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Steam Ahead with Research by Abi Barden

Writing.ie | Resources | Developing Your Craft
Abi Barden

Abi Barden

Every writer has to do research, most have a love/hate relationship with research – it’s useful, necessary, and a hell of a rabbit hole to fall down. Readers want and deserve authenticity in their fiction, research makes that happen.

The need for research exists in all genres, though some seem to think that certain genres don’t need it.  My own experience has convinced me this viewpoint is wrong.

Genres where it is assumed allow imagination to flow without the heavy weight of research, are science, romance, and fantasy fiction. But that couldn’t be less true, particularly in science fiction. A huge proportion of science fictions authors are in fact scientists. Take a fairly standard premise, multiple races of humanoids who grow up on different planets with different gravity ratings, the writer needs to understand what that would do to a body to show how those people intermingle, e.g. someone from a higher gravity planet will be stronger and able to jump further, they’ll probably seem like a total klutz too because they’d automatically put too much effort into things like picking stuff up or putting (slamming) it down.

Yes, even romance writers need to do their research, if nothing else, on location. Don’t write that the Eiffel Tower is accessed from the Avenue des Champs-Élysées – it’s not.

Fantasy fiction is a more forgiving genre, but don’t think research is still required. I spend a far bit of my time editing fantasy and writing steampunk and I do do my research.

In my series Aether Chronicles, the original plan was to set it in 1850 because I wanted a scene set in The Great Exhibition. But more important to the story, I needed the plot to work alongside the development of electrical power.  So I researched electrical power development and that started in the1870s.  Thus my characters could not go to the exhibition.  It also meant researching the fashions of the 1870s, turned out that the crinolines I’d expected to write about, even had a purpose for in one of the mini-climax scenes, also had to be altered because by the mid‑1870s, hooped petticoats were out, and bustles were in.

The need for research doesn’t stop there of course, even if writing a whole new world with a new set of rules, there are medical facts, geographical realities and the immutable laws of science that have to be taken into consideration.

As an editor I have had to point various writers towards geological realities, you don’t get fast flowing rivers in a land where there’s been no rain for a year (unless you can come up with a good reason for it – hint – a deep natural spring). Whatever the genre being written, check the kind of terrain, certain types of weather and geological formations work together, use them correctly. Figure out how plants work in those areas – or even if that plant existing in the time setting.

Medical facts don’t change – for Earth-based lifeforms anyway. If you cut someone, they bleed. So check the level of medical advancements your society has.  I needed a character to bleed in a book, but didn’t need much blood, a cut finger was enough. I couldn’t have her use a band aid – they weren’t invented for another 40 plus years.  I wasn’t going to use a spiders web – yes webs were once used to close small wounds.  What I found was Allcock’s medicated plasters, patented in 1845, so I put one in the story, and had it cut down and used as a plaster on the cut finger. Ultimately, I got what I wanted, but it came from a believable and researchable source. The new steampunk world I’m creating, recently required finding out how dilute acid could be and still burn on the skin. Facts matter.

Another key factor in steampunk is airships.  In our reality, such craft are lighter than air, the gasbag has to counteract the weight of itself and a fully loaded gondola.  Fantasy iron clad airships bearing all manner of cannon are unbelievable unless they have some new mechanism for being able to raise the extra weight. It could be anything from a new gas in the bag, to an antigravity devise or a new upward thrusting engine. But whatever it is, it has to be explainable. Readers are more than happy to suspend disbelief, but give them good reason to hang on sky hooks.

In Aether Chronicles, I use Aether, an atmospheric gas that provides power and light, I had to give satisfactory explanations for how it can do what it does.  When it comes to the use of that power, I had to give local progression and development for every item my characters invent. In the series, that has included, prismatic glass, jet engines, outboard motors, and a lot of other things I don’t want to give away before the last two books are published.

The other side of research is making sure not to accidentally refer to an actual person. Because Aether Chronicles has an historical base, i.e. 1875 London, in a slightly alternative world, I had to do some unexpected research on names. My character Lord Haversham, was named after Charles Dickens character Miss Haversham, but it turned out there was a real Lord Haversham, so I had to change that name.

I also had to research things like when bathrooms started being put into homes, and what kind of showers existed in the 1870s. I even had to research toothpaste, it was around, but in ceramic pots not squeezable tubes.

One last thing to say about research – don’t accept just one source. The various wiki pages are great, but a lot of them are open for anyone to edit and what they say one day, may not be what they say the next.  Get at least a secondary non-wiki source, and if possible, a third. You need to know your facts, especially on the page to ensure that the reader is carried with you, and all is believable.

The little things in life that make it real, and the appropriate use of fact makes fiction work.

(c) Abi Barden

About Speed: A Steampunk Fantasy Adventure (Aether Chronicles Book 3)

Amethyst rushes headlong into innovation and intrigue.

When their secrets are threatened in London, the Makers leave the country. Inspector Jenson heads out too, hunting dangerous traitors.

Feeling alone, Amethyst falls in with an American team developing a new aetheric engine. When their success draws interest from a private investor to test the engine’s capabilities on Pendine Sands, a trip to Wales is called for.

When the elements of her life come crashing back together, it’s not just Amethyst who’s in danger. In a high-stakes game of engines and intrigue, some people will try to change history forever.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Abi Barden writes the Aether Chronicles, a five-book series published by Aethon Books and featuring the life, loves and adventures of Amethyst Forester. Books 1-3 Shades, Echoes, and Speed are out now, books 4-5, Twists and Flights, release in 2021. Available in paperback and ebook, and Shades is out now on Audible.
Abi Barden is the alter ego of crime writer GB Williams.

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