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.

The Magic of Old Books

This past week, I finished the rough draft of my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, tentatively titled Owl Riders. These novels are steampunk steeped in history. The first novel, Owl Dance starts in a wild west very much like the wild west of history. However, as an alien character called Legion interferes in human affairs and humans themselves gain confidence in their inventions, the world of the novels gradually diverges from the world of history.

Because I start in the world of history, I like to do my homework and understand the places and peoples I describe in my books. Even when I diverge from history, the cultural experience of the people in the novel will be the same up until the divergence point. Reading books that discuss the history of the region and peoples I’m writing about is, of course, important, but one thing I like to do over and beyond that is find books written by people who lived at the time the book takes place.

One of the challenges of Owl Riders is that I have some scenes set in Persia of 1885. I found some good histories of Iran which gave me insights not only into the country in the nineteenth century, but how that history helped to shape the modern country. However, I wasn’t sure what I would find written at the time period. A search at my local library didn’t turn up anything. On an off chance, I went to COAS, our wonderful used bookstore in Las Cruces and happened on a book called Land of the Lion and Sun by Absalom D. Shabaz, published in 1901. The book’s subtitle is “Personal Experiences, the Nations of Persia—Their Manners, Customs and Their Beliefs.”

This sounded perfect, a personal viewpoint of someone living in Iran within a few years of my story’s time period. On closer inspection, I discovered that the book was written as a guide for people hoping to be Christian Missionaries in Persia. I’ve just started the book and I find that Shabaz was raised a Christian in Persia and had to deal with the reactions of his friends and neighbors. This actually proves to be an interesting viewpoint because it combines elements from both my protagonists, Ramon Morales who is a Catholic-raised lawyer visiting Persia for the first time and Fatemeh Morales who converted to the Bahá’í Faith as a young woman and then left home.

For me, the real magic of a book like Land of the Lion and Sun is that I can hear the words of the author speaking directly to me across more than a century. I can read a personal perspective in the language of the time, with all the attitudes and prejudices of the time intact. I think it’s important to start by reading modern histories precisely because an author of a particular time can’t help but share their prejudices. It allows me to separate the perceptions of the historical author from history as it unfolded. I look forward to seeing how Mr. Shabaz experienced the history I’ve read about and see where that might lead me as I prepare to revise my novel.

While you’re waiting for the fourth novel, be sure to catch the three novels that are already published. Clicking the titles will take you to pages with more information:

On Writing Alternate History

There is a maxim that if you write a story set in history, you better be sure your research is meticulous because if you make a mistake, someone is going to let you know about it. However, it doesn’t take much research to realize the truth of another old saw, “history is written by the victors.” To complicate matters further, a lot of people know their history from popular culture such as other fiction books or movies, so sometimes our hypothetical “someone” mentioned at the outset might be complaining about history as they saw it portrayed in a movie, rather than anything they researched in depth.

Alternate history takes on an added dimension because you’re writing about a history that didn’t actually happen. At first cut, this might appear to be freeing because you’re not constrained by history. However, one of the reasons I write alternate history is because I like to consider what might have happened if something in history was nudged a somewhat different direction than actually happened or to imagine what history would have been like if a different element such as vampires or aliens were introduced. To make such alternate history credible, it’s good to be as realistic as possible.

The problem is, you still have the problem that history isn’t necessarily absolute. It’s not that there is no truth to history, it’s just that history is often interpreted through the lens of the person writing about it. Sometimes there’s a blatant agenda to that lens (“history is written by the victors”). Sometimes that history is filtered through social bias, perhaps unconsciously.

Other reasons I might write about alternate history are to comment on issues of the past, or to comment on issues of the present through the lens of the past. Again, both of these require some effort at accuracy to give weight to that commentary. That said, another reason I write alternate history is to spin a rip-roaring good yarn. Doing that, I have to make a judgement call between whether to follow history closely or deviate to suit the story.

My approach to plotting an alternate history story is to start by looking at the time period and location I’m interested in and learn as much as I can about the events going on there. I particularly like to read books and essays written by people living those events. Although Wikipedia is much maligned, I find it a great resource for historical photos of people and places.

Clockwork-Legion

My Clockwork Legion series is set in a world that, for the most part, mirrors our world up until an intelligent swarm of microscopic computers that calls itself Legion starts interfering in the affairs of 1870s Earth. One of the important parts of this statement is “for the most part.” I have allowed some differences in the world of the Clockwork Legion even before Legion’s involvement. I’ve done this for a few reasons. Admittedly one of those reasons is to simplify some plot elements. For example, the railroads are a little further along in the book than they were in history, which allows a little more freedom of movement, but for the most part the bump is by months rather than by years. Allowing the differences also gives me the freedom to make judgment calls on uncertain pieces of history where research and scholarly debate are still ongoing. Finally, it was important to me that Legion didn’t advance humanity by giving them the answers. The point of Legion is that the alien frees humanity’s dreams and saves some steps by helping them avoid mistakes.

I once heard an interview with Isaac Asimov in which he said to write science fiction, you don’t necessarily have to be a scientist or even get the science dead accurate. What you have to do is respect the scientific process and do the homework to make it plausible. I think the same applies to history. I’m a trained astronomer, not a historian, but I respect the work of historians and appreciate the process. Hopefully I’ve avoided making any mistakes, but if I do, hopefully I have enough of my history correct that you can believe the changes are the result of the subtly different world I’m creating.

I hope you’ll take a ride back in time with me and explore the world of the Clockwork Legion. Follow the links below to learn more about the novels.

Tokyo, 1877

I’ve just spent an intense week working on the third novel in my Clockwork Legion series, The Brazen Shark. Many scenes I’ve written have been set in Tokyo of 1877. Like any city, Tokyo has its own personality but it’s a personality that has changed considerably in the last 137 years. I’ve been scouring the web for photos of Tokyo and its surrounding areas. Here’s one of my favorite, a public domain photograph of Yokohama in the 1880s.

Yokohama_Street_Scene_c1880

What I like about this photo is how much the scene looks like many U.S. cities of the same period. There are wooden buildings, a gas lamp, and dirt streets. Of course, there are elements of this photo that seem very unique to Japan, such as the rickshaws and the banners hanging over the doors. I love how people are just going about their business, like the two guys on the right just chatting about some long forgotten subject. Some people are striding with purpose. Others are looking around.

Of course, one has to be careful when doing research on the web. Here’s another photo I like. This photo shows Kyobashi. According to Wikipedia, the photographer died in 1898 and this is supposed to be a nineteenth century street scene.

OldPhotoKyobashi

The problem is the streetcars. As far as I can tell from researching the Tokyo streetcar system, Tokyo and its surrounding areas didn’t get streetcars until 1901. (Update 11/24/14: After I posted this, Ged Maybury pointed out these are horse-drawn streetcars, which did exist as early as 1882. See his excellent comments below). Now, since The Brazen Shark is a steampunk novel, it’s tempting to allow this anachronism. However, one of the themes that’s emerging in the novel is the way in which Emperor Meiji’s “Restoration” was a transition from old feudal Japan to a new, modern vision of Japan. I do introduce scientists and inventors who want to bring this about, but I also want to show that they’re working in a city where this is all new and exciting. You might see some miraculous inventions in the Tokyo of my novel, but you won’t yet see an established transportation system that didn’t exist as early as 1877. Another possible anachronism is the guy in the straw hat in the lower left. That suit just says 1901 to me more than 1880!

Now, despite the fact that this photo has anachronisms, there are still things to be learned. Again, I see people walking and taking rickshaws through the streets. I see someone carrying baskets. I see horses and masonry buildings. As long as I keep in mind what would and wouldn’t be in this scene in the time period of my novel, the photo still serves as a tool to help me describe nineteenth century Kyobashi.

Speaking of science and exciting discoveries, it’s time for me to return to the observatory for a few days. In the meantime, you can start getting ready for The Brazen Shark by discovering the first two novels of the Clockwork Legion series. Click the link to see the books, read sample chapters and find out where you can buy them. Also, as we’re in the run up to Thanksgiving, this seems a great time to remind you that books make outstanding holiday presents. If you have read and enjoyed Owl Dance or Lightning Wolves and know someone who would like them, why not give one or both as a gift?

Why 1001 Nights Isn’t Your Best Multicultural Steampunk Reference

This week, I welcome two special guests to the web journal. They are Day Al-Mohamed and Danielle Ackley-McPhail, authors of Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn published by Dark Quest Books. Here’s a look at the cover and the back cover text:

    BabaAliandtheClockworkDjinn_lg

    Come, Best Beloved, and sit you by my feet. I shall tell you a tale such as sister Scheherazade could have scarce imagined. A tale of wonders, of deeds both great and grievous, of courage that defies description, and above all, Child of Adam, I shall tell you a tale of love.

    The night is for the telling of tales to which the morning may bear Truth. In the oldest of days and ages and times, there was, and there was not, a great evil that reached across the desert and beyond…

    In the Nejd there is nothing at all … except secrets. A band of thieves wish such secrets to remain hidden.

    In England, far from his desert home, Ali bin-Massoud serves as apprentice to the famed Charles Babbage. One night a mysterious box is delivered by a clockwork falcon and Ali’s world is never the same again. Heartache, danger, and thieves mark his journey as Ali is summoned home at the death of his father.

    It will take faith, knowledge, and yes, love to realize his destiny, and more than a little skill with steam-driven technology. Can he unravel the mystery of the puzzle box and the clockwork djinn before it is too late? An ancient legacy and Ali’s very life depend on it.

    Hear you the tale of Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn.

Without further ado, let me turn this over to Day who discusses Multicultural Steampunk and why 1001 Nights is not your best reference.


First, before I say anything, I want to give a shout out to Beyond Victoriana: A Multicultural Perspective on Steampunk. No, I don’t know Diana (other than via the ‘Net) but we share similar hopes for the future of our beloved Steampunk. It is a great place to explore the idea of what multicultural steampunk actually means and understand: 1. Why there is a need/desire for greater diversity in the genre, and 2. Why, because of the nature of the time period with its expansionist and colonialist (as well as racist and misogynist) underpinnings should be approached with respect, a healthy caution, and some good research.

Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn is loosely based on “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” for some of the story plot points, and for some of the fairytale aesthetic in how it is written. However, we worked very hard to try and step away from the original tale. Why? Because, in truth, there is no “original” tale and what many of us have grown up with is a translation of a translation. And perhaps most damning of all, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” was a tale that was rewritten through a Victorian lens.

An article in Steampunk Magazine captures this really well with regard to characters. As an example of how easy it is to fall into using the Victorian stereotype rather than exploring cultures directly they highlight the “What Is Your Steampunk Style?” online quiz featured on steamfashion.

    “The results of this quiz emphasize how white, European Victorian types are playful, interesting, and exciting: the Aristocrat, the Scientist, the Officer, the Explorer. On the flip side, representations that do not conform to the Western-European aesthetic are not featured, and the reason why they are omitted is obvious. This is because while Eurocentric Victorian types in steampunk fiction are depicted as positive and enjoyable, non-European Victorian types live on as today’s damaging stereotypes: The Dragon Lady & China Doll/Geisha Girl, The Savage, The Deceptive Mystic, The Manservant, The Ursurer, The Indian Princess.”

To give an example that is more pertinent to “Baba Ali” let me reference one of my “Book Secrets” posts where I talk about the differences in translation.

    Gloss translation of Arabic: ‘When it was in the middle of the night he remembered something he had forgotten in his palace, so he returned and entered his palace finding his wife laying in her bed embracing one of the black slaves, and seeing this, the world became black in his face.’

    Richard Burton (arguably one of the most popular translations): ‘But when the night was half spent he bethought him that he had forgotten in his palace somewhat which he should have brought with him, so he returned privily and entered his apartments, where he found the Queen, his wife, asleep on his own carpet-bed, embracing with both arms a black cook of loathsome aspect and foul with kitchen grease and grime. When he saw this the world waxed black before his sight…’

In the former, the skin color is a description; in Burton’s translation, it burgeons into something completely different. The result was that in our search for realism in how races and genders related, what people wore, elements of their daily life, and even elements of how their stories were told, we had to find other sources – travelogues, arab folktale collections, old maps, and even a personal letter or two from expats living overseas at the time.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from writing multicultural steampunk, quite the opposite. We need more, lots more! 🙂 I just don’t want writers to be lazy. It is important to be as detailed in research for specific cultures as it is for the historical time period. It is not dismissing or ignoring a culture, it is not stereotyping, and it is not eroticizing. It is doing your homework and looking for what is real and authentic.

This can be slightly more difficult as many of the materials from that time period are written from the perspective of European nations but in the last few years there has been a significant rise in scholarship that gives us greater views into the world as it was versus how the West saw it. And in truth, isn’t that a much more interesting story?


Day Al-Mohamed

Day Al-Mohamed is author of the novel Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn: A Steampunk Faerie Tale, written with Danielle Ackley-McPhail. Day hosts the multi-author blog “Unleaded: Fuel for Writers”, and in addition to speculative fiction, she also writes comics and film scripts.

Her recent publications are available in “Daily Science Fiction,” Crossed Genres anthology Oomph – A Little Super Goes a Long Way, Sword & Laser, and GrayHaven Comics’ anti-bullying issue “You Are Not Alone.” The anthology, Trust & Treachery, for which she served as co-editor, was released May 1st and two more comics are due to be released this year, as well as several short stories. Her two film shorts were recently shown on local Virginia cable television, and two more are in pre-production. She is an active member of the Cat Vacuuming Society of Northern Virginia Writing Group, a member of Women in Film and Video, and a graduate of the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop.

When not working on fiction, Day is Senior Policy Advisor with the U.S. Department of Labor focusing on Youth. She has also worked as a lobbyist and political analyst on issues relating to Health care, Education, Employment, Disability, and International Development. She is a proud member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, loves action movies, and drinks far too much tea. She lives in Washington, DC with her wife, N.R. Brown, in a house with too many swords, comic books, and political treatises.

She can be found online at DayAlMohamed.com and @DayAlMohamed


dmcphailhighres

Award-winning author Danielle Ackley-McPhail has worked both sides of the publishing industry for longer than she cares to admit. Currently, she is a project editor and promotions manager for Dark Quest Books.

Her published works include five urban fantasy novels, Yesterday’s Dreams, Tomorrow’s Memories, Today’s Promise, The Halfling’s Court: and The Redcaps’ Queen: A Bad-Ass Faerie Tale, and a young adult Steampunk novel, Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn, written with Day Al-Mohamed. She is also the author of the solo science fiction collection, A Legacy of Stars, the non-fiction writers’ guide, The Literary Handyman, and is the senior editor of the Bad-Ass Faeries anthology series, Dragon’s Lure, and In an Iron Cage. Her work is included in numerous other anthologies and collections.

She is a member of the Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers, the New Jersey Authors Network, and Broad Universe, a writer’s organization focusing on promoting the works of women authors in the speculative genres.

Danielle lives in New Jersey with husband and fellow writer, Mike McPhail, mother-in-law Teresa, and three extremely spoiled cats. She can be found on LiveJournal (damcphail, badassfaeries, darkquestbooks, lit_handyman), Facebook (Danielle Ackley-McPhail), and Twitter (DMcPhail). To learn more about her work, visit www.sidhenadaire.com, www.literaryhandyman.com, or www.badassfaeries.com.