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How Research Helped Create My Story

Sep. 29th, 2016 | 07:46 am

Originally published at J. Kathleen Cheney. You can comment here or there.

This the second post in a series of guest posts by authors who, like me, have found themselves falling down into a Research Rabbit Hole, often with hilarious results. Because this is the true danger of research….it sucks you in!


I’ve lived basically all my life in Auckland, New Zealand, so when I wanted to write a contemporary urban fantasy, I naturally set it there. This is the story of how Book 2 in the series arose almost entirely from research.

One of the criticisms I got for Book 1 was that there was too much incidental information about the city in it. One of the characters is a huge history nerd, and knows everything about the city, and she has a habit of tossing in irrelevant facts at odd moments. I responded to this in two ways: firstly, I trimmed a couple of the less germane references out and republished; and secondly, I turned it into a feature. People often talk about how, in urban fantasy, the city where it’s set can be like another character. I wanted to push that almost to the point of being literal.

To do that, I researched Zealandia. Not many people, even in New Zealand, know who Zealandia is. She fell out of favour after World War II, presumably because of a changing sense of national identity. She’s the personified spirit of New Zealand (the equivalent of Uncle Sam, if you like), the daughter of Britannia, and also one of the supporters on the New Zealand coat of arms.

NZ coat of arms (1911)

My plan was that Zealandia would manifest to my history-nerd character, Steampunk Sally, and act as a kind of wisdom figure, linking her to the power of the city and enabling her to save the day.

Now, when I started looking into Zealandia, I discovered that there was a statue of her which I’d walked past many times without noticing it – it’s on the opposite side of a memorial from the route I’d often taken after work, when I was working downtown and my wife was in the hospital. Nearby is Grafton Bridge, which crosses a gully to the hospital, and also sits partly over a Victorian cemetery. Here’s a photo I took on one of my walks, showing graves underneath the roadway of the bridge:

Graves under Grafton Bridge

Ever since I noticed that, I’d had a story in mind in which the people from those graves rose up and attacked the living people who kept driving above them. I was also aware of the mass grave beside the bridge, which holds the cremated remains of 4000 people whose original graves were dug up to make room for a motorway (freeway) in the 1960s.

All these elements came together and created almost the entire plot of Auckland Allies 2: Ghost Bridge. A necromancer is raising the Victorian ghosts to attack the hospital, using wedding rings stolen from the graves when they were opened 50 years ago. Only by taking on the power of Auckland, under the mentorship of Zealandia, can Sally help her team to contain the threat.

I gave my cover artist my photo to use as reference, and this is what he did with it:

Ghost Bridge cover

Not only was that book tremendous fun to write, it was a lot of fun to do the research, and to come up with a kind of “secret history” in which real-life places, objects, and events drove a decidedly fictional narrative. It’s the kind of thing I want to do again.


Mike Reeves-McMillan writes, as well as the Auckland Allies series, a steampunkish series about heroic civil servants and engineers (The Gryphon Clerks), and a sword-and-sorcery heist series that he describes as “Leverage meets Lankhmar” (Hand of the Trickster). You can connect with him on Google+ or Facebook, and read more about Auckland Allies at his website; he’s just published Book 3, which features Sally as Zealandia on the cover.


Follow Mike: Website/ Facebook/ Google+

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Research for Writers of Historical Fiction, #3

Sep. 27th, 2016 | 07:33 am

Originally published at J. Kathleen Cheney. You can comment here or there.

We talked briefly about how much research is needed for your book, and now we’ll just dive in.

I always start with my Number One GoTo Resource: THE LIBRARY

This is a seriously underused resource, and I want people who’ve never bothered with their library to reconsider that. Why? Because you’ve already paid for it. It’s free, and waiting there for you.

And there’s a magic person there called The Research Librarian who can make your burden so much lighter. (Sometimes they have different titles, but most libraries have a person dedicated to helping people find weird things.)

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So lets talk about using the Library (Public or University):

Start off at home.

The vast majority of library systems now have their catalogs on-line, so if you join your local library, you can easily search to see what they–or any library in that system–have available on the topics you’re interested in.

Libraries are great places to start for the basic information. You can borrow books on the location you’re researching, the historical period, the events of that time, the clothing worn, etc.  You can borrow DVDs and CDs to watch movies, travel guides, and listen to music that’s appropriate to your time period and location. Basic stuff.

The majority of the items you can get in your library are going to be newer books and DVDs. In some ways, libraries are like book stores, where a finite amount of space means that things that aren’t being checked out often have to go. The 100-year-old book on French crockery? Probably not available….right away.

But that’s the beauty of the library–the inter-library loan.

That 100-year-old book on French crockery? The can probably borrow it from another library pretty quickly. So you won’t have to purchase the thing. (Or at least can look at it to make an educated decision of whether you want to purchase it.)

But hey, you ask, how do I even know the book on crockery exists if it’s not in the library?

Well, this is one of the values of basic books. You can flip to the back of your DK Book of Cooking, and look through that author’s sources….and there you’ll find the gold: All the things that another author has already used and vetted for you.


When Researching, Stand on the Shoulders of Giants


(Photo by Eric Sala & Tània García, Wikimedia Commons)

Other people have surely researched these topics before you. Make use of what they learned.

If they thought a book was important enough to include in their listing of sources, that means the book might also be valuable for you. So flip to the back of their book and read through them.

Don’t start from scratch!


So library books not only have information in them, they also provide a pathway to other books. Those are the books that you might want to borrow from other libraries (if possible).

But I don’t know how to do inter-library loans, you cry…

Well, this is the beginning point for you to get help from your RESEARCH LIBRARIAN. If there’s anyone within that library who can locate a resource for you, it’s that person. Make use of them! Treat them well! Listen to their advice!

Let me tell you some of the interesting interactions I’ve had with Research Librarians:


I said, I’m looking for information on Pierce-Arrow Automobiles, circa 1910.  Librarian says, Oh, there’s a guy who lives just down the street who collects them. He’s part of an old car enthusiast group!

Research Librarians often have information about local groups and specialists with whom they can hook you up. (She also mentioned to me a local SCA group that does fencing live weekly, and a group that had weekly meetings to study Farsi.  She knew EVERYTHING.)


I contacted the Local History Librarian at the Saratoga Springs Public Library and told her I would be in town on a Monday to research 1933 Saratoga Springs, particularly anything about the medical profession, the horse racing, and the town layout. When I arrived, she had multiple books and files pulled for me, many of which were not available for loan, such as city directories, newspaper clippings, and papers donated by local families. She also gave me contact information for several historical society people who would have pertinent information.

Research Librarians, especially in the locale in which your story is set, will know where to find exactly what you’re looking for, even when it’s not loanable.


I approached the Research Librarian about a journal article that I wanted to read, but it was behind a paywall. She said, No problem, we have a JSTOR membership…and she printed it out for me.

Research Librarians have access to a lot of pay-wall hidden resources, and if you’re nice to them and they have the time, they’re often willing to share.


All of those stories are evidence that the Research Librarians want to be used. Can they find everything you need? No, not always. A couple of years back, I emailed the LHL in Sartoga Springs and asked a very specific question: Were women allowed in the hotel gambling rooms in 1909?   A few hours later, she got back to me and said, “I’m sorry, but I have nothing about gambling in 1909 in my gambling file, which is very odd.”

As it turns out, there was a reason she had nothing in her file, and I stumbled over the answer a few days later, but that’s a story for another slide.  The point, is, however, that they can’t do ALL your research for you, but they can do a lot.

So use your library…and your Research Librarian. Stand on the shoulders of those giants!



Next week: Talking about the Internet, #1

RRH Confession #3

When researching for The Shores of Spain, I kept reading books about sailing because I knew that a good deal of the book (as outlined) would take place on a yacht. I wasn’t ‘getting it’ so I actually learned to sail by going to the YMCA and taking a summer sailing course. (And yes, I hate natural bodies of water.)

As it turned out, this only affected a couple of scenes in the final book because I ended up taking out most of my sailing travel in favor of train travel!  But I did learn a new trick ;o)

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Weird linguistics

Aug. 25th, 2016 | 09:57 am
mood: busybusy

I've been practicing Finnish in the car, and have yet to get past lesson two, mostly because I have doubts about my pronunciation.

I do fine as long as the Finnish words don't have cognates in English. When they do? Yeah, that's where I struggle. Here's the problem: Finnish stresses the first syllable.

For example, the Finnish word for American is amerikkalainen.

It's hard not to say A-MER-ikalainen. But the accent is supposed to be on the first syllable, so it's Amerikkalainen. I keep saying it wrong.

The word for English? englantia. Not En-GLAN-tia, but EN-glantia.

It's weird, so I just keep practicing those two lessons.

This makes me think hard about the Dreaming Death series, where the primary language spoken is loosely based on Turkish. (It's supposed to be a pidgin, but has a lot of rules stolen from Turkish, including the weird think where the emphasis is on the final syllable. If you add a suffix, then the emphasis shifts along with it. That seems odd to me, but rules are rules.)

So I'm thinking that if I'm struggling with the Finnish thing, then someone speaking Anvarrid would find it even harder, since they're accustomed to the accent being at the end, not the beginning.

Just a weird linguistics thought.

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Ah, high school...

Jul. 25th, 2016 | 05:23 am
mood: blase
music: school anthem

I was thinking about posting about how rough the last two years have been, but have decided that no one wants to hear it again. (I was mulling this over because I'm on a panel this next weekend entitled "Career Management for Writers", so that's brought a lot of my contemplation about my situation to the fore...and it occurs to me that I'm just damned tired of it.)

So the current going meme, I'm not big on these, but as long as I don't reveal any password information, this one should be safe.

1. Did you know your spouse? No.

2. Did you car pool to school? I walked. It was about a mile. Turned 16 during my senior year and after that I drove most days.

3. What kind of car did you have? I drove a 1964 T-bird.

4. What kind of car do you have now? Ford Edge.

5. It's Friday night...where were you? Likely at home. I wasn't very social. If I was out, it was probably a church function.

6. What kind of job did you have in high school? I worked at Der Weinerschnitzel

7. What kind of job do you have now? Housewife/writer

8. Were you a party animal? No. Not in any way.

9. Were you a cheerleader? No.

10. Were you considered a jock? No.

11. Were you in band, orchestra, or choir? I was in choir up to my senior year. That year the tryouts required sight-singing. Since I can't read music, I bailed.


13. Did you get suspended or expelled? No. In high school I ditched classes a lot, but the school was so crowded, no one cared. I also attended detention voluntarily because I didn't want to carry schoolbooks home, so I just used detention time as a spare homework period.

14. Can you sing the fight song? You bet I can! Eastwood, Queen of High Schools, Home of the Troopers bold, we love your colors bright and glorious, blue and gold....
(This is no longer the song, though.)

15. Who was/were your favorite high school teacher? Mr. Fisher, Biology. Mrs. Love, English 3

16. Where did you sit for lunch? I skipped lunch and worked in the library instead.

17. What was your school mascot? Troopers

18. If you could go back and do it again, would you? Heavens, no.

19. Did you have fun at Prom? No prom my senior year (I did not have a junior year). Graduating class was too large to handle.

20. Do you still talk to the person you went to Prom with? See above.

21. Are you planning on going to your next reunion? Again, NO.

22. Are you still in contact with people from school? One person, and we're not close.

23. What are/were your school's colors? Blue and Gold

Possibly the most boring three years of my life.

I don't want you to think I hated high school, but I didn't relate well to my school-grade peers (and I was two years younger than most of them.) The things they were concerned about didn't really interest me.

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May. 24th, 2016 | 07:15 pm

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Two days worth

May. 19th, 2016 | 05:38 pm

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AOS Season Finale

May. 18th, 2016 | 10:56 am

So, I was proven correct in which individual they were hinting about.

Possibly some spoilers under the cut...Collapse )

I'm also currently working my way through Murdoch Mysteries.

I'm far enough in that I'm seriously bored with Murdoch and Julia. I'm at the point where it looks like the writers may be splitting up George and Dr. Grace...and that does annoy me.

I don't carry a torch for the duo. Instead, I just don't want them making George unhappy. That would seriously piss me off.

Be nice to George. He's a sparkly ray of sunshine.

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Accountability posts...

May. 18th, 2016 | 10:18 am

I've posted for the last couple of days, including a string of food pics. I'm trying to keep those behind the cut so they don't clutter up people's feeds, but I do know the phone app is showing at least one, so....sorry if it bothers anyone.

Basically, I'm using the app to keep track of what I'm eating. No biggie.

I've reached that point in life where, to get my weight under control, I will have to eat less, every day, forever.

This is part age, part post-surgery truth. I did try keeping a food journal, but it turns out I'm just too lazy to do so. (Also, because most things are fresh or cooked from scratch, it's kinda hard to know the calories.)

So instead, I'm just documenting the portion size by taking a pic with my phone. I can upload it roughly daily, and that's enough to keep me accountable.

Last night was the first time eating out, and I was incredibly conscious of "I'm going to have to post a pic of my Chinese food"...so instead of ordering off the menu, I asked if they could just prepare me chicken and broccoli. Which they did, and it was quite tasty and surely fewer calories than the normal orange or lemon chicken I get there.

In that way, it's already worked. It makes me hyper-conscious of what's going onto my plate.

No one needs to look at those pics. They're really there for me, but you can if you want. (I hate veggies, BTW, which is why there's so much fruit.)

And I hope that, in time, I won't need to think about every single meal. But somehow, I doubt it. I like food.

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Accountability today.

May. 17th, 2016 | 06:29 pm

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Just keeping track.

May. 16th, 2016 | 06:38 pm

This is a personal accountability thing, so you can scroll on past ;o) Read more...Collapse )

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