatrix flees that night to join the Colonel, and the two of them make a narrow escape—Beatrix from her abusive ringleader, the Colonel from a freshly-made cuckold. Beatrix, feeling the Colonel may have the answers to her problems, pledges to help him catch the criminal he seeks in exchange for passage on his magnificent balloon.
The criminal seeks a precious figurine, The Blue Star Sphinx, but he’s not alone. The Sphinx’s immense value has also drawn the attention of the world’s most deadly treasure hunters. A murder in Antwerp begins a path of mystery that leads all the way to the most isolated island on Earth.
“Flying the Ox is much more akin to playing an instrument than operating a machine. Approach the challenge less formally, do so with confidence, and the craft’s perfect obedience will be your reward.”
I lost sight of the burner strap and by accident pulled a vent on the main balloon. We began to rotate and descend with great rapidity. The Colonel allowed me to find the correct cord on my own, and I did so just in time as the Ox nearly scraped a rolling pasture hill, startling a herd of brown Belgian cows enough to sour their milk.
Taking care to avoid the ripping line, I continued to bring the Ox up, searching for the northwest wind. To my chagrin, I sent us southeast, and it took a deft intervention from the Colonel to set us right. Applying the correct pressure on the correct combination of cords in the correct sequence did indeed give him the appearance of an accomplished maestro.
“Skill comes with practice, and northwest can be elusive. Northeast can be downright tempestuous,” he said as if recalling a talented snooker rival.
I readied another question, but the Colonel anticipated me. He held up a gentle hand to stay the incoming query, motioned with both hands downward, indicating I should relax, then gestured to the edge of the Ox.
So worried I’d been about that morning’s lesson, I’d hardly taken a moment to observe our environment. I joined the Colonel at the railing, and became lightheaded with wonder. The full effect of flight had been disguised by darkness the previous night, and now, in the maturing light of dawn, I beheld a world transformed by perspective: rivers and mountains were maps come to life, trees were seas of leaves that shimmered emerald in the breeze, even birds flew at a height far below the Ox, moving like schools of fish in currents of wind.
“Toast my bloomin’ eyebrows,” I mumbled, forgoing any attempt at eloquence. “I didn’t know… I couldn’t have imagined…”
“Wonderful, isn’t it? From this height, we’re permitted to see plainly the orchestrations of daily life, rank with crisscrossing motives and the clutter of needless haste. Up here in the rarefied air we are weightless in cool æther, unspoiled by the odour and noise of man’s desires far below.”
We stood side by side, watching the scene in silence, until something in the distance stole the Colonel’s gaze.
“There. Antwerp on the horizon. Drink your leaf juice if you must.”
By now, all of the Manx were flying in a loose halo about the Ox, gently displacing the Belgian mist we floated in as they dove and twisted as birds in play.
“They have such charm and spirit,” I said.
“They detect my excitement. This visit could prove fruitful in our search for the criminal. He’s been most elusive thus far.”
“Do you know the murdered party?”
The Colonel’s face fell a note, but he recovered quickly.
“I’m interested in the criminal.”
“To bring him to justice?” I gulped my tea. “For this or a past transgression?”
“There is plenty to choose from. It is enough for you to know I seek an audience with the man.”
“He has committed other crimes?”
“Is he dangerous?”
I finished my tea as the green vegetation and black soil of tilled fields shifted to the red brick and grey stone of buildings. Antwerp’s harbour introduced itself to the nose long before the eyes.
The Colonel inhaled deeply.
“Have you been?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“A bastion of crime and seafood, how I adore this city. I apologise as it’s unlikely we’ll have time for a proper tour. Perhaps a return under less harried circumstances. Unfurl those ropes there, won’t you?”
The spiderweb of roadways below passed ever faster as we descended. I let drop a collection of heavy ropes over the side of the Ox as the Colonel set her down in a rather regal park. Despite the posh surroundings, there was an air of danger. Apparently, the Colonel felt it too.
“No chance we’re deflating here,” he said. “Down the steps with you. Help secure us.”