Gerbils and Time Travel

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.


I went to a few other places to ask if this model of indoor/outdoor nail gun use was practical. In theory, it was. I have since learned that there are cordless nail guns, but I had my answer already. I have also had a few manly types tell me that it can’t be done the way I describe. Then again, others have told me it works. I haven’t managed to start a debate amongst tool enthusiasts. Maybe some day. I look forward to it.



  1. Hahaha! I wish I could have seen the look on the face of the guy in the library! That is so great! I’m impressed that you get out there and ask people “weird” questions for your research. I think I’m too afraid of freaking people out so I tend to use google for all my research. There are definite pros and cons to my method. =) Good luck with your little gerbil and his time in the time machine!

  2. Well, I wouldn’t have known how else to find out about night time nail gun use. I was stumped. For most things, even most weird things, you can find them in a library or online. Without asking anyone, I was able to find out whether or not vomit can ruin a car’s paint job. It can. Thank you, internet. I didn’t have to pester any body shop workers.

  3. Hilarious. I enjoy the way your mind works. You should definitely keep asking weird questions of specialists and posting the results…perhaps an experiment? I would do it, but in my current job I’m surrounded by more third country nationals who speak little English than I am that people who do. How do you explain a nail gun to someone who brushes their teeth with a stick?

    1. I appreciate the recognition, truly I do. Alas, I fear I can not accept. I hate to disappoint, and my gratitude is quite genuine. Thank you. Having read several of the posts on your blog, I see that you are an atheist. I am not, I am merely an agnostic. Perhaps one day I’ll forgo the compromise, but not yet. I can apply the principles of atheism easily enough. I like to apply them to ideas. There are many things that others appreciate and strive for that I do not consider to be real. Awards are among them. When it comes to the concept of awards, I am not merely agnostic; I am entirely atheist. So I apologize for the rudeness, but I’ll have to live without the official emblem of the one lovely blog award. Your effort is far from wasted however. Like you, I am new to blogging. To know that my ramblings and thoughts are appreciated is reward enough. And when it comes to it, you’ve earned something from me of considerable worth. Having read some of your blog, I’ve decided to follow it. From me, that’s quite a compliment.

  4. I’m a little sad that you feel this way. The “award” was simply my token of appreciation to someone I thought had genuine ideas and is a good writer. I’m also pained that my label of “atheist” was a deciding factor in this as well. I believe you are entitled to your own opinions, as am I, so I won’t question it. However, I’d like to make myself clear about my atheism… It’s a self-appointed label. Also, I’d like to thank you, you’ve inspired me to blog about this topic, clarifying my standpoint. I’m sorry you felt you couldn’t accept my token, in the future I will do my best to remember your aversion to awards before nominating you.

    1. No need to be sad. Not even a little. Perhaps I should clarify my standpoint here. In my comment above, if I were to cut everything away except for that which is absolutely essential, all that would be left would be the words, “my gratitude is very genuine”.

      Your atheism, by the way, had nothing at all to do with my decision. I quite respect independence of thought. I was quite serious when I referred to myself as an agnostic. Now what kind of an @$$#*[% would I be to look down on your perspective. I know, I know, there is often some bizarre argument of principle between the ags and and aths. I don’t even understand that. It was only intended to be a joke, atheist toward awards, I don’t believe in them. Perhaps that sounded a bit condescending when you read it. It wasn’t intended to be. That’s one of the perils of the written (or typed) word, it does not carry any tone of voice. It’s easy to be misunderstood.

      If my musings here were misunderstood, I do apologize. I truly intended no offense. It’s a bit difficult to decline a gift gracefully, especially from a stranger, so perhaps I overdid it. I will reemphasize the last thing I said in my earlier comment, I am now following your blog. I follow only a few. That’s worth something.

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