Delving into Alternatives   2 comments

A part of being a speculative fiction writer is that you must research the alternatives. The world we live in is not the world we see in fantasy or science fiction, but that world must be adjacent to be believable. I try to base my speculations on research because the master authors of my genres did that. Heinlein actually calculated the trajectories to get to Mars. Well, actually, Mrs. Heinlein did, but the fact is that the extra effort paid off in the book. It read authentic, possible.

I don’t ever want someone reading one of my books to say “That just isn’t possible” and to stop reading because their willing suspension of disbelief hung up on a basic fact.

The Open Book Blog Hop is discussing research this week. Join us.

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For this reason, I do a lot of research. When I decided to include a plane ride in Objects in View, I researched possible planes and decided which one Ren Sullivan (loosely based on a Koch brother) might own, how long it would take to fly to Wichita, how long of a runway it would need to take off and land, and how much cargo it could hold. I’m not a pilot or a airplane afficionado, but I grew up in Alaska where planes outnumbered cars for most of my life, so I knew enough to go in search of the information.

This year, I was invited to submit to an anarcho-capitalist anthology. Agorists have a spectrum of beliefs and philosophies that I am somewhat familiar with because I am a libertarian (small l intended). The anthology submission guidelines asked for a speculative historical fiction. I haven’t written historical fiction since I was a kid and my 5th grade teacher forced me to write a western. I describe that as the moment I became a writer instead of just a storyteller. So, while I don’t generally write historical fiction, I liked the speculative and agorist features, so I decided to go for it, by starting with the research, hoping that during it a character or three would appear to tell me their story. I officially researched more for that short story than I have researched for all of the Daermad Cycle. I happened to be reading a book about the US Constitution at the time I saw the call for submissions. I knew that there was a lot of controversy about the Constitution and that its ratification relied on certain key individuals and events. I also remembered a book I had read a long time ago saying something about a George Washington letter that would have blown the whole effort right out of the water. So I went looking for that letter and found my pivot point — the thing that was different that changed history. Of course, the difference between a conspiracy theory and a work of fiction is the details — the characters, the setting, the plot. I knew a lot of old Wyandot tales, but I know you shouldn’t trust the stories your parents told while sitting around the campfire, so I had to revisit the history of the Wyandots in Ohio. Then I had to learn everything I could about the first white settlement in Ohio.

Most of my research is done online these days because it is convenient, but a lot of my research involves reading books that most people avoid. Bastiat’s The Law and Rothbard’s Conceived in Liberty are just two of the books currently loaded on my laptop. Our university has an excellent library filled with bunches of old dusty books nobody reads anymore … except for a speculative fiction writer looking for outrageous ideas that have some research supporting them.

So far, I’ve focused on the research and methods, but I want to tell you about an unusual bit of research I did some years ago.

My mother’s family is really huge. Grandparents had six children, who each had children, and now their children and grandchildren have had children. One of my cousins died when I was four and I grew up with that death looming over us. Harry was apparently everybody’s favorite, a gregarious fellow, a war hero, a man shot and killed by a drug dealer who was acquitted of his murder. Harry was there to buy pot and the guy shot him because drug dealers are ravening wolves. I accepted that story growing up because I didn’t know any better.

One way that I deal with things that bother me, that get in under my skin, is to write about them, but in writing Harry’s story, I realized that I really didn’t know the story. I knew one side of the story. I felt like I needed to know the other side … the rest of the story. So, I spent part of a vacation visiting the County Records in Seattle Washington and dusting off a 20-year-old file. What a mind-blowing experience! It caused me to ask more questions and get more answers from the family.

I learned things about Harry that my family was denying. Harry may well have been a great guy before he was a soldier in Vietnam. His high school grades were top 10% of the class, and maybe he did some heroic things as a soldier, but mostly, he got addicted to heroin. I was already familiar with that scourge from a friend who had also served in Vietnam and stayed very far away from the stuff. A lot of guys came back from the Nam addicted. The locals there mixed heroin or opium in with marijuana or tobacco and GIs could buy a little nirvana to relax with. Later, they’d come back to the States and want more, so they would turn — usually, first to codeine cough syrup and then to street heroin.

Harry was one of those guys. On leave between tours, he went AWOL and my aunt had to go find him in some waster joint in New Mexico. Harry’s CO liked him, so he skipped the brig and returned to duty, but not long after he was dishonorably discharged for dereliction of duty. My mother’s first husband brought him to Alaska for a summer in 1958 and he worked as a shovelman on Gold Dredge #8. He did fine that summer and Mom wanted him to stay, but stole money from her husband to return to Seattle where he started using heroin again. He stole from his parents, my grandmother, and his aunts. He was forbidden to come on my uncle’s property. He kicked around, did a lot of odd jobs, failed a lot, but somehow managed not to be arrested. There was no war on drugs yet. There were just veteran wasters wandering the streets.

Then came a night in 1964 when Harry needed drugs, but had no money. He broke into the home of a drug dealer with whom he was acquainted. The drug dealer caught him. Apparently, this drug dealer, while known to be a dealer by local police didn’t traffic in heroin or cocaine. He was strictly a pot dealer, which pre-WOD, meant the police didn’t really care about him. Harry was a big man, tall, trained in hand-to-hand combat, and his need for drugs made him aggressive. The drug dealer didn’t have heroin, but Harry wouldn’t hear that. He grabbed a big brass candlestick and threatened the man. The dealer was as clever as he was terrified for himself and his family. He said “okay, I have some in my den. Come with me.” His thought was to get this aggressive psychopath away from his kids and wife. When he unlocked the desk, he pulled out a gun and told Harry to leave. This had worked in the past with similar idiots, but this time, Harry lifted that candlestick and shouted “I’m going to rip your head off.” A single gunshot center of mass ended Harry’s life.

There was a trial and even my aunt, Harry’s mother, spoke up for the drug dealer. “He had a right to protect his family,” Harry’s dad told me during my research. “If I’d been in that situation, I would have done the same.”

The point is that research doesn’t always take us to the places we want to go or even the fantasies we want to believe. Sometimes it takes us to dark and uncomfortable head spaces where we ask difficult questions and receive fraught answers. Writers shouldn’t flinch from that. We’re the ones who reveal the truth by wrapping it up in a fiction. (Camus)

As a speculative fiction author, I try to see the world that is behind the comfortable facade we’ve convinced ourselves exists. I tear through that veil by research that goes a little deeper than the facade and sometimes find the worms of society hiding behind the veil.


2 responses to “Delving into Alternatives

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  1. Enjoyed your post. We writers often reveal the truth through fiction – I know I do!


  2. Research that takes us dark places may actually lead us to the light.


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