I was at the public library the other day checking out books on gerbils. I hate gerbils. It’s not gerbils in particular that I hate. It’s rodents of all kinds. Some people are afraid of spiders or snakes. I’m not. I’m in no hurry to cuddle up to nasty critters like that, but they don’t bother me. Mice do. That’s completely irrational, and I know it. There are snakes and spiders that can do some real harm, but not mice. There is some instinctive response in my mind and body to the sight of a mouse. I can deal with it, but it isn’t any kind of fun. It’s not just mice. I hate hamsters and gerbils and anything else similar.
I needed a book about gerbils anyway. I sifted through several of them, looking for the ones that would suit my purposes the best. I set a small stack of them on the desk. The guy there asked the obvious question, “Buying a gerbil?”
“No. This is research for a time travel novel.” Blank stare. “Seriously,” I said. He didn’t ask any other questions. What could he say? I was satisfied with that encounter.
It might be that you’re wondering what in the world gerbils have to do with time travel. If you built a time machine, you’d probably want to keep that secret. So would I, and so would the characters in the story I’m writing. When it comes time to test it on a living subject, would you settle into it and flip the switch to see what happens to you? I know I wouldn’t. It happens in some time travel stories. It’s not even uncommon for a scientist to just throw themselves into mystery. In defense of these stories, the kind of time machine they build doesn’t always allow for a lot of intelligent experimentation. That’s not the case in my story. So the scientists who have developed the machines run a lot of experiments to find out how they work. Eventually it becomes time to test it on a living subject. What do you use? Not yourself, surely. An animal? But what kind? Gerbils are easy to get a hold of. Unlike hamsters, gerbils are awake during the day, so that’s one question solved. These scientists don’t want to stay awake at night to keep hamster hours. Gerbils it is.
That gives me a small problem. I know nothing about the behavior of gerbils. It’s pretty easy to cover that up by avoiding it. I don’t have to describe the scientists feeding the horrid little things, so I don’t have to know about it. What happens when it’s unavoidable? What would happen if a gerbil from the near future were to meet its present self? I don’t even know how normal gerbils interact. So I have to find out. I checked out several books about gerbils as time travel research.
It’s not the strangest thing I’ve had to learn for a story. My nail gun question was a lot of fun. While writing Sleepwalker, I needed to find out how plausible night time use of a nail gun is. If you’re fixing your porch in the middle of the night, hammering away at nails, your neighbors are going to complain. It’s not the loud sound so much as the constant bursts of obnoxious rhythm. Bam bam bam bam bam! That p****s off a neighbor during the day. How much worse is it at night?
You can’t check out a book on this subject. The only way I had of getting a real answer was to ask an expert. I didn’t know any nail gun experts. The likeliest place was a hardware store. There I was in the right aisle, staring at the nail guns, waiting for the question. “Can I help you with anything, sir?”
“Yes. Do you know much about nail guns?”
“Yeah.” He said it with that tone of quiet confidence. I knew I had the right guy.
“Well, I have no intention of actually doing this, but is it possible to use a nail gun to put together porch steps at night so that the sound of hammering won’t bother the neighbors?”
He thought. He thought very seriously for a moment. “Well, the compressor would make some noise, but if you were to put it inside, you could run the hose out to the gun.”
I asked a few other hypotheticals just to cover my bases. In the end, I accepted his wisdom. He never asked why I needed to know any of that even though I made it clear I wasn’t going to use a nail gun at night. My kind of guy.
The funny thing is, I don’t describe the nail gun use in the story. It would have just cluttered up the scene. The nail gun is mentioned later on, but never in context. I just wanted to know if it was plausible.