On Researching for an Alternative History Novel

When writing fantasy, especially alternative history such as the turn-of-the-century late-Victorian-styled world in which The Procurement of Souls is set, how does the writer ensure they hook the reader sufficiently enough that they are prepared to suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves within the story? Surely anything goes: it’s fantasy/science fiction, after all! Perhaps not quite. Genre-writing advice tells us that for readers to ‘buy-in’ to the writer’s creation, the imagined-world or premise must at least be rooted in some form of truth. The reader needs something to hang their hat on, after all. A general frame of reference from which the imagination can flow. However tenuous the link to reality, the writer needs to plant the seed from which their own original warped logic can grow. How spurious a link this may be, probably depends on the individual reader when it comes to actually bearing the fruit of an unbelievable-yet-believable story of fantasy, but it must be there somewhere! Take the steampunk sub-genre for example, which developed out of the notion that the (very real) 19th century industrial revolution continued down the path of steam-powered technologies. From this broad truth, all manner of marvel and mayhem has been produced and enjoyed at face-value. These stories all have a bent logic to them.

Where does one start, then? How much research and embedding of truth needs to be done? Ultimately, I suppose that’s down to the writer to decide. Personally, I did a lot of research. Given that I love reading and books (of course!), it wasn’t a hardship, but it did take time to trawl the libraries, second-hand bookshops, organisations’ websites and individuals’ blogs. I wanted to ensure that the late-Victorian context of #PoS is loosely inferred within the fabric of the otherwise-fantastical-world I have tried to create (although I purposefully never situate it within a specific year): in the architecture; the clothing; in the social norms of the time such as girls’ schooling; in some aspects of the technologies available in the period – the weaponry and the transport; in religion. Added to this, I also tried to marry up some of the classic 19th century gothic literary tropes such as the questioning of spirituality, and transitioning new technologies (embodied by The Guild in #PoS). For the science elements of the story, I have taken my seeds of truth from things like the properties of specific elements, or very loosely from established structures such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (albeit a mid-20th century construct), with the hope that today’s reader will subconsciously make the necessary connections to accept the logic of my #PoS world.

I’ll be sure to follow this article up with a list of great non-fiction books which others may find useful in their own research…

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