Tag Archives: research

Alternative History ~ More Than an Adventure, It’s a Mind Expanding Point of View

As my readers know by now, I am a history junkie.  My banner pretty much says it all because I believe there is much we have left behind that could teach us about what we have “yet to find.”  My writing tends to explore both the past and the future and is, consequently, driven by research.  For this reason I like to find fiction writers that do much the same thing because it helps me at least try to share the passion I have for my subjects with my readers.  Learning how people build fictional worlds that attract an audience helps me see the parts that interest readers so I can arrange my factual material in an engaging way.  My current interview target gave me some very interesting ideas.  We will visit my thoughts after we hear from Rob Cerio (www.robcerio.com).

Steampunk World Building and the importance of knowing your history…

One of the trends in science fiction and fantasy literature is toward the rapidly growing genre known as “Steampunk”. For those that are unfamiliar with the genre, it’s a world of steam engines, Victorian sensibilities and fashions, and good old human courage. For those that write Science fiction, it’s also a nice departure from our usual, dreary dystopias and a walk into a brighter world. I have heard it described by many to be the shared universes of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, or by others as visions of the future as envisioned by the 19th century. What most of these definitions fail to realize is that Steampunk at its core is an exercise in alternative history, and the best Steampunk Authors do a lot of research into the Victorian era, and the technology and terminology of the time to give their worlds authenticity.

dgstorecovThe key point of divergence between our real world and the imagined universe that most Steampunk stories use is the inventions of Charles Babbage. In 1822, Babbage proposed a device for completing complicated mathematics that he called a “Difference Engine”. The device was intended to replace error prone humans in the calculation of complex polynomial tables for engineering and science reference material. He later refined this design by the mid 1800s broadening its usage to an “Analytical Engine:” a very basic computer. The tremendous cost of building these intricate machines proved too high for him to continue his research.  If he had it was entirely possible that the Computing Revolution of the mid 1970’s could have happened a hundred years earlier, in the “age of steam”, most notably before the development of the internal combustion engine.

Which leads to a neat question… “If modern computing had been applied to the refinement of the steam engine, would we have ever developed the internal combustion engine?” Somehow, I don’t think my uncle would appreciate his Corvette if he had to shovel coal into it every 300 miles.

Steampunk literature suggests that the great scientists and engineers of the Victorian era would have made tremendous advances with access to Babbage’s Difference engines. We are asked to imagine a world where the Montfoglier Brothers used computers to turn their Ballooning experiments into practical airships… A world where Nikola Tesla was able to figure out the Unified Field theory 60 years before Einstein even got a job as a patent clerk… A world where Captain Nemo’s Nautilus was a practical machine instead of a flight of fancy.

As a result, to write confidently in the steampunk genre, there is a lot of research you have to do, especially since readers of your fiction will absolutely call you on any errors in facts or style. (I had an editor return a story because a character used the term ‘patsy’ when the word wasn’t in popular usage until the 1920’s or so). On your reading list should be at least one of the works of Jules Verne, and of H.G. Wells, as well as some Mark Twain. The first two are to help you establish the conventions of the genre, the third to help you get the tone and jargon of an American of the period set into your mind. Depending on where you set your story, you may need to look into the real-world history of the country in question.

Many Steampunk stories are set in Great Britain and the United states, but the genre has been opening up to include the Far East, Africa, and the moon. This is great for authors that love writing in the genre, but I still cringe every time someone refers to it as “Space: 1899.”

In my case, the post-Civil War America that my short story “The Great Steamship Race” is set in is very much our current reality. Despite my embellishment of ironclad airships, the tensions in the post-war south and animosities that were held onto for generations are still in evidence. The race that takes place between my fictional airships Natchez and Robert E. Lee is based upon a real event and real historical figures that I discovered while researching other works. While some authors might look at the restrictions of using real history to frame an alternative history story as a chain binding them from telling interesting stories, I would say that they haven’t researched thoroughly enough. The Victorian era of both British and American history is rife with vibrant characters that truly shine when handed futuristic technology.

In addition to old fashioned library and internet research, there is quite a bit of real world research you can do to give your locations and Steampunk devices life. I am lucky enough to live in New Orleans, where one of the last steamships operates on the Mississippi River. By asking politely, I was able to get a behind the scenes tour of the engine and boiler rooms of the vessel, as well as a rare look at the wheelhouse. While not everyone has a steamboat in their backyard, there are steam locomotives that still run the rails in most states as tourism ventures. While much of what you learn by observing these machines in action may never make it onto the page, knowing the smell and feel of these amazing machines in action will help give your fictional versions life. I would also recommend trying on some Victorian era clothing… while I have never personally worn a corset, many of my female author friends insist that it was key to bringing a certain perspective to their heroine’s lives.

Me, I just settled for a top hat and a pair of aviator goggles.


So, the ideas that Rob has popped into my head?  If you have ever watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series you may remember a segment where he mentions that the Greek renaissance of science and math that started somewhere around 570-495 BCE was squelched by Pythagoras and his mystics.  If not for him then the first ship on the moon may have had a Greek name and it may have been centuries before the Americans made their landing.  Maybe, maybe not.  As a race we tend to fear those things that we do not understand.  We give them the aura of mystery and magic and sometimes call them evil.  Or, we do our best to control them.  Some of those “mystics” Mr. Sagan was so perturbed with became the fathers of a more lasting modern science: Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, Kepler, and on and on.  There are several Jesuit priests in the mix as well.  Many men, and women, discovered much about our universe while seeking the mind of God: and shared their passion by showing the world what they found.  Sometimes it is a war between the mystics and the rational thinkers; sometimes it’s a matter of timing.

So, what I learned from a point of view such as Rob’s, is a way of inserting or taking away a concept that could change helicopterhistory in order to better understand the pivots of that history.  For instance, what if Leonardo had gotten his whirly bird off the ground?  It is interesting that Rob mentions Mark Twain as a source since he used this approach himself.  If you haven’t read A Connecticut Yankee in King Author’s Court you should give it a try.  An excellent example of “what if they had this!”

Thinking through the “could have beens” help us better understand the “what is now” and may help us build a better “what will be.”  In the meantime, check out Rob’s website and see what he is up to.  You can also let me know what you would like to learn about as we explore our history, our thoughts, our hopes and dreams.

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Filed under Stuff about Writing ~ Research Tools, Stuff about Writing ~ Tips and Tools

Science Fiction/Fantasy Research ~ What Ingredients Make a Cake Part III

This is a continuation of a series I started about just how science fiction and fantasy writers stay up on the latest to give their tales substance.  This week we have Cindy Koepp, a teacher, an author, a craftsperson and the loving mother of an African Grey parrot.   For Cindy research is a part of the fabric of life as well as an “as needed” exercise in her writing.   From sword fights to aerial (or space) dogfights, seeking that perfect piece of information is what it’s all about.

From Cindy:

remnantResearch for Fiction Writing?

Most days of the year, I teach 3- and 4-footers in 4th grade.  In Texas, that means writing is a huge concern.  Recently, I gave my students an assignment of locating three facts and three opinions in a little reading book they were given.  One of my students lamented that he couldn’t find facts anywhere in his book.  It was, after all, fiction.  When I told the student that I do as much research for my fiction as I do for my nonfiction, he was flabbergasted, but it’s true.  Sometimes the research occurs long before the work on the story ever begins.  Sometimes I don’t go digging for details until I need them.

Real Life as Research

I find it hard to believe that most of twenty years have passed since the first time I put on some loaner armor, borrowed someone’s foil, and tried my hand at Renaissance fencing.  Even at sundown in central Texas I often felt cooked wearing jeans, a T-shirt, a four-layer jacket and hood, gloves, and a fencing mask. Even with all the bulk and temperatures in the nineties, being properly suited up was better than risking a foil or epee up the nose.

During the next few years, I learned two styles of Renaissance fencing: Spanish and Italian.  My studies were as much on the tennis court where the group practiced as in the library reading, and sometimes translating, books about Renaissance culture.  At the time, I had no idea that this information would prove handy in my writing. After all, I was working on science fiction, and the characters were not armed with blades of any sort.

A few years later, I had an idea for a fantasy novel involving a regent who’d rather be training her griffin.  I wrote the original rough – very rough – draft of Lines of Succession, a book currently under contract with Under the Moon Publishing.  Since the main character loves fencing almost as much as she loves her griffin, all that study and practice came in handy.  I ended up with three different styles of fencing in the story, one for each of the fictional countries known for their martial skills.  One group uses a mutation of the Spanish style I’d studied.  Another took on a close approximation of the Italian style.  The last?  I totally made that one up based on things I thought might be possible.

Last summer, I started a serial called The Condemned Courier with JukePop Serials, and that one, too, has had a lot of input from my fencing adventures.  The main character is a fencing instructor who was tasked with discovering a traitor.  For that tale to work, she has to be very competent with a sword.

I have another case of research long before any project was conceived.  I’ve had parrots since I was in high school.  Some have been little shavers like cockatiels.  Now I have a goofy African Grey.  Parrots are a real hoot, literally and figuratively.  They have each had different personalities and their own flair for bizarre antics.  I had a cockatiel who would wolf whistle, and if I either didn’t answer him or if I answered him “incorrectly,” he would repeat the wolf whistle very slowly until I “got it right.”  One of my other cockatiels would have qualified for the parrot version of the X-Games.  She would walk off the side of the cage and fall more than halfway before she started flapping her wings.  At first, I thought she’d just been klutzy, but when I put her back on top of the cage, she did it again and again and again.  She’d also fly to my purse and go exploring, taking everything out one thing at a time and inspecting it carefully.  I had a cockatiel who made spitballs out of whatever bits of paper she could get her beak on.  My dusky pionus beat up his toys.  My white-capped pionus strutted around his cage and gutted jalapeños for snacks.  My African Grey chatters and destroys oatmeal boxes.  She’s also learning all the bird calls from a new clock donated by an interested student at Christmas.

A couple years ago, I came up with a wild idea: tell a whole story from the point of view of a parrot and a dog.  I’ve recently finished the rough draft, and although I really do need to have the human characters tell parts of the tale, especially when the bird and dog are nowhere in the scene, the parrot in the story took on characteristics of each of the loony birds I’ve had over the last couple dozen years.

Research on Purpose

Not all of my research happens years in advance.  Sometimes I’m working on a project and need information on how something works so I can give my stories more realism.

I am not a pilot.  What I know about actually flying an aircraft wouldn’t fill up a sticky note, but when I wrote Remnant in the Stars, one of the main characters was a pilot, and a combat pilot no less.  I had to find out how flight physics works so I could extrapolate for how it would change in space.  While I was at it, I also studied up on dogfighting maneuvers.  I never actually use the term “Immelmann turn” in Remnant, but the pilot executes one a couple times.  She also experiences G-forces in a couple places and has to compensate for it.

Lines of Succession, for a fantasy story, had a lot of research.  In addition to fencing, I needed to know how black powder weapons work.  They were going to be loaded and fired on camera, so I really needed to know what was going on.  Fortunately, I found some sites with videos and descriptions, and my editor and some pals pointed me toward some other videos, and the mission was accomplished.

Another manuscript that took a lot of research was Like Herding Wind.  I needed to find out how old mines of the late 1890s and early 1900s in Michigan were built.  For a scene that has since been cut, I learned about the early cars, especially the Ford Fordor. Then there was medical phenomena.  Boy, did I have to do some digging for all kinds of information on medical phenomena.  The main character is an alien paramedic, and the trouble she doesn’t get into…

Research in Fiction? Oh, Yes, Please!

So, true enough.  I do indeed research very many things that I sometimes don’t use at all, but at some point in the tale, I thought I’d need it, so I paused to go scare it up.  If I do a good job, you shouldn’t be able to tell the research has been done.  In any case, I have almost as much fun learning the new stuff as I do writing the story that initiated the spark to learn.

Check out Cindy’s book, Remnant of the Stars at Amazon.  Kindle is currently available, paperback soon.   You can also visit her website: Cindy Koepp: Writing on the Edge  or her Facebook page .

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Filed under Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck, Stuff about Writing ~ Tips and Tools

Science Fiction/Fantasy Research – What Ingredients Make a Cake Part II

So, in continuation of this miniseries I interviewed a slightly different sort of author, one who writes for children.  Sharon L Norris write children’s books in order to wrap a story around some fun fact from the sciences.  Here are her responses to my areas of interest.  I have left her delightful Australian spelling and usage as written.


Does your research drive your story; or does your story shape your research?

The concept for my children’s early reader book ‘The Blink-off’ was derived from reading a Little Golden Book on ‘cats’. It mentioned that cats did not blink. I then started researching this phenomenon and found that cats do blink, but not very often. They have a third eyelid, a clear one that covers the pupil and keeps out dust and dirt. This means they do not blink as often as humans do. I was fascinated by this concept and developed a story for early readers around it.

Research was paramount in driving my mid-grade novel ‘The Balloonatic’, published by Macmillan Education Australia. This story, about a young boy who loves hot air ballooning and has to land a balloon when the pilot collapses in mid-flight, required significant research on the subject of ballooning. In the research process, where I learned about the dynamics of flight, I found some wonderfully illustrated books that gave me ideas for the landing scenario in this novel.

How do you keep yourself informed of new developments in the scientific fields?

I am currently writing a YA novel set in the future so I am using the internet to find blogs, pages and discussion fora so I can remain up to date with particular things like weaponry, military behaviour and strategy – things I know little about personally. I am also considering a sequel to ‘The Balloonatic!’ and am expanding my knowledge of modern hot air ballooning.

Do you try to shape your stories around hard science; or do you ignore or reach beyond what is known into the possible, probable, or does it matter?

I specialise in writing for educational markets and the success of ‘The Blink-off’ has encouraged me to continue to explore scientific concepts in fiction for early readers. The language that needs to be used for early readers can sometimes limit what you write. Abstract thoughts and concepts are not encouraged in early literacy materials as they are often too difficult for young children to understand.

What sorts of things inspire your interest to seek more information?

As a children’s writer, I’m fascinated by the natural environment and how things work. The smallest thing can be of great interest to young children, but they need to clearly understand and make connections in order to make sense of what you’re trying to tell them. Researching topics young children find fascinating is part of my job as a children’s writer.

What sorts of things tend to spark the idea of a story?

I’m an avid people-watcher. When I’m on a bus or sitting on a park bench I discreetly take note of everything around me and what people are doing. How children interact with each other and with older people. How they speak and what they say. Riding the bus has given me so many ideas just from hearing people’s conversations. I don’t strain to eavesdrop – buses are noisy so passengers will naturally talk louder to be heard. They just don’t realize how far their voices carry!

The media is also another source of story ideas for me. Reports of real life events, people, places and things will spark story ideas that I then elaborate or embellish. My mid-grade novel ‘Finders Keepers’ was sparked by a media report about children who found a dinosaur egg in sand dunes and hid it when the Government tried to take it away from them. In my story, the two child protagonists find and then hide their dinosaur egg when a greedy uncle tries to sell it to the highest bidder. They end up donating the egg to a museum so it would belong to everyone.

Do you often have characters in mind and find yourself in search of a scientific background to suit their character and its development?

I once imagined what the late Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin, was like as a boy. He was alive then and I could just imagine him as a little boy running amok on his parents’ wildlife reserve (which later became the iconic Australia Zoo). I developed a boy character I imagined was very like Steve Irwin as a child, and thus was born my short novel for early-fluent readers titled ‘The Croc Shock’. This novel chronicles the adventures of Jack Sherman, who lives on a wildlife reserve and takes a baby saltwater crocodile to school for Show and Tell Day (or Show and Crow Day as it’s called in the book). When fear and ignorance about the crocodile threaten to get Jack into a lot of trouble, he gives his Show and Tell talk to the entire school to educate them. In the process, the reader learns a lot of scientific facts about ‘salties’.

Do you like to teach science with your writing and if so, is it your only goal or do you just have a lot of fun playing with the ideas that scientific theory presents?

I challenge myself to take a concept that interests me and look for an ‘angle’ I can explore, just as journalists look for the angle they will take when they write their stories for newspapers and magazines. There is always a lot of fun in this process.

Do you see correlations between scientific theory as it develops and your own philosophy or world view?

I learn a lot from the research process and from critically evaluating the research. I feel this can only stimulate my development as a writer and mean a better story for the reader.

Does this perspective become part of your characters’ development, or just background?

It’s important that child characters in children’s books solve their problems or dilemmas with as little help from adults as possible. So for me, it is important to ensure that I can suspend disbelief so my child readers know their protagonists can achieve the impossible if that is needed to solve a problem or dilemma.

In ‘The Balloonatic!’, for example, my character Monty is a walking, talking encyclopaedia on hot air ballooning but he has never actually flown in a balloon until he receives a gift certificate on his birthday for a dawn flight. When the pilot collapses in mid-flight, Monty has to use every ounce of knowledge he has to bring the balloon down safely as three lives depend on it.

What is your most favorite, wonder, awe-inspiring thing that you have learned in the last few years?  Something that confirmed or changed your point of view of the world and all that is in it?

I am intrigued by the fact that despite the wide-reaching arm of technology and development across the globe, we continue to hear that there are newly discovered tribes living traditional lives in remote parts of the world. People living in complete harmony with their environment, and damaging it a lot less than many of us living in highly developed, technologically proficient societies in first-world countries. There is a fantastic eco-message in that for all of us.

What is your favorite writing project which involved research into the sciences?

I have completed another mid-grade novel (unpublished at this time), which involved researching magnetism. I found out many interesting things about magnets and magnetism and this helped inform the plot and the development of my character, Eric. It was a lot of fun finding ways to incorporate those things into the story.

Sharon L Norris lives in Brisbane, Australia, and is the author of four books for children published in educational markets in Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore and the United States. Her motto is ‘take the ordinary within you and make it extraordinary’, and feels this is the perfect inspiration for a children’s writer. You can find out more about Sharon’s work via her website at www.sharonlnorris.com.au, and can follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SharonLNorrisAuthor

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Filed under Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck, Stuff about Writing ~ Research Tools, Stuff about Writing ~ Tips and Tools

Science Fiction/Fantasy Research – What Ingredients Make a Cake – Part I

My blog often discusses recent scientific discoveries that may have roots in history or philosophy.  It also addresses the art of research, whether you are a writer or not, how does one go about finding things out?  How do you fill that sense of wonder that we have?  How do you feed a voracious appetite for knowledge?

These thoughts inspired me to ask some of my Facebook friends who are very much involved in writing, editing and reviewing books that fall into this genre.  I will be featuring my volunteers over the next few weeks and will introduce you to their writing philosophy and their work.  Some chose the interview format, some will most likely present an article.  Here we go with guest number one:  Angus Day.  He chose the interview format.

having nice thingsDoes your research drive your story; or does your story shape your research?

My story line drives my research.  Whether it be technological, historical or theoretical I will find what is currently thought and consider it.

How do you keep yourself informed of new developments in the scientific fields?

Depends upon the field.  Chemistry, materials and things in that vein I have sources as a professional.  Most anything else I skim BBC, NASA, space news sites.  When I use Wiki is at the beginning to determine if there are any credible sources referenced but I never use anything directly.

Do you try to shape your stories around hard science; or do you ignore or reach beyond what is known into the possible, probable, or does it matter?

I do not shape my stories based on what we think we know today.  How people can make determinations about what is possible when we haven’t effectively left the fish bowl yet is beyond me.  I don’t ignore the doubters, but I may try to spin the story so that they get discredited for having closed off their minds.  Addressing the ‘does it matter’, I dislike the hand wave.  Have some guts and build a world where things are possible.  Weave a story of hope.

What sorts of things inspire your interest to seek more information?

Extrasolar planets, out of the box propulsion schemes, myths of my ancestors proven to have merit within new interpretations and someone egotistical enough to claim something is not possible.

What sorts of things tend to spark the idea of a story?

A breeze, news item or an extraordinary event.

Do you often have characters in mind and find yourself in search of a scientific background to suit their character and its development?

Not all of my characters are scientists.  Sometimes they are military, business people…  The fifth novel will have a main character that is a moron finding his way through one accident at a time without any real redeeming qualities.

Do you like to teach science with your writing and if so, is it your only goal or do you just have a lot of fun playing with the ideas that scientific theory presents?

I try to blend the concept of scientific discovery into the lives of my characters.  There is a way to turn me off from reading a science fiction novel and that is the dreaded ‘info dump’.  I have fun with it.

Do you see correlations between scientific theory as it develops and your own philosophy or world view?

My world view is that there will always be the unknowable in everyone’s lives.  It may be out of our reach during our time which does not make it impossible.  Too often people are ready to declare something impossible because it conflicts with what they think they know scientifically and or theologically.  True scientific method seeks to disprove a statement because if you can not then it is possible.

Does this perspective become part of your characters’ development, or just background?

The perspective becomes integral with the character’s development.

What is your most favorite, wonder, awe-inspiring thing that you have learned in the last few years?  Something that confirmed or changed your point of view of the world and all that is in it?

I don’t believe that I learned it but became more comfortable with the view that one’s belief system is personal.  There is no need to strive for conflict with others that don’t believe the same unless they are trying to oppress you.  I try to write open and accepting protagonists.  Antagonists I try to construct believable character flaws that lead to selfish behavior and decisions.  My spinnings are my view of the current and future worlds we live in.

What is your favorite writing project which involved research into the sciences?

Fictional development of the Vascaran drive in Legacy of Daddy was my favorite because it is representative of the boundaries needing conquering in order to graduate to interstellar civilization.  I’m not done with it yet.

I live in Fort Collins Colorado with my wife and son. My daughter has embarked on her career as a graphics designer. I’ve been an Infantryman, Swine Farmer, smattering of other trades and jobs and now I’m a manufacturing pharmaceutical chemist. What aspect of my life that is devoted to fitness favors swimming in open water which means I spend most of the year working out in a pool then hit the lakes when it warms up a bit. My wife Cheryl safety kayaks for me when we manage to make it work.

Some other places to check Angus out: Facebook Group:  Next You Utopian Estates

And on the web: The Next You Universe


Filed under My Bookshelf ~ Fiction, Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck, Stuff about Writing ~ Research Tools, Stuff about Writing ~ Tips and Tools

Visiting Adventurers

This week I have something special; a guest blog by an author who took the opportunity to immerse himself in the land and language of his subject.  This post originally appeared on The Thrill Begins  and was presented by a dear author friend, Donna Galanti.   The topic and the process intrigued me.  Someday I hope to visit those parts of the globe that have shaped who I am and what I write.  May I introduce William Burton McCormick, author of Lenin’s Harem.

Researching the Historical Novel in the Former Soviet Union

BadgeEvery author who wants to write a historical novel set in a foreign locale has a fundamental problem: How does one overcome language barriers, cultural differences and temporal and physical distances to get the perspectives of those living in a bygone era?  The problem is further complicated when the historical setting is the early Soviet Union, where information was lost or locked away and official versions of events were distorted to glorify the Communist Party.

I encountered this problem when I first began Lenin’s Harem, my historical novel about the Latvian Riflemen, the doomed vanguards of the Russian Revolution.  The Riflemen were arguably the first great heroes of the Bolshevik Revolution, but they would fall out of favor both with Soviet government and to some degree their own people in later years. Finding unbiased information on the American side of the Atlantic was nearly impossible. History books, even ones on Latvia, made only fleeting references to them. Certainly no source provided enough detail to write narrative fiction.

But I was determined to get the story no other Western writer had yet touched. So, to pierce the veils of history and totalitarian regimes, I moved to Latvia, living in Riga sixteen months to unearth the facts.

It was a daunting experience at first. I arrived in Latvia, knowing little of the language, knowing nobody, not even where I was going to live.  But, for me, there was no other way to do it. I had to immerse myself completely in the land, the people and its history. I rented an apartment in the center of the city and began to explore the country and its past. I met with historians, museum curators and journeyed to every place depicted in the novel. The longer I stayed, the more the region’s tragedies became clearer to me.  Nearly every family had lost someone to the World Wars or Stalin’s purges. I saw the pictures of smiling children who would die on prison trains and went to the graves of soldiers murdered by their own generals.


The biggest challenge, by far, was that much of the information simply wasn’t available in English. To communicate with older historians and specialists on the Latvian Riflemen, I had

to use translators. But this was frustrating and expensive. Because of the Soviet occupation

of Latvia through 1991 much of what had been recorded was in Russian rather than Latvian.

So, as a next step, I set off for Moscow for a fifteen month course in Russian at Moscow State University. My spoken Russian is still terrible, but I used the knowledge I gained at the university to help me with written translation. The time in Moscow also gave me access to the Russian point of view on these events. It gave the book an additional perspective.

Sword and Otherssm

There’s no reason to transport yourself across the world to sit in a room studying. No matter how busy I was I always took time to journey to some location or meet with some key person.  Yet, as my research amassed, I began to spend those long winter nights writing twelve or fourteen hours at a sitting, often until five or six in the morning. I didn’t want any distractions. No internet, no television, only a few music CDs for entertainment.

During this time, I accumulated so much research that I spent the next years cutting through it and polishing Lenin’s Harem into the best, most accessible book I could muster. I knew no one would read a dry historical account. It had to be a gripping, human narrative. Solid entertainment with a warning underneath about the dubious rewards of defending totalitarian regimes.

I thought I had succeeded, but I decided to test it. I wrote a short story about a Latvian revolutionary in a similar style and submitted it to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, a publication known firstly as popular entertainment and secondly as a tough market to crack. When the story, “Blue Amber”, was accepted, I knew I had the right balance between fiction and history. In fact, the work was eventually nominated for a Derringer award as one of the year’s best.

Then, it was on to submitting the novel and Knox Robinson Publishing picked it up. I was honored to see something to which I had dedicated so many years finally realized.

Was it worth it? Well, strictly in financial terms, unlikely. Living years in Eastern Europe is not a way to make money. But measured in life experiences, inspirations for further works of fiction and an accurate, gripping novel as end product – I think I have succeeded.

MAP 2sm

Author Bio:

William Burton McCormick was born in Maryland and raised in Nevada. He graduated from Brown University with degrees in Ancient Studies and Computer Science and earned an MA in Novel Writing from the University of Manchester. He is a published fiction author and a member of Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers.  William is Hawthornden Fellow for 2013.


Lenin’s Harem Synopsis:

Lenin’s Harem is the story of  Wiktor Rooks, a ruined aristocrat swept up in the chaos of World War I, who by twist of fate finds himself a member of the elite guard of the Russian Revolution, a group of Latvian soldiers known colloquially as “Lenin’s Harem” for their loyalty to the Bolshevik cause. Concealing his aristocratic past from his enemies, Wiktor hides in plain sight while the Russian Empire crumbles around him. But where does he go when the revolutionaries win?

Connect with William Burton McCormick

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Filed under Humanties for the Unbound Mind, My Bookshelf (and a movie or two), My Bookshelf ~ Current times

Research – A Special Kind of Treasure Hunt

Photo by Kass Lamb and provided through WANA Commons

We are going to explore something a bit different today.  Don’t worry, book reviews will return; however it appears as though my developing fan base includes some history buffs and some writers so this topic will be of interest:  how to find stuff.

So, remember in school when we were assigned a report, taken to the library, and taught how to use the index card file, the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, encyclopedias and all sorts of other reference materials?  Sometimes, during a research project, you had to become great friends with the research librarian so you could find 100 year old texts and get to look at the thing through a rather prolonged and sometimes expensive process called, “Inter-library Loan.”  Well, those days are long gone and the intrepid researcher is no longer bound by what is available in the corner library (but don’t forget to support that library – we still need them)!

With the digital age upon us, finding source material is an adventure, but it can be done.  Even that classic, Readers’ Guide is on the ‘net!  So, now and then, I will share some of the treasure troves I have found.  Little corners of the internet that have something special to offer to those of inquiring minds.   Today’s stop: World Digital Library.

To provide a little background, in June of 2005 a librarian of Congress, James H. Billington proposed a “World Digital Library” to UNESCO.  It wasn’t until December of 2006 that working groups were formed in order to establish content and selection guidelines.  A prototype was developed by October of 2007 and in April of 2009 it was launched for public use.  There are now some 6,142 contributions from every member country of UNESCO (as of today).

This collection includes rock paintings from Africa dated to 8,000 BCE, maps, coins, paintings, photographs, objects and manuscripts from all parts of the world.  There is a slider timeline on the home page that allows one to reduce the search to a specific time period.  The data base can be searched by place, topic, type of contribution or contributing institution.  The digital renderings are fabulous.

So, for a fun afternoon of prowling through our history or when in need of strange and wonderful points of interest, try a visit to this online institution and be introduced to a world of incredible human ingenuity, art, and history.


Filed under Stuff about Writing ~ Research Tools, Stuff about Writing ~ Tips and Tools