I made it to the library talks after all, and they went quite well.
Once Martin had talked a bit about the history of comics, the story of Burke and Hare and how the book came about, I went into some more detail about the sheer imaginative and academic effort involved in recreating the environment of early nineteenth-century Edinburgh, and portraying it on the page in a way that I hope evokes the feel of the period as well as the hard historical facts. The digging I did to identify Dr Knox's house wasn't a one off: every location, every piece of furniture or clothing, every supporting character high or low, is based on the maximum possible research I could get done. But inevitably there are limits to what you can find out.
For example: Chapter Seven finds William Burke living with his brother, in Gibb's Close off the Canongate. From a scouting mission back in January, I know where that is and how it looks today, but I stared long and hard at those windows – more specifically at the arches of stonework above them. Are they just force spreaders to protect the lintels, or were original arched windows squared off at some point, as happened later with Surgeons' Hall?
The tenement was built around 1700 as a townhouse for the Earl of Traquair, a family best known for staying Catholic through the Reformation, so an Italianate influence isn't out of the question; but with nothing definite either way, I eventually just went with what was easiest to draw.
Looking back, I should probably have dropped the level of the street a bit as well, but that's hindsight for you.
As the chapter opens, Burke is having an early morning drink in a nearby pub, where he makes the acquaintance of two young women (no prizes for guessing that this will not end well for them!). The precise location of Swanston's tavern is not recorded, so I considered using the World's End, which was associated with a notorious double murder in the 1970s:
but ultimately decided that that sort of expansive allusion to wider Edinburgh lore was beyond the scope of the book. Instead, I selected an appropriate-looking shopfront a little further down the hill on the opposite side of the road, just a few yards up from the distinctive landmark of Canongate Tolbooth – whence, according to the research, Mary and Janet had just been released after a night in the cells for soliciting – and used period illustrations as reference to replace the buildings in between with what was there at the time.
With the establishing shots pinned down, I drew the rest of the page freehand, trying to keep the transitions between panels as fluid as possible. The only major change I made at the inking stage was in panel 3: as with my earlier doubts about the windows, I've no idea whether Gibb's Close has, or ever had, a spiral staircase; but some of the older tenements further up the Royal Mile still do, so it's possible – and crucially it adds a sense of movement and drunkenness that's less obvious in the pencilled version.
It's worth asking how much value I got out of the research I did for this page, considering more than two thirds of it came straight out of my own head, and even the top row is as much speculation as fact. But my feeling is that for a project like this it's the details that matter, and you may as well get them right if you can.
Otherwise, you end up with something like this:
I mean, I ask you: Sheffield?
Read the rest, if you fancy a laugh, at Pappy's Golden Age Comics.