The fact that I do research seemed to be very important to my reviewer/interviewer for Across a Jade Sea over at Underground Book Reviews who asked about it both in the interview and earlier when informing me that they would be posting a review.
I wasn’t sure how to reply exactly. A reading list* didn’t seem too appropriate. Besides, compared to many historical authors I don’t do that much research. Perhaps more to the point: I do research differently. I’m not usually trying to re-create anything specific, I’m just trying to learn, to understand — I figure the better I am at understanding this world, the more real my own worlds will feel.
So, for instance, in the interest of understanding I currently have this big thick book on the 30 Year’s War out of the library. Which is almost ironic, because it’s a war that wracked the Holy Roman Empire, several decades after the Holy Roman Empire ceased to exist in the alternate history world the story I’m “researching” is set in. But it was a book about roughly the right time-period and the right part of the world for a story that’s only a handful of titles away in the queue, and so I’m reading it to try and gain a better understanding of that time and place. I don’t care about who fought who where, and who died, or any of those nity-gritty details. But I do care about the reasons why they were fighting, the social pressures, the culture, the economic factors… that kind of stuff. (Plus: a war that started with some people getting thrown out a window, so all throughout the war people kept making references to throwing people out of windows. Lovely! It’ll probably be some other book entirely, but I’m certain I can get some story mileage out of that tidbit somwhere.)
Anyway, my daughters look at this big, thick, undoubtedly dry history book about a war, of all things, and then stare at me like “Mom, we always knew you were nuts”, but my oldest son goes “Oh, cool! I might want to look at that one when you’re done with it.” Chacun a son gout!
Similarly, I just scored as a library discard for 25 cents an entire book on the construction and architecture of the Hagia Sophia with lots of pictures and diagrams and such. My most writerly daughter sees me pick it up and says “You know Mom, I look at these books you get and they just look so boring. I’d rather just google stuff.” I use google too. But IMHO its best for getting a very basic overview, or for finding a specific fact. For gaining an understanding of a topic there’s nothing to beat finding a good book on the subject and reading it.
Not that I know why I need to understand the architecture of the Hagia Sophia… but I’m sure I’ll find a use for it eventually. Besides, only 25 cents!
* According to LibraryThing where I have been attempting to track my reading for the past five years or so, I read the following books specifically as research for Across a Jade Sea. (This list is probably incomplete, and does not include related fiction, internet research, or movies/documentaries watched):
Diesel’s Engine: From Conception to 1918 by C. Lyle Cummins Jr.
The Complete Titanic: From the Ship’s Earliest Blueprints to the Epic Film by Stephen J. Spignesi SS Leviathan: America’s First Superliner by Brent Holt
Picture History of the Normandie: With 190 Illustrations by Frank O. Braynard
The Small-Engine Handbook by Peter Hunn
Ancient Chinese Warfare by Ralph D. Sawyer
A Concise History of China, J. A. G. Roberts
A Thousand Pieces of Gold by Adeline Yen Mah
Old outboard motor service manual. Vol.1
The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain**
Why did I read these particular books? Because they were what I could find at my library. As I said, I don’t do historical research like someone who is trying to re-create history –it’s not worth it to me to spend money hunting down rare primary sources or obscure facts. I’m going to be making up everything. So I just need to understand. How does a diesel engine work, what did the integration of diesel technology look like and how did it compare to the existing steam tech? What were its advantages and disadvantages compared to the gas-burning engines that were also being invented and introduced at the same time? What did a marine diesel engine of the era look like? What did the big passenger-liners look like? Who travelled on them, and why? Who worked on them, and how were they operated? The Chinese history, of course, was for inspiration in creating Chunru’s country–which definitely isn’t China, but it’s probably more like China than anywhere else on Earth. Small motors and outboard motors… well, if you’ve read the book you’ll know why.
There’s also everything I’ve ever read that was useful BEFORE I got the idea for this story (and which predated me recording my reading on LibraryThing). For example, I’ve also read a book on medieval clockwork, one about a journey across the ocean on a balsa raft, several books on pirates, a bunch more on particular aspects of various Asian cultures (there were five or six of those from when I was “researching” for Cantata and Pavane), on European history (an area of ongoing importance, I can list some of the more recent of those if anyone cares), on Language and Linguistics (another ongoing interest) etc, etc.
Also, never being afraid of stuff that looks old, I have read many fictional works that were written in the time period that Across a Jade Sea is set in. That might have been the biggest help of all.
** Yeah, okay, it’s the wrong time period, but still… non-fiction, journey by steamboat around Europe and the Holy Lands. Plus: Mark Twain. So I figured, why not?