A Meerkat Rants: History will F*ck You Up

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.


About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at https://www.patreon.com/LAGilman Learn more at www.lauraannegilman.net, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.


A Meerkat Rants: History will F*ck You Up — 7 Comments

  1. Fascinating. I have a shelf of Sacajawea-related reference books myself (having been both a Lewis-&-Clark buff and a native-history buff since grade school), but most of it is focused on the adult Sacajawea(s)…and I also have a story project, currently back-burnered, for which they will eventually be important. My recollection of that body of material, though, was that most of the contradictory-identity issues sprang up during and after the L&C expedition (starting with the matter of just how many “wives” Charbonneau had at any given moment, and leading into which of them died when).

    If you’re willing to share, I would be very interested in bibliographic pointers toward disagreements about Sacajawea’s origins and identity prior to encountering Charbonneau. Or are there now questions about the Sacajawea-and-Cameahwait reunion story from the L&C journals? I hadn’t thought that was in serious dispute, but it’s been awhile since I poked the relevant beehives.

    Possibly I ought to reserve a couple of hours at OryCon wherein I buy the beverages and pick your brain about all this….

    • It’s been a few years since I did that research, but there were a number of secondary sources that talked about the fact that the primary-source data didn’t add up (with regard specifically to the age of the woman called Sacajawea, and also that we couldn’t be entirely certain of her identity or origin (she was the wife of a French-Canadian trapper, but he reportedly had several, yeah, and her name is not given in the official records until well into the trip, etc.)

      Her age is likewise obscured, not only by uncertainty as to when she was taken from her original village, but also what Charbonneau would admit to (or know) and what the white men would assume, seeing a young woman with child, etc. Several of the stories re-told about her within the tribe she was raised by suggest conflicts with the stories told by white histories.

  2. The joys of research! Sometimes it feeds the plot. Sometimes we have to scrap the plot or pretend the research doesn’t exist.

    For one of my Merlin books, I needed to know who was Bishop of Paris during certain time span. Every book or internet site left a gap in those crucial years. I finally called the research librarian at a local Catholic college. She had to dig for over a week and finally found 1 original reference. The Bishop, which was most often a heredity position, resigned. No explanation.

    She could take the research no further. But I had enough to fuel another whole subplot.

    Now I’m dealing with well-tempered tuning of keyboard instruments and can barely get my nose out of the research to write the book.

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  4. ::cries:: I have a “secret history” fantasy novel that remains three-quarters written because Anne Bonny and Mary Read were both reported believably pregnant at their trial for piracy (in company with Jack Rackham) in 1720…and I cannot make my timeline work with that fact. Arrrrrgh!

  5. Yeah, one of the issues with my Oregon Country series has to do with the timing of John McLoughlin going to the early settlers to propose Oregon as a separate country…because I *want* to bring in Confederates and it’s not quite working. Yet. Oh, the joys of research….