When Research Derails Your Plot

Before I sit down to write one of my novels, I like to plot them out. These days my plots are fairly detailed with a sentence or two about every scene I plan to write. This helps to guide my research so I learn what I need to know before I start writing the novel. Despite that, details sometimes slip through the cracks.

For example, I’m currently working on my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, Owl Riders. The historical Wyatt Earp is an important side character. In one scene, a character wants to buy Wyatt a drink. Now, I’ve watched many western movies featuring Wyatt Earp and he’s often shown in a saloon, playing faro or poker. In my research, I found this to be reasonably accurate, so it seemed fair to assume that Wyatt was a drinking man.

I thought it would be fun to add a little authenticity to the story and have the character buy Wyatt not just any drink, but his favorite drink. Wyatt Earp’s life is so well documented, I thought it might be possible to find out what he liked to drink. As it turns out, I did indeed find out. Wyatt Earp didn’t drink alcohol at all!

At this point, I faced two choices. The first, and perhaps most controversial would be to declare that in this alternate history Wyatt does drink. I’d argue this is actually a fair choice, but if you do go this route, you should do even more research to understand why Wyatt Earp didn’t drink and decide what circumstances in your alternate world would make him a drinking man. While you might not dwell on that choice in the story, you probably should say a few words about it. I would only recommend considering this route if major plot points down the road required that Wyatt Earp be a drinker for some reason and pulling that element out of the story would make it fall down like the proverbial house of cards.

In addition to being a writer, I’m a professional scientist. All my training is built around the idea that if I do research and find something that doesn’t fit my preconceived notions, I have to accept that finding. Between that inclination and the fact that Wyatt Earp having a shot of whiskey, scotch or anything else was simply not critical to the story in its own right, I did a little more research. I discovered that Wyatt Earp was a big fan of ice cream and ice cream parlors were just starting to spring up in the old west of the 1880s.

Returning to my novel, I used this bit of trivia to create a minor plot complication for my character who had to scramble to find Wyatt’s favorite ice cream parlor to continue his plans. It adds an interesting moment to the story, as well as a little bit of fun, historical trivia.

For me, this is one of the most fun parts of writing the Clockwork Legion novels. I get to learn about history and figure out how that history is changed by the world-altering events I’ve proposed. Conversely, I figure out what things would be constants in this new world and how that affects the story I want to tell.

If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll join me on this thrilling ride through history. The links below will take you to my pages about the books where you can find out how to purchase, read sample chapters, see book trailers and more. Also, note the first two books are available as audio books as well as print and ebooks.

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8 comments on “When Research Derails Your Plot

  1. Well hell, I knew that. And, after leaving the southwest he ran a bar in Alaska for a few years. And most accounts of his life are that he did not drink. The real Wyatt was a very different person from the one Hollywood made him out to be.

    • In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve encountered this factoid about Wyatt Earp before, but I’d forgotten it, having the reality driven out by the cultural expectation that comes from the Hollywood portrayal.

  2. Stephen John Smoogen says:

    I could see where everyone thinks he has a favorite drink (aka read it in an eastern newspaper article) and the hero tries to convince him with various imported stuff.. and then the femme fatale comes in with an ice cream which Wyatt takes instead.. the twist is that it contained the 1870’s version of a mickey and the hero has to rescue Wyatt. The end twist is that Wyatt swears of ice cream and goes to honest liquor instead.

    • That’s definitely one of the ways this could play out, though Wyatt seemed to have a strong self-preservation instinct and a whole lot of luck. So, whoever slips him the mickey has to be real good, or Wyatt has to be seriously distracted. Of course, in the Clockwork Legion books few people know Wyatt Earp. There is no Tombstone and no gunfight at the OK Corral, so that adds another dimension.

      • Okay, was there a Dodge City? You opened this thread. By the way, his favorite drink was likely coffee. He definitely drank coffee.

      • I spoke poorly in my response to Stephen – I blame the lack of coffee, since it was early in my morning when I replied. Yes Dodge City exists in my fictional world and many people actually do know who Wyatt Earp is. The man definitely had a reputation before he moved to Tombstone. It would be more precise to say that he didn’t have the level of celebrity he would gain after Tombstone, so few people would be well versed in Wyatt Earp lore like they would be at the same period in our timeline.

        A good modern analog to Wyatt as he appears in the book might be Joe Arpaio. I know who he is. I might even recognize him on the street. I know some stories about his career in law enforcement, but I don’t know know much about him personally.

        Yes, Wyatt’s drinking coffee could be used — and I’m a big coffee fan, so it would be right up my alley. That said, I enjoyed working out some method of using ice cream because I don’t think most people know it was available at the time — or think about it being sold in the old west.

  3. Steve Moore says:

    Ice cream and cream soda and a shoot out over the tutti fruiti Is too tempting!! Best Steve

    • Indeed! Gotta have a good pistachio after the showdown. Seems very civilized and almost steampunk. And it really kind of is, if you’ve ever seen the ice cream coolers of that era. Thanks for dropping by, Steve. 🙂

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