QSFer Ginn Hale has a new queer alt history/steampunk/weird west book out.
Hands on Research in Fantastical Worlds
Often when the subject of research is brought up, fantasy authors will cite books and museums, or recount interviews and hours spent pouring over old newspapers, police records and magazines. You can almost hear the microfiche whirring around them and smell musty pages.
To be honest I love that stuff myself. Original sources can be incredibly important to a book, particularly if it’s set in an alternate history or if the plot relies on real events or people. (The Long Past & Other Stories was such an undertaking and required volumes and volumes of reading, just so that I would feel comfortable about the elements of mid-1800’s history that I chose to change.)
But fantasy stories set in entirely original worlds are another matter. There isn’t source material to reference. You as the author are building the world and you make the rules. Of course you can “base” your world on a real setting or on real events but the more originality you employ the less likely you are to find corresponding references to search or site. But then that might not be the sort of research you really need to do.
For example, when I was writing Lord of the White Hell, I read a great deal about Jewish populations in Al-Andulas, (or Spain as it would be called after Christian conquest.) I also studied Isaac Newton’s life and early ideas of science. I looked into candy-making, medieval Iranian cooking and the first steam-engines, (the ancient Greek aeolipile, which when considered along side the antikythera mechanism really makes me think that bronzepunk came quite close to actually happening.) But I wasn’t researching these things so that I could simply copy and paste political systems or trivia into my book. In fact almost nothing came directly from history.
That’s because I was researching something more elusive than facts; I wanted to build a kind of mental dictionary of feelings, thoughts and experiences, from which to create my world and write my novel.
Which sounds weird, I know.
But think of it this way, after you’ve traveled to a new place you don’t think back on it as a series of statistics or still photos of artifacts. Your idea about the place is filled with living experiences and sensations. Maybe you recollect it the flavors of spices that pervade the dishes you ate, maybe you can still feel the uneven surfaces of the cobbled streets beneath your feet. Perhaps the smell of rain falling across sunbaked limestone returns to you to that distant land.
Any number of sensations might evoke places or times past.
My point is that living in a setting, engages your senses. Evoking those sensations can bring a setting or experience alive as no amount of reference material alone can. It’s those key sensations that I—and a lot of fantasy authors— need to experience, so that I can share them with readers.
But of course I can’t just book a cruise to Cadeleon and tour the Sagrada Academy while school is out. I can’t even pop open Google Street View and virtually eyeball the vivid mosaics lining the streets of the Haldiim district in Analeto.
But what I can do is walk similar winding roads, as the dust coats my boots. I can wander through open-air markets, I can clean horse stalls, and recreate recipes for adhil bread, (or beg my wife to do it, since she’s a far better cook than I am.) I can run as hard and fast as possible through snowdrifts, as Kiram must do. I can feel the bite of exhaustion in my side and understand his desperation. I can listen to the different calls of crows and study the way their shadows pass overhead.
All of this is research, because all of it will go into building the settings, the scenes and the characters of the book. And in the end, if I’ve done it right, readers won’t wonder what sources I checked, or why I included any particular detail. They won’t be aware of any of the effort that went into constructing this flight of fancy. They’ll simply enter the world of the book and let it come alive around them.
1858 –Warring mages open up a vast inland sea that splits the United States in two. With the floodwaters come creatures from a long distant past. What seems like the End Times forges a new era of heroes and heroines who challenge tradition, law, and even death as they transform the old west into a new world.
In the heart of dinosaur country a laconic trapper and a veteran mage risk treason to undertake a secret mission.
A brilliant magician and her beautiful assistant light up stages with the latest automaton, but the secrets both of them are hiding test their trust in each other and pit them against one of the most powerful men in the world.
At the wild edge of the Inland Sea, amidst crocodiles and triceratops, an impoverished young man and a Pinkerton Detective must join forces to outmaneuver a corrupt judge and his gunmen.
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A strange sensation came over Grover, as if he were floating over his own relaxed body and curling around Lawrence in a plume of smoke. He caught the exhalation of Lawrence’s breath and rose with it into the cool evening air. All around him he felt tiny pulses flicker like starlight as moths winged past him and bats pursued them. As Grover took it in, he realized that each of them shone with a warm glow that lit their flesh like light streaming through stained glass.
Farther out, the lush forest radiated luminous green while countless creatures gleamed like a million scattered candle flames. He felt almost as if he could reach out and catch even the largest ones—that sleeping bigtooth only a few miles west, or the two sated longnecks that lay curled around each other—with just a flick of his hand. The warmth of them pulled at him, though the longer he focused on any one of them, the more it seemed to stretch towards him. Briefly he wondered if he couldn’t draw a light all the way from the flesh it inhabited into the palm of his hand, but he resisted. That seemed, somehow, wrong to him.
Instead he turned his attention to the weird blue haze that bobbed far off on the horizon. A grating, mechanical beat reverberated from it, and Grover could see the golden lights of night birds, bats and insects whirling away from its slow path across the sky.
Could that be the Tuckers’ airship, he wondered?
Without thinking, he curled himself around the swift soft body of a bat and winged after the airship. It floated a great distance away, and when the little bat’s strength flagged, Grover pushed some of his own warmth and light into the bat’s weary body. A feeling of shared exhilaration flooded him. As one he and the bat snapped up several fat mosquitoes and tore through the night to swoop alongside the sleek airship’s long gondola.
Dozens of shining human forms crowded the deck as he passed. Though three of them struck him as very strange. Up at the bow on the bridge stood two forms, both faint compared to the others surrounding them. But stranger still was the fact that when one moved away from the other, a stream of light stretched out between them like an umbilical cord. As Grover watched he saw the light flare up in one of the figures—growing almost as bright as it blazed in the surrounding people—but then it seemed to drain into the second body.
Back near the quarterdeck, the third figure sat near five others. But unlike the others this body seemed swathed in an immense ribbon of sparkling blue letters, while a tiny, intense gold light shone between and beneath them. Grover suspected that he knew who these people were but he wished he could be certain. If only he could actually see them instead of sensing the brilliance their lives threw off.
If he could somehow use other eyes…then he cursed himself for choosing to ride along on a bat. The moment the thought occurred to him, he was surprised to find he really could see the figures of the uniformed men on the deck of the gondola.
On the quarterdeck, a group sat near and on artillery cases, placing bets as they studied their hands of cards. Recognizing Lawrence’s countenance in their midst gave him a little jolt. He’d suspected as much but hadn’t realized how perfect Lady Astor’s impersonation would appear. She grinned, Lawrence’s crooked grin, and laid out a royal flush. The guards and crewmen groaned and coins changed hands. One of the men complained that the naked women drawn on the cards had distracted him.
“At least you claimed a lovely view from a losing hand,” Honora replied. “My girl on the king of diamonds nearly made my eyes water.” That won her guffaws and a slap on the back.
Grover swept over them and circled one of the hanging lamps, snapping up a moth.
Suddenly one of the Tucker twins came pelting towards the gathered men. The second twin followed right behind—and now Grover suspected he knew why they stayed so very close to each other.
“There’s a spy on board!” the first Tucker shouted.
“There.” The second lifted a pistol towards Grover. Terror raced through the tiny body he inhabited.
Honora instantly stood, blocking the shot.
“Are you mad?” Honora’s words boomed out in Lawrence’s voice. Even the Tuckers froze in response to the authoritative tone. “We’re surrounded by cases of explosives, alchemic dust and black powder. And you’re aiming at a lamp!”
Grover took advantage of the Tuckers’ hesitation to flit back into the darkening sky.
Award-winning author Ginn Hale lives in the Pacific Northwest with her lovely wife and their ancient, evil cat. She spends the rainy days admiring local fungi. The stormy nights, she spends writing science-fiction and fantasy stories featuring LGBT protagonists. (Attempts to convince the cat to be less evil have been largely abandoned.)