GUEST POST: Why Authors Love Research – Days Of The Dead Blog Tour

Today, my friend Gail Martin stops by on her Days Of The Dead blog tour for a talk about writers and research. – BTS

By Gail Z. Martin


I love research. In fact, sometimes I almost think the book is an excuse to do the research. Almost.

Okay, I was a history major, so I came into this predisposed to be nosy about other people’s business. History is the best reality show. Forget the structure artificially imposed on history by textbook authors. History—the rise and fall of kingdoms, the great explorers, the conquest and colonization—was done by people who, on closer inspection, make the Kardashians look well-adjusted and the Mafia seem morally upright.

It’s really the story of grifters, grabbers, con men, connivers, liars, manipulators, opportunists and truly dysfunctional people who clawed their way to notoriety less from noble purpose than from unresolved psychological issues. And those are often the good guys.

Seriously, when you delve into real history—the letters and diaries by historic figures and the people who knew them and the contemporary records—you get a juicy, scandal-laden, slugfest that rivals any Jerry Springer episode. We like to make our historical figures into cleanly-delineated heroes and villains, but they weren’t—they were real people, no different from us today, no more noble or evil. A few people were in pursuit of a higher cause, but don’t cha know it, that cause usually included some benefit to them and theirs. People lied, cheated, stole, played politics, rigged the game, and had hissy fits. They also loved, grieved, wanted revenge, sought forgiveness, pondered the meaning of life, wondered if it was all worth the cost, tried to do the right thing, and occasionally rose above human nature to do something really heroic and awesome.

I write epic fantasy, urban fantasy and steampunk, so there’s a lot of research involved. Some of it is tactical, like double-checking just how far a trebuchet can throw something, or when an invention was patented, or when a word came into usage. But along the way, you stumble down more rabbit holes than Alice, finding unexpected and wondrous tidbits you can use in your story, historical oddities that add realism and interest, quirky or intriguing facts about people and situations that you can borrow and twist for your fictional universe. That’s when research is the coolest, most fun thing in the world.

DEADLY CURIOSITIES-VENDETTAWhenever I get stuck on what needs to happen in a story to get from where I am to where it needs to go, I research. Every time, I’ll find something either by design or serendipity that provides exactly the imagination fodder to get me around where I’m blocked. Often, this means poking around on the internet, following links from one site to another until the right bit of information appears. Sometimes, I go to my library and see what I can find in my books, where my memory can be jogged about a cool detail I’ve forgotten about that is perfect for the situation. Or I’ll go watch something on the History Channel, usually on military tactics or equipment. Maybe I’ll watch a movie with good fight scenes and pay attention to what happens for ideas. Research is better than WD-40 for getting you unstuck.

Research is also how you ground a story in its time and place. My urban fantasy series, Deadly Curiosities, is set in modern-day Charleston, SC. The steampunk series I co-author with my husband, Larry N. Martin, is set in an alternative history Pittsburgh, PA. A lot of the research we do—both online and by visiting the cities—helps to impart a sense of place and make the setting one of the characters. When you set a story in a specific place, ideally it becomes so much an outgrowth of its location that you (and readers) couldn’t imagine it being anywhere else. Even if you’ve lived in a city or region, you don’t know everything about it. In fact, sometimes we know less about places we’ve lived because we never even take a tourist’s view and do the landmarks, let alone a scholar’s view. Once you start digging, you’ll find tidbits of history, important historical figures, old controversies and buried incidents that provide great mental fodder.

One of the most valuable things research does for me is to take historic figures out of their wax-museum frozenness and the myths that have been built up around them and reveal their humanness, good and bad. (Read the bitter campaign feuding between Founding Fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson if you don’t believe me.) While many of these figures were well-known in their own time, they had achieved nothing near the mythic stature we’ve given them since then. Some were actually dismissed or overlooked in their own time because the ramifications and importance of what they did was not yet clear.

I&B final coverBy returning historic figures to human scale, I gain perspective as an author on how to create fictional characters who change the world. One thing I learned is that aside from a few megalomaniacs like Napoleon, most of these larger-than-life historical figures were pursuing their own personal agendas, not obsessing over their historic legacy. They were trying to solve a problem or gain an objective, beat a rival or win a prize. That their actions would leave ripple effects throughout the rest of history wasn’t on their minds. They were—as we frequently are now—oblivious to the fallout from their actions, at least in the grand scheme of things. So a general might want to win a battle, and have no clue that by doing so, the stage is set for a disastrous insurrection fifty years later that will topple the very empire he represents. A person in a position of power won’t countenance a new idea because it threatens his ego, and the ultimate advantage goes to his rival, changing the course of history.

Research makes the writing world go ‘round. It’s not only the font of ideas, it’s also entertaining in a guilty pleasures sort of way, like reading tabloid headlines in the grocery line. Just remember to bring popcorn!

My Days of the Dead blog tour runs through October 31 with never-before-seen cover art, brand new excerpts from upcoming books and recent short stories, interviews, guest blog posts, giveaways and more! Plus, I’ll be including extra excerpt links for my stories and for books by author friends of mine. You’ve got to visit the participating sites to get the goodies, just like Trick or Treat! Details here:

Book swag is the new Trick-or-Treat! Grab your envelope of book swag awesomeness from me & 10 authors before 11/1!

Trick or Treat! Excerpt from my new urban fantasy novel Vendetta set in my Deadly Curiosities world here Launches Dec. 29

More Treats! Enter to win a copy of Deadly Curiosities!

Treats! Enter to win a copy of Iron & Blood!

Treats not Tricks! An excerpt from Girl In The Hourglass

Halloween goodies! Here’s an excerpt from What Really Happened At Little Big Horn

More Halloween loot! Read an excerpt from “Coffin Box,” one of my Deadly Curiosities short stories


About the Author

Gail Martin, Dreamspinner Communications
Gail Martin, Dreamspinner Communications

Gail Z. Martin is the author of the upcoming novel Vendetta: A Deadly Curiosities Novel in her urban fantasy series set in Charleston, SC (Dec. 2015, Solaris Books) as well as the epic fantasy novel Shadow and Flame (March, 2016 Orbit Books) which is the fourth and final book in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga. Shadowed Path, an anthology of Jonmarc Vahanian short stories set in the world of The Summoner, debuts from Solaris books in June, 2016.

Other books include The Jake Desmet Adventures a new Steampunk series (Solaris Books) co-authored with Larry N. Martin as well as Ice Forged, Reign of Ash and War of Shadows in The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, The Chronicles of The Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven, Dark Lady’s Chosen) from Solaris Books and The Fallen Kings Cycle (The Sworn, The Dread) from Orbit Books and the urban fantasy novel Deadly Curiosities from Solaris Books.

Gail writes four series of ebook short stories: The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures, The Deadly Curiosities Adventures, The King’s Convicts series, and together with Larry N. Martin, The Storm and Fury Adventures. Her work has appeared in over 20 US/UK anthologies. Newest anthologies include: The Big Bad 2, Athena’s Daughters, Realms of Imagination, Heroes, With Great Power, and (co-authored with Larry N. Martin) Space, Contact Light, The Weird Wild West, The Side of Good/The Side of Evil, Alien Artifacts, Clockwork Universe: Steampunk vs. Aliens.



Guest Post: Historical Research & Science Fiction by Robert L. Collins

One of the benefits of Cons, without a doubt, is networking. You visit with old friends, discover new ones, and have a lot of fun along the way. One of those new friends from two cons this year, ConStellation Nebraska and ConQuesT, is fellow author Robert Collins. Robert’s published books include Stories Of Feminine Strength, Lisa’s Way, and True Friends. His short stories have appeared in venues like Aiofe’s Kiss from Sams Dot, Golden Visions, Pulp Empire and Tales Of The Talisman. But in addition to his speculative fiction, Robert also writes nonfiction. His works include the books: Ghost Railroads Of Kansas, Pieces of Kansas History, and Jim Lane: Scoundrel, Statesman, Kansan. So since research can be an area with which we writers struggle–how much to do, how to do it, etc.–I asked Robert if he had any thoughts he could share about research. Here’s what he sent me:

Historical Research & Science Fiction

by Robert Collins

Many Science Fiction authors know the value of researching history for their genre work. Usually they do so because they’re writing a time travel story and need to learn more about the era their characters are visiting. Occasionally, they do the research because they have the idea of,  say, “the battle of Trafalgar in space” and want to make certain the plot follows the real event. However, most Science Fiction authors don’t think much about researching local history to get story ideas.

I write Kansas history as well as SF/F. I’ve done a great deal of research into the history of my home state. I’ve used that material to jump-start several of my fictional works.

One example is my biography of the “Bleeding Kansas” leader Senator Jim Lane. I found a newspaper story that claimed that Lane, in the run- up to the reelection for his Senate seat in 1865, had promised a federal post to 17 men. He made these promises to secure their support for him in the Kansas legislature come election time. Sure enough, the men came to Washington demanding Lane keep his promise to them. Lane gathered the men together one night. This is what he said, quoting from my book:

“What I did last winter, I did with the purest motives,” he asserted boldly.  “I thought the state of Kansas needed me in the senate, and it was with that idea that I made those promises which I cannot now fulfill.  If I have deceived you gentlemen, I believe that heaven will forgive me.  But you, gentlemen, who should have voted for me from the purest and highest impulses–you were actuated only by sordid motives.  You voted for me for a price and I do not think you are worthy in the sight of heaven of any recognition or consideration.” Lane lowered the boom.  “I renounce all of you, and in the interest of the state of Kansas I will select an entirely new man for the position that you all covet, and have him appointed marshal.”  With that Lane dismissed the men for the night.

Great, huh? But how to turn that into a story?

I chose to set my fictional version in the universe of my Frigate Victory stories. I’d already established that colony worlds are governed in a similar way to how United States territories were governed during the frontier period. All that I had to do was adjust the anecdote so that it fit into the established background. My research not only led to a story that sold, but helped me fill in details about that universe. Finding such useful material will take some effort, but you’ll can control how much. Start by checking state histories. Look for events or personalities that appear interesting yet aren’t well-known. From there you can either take what you have and build, or dig deeper. If you’re willing to look, and send out inter-library loan (ILL) requests, you should be able to locate biographies on important state figures and histories of state events, periods, and trends.

Statewide sources aren’t the only places where story and character ideas might be hiding. Most towns and counties have histories published. A local library will have their town or county history. Books on other communities can be obtained through ILL. Some states, like Kansas, have a State Library that handles ILL requests. If so that State Library will probably have a searchable website as well.

If you want to go as far as possible, consider historical newspapers. The Library of Congress has a handful of newspapers from each state digitized at their website. A few states like Colorado are doing the same with newspapers in their states. However, for most local papers you’ll have to look at microfilm. Libraries and historical museums are the first places to look for local newspapers on microfilm; state historical societies typically have all that state’s existing newspapers on microfilm.

Keep in mind that this is research for fiction ideas, not nonfiction books. Don’t get bogged down with accuracy or verification. Also remember that, when it comes to local history, there may only be one source.

One last point: there’s always a need for more books on local historical subjects. POD now makes it possible to publish a book without requiring a large print run. If an event, person, or trend interests you, writing a book could allow you to make use of your research, earn back what you spend, and maybe get you a few more readers.

Thanks, Robert, for those helpful tips. For what it’s worth…