Thursday, February 24, 2011

Heinleining the Just in Time Research

While I was writing Impaler, I did a lot of research (no surprises here - Australian, never been to Europe, only seen snow a few times (courtesy Pennsylvania winters), and I'm writing a book set over six hundred years ago, in Eastern Europe, in winter, involving cultures I had never experienced except through reading books). The funny thing was, most of the research happened rather like modern inventory management - "just in time".

I'd been absorbing general books about the area and the time period for years, but that's not enough for the kind of specifics I was looking for. Things like "Okay, it's mid-winter. Snow - quite a lot of it for the most part - on the ground. Danube River frozen over to the extent that you can march an army across it. How far is that army going to get in a day?" (Not very, especially if they're dealing with unbroken snow). I learned a lot about logistics just dealing with that question.

Then there's the more interesting bits: Vlad is trying to get his army south without Sultan Mehmed II realizing what he's up to - preferably before Mehmed realizes the Wallachian crown has changed hands (again). He needs stealth. Moving several thousand men and horses doesn't correlate terribly well with "stealth" when you're marching them through the countryside - so Vlad comes up with the idea of taking out the enemy garrisons, and sharing the loot with the locals to buy their favor so they don't say anything.

To us, that's not a big issue - but in his time, it was unheard of. Similarly Vlad's decision to buy food rather than loot - despite the high cost (he makes the observation at one point that at this time of year food is worth more than gold) - was a total departure from the norms of the time. Knowing the norms of the time is general research, but the specifics, down to nuts and bolts sometimes, were things that typically I didn't realize I needed until I got to that part of the book.

So, just before the battle for Varna, I spent quite some time trying to find out what Varna's defenses looked like in 1477, as well as the likely impact of the 1444 battle (minimal, since the town itself wasn't directly involved), the architecture of the town, the layout of the governor's palace and where it was in relation to everything else, likely local culture, and so forth. This is not something that is readily available even to the best Google-fu. Google maps helps, interestingly enough. You get a good sense of terrain from that.

Ultimately, I ended up with guesses seeded with the very few pieces of hard data I managed to unearth - things like the old Roman baths still working and converted to Turkish-style, Roman ruins by the palace (which undoubtedly provided their own defensive layer, just by existing), and tried to give the impression of knowing a lot about the place when there was actually buggerall that I could find. Smoke and mirrors, the greatest art of the writer. Mostly I used a blend of known trends in better documented regions as close by as I could get them.

There were quite a few smaller research binges - working out what trees would be growing where, for instance, given that except in the more inaccessible parts of mountain ranges it's pretty unlikely the vegetation now is going to be much like the vegetation then. Phases of the moon in early 1477 was another critical aspect of the story - and that included the extra fun of figuring out whether the lunar calendars I was working from had made the conversion back to the Julian calendar, which was the only one being used in that region at the time (the Gregorian calendar wasn't devised until quite some time later). When various religious festivals occurred, Orthodox and Roman (at that stage, they were in synch - the combination of the Gregorian calendar and a revised method of calculating Easter shifted the Roman religious calendar relative to the Orthodox). I also needed to check and keep track of what, if any, major Jewish and Islamic festivals would be happening, and figure out the local forms of said festivals for the time frame I was working with.

It's much easier if you're writing fantasy - you can just make this stuff up. On the flip side, when you do make it up from the whole cloth, it tends not to be as richly detailed as something that's already got hundreds of years of history behind it. I suspect that's why PTerry uses Earth history and legend and twists it for the Discworld: he gets that richness without having to get all the fiddly little details right.

The big research binge - which took me a few weeks, to get everything I needed and build the right images in my head - was for Constantinople, of course. There, I was reading contemporary accounts of the fall of Constantinople in 1453 (eye openers all by themselves), whatever references I could find about repairs and new building in the nearly 25 years since the siege - including tidbits like the northern section of the walls hadn't been rebuilt, but the Golden Gate had been bricked up possibly due to a legend that stated a Christian savior would enter the city in triumph through the Golden Gate (Vlad's entrance isn't exactly "triumphal", but one suspects that little detail won't matter terribly much).

I even found not-quite-period maps, which were close enough to give me an idea of what the city looked like, detailed information about the walls (I was bringing them down, so I needed to know what that was going to take), as well as all the things a pyromaniac could do with a large supply of black powder.

The results of that deserve their own post, about medieval-style battle tactics - which I also learned way too much about. Of course, none of this (I hope) is lectured in the book. Hopefully it's all part of the background, so everything fits without being obtrusive.

Which leads of course to the question: aside from PTerry, who else does a really good job of Heinleining background information like this into their books?


Unknown said...

Depends on the focus, I suppose.
The two that pop out to me on the fantasy front are Tolkien and George R. R. Martin, but that's more to do with myths and legends.
On the sci-fi front, I'd have to go with Michael Flynn and Dani/Eytan Kollin.

Jim McCoy said...

Harry Turtledove does a great job of blending in the historical details. Then again, he should since he's got a PhD in history from Stanford. But still, it's nice to read something that jibes with what I know, having a degree in history myself. He does a great job of logically extrapolating as well in his alt hist stuff.

Brendan said...

Ursula Le Guin's world building has always been excellent.

Chris Large said...

I loved The Religion by Tim Willocks, a story of the battle for Malta between the Knights of St. John the Baptist and the Turks in the 1500s.

I don't really mind if all the facts aren't 100%, I mean -- how will I ever know? So long as it's real enough, and exciting, I don't much care.

Having said that, I probably wouldn't write a historical piece due to the time involved in getting 'near enough'.

Kate Paulk said...


The depth of the myths and legends does a lot towards giving that depth and detail - and Heinleining them is no less difficult than doing it with actual history.

Kate Paulk said...


You don't actually need the degree in history (I don't have one. My degrees are in geology, education, and software engineering). The degree gives you a lot more background to start with, though - I probably needed way more research than he did, or than you would, to write a similar piece.

In my case of course, the stainless steel lint trap mind helps. For some reason remembering the weird stuff and using that is what adds realism, not the "standard" history.

Kate Paulk said...


It's like everything else. Some people can do it well without thinking about it, and the rest of us have to work at it.

Kate Paulk said...

Chris L,

The problem we face is that no matter how obscure the time frame you're working with, someone is going to be an expert on that precise era, and will gleefully shred anything that's not right.

Then you've got the other side of that, the folks that think they know but don't realize they've been taught from "History for Dummies." - or worse, have no idea that what's in the movies is about as historically accurate as adding tanks to the Battle of Hastings.

Trying to keep BOTH sets of readers happy is... interesting.