Research challenges

One thing I’ve been asked to look into while revising Gambit is a research question. One of the major characters in my novel is a unilateral amputee (left leg, below the knee). He gets around some of the time using a prosthesis and some of the time without one, and the question is, when he’s not using the prosthesis, can he get by with one crutch or does he need two?

I might have researched this when I originally wrote the novel, but that was a couple of years ago, and I simply don’t remember.

So I’ve done my google-fu, and I’ve posed the question to my writer research lists, and I have the answer now. Most unilateral amputees use two crutches, because they have better stability that way (their center of balance remains at the center of the body instead of shifting sideways). But it’s possible to use just one. Long John Silver in Treasure Island uses one: “His left leg was cut off close by the hip, and under the left shoulder he carried a crutch, which he managed with wonderful dexterity, hopping about upon it like a bird.”

This can be seen in the movie “Treasure Island,” but given that the actor playing the role was not an amputee, I don’t put much stock in this–they obviously engaged in some camera tricks. Better evidence can be found on YouTube, where there are many videos of unilateral amputees walking on a single crutch. Here is one example.

That question ended up being answerable, but one aspect of this novel I had trouble with, both two years ago when I was writing it, and again now when I’m revising it for publication, is that I can’t find any good information on 18th-century prosthetic limbs. We all know they existed. Characters like Captain Hook and other pirates with peglegs and whatnot tell us there were crude prosthetics back then, but what were they like and how well did they work? What materials were they made of? These are details I’d like to put in my novel, and I’d prefer not to have to make them up, but the details can’t be found. I’ve searched high and low for a book on the history of prosthetic limbs. I don’t think it exists.

You would think that there are so many books out these days that no matter what subject you want to research, there’s a book for you. But that’s not the case. For my more recent novel, Flood and Fire, I wanted to research some information on the domestication and training of elephants. Couldn’t find it! I found lots of books about elephants in the wild, elephants being endangered, etc., but not a word on elephant domestication. Since what I wanted the information for was a nonessential part of the novel, I ended up cutting it.

I guess that’s what I get for writing about such atypical things. My topics are unresearchable!

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4 Responses to Research challenges

  1. Amy, first of all, sympathies on research. It can certainly be a pain. However, I have a few tiny suggestions.

    1) For 18th century prosthetics, I believe I’ve heard of them using wood. You might see if there are any references in classic literature or Revolutionary War diaries. You might try a reenactment group. They tend to teem with information. It’s a hundred years out of date, but the Civil War era might also have insights.

    2) For domestication, try archaeology. My brother is in this field. I don’t know if he knows much about elephants, but he knows some basics of domestication. Let me check with him, and I’ll get back with you if you’re still interested. Domestication is a big part of the rise of civilization, which is right up the archaeology alley.

    • Amy Raby says:

      Yes, definitely wood for the prosthetics of this era, but I’m looking for more detail, like what kind of wood, and how was the prosthetic mounted? I believe many modern prosthetics use a sort of hollow shell that fits over the stump, and is probably well molded to fit comfortably (I have a book on modern prosthetics kicking around here somewhere). I have my doubts that 18th-century prosthetics were that sophisticated, and I wonder how they attached. Straps? Were they padded at all? Were they heavy and ungainly? I have a feeling they weren’t nearly as comfortable and functional as today’s prosthetics, but I want details.

      Thanks re: the elephant information. My Flood and Fire novel is set in the bronze age, so very much part of the rise of civilization. One difficulty is that I don’t know exactly what information I’m looking for. The kind of research I had wanted to do was discovery or inspiration research–learn about a topic to discover what’s cool about it and then put the cool stuff in the novel. I don’t know yet what the cool stuff is.

  2. Jessi Gage says:

    I’m shocked it’s been so hard to find resources for your research. It does seem like you can just tap out a few keys and find information on just about anything on line, but I guess these are pretty obscure topics.
    I found a brief article on the history of prosthetic limbs here: with mention of a French military doctor who made some 16th century advances in prosthetics. Hope it helps, but you’ve probably already read the article!
    Good luck!

  3. Amy Raby says:

    That article was actually kind of helpful. It gave me the name of the doctor, which I was then able to search on to get an actual picture of the artificial leg he invented. It is not the same kind of prosthetic Lucien would use, but it gives me some ideas, and it’s within 100 years of the correct time period.

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