Don’t Know Much About History*
by Vaughn Treude
To be successful, works of historical fiction – or those of a quasi-historical genre – need to have an air of authenticity. Thousands of readers would love to catch an author in an embarrassing error. Even steampunk, which bends history in fanciful ways, doesn’t work if the setting doesn’t do a good job representing the Victorian era. The author may introduce all sorts of wrinkles, as long as the characters talk and act as if they belong in that period. So unless the writer is already an expert, he or she needs to do historical research. This can be a chore, a delight, or a trap.
Even for those who love history, the task can be tedious and frustrating at times. Thanks to the Internet, obtaining basic information is easy. The more obscure details can be difficult, however. As one searches, it becomes obvious that most of these plentiful articles are based on the same sources, with little or no fresh information. This can be a pitfall, as research can become very time-consuming, even serving as an excuse for not writing.
Wikipedia (or its alt-technology descendant, InfoGalactic) is a good starting point because it contains the basic information on a host of subjects. The downside is that the astute reader can easily determine when an author puts forth a minimal effort. The researcher needs to have persistence and ingenuity when looking for the obscure details that can be important to the story. The public library (yes, they still exist) can be a great help, especially since one no longer needs to search through paper index cards. In the past, I have also utilized local university libraries, though as a nonstudent I could not check out any materials.
If the writer’s budget allows it, there’s the option of purchasing historical background works online. Amazon allows you to sample many of its ebooks, which helps to determine whether something will be useful. Museums are another great source of information and inspiration. If the historical period is recent enough, family letters, documents, and heirlooms can provide color and immediacy.
While searching, I often run across information that is unrelated to the work at hand but still interesting. In particular, I like anything related to steam technology or the Victorian era. For these, I save notes, excerpts, or links, because they may come in handy for future works. They may also be useful for promotional blog posts which I and my coauthor Arlys and I have done regarding cultural and technological aspects of the era. My greatest interests are inventions, politics, and transportation. Arlys focuses on cultural issues of that time, such as fashion, cuisine, marriage customs, and women’s rights.
Then there’s the fact that research has the potential to become a distraction from the writing process. For that reason, we limit our preliminary research to a feasibility study to determine whether our basic story points are plausible. While I’m writing the story draft, I don’t interrupt my creative flow to do research. If there’s something I really need to know, I’ll make a note of it in the text. I can always fill in that information later. Arlys’ focus is on dialogue, so she keeps an eye out for dialect and historical slang.
We both find the subject matter to be fascinating.
Research is an obvious necessity for anyone writing historical or semi-historical fiction. It can be hard work, but also fascinating. The most important thing is to be persistent without getting carried away.
Check out our steampunk (and other science fiction) works on Amazon.com. Search for “Vaughn Treude” under Books. We keep news and information about our titles on vaughntreude.com and make frequent blog posts at vaughntreude.info.
* A tip of the hat to the great Sam Cooke.
Vaughn Treude and Arlys Holloway are a (soon-to-be) husband-and-wife writing team who specialize in the steampunk genre. Their first collaboration was One Good Man, a musical comedy about online dating, which is appropriate, since that is where they met. Check out Vaughn’s works at vaughntreude.com.