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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Research in Writing: Reality vs Perceptions

I don’t think any sensible person would question that a responsible writer should do their homework and research any facts that go into their writing, even if what they’re writing is fiction. However, over the years, I’ve learned that getting it right doesn’t always mean that the people reading the story will think you’ve gotten it right. The reason is that not all readers have done the homework and come to a story with a set of preconceived notions. If you violate those preconceived notions they may actually think you’ve made a mistake.

For example, I’m an astronomer who works with telescopes for a living. When I say that, I know a lot of people might picture this dude from a Bud Light commercial a few years back:

In fact, we don’t wear lab coats. We don’t spend all night standing at the back of a telescope. Telescopes have been using digital cameras, feeding pictures into computers since the 1980s. Even in the days when we did work at the telescope, you were more likely to find us wearing heavy coats and we’d be working in the dark all night long blasting loud music to try to keep ourselves awake. In fact, this is what the control room at the 4-meter telescope on Kitt Peak looks like:

And you’ll notice there’s not a lab coat in sight. Why would there be? It’s not like we’re working with dangerous chemicals or anything.

I play with this very idea a bit in my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt when gangsters from a Mexican cartel show up at the story’s observatory to track down a missing drug shipment. They come to the place with preconceived notions they gained from television, but learn that the real astronomers they meet aren’t much like what they believed.

I run into this dichotomy when writing weird westerns and steampunk. People think they know the history of the old west because stories like the Gunfight at OK Corral or the life of Billy the Kid have been told in numerous movies. Even I get caught off guard. A while back, I was watching Doctor Who’s version of the Gunfight at OK Corral and they introduced a character named Phin Clanton. From all the movies, I knew Ike Clanton and his brother Billy, but who the heck was Phin? Sure enough, I looked it up and Ike and Billy had a brother named Phineas who was not at the famous gunfight. In tribute to my newfound knowledge, I gave Phin a role in Lightning Wolves.

In the end, this raises something of a question. Is it better to write to the facts, as best as they can be known, or to write to people’s perceptions? My take on this is that you should absolutely do due diligence researching the facts. You’ll bring an air of authenticity to your work and you’ll likely be able to bring better and richer details to the table. However, you should also see if pop culture has addressed your topic and how it’s been portrayed. If the facts seem to contradict what you’re seeing in the more pop cultural references, you may want to find a way to address the dichotomy in your story. Otherwise, you might get a rejection from a well meaning editor or a poor review from a fan who thinks you got the facts wrong despite your hard work.

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.

Research Trip to Tombstone

Over the past few months, I’ve been working on a sequel to my novel Owl Dance tentatively titled Wolf Posse. In the first novel, the Russians invade the United States in 1877. The second novel picks up where the first novel leaves off and explores the ramifications of the invasion.

One of the things that happens in Wolf Posse is that the characters of Professor Maravilla and Larissa Crimson explore a mystery that leads them to the mining camp that would eventually become Tombstone, Arizona. Of course, Tombstone is infamous as the site of the gunfight at the OK Corral. However, savvy readers will realize the gunfight happened in 1881 and my novel is set four years earlier. The fact of the matter is that there is a lot of interesting history that happened in Tombstone before the gunfight that I thought was worth exploring.

In 1877, Ed Shieffelin was prospecting for silver in an area called Goose Flats. Soldiers at Fort Huachuca told him that because of the terrible conditions and the Apaches in the area, all he’d ever find would be his Tombstone. Of course, when he found silver, that became the name of the mining camp. Because I wanted to know more about the silver mining in the area, I took a tour of the Good Enough Mine in Tombstone. Here’s a photo of my daughters by the entrance.

As my characters of Professor Maravilla and Larissa Crimson get to know Ed Shieffelin, they also get to know a mining engineer he worked with named Richard Gird. I found some good information in Tombstone about Gird. I also discovered that he had a house outside of Tombstone in the ghost town of Millville. It was a bit of a hike, but I made it out to see Gird’s house along with the remains of the mill where Tombstone’s silver was processed. Here’s the foundation of Gird’s house as it appears today:

One other site that I tentatively plan to include in the novel is the Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate. It’s one of the few surviving Spanish fortresses from the 18th century. Admittedly all that’s there now are a few walls and foundations, but still, I found it very informative to visit the site and see where it was located relative to the San Pedro River. Also, apparently enough of it was still surviving in 1878 that the U.S. Army briefly occupied the site.

When writing about a real location, there’s nothing like visiting that site so that you can understand what things look like and how a person might get from one place to another. Also, I think there’s a lot to be said for looking at a famous place like Tombstone and looking at those periods of time that have been neglected to see what history you might uncover. Tombstone has a lot of fun tourist attractions in town that are well worth visiting, but I highly recommend looking up the Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate and Millville and hiking the trails if you visit. Just remember to bring along plenty of water, sunscreen, and bug repellant! The trails are well maintained and there are lots of great signs with more information.

In the meantime, if you want to read Owl Dance so that you’re ready when Wolf Posse comes out, you can get more information, find out where to order, and read a sample chapter at: davidleesummers.com/books.html#owldance