I am delighted to welcome guest blogger and award winning SF and fantasy author Sean McMullen to my blog. Sean shares some of his historical research techniques, as well as the challenges when weaving plot with the limits of the times and technology of 1901.
My latest novel, Changing Yesterday is set in 1901, and concerns a plot to start a war between Britain and Germany to unify the British Empire. In an alternate history, the conspirators (the Lionhearts), succeed too well, and the war lasts over a hundred years. With the entire world on the brink of destruction, two military cadets, Liore and Fox, travel back through time to stop the bombing and prevent the war from ever happening.
As a novelist this gave me lots of challenges. For a start, not many novels have been written about the everyday life of teenagers in Melbourne in 1901, so I had to do a lot of research in a lot of scattered sources. I also had to get some pretty obscure details right, like were the first motorbikes available in Melbourne in 1901, was there an overnight train to Adelaide, and just what did people do to kill time during the six week voyage from Melbourne to England?
I started with Google, as one does, but the internet’s limitations soon became clear. Not everything is online, and not everything that is online is accurate. You have to check three or four sites to make sure that the content of the first hit is not just wishful thinking on the part of author. Another problem was that some questions were just too general for the average website. What was life like on a passenger liner traveling to England in 1901? You have to look in autobiographies to find that sort of thing, and that takes days of work in real libraries.
Changing Yesterday continues the adventure begun in Before the Storm. The bombing of parliament has been foiled by the time traveling cadets, aided by the Melbourne teenagers Daniel, Emily, Barry and Muriel. These characters needed backgrounds. Daniel and Emily are from a rich family, so they were not hard. Tour some of the National Trust houses and you get a pretty good idea of how people with money lived back then. Barry is a school dropout who works at the local railway station, and is learning to be a petty thief in his spare time. He was also easy. Muriel was originally going to be a shopkeeper’s daughter, somewhere in the social middle ground. Then I realised that Melbourne was an important artistic centre in 1901, and was called the Paris of the South. Suddenly Muriel could be an exotic young artist, who hangs out in coffee houses, knows Norman Lindsay, plans to have a career, and even poses nude for art classes. When she starts dating Daniel, it causes a scandal. This is the great thing about research: you keep finding the answers to questions you have not even asked.
By the beginning of Changing Yesterday the alliance of teenagers that saved the world is falling apart, but the Lionhearts are still trying to start a war between Britain and Germany. When Muriel dumps Daniel and runs off with Fox, Daniel has a nervous breakdown. His parents put him on a ship to England, so he can have some sense thrashed into him in an English boarding school. Meantime the Barry steals a deadly plasma rifle that Liore brought with her from the future. He steals some money and respectable clothes, then flees for England on Daniel’s ship, intending to sell Liore’s weapon to the king, and hopefully get knighted as well. Liore chases after Barry on another ship. So do the Lionhearts, who now know about the weapon. They think they can use it to start a war with Germany, and they are right. Liore catches up with the ship at Colombo, then the Lionhearts sneak aboard. At this point the story has been described as the Terminator on the Titanic, but by the end the book the world has been saved – and I didn’t even sink the ship.
So, most of the action happens aboard ships going to England, and that is a six week voyage. What did people do on six week voyages in 1901? The internet was no help, and although the movie Titanic was very well researched and gave a great feel for life aboard big passenger liners in this period, the Atlantic crossing took only a few days – icebergs permitting – while the trip from Australia took six weeks or more. A couple of days of reading biographies in the State Library answered enough questions to let me keep writing. The main differences involved a greater need to keep the passengers entertained for weeks at a time. There were concerts, singalongs, dances, fancy dress balls and deck games, in addition to reading books from the ship’s library and listening to lectures and readings by important passengers. Quite a lot of flirting went on between passengers as well. Daniel finds this out as the only eligible boy available to the couple of dozen teenage girls traveling first class (Barry is definitely not available, having been thrown into the brig very early for petty theft, creating a nuisance, and appalling manners).
Claudia Christian (Star of Babylon 5 television series)
At this stage I went back to the web, looking for the popular songs and dances of 1901. This time I found more detail than I needed. This was an interesting lesson. Check the web about 1901 songs, dances, fashions, art, pistols or radios, and you will find answers really quickly. Try to work out what the people of 1901 did when they were in the middle of the Indian Ocean and bored senseless, and things go really quiet. The web was also great for technical detail. There were plenty of pictures and diagrams of 1901 ships, and more data on triple and quadruple expansion steam engines than I ever wanted to know. There were also contemporary photographs of Colombo and Port Said, where ships called to fill up with coal. This helped me put in a lot more detail, which I would have to have guessed about otherwise.
One unexpected side effect of all the technical detail on the web was the way it steered the plot. The early radios had a very limited range, but they had such a cool, steampunk look that I actually changed the plot to work one in. Because I was learning so much about ships’ engines, I decided to have Daniel spend a lot of time down in the engine hall, and by the end of the book he has decided to forget becoming a lawyer and run away to sea and become a ship’s engineer. Interestingly, the artist did a steam powered broken heart for the cover, which is pretty symbolic of Daniel’s condition for most of the book.
Originally, I thought that by using retro science fiction and alternate history, I would be taking a pretty boring setting and making it really exciting. Instead, I discovered that life aboard the early passenger liners could be a lot of fun, that you could stay in Melbourne and still have a great Bohemian lifestyle, and that in spite of all the social restrictions of 1901 society, in many ways they were more liberated than we are. As for research, use the web to get an overview and avoid dead-ends, but don’t give up just because what you want is not there. Books and libraries are really good value for finding great details that are not online. Too many people give up if it’s not on the web. As an author, that can give you a real edge.
Changing Yesterday was released by Ford Street Publishing on 1 July 2011
Visit Sean’s website: http://seanmcmullen.net.au