Research – good, solid, grounding research -is essential for any book, but doubly so for a historical fantasy – and thrice that when you’re using extant and still in-use locations for your setting!
The Devil’s West books are set in the American West, the land that in our timeline was the Louisiana Purchase. I’d taken a major on American social and political history in college, so the bones of What If were already set: what if our exploration into the West had gone differently? What if, instead of a Gold Rush and a Land Rush, instead of Manifest Destiny, we’d been forced to slow down, to consider the territory west of the Mississippi a sovereign land, to be wooed and negotiated with rather than colonized? What if magic resisted “civilization?”
But writing about the Territory brought up a significant problem: North America is vast. The continental US alone is nearly 2 million acres, over 4,500 kilometers from one coast to the other, and wildly varied in geology, geography, flora and fauna.
But the magic of the Territory is entirely tied into the land, the adventures Isobel and Gabriel face intrinsically tied to the geography they are riding. To create a new mythology, one believable to people who lived there, Known History and facts wouldn’t be enough, and neither would imagination. I had to get it right.
And that meant a Research Road Trip.
I’ve done these before – normally this involves visiting a lot of museums and old buildings, adding texture to the readings I’d done beforehand. Visceral, but also very methodical, done with a specific goal in mind. But in 1801 – the time period of these books – humans rested lightly here, and very little remains for the public to see, and its appearance now, tamed to agriculture and urban living, wasn’t what I was looking for.
But while America-the-nation is young, the land itself is not, and it remembers. I avoided cities entirely, staying in small towns that were barely dots on the map, taking older roads where occasionally we were the only car visible for miles. And I looked, and I listened.
My research took me through Kansas, finding the restored grasslands and high plains, an undulating landscape that looks plain at first, but hide secrets in its soil, stories in the stones that protrude out of the ground, and were left reaching into the sky millennia after ancient oceans receded.
It took me through Wyoming, where hot springs and steam geysers rumbled underfoot, and the roads zig-zag through towering mountains and dangerous late-spring snows. Seeing bison (buffalo) at a distressingly-close range, and grizzlies at a far greater but still unnerving distance. Watching as an elk doe watched me, aware that if she decided to charge me, I was toast.
And it took me to Louisiana, and the banks of the Mississippi, snake and croc-hosting marshes and swamps, under trees far older than the buildings around them, fertile soil that was flooding at the time, and soul-sucking humidity.
(okay, my personal bias may be showing with that last bit).
I put my hands in the soil, breathed the air, saw what the sky looked like when a storm blew in, and the sun set. What the night sounded like, and how the rain smelled. And I didn’t touch the manuscript, drafted and waiting, but let it sink into my skin. It was a purely emotional experience, not an intellectual one.
And when I came home again, I poured all of that into the structures I’d already written.
Were the scenes I wrote after that different from the ones I’d drafted beforehand? Emphatically, yes. Having that emotional resonance pulled the landscape from world-building into character-development.
Road trips are physically exhausting, and even staying in cheap motels and eating PB&J by the side of the road, the costs add up. But I think the payoff was well worth it. 10/10, would totally do again.
Laura Anne Gilman’s work has been hailed as “a true American myth being found” by NPR, and praised for her “deft plotting and first-class characters” by Publishers Weekly. She has won the Endeavor Award for THE COLD EYE, and been shortlisted for the Nebula Award, the Endeavor Award, and the Washington State Book Awards. Her novels include the Locus-bestselling weird western series The Devil’s West, (SILVER ON THE ROAD, THE COLD EYE, and RED WATERS RISING), the long-running Cosa Nostradamus urban fantasy series, and the “Vineart War” trilogy, as well as the story collections WEST WINDS’ FOOL and DARKLY HUMAN. Her short fiction has recently appeared in Daily Science Fiction and THE UNDERWATER BALLROOM SOCIETY. A former New Yorker, she currently lives outside of Seattle with two cats and many deadlines. More information and updates can be found at www.lauraannegilman.net