It’s been a while since I blogged here – Life has a way of eating Time – but that just means things have been building up. And it’s about to boil over in a series of “so let me get this off my chest” Rants. Warning: Strong Opinions and occasionally Strong Language ahead.
Every now and again, usually after a drink or two, I will expound on how much I love/loathe research, and why. And it almost invariably – unless I’m expounding in a group of other genre writers – get me pushback along the lines of “well then, don’t do it.”
Yeah, Person With Opinion, I get it: fantasy is all make-believe. It’s magic and elves (no elves) and swords (no swords) and kings (no kings) and demons (no..shit, okay, there are demons). So it’s not like the writer has to worry about anything other than internal consistency which yeah is a bitch but it’s not like it’s anything every other writer isn’t supposed to be doing anyway
(Emphasis on the ‘supposed’ but that’s a rant for another month)
Except that’s utter bullshit.
Here’s the thing. I wrote urban fantasy for a long time . A dozen+ books’ time, in fact. Books set in New York, a city that I know reasonably well. And I still had to pull out the map and get on the subway, and check shit out, to make sure I had my facts straight, because trust me, if I got it wrong, someone (probably many someones) would let me know.
As an aside, did you know that the underside of the Brooklyn Bridge is painted purple-ish? Also, that if you start taking photos of the underside of a bridge, a cop may give you a very thorough side-eye? Always bring your id and your business cards with you when you Research, kids. Seriously. I shit thee not.
But that’s fact-checking, Person with Opinion says. That’s not research. It’s all still made up.
At this point I usually stop to remind myself that the agency bail fund probably won’t cover even justifiable homicide, so I only ask my interrogator if they ever wrote a research paper in their lives, and if so how they gathered the material to do it. If they say “Wikipedia,” I give up and drown my sorrows in whisky. But if they admit that yes, they have been known to crack a book or two, and jot down some thoughts about their thesis rather than regurgitating a bunch of facts onto a page, I ask them what they thought that was. And what they did when something they learned didn’t fit that thesis.
Because oh my dog, people. That happens all the time when you’re writing a book. And three times as often when you’re writing a book set against the backdrop of actual history. The plot goes Thisaway but the actual events, or people, went Thataway. So what do you do?
Sure, you can fudge it. You can fudge it for a research paper, too, but you’re not going to get a good grade. And in fiction, the immediate, always-easier answer is to say “screw it, alternate timeline.” That is an incredibly valid answer. This is a created world, for all that it’s set against a real backdrop, and there’s an infinite number of ways the writer can tweak it without losing all recognition. But.
In the Vineart War trilogy, I threw most all but the basic overlays out. I could do that with impunity, because my divergent point was with the Etruscans (700-400 BCE) and who was going to argue with me? (answer: a few people, actually. It was a fun discussion.) But for The Devil’s West, I was playing in a background that a lot of people thought they knew
(Rant for yet another time: the difference between “The Old West” and Western North American history before 1820 because oh holy shit. We may need a few beers for that).
So when I was, say, trying to figure out a way to include Sacajawea in the story, because hey, the timing was right, and the location was right, and it would be cool to have her there before she got subsumed by the two-white-dudes-history. Except, except oh god, and here is where I start to cry, the history of she-who-became-Sacajawea is so convoluted and filled with conflicting oral histories and name changes and when-was-she-actually-there… and oh yeah, she was maybe actually only around 12 or 13 when this story takes place. Which would have been an interesting counterpoint to Isobel being 16, but it was problematic in a lot of other ways.
Did I work with her at that age? Did I decide that in this history, she was already an adult woman (as she’s portrayed in our history, since she was carrying her infant son on that expedition)? Or did I scrap the subplot entirely?
Reader, I scraped it. Mostly.
Would anyone have noticed if I’d included her as an older woman? Or would they have accepted it, since that’s how she is portrayed in our history? I’m pretty sure some keen-eyed, history-minded reader would have caught it. But even if they hadn’t, I would have known.
And since that accuracy was the core of the Devil’s West’s world, research couldn’t be ignored.
We fucking hate research, some days.