Fiction is all made-up stories, as everyone knows. So why am I surrounded by research books? (Besides being CDO [that’s OCD but properly alphabetized] and Odd). Because I can’t, just can’t, leave things half-done, even in a made-up world.
Orson Scott Card’s book on writing science fiction makes a good point about “bolognium.” You can only serve readers one slice before you start straining their beliefs. In other words, if you have Faster Than Light transport, say, that depends on a new type of physics, that’s fine and you can do some handwavium without upsetting readers. But if you need a second major chunk of imaginary technology, or psychic powers, or a species of walking and talking plants that depend on infrared radiation rather than photosynthesis or chemosynthesis, then you’d better be prepared to do some serious explaining and some basic research. Historical fiction and alternate history are no different.
Randall Garret’s Lord Darcy fantasies are a good example. He reset the clock and the world by having Richard III decide to stay home and start a family, thus assuring the survival of the Angevin Empire into the (mostly) 19th Century. In that world, magic is a tool used for all sorts of things, and no reader would bat an eye. That first change told everyone that “OK, different world with different rules.”
Although set on a colony world (ColPlat XI, or Solana if you read the sales brochures), the Colplatschki stories include alternate history elements. And “real” history elements. Because I am a historian by trade, I could not just write the original story without some background research, especially not once I realized that the “one-off short story” had become a novel. So I loaded up on history of the analogous time on Earth, along with several works about logistics and early modern militaries. That research helped give the world more depth, and added details and complications for my characters.
Without going into too many spoilers [can you have a spoiler for a book that has not even been started yet? Anyway,] water supplies and plumbing play major roles in the next two Colplatschki books. The Babenburg family were civil engineers who made good, as Elizabeth of Starland explains. But just what kind of civil engineering? And what water system could last for 400+/- years, how would it be maintained without high-tech tools, and what problems would you face? Where does the electricity for those lightening bulbs around the courtyard of the palace come from? How do you supply clean water for a city of, oh, 35,000 people and get rid of the waste, without drinking from the Donau Novi?
Those questions play major roles in the next two books (Circuits and Crises and There is a Fountain). As a result, in addition to reading about the development and politics of the Hapsburg Empire (Jean Berénger’s book, among others, for those who are curious), I now have a book on medieval water systems, one on Roman water systems, and the absolutely magnificent Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World propped up against the side of my desk. Don’t worry, I’ll try to avoid Weber-esque info dumps. But engineering is fascinating, and I suspect I’ll end up with a few short stories to go with the books. I’ve read a fair amount about more modern water systems and sanitation, so the “language” is not new, but the mechanics are. At least, new to me.
My goal is not to bore readers to death. My goal is to have a rich background and a believable scenario, so that I can slip in a little bolognium without pushing readers out of the story. But I can’t be happy until I get the facts right, so readers won’t recoil and say “Hey! Your gravity flow water system goes uphill and there’s no sewage disposal. What else did you screw up?”
And yes, I’m a historian. If it doesn’t have footnotes and citations, it didn’t happen. 😉