Tag Archives: alternate history

Cyber Research 101H – part 2

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Okay, we’re at the Archive. We have a topic, and we are facing the empty search box.

It’s really simple.

You might put in “medieval Paris” and you will get a lot of old books about even older times. This is a bit dangerous, as apparently some of those Victorians were smoking strange stuff in their Meerschaums when they wrote about the past. It has been said that the farther back you go, the more modern your references need to be. I’ve been studying the Middle Ages since high school (figured it was necessary to write high fantasy) and the changes in how we picture the Middle Ages just since then have been amazing. Now, I can read the big volumes by Paul Le Croix and call BS on a lot of his weirder stuff, and even what was considered normal back then. This is no place for beginners.

No, as an inexperienced researcher, you don’t want to read what Le Croix said about knightly combat or ladies’ costume (his interpretation of a sideless surcoat had my costumer’s eyes bugging out in disbelief). What you do want to do is look at the zillions of pictures he collected, like a big Pinterest page. You want to read him very cautiously. Take what he quotes from original sources and back away from his own interpretations.

What you are looking for are the medieval French primary sources, like The Book of the Knight of La Tour Landry, the closest we have to a medieval etiquette book, or Froissart’s History, which is the Hundred Years Wars and events roundabout, as researched by talking to people who were there, or sometimes heard from Grandad. It may not even be accurate, as Herodotus or Xenophon may be inaccurate in their histories, but it’s what people believed happened. Mere facts you can get from modern historians. You are looking for everyday life and its flavour.
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Is It History, Near History, or Alternate History?

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It used to be so simple to figure out “historical fiction”: the date of the setting began with an 18 or less.

But now, in 2016, how do we consider the century-old 1916? Things made then pass through customs now as genuine antiques. How about the approaching century mark for the 1920s, even WW2? And how in the world do we consider a steampunk secret history?

Let’s try to make the easiest cut first, which happens to be the biggest one: real history from alternative history.

It’s only sporting to let your readers know you’re doing alternative history somewhere in the cover blurb, an afterword, or a 50-word intro. Otherwise, there are enough junky writers out there that the reader may think you don’t know that Queen Victoria never remarried or that Napoleon was sent to exile in Elba first. With you sending him to St. Helena’s right away, why, the Hundred Days and Waterloo won’t happen! (And that was your point: France without the great Romantic binge of the Hundred Days.)

Also, there are enough people with poor history retention that they may believe your rendition is fact, and your story, so much more vivid than their high school history class, is going to stay in their head as the real deal. I’m thinking here of a reviewer of the film, The Silent Village, who thought it was a vital documentary, and we should never forget how horrible the Nazis were after they occupied Wales, and why that made our part in WW2 so necessary …
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Iron Elephants and Electric Bicycles

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ElecBikeSmMy Early Dreamers reading is getting past the easy stuff. In the category of Invasion Literature, I am not only getting out of English language works or translations to English, I’m getting down to the nasty stuff: racism and genocide. What else can you call it when Jack London heroically describes the annihilation by bio-warfare of the entire Chinese race, and the hunting down of the few survivors?

Elsewhere, we have “Capt. Danrit” with his “thousands of white pages soiled day after day by a national hero of France” (he was killed early in WW1, 21 February 1916), who cranked out more patriotic victory before the war than anyone else from 1888 to his death in battle. His novels are just huge, and he dumped them out like some Franco-military Barbara Cartland. Read the rest of this entry

Dragonflies and Bumblebees

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31DecDragonflyThis flight of fancy, with its vibrating set of wings for propulsion, reminds me of the Japanese “bumblebee” fliers in H. G. Wells’ 1908 The War in the Air (tons of invention, badly written, with a lead character less of a protagonist and more an accidental point of view). Of course, the bumblebees were mounted and ridden like a flying motorcycle, where this is bigger and more conventional. “Flying mounts” rather than “flying carriages” have long appealed to us, as something closer to being winged ourselves, or at least riding Pegasus: they appear in 1827 in The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century by Jane Loudon. However, this one appeared in the December 1931 issue of Popular Science Monthly, p.63. Mad science had not deserted aeronautics after all!

How Much History?

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Quite an assortment of you from around the world are either following this blog or have liked it and, I’m sure as I do to others, drop by now and then.

I don’t know if you’ve ever stopped by my site to read my theory on basic research for historical fiction, 50 Books. Everyone who likes writing histfi knows that doing the research can take over your life, which is part of the fun. The 50 Books theory is to guide the neophyte into not missing important areas, and remind the rest of us that, oops, we need to check how the other classes are living or what really goes into getting a meal on the table, or a table with a meal on it, or how long to get from hither to yon, or what the small talk is about.

Along with that, I have some exemplar guides, finished and partial, for myself or researched for others, on different periods I’ve written in, or planned to write in, from 396 BC Peloponnese to WW2 New York. Sometimes it’s the research failures that pulled the plug on the project, and using the 50 Books has helped me figure that out, and where the holes occurred (which doesn’t bring the sources I need into existence). At least one is a project off in the stages of “I need to assemble the research and begin reading”: in this case, I want to make sure I have my gaps filled before I sit down to a shelf-load of books, and especially before buying those expensive Osprey military monographs.

My concern, as I consider revising the list that goes with the theory is — do I have too much history in researching historical fiction?
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All Fiction is Alternate History

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The minute you introduce your protagonist, if they are not an actual person, living or dead, you are writing alternate history.

That means that, to some extent, all fiction has the issue of presenting the world it takes place in to the reader.

I hear some of you mainstreamers now: “But it happens in a town like I live in and everyone knows –”

Except the people who don’t live in towns, who live on farms or ranches, or in towns in a different part of the country, or who have never been outside the big cities. Except for very regional fiction, your audience ought to include people that don’t live where and how you do. If you live in a Maine fishing village, let the rest of us live there for a little while with you and your characters by presenting their world, not just the events in it. Let the readers in Phoenix and Gilroy, Lebanon and Atlanta, Hilo and Adak and London and Rome, see what your world is like.

This is the business everyone must attend to in fiction, of world presentation. Some people say to not bother telling or showing the reader anything they don’t absolutely need to know for the plot — but I wouldn’t read a book like that. Would you want to read a novel where the writer never made you feel the air of the day, the sounds of the place, the scent of the garden or the garbage, the light through the window? You don’t have to do that constantly, but you need to do it enough that your reader isn’t left trying to fill in everything for themselves — which may do very wrongly — or Hanging In Formless Space. HIFS is a good way to get your reader to leave. They have to work too hard to make the story real and they are getting none of the rewards of being led into some place they either have never been or can only go through books.

As well, twenty years from now, O mainstreamers, will any reader be able to fill in the town you live in that will be possibly very changed, even if they live where your house used to be? You don’t have to describe how cell phones work, but give us a little visual, or even the perfect detail, like the way they heat up your cheek and after a long call you can rub them on a sore muscle for a little relief. Think of how, in the 2013 NaNoWriMo Reference Desk, people are asking for background on the 1990s, as already a foreign place (anyone having a cellphone was a rarity, f’rinstance, but pagers were becoming popular to let you know who to call when you could get to a phone).

So don’t leave your readers HIFS, whether you’re doing mainstream, mystery, historical fiction, and especially not in fantasy and science fiction. Give them grounding, but don’t drown them in details. It’s a pretty thin line between, and some readers can take or need more detail than others. You can’t tell which, so while you should go for The Telling Detail, don’t give us too little.