Prepping for Research

We’re late! We’re late! For a very important date! Or post on MGC, anyway. We are not late yet for taking off on a research trip, which is going to involve multiple museums, and a good chunk of the trail that Walt Ames is going to travel with some horses back in 1870-something (Peter could tell you the exact year. Just as he can tell you exactly who was in command of every little border post and fort, and when they left on the trip, so Walt Ames can do a deal that’s more amenable with their fill-in…)

If you ever thought hard scifi was a bear to research, and make sure your orbital mechanics and relative velocities were matched, you haven’t met western readers. If you have your hero use a gun that wasn’t out until two years later, whoa Nelly!

So we’re off to ground-truth the story, travelling the same path so he can see exactly where a hill, a dale, a camping spot, and a ford were. Fortunately, once people find a good route to travel, they generally don’t stray far from it. Not only are old roman roads modern highways in Europe, old cattle trails are modern highways (or byways) now.

Unfortunately, he’s not getting the entire novel’s trail in… his wife balked at 14-hour days in the car for multiple days. So it’s going to be shorter, with more museums, cafes, a ride on a railroad, and possibly a antique store or art gallery or five breaking up the miles.

Have you ever travelled to places to make sure you get it right in your story? Or picked up an activity, or cooked a dish, just so you can describe it right?

(Photo: Train wreck at Montparnasse Station, at Place de Rennes side (now Place du 18 Juin 1940), Paris, France, 1895. Wrong side of the world, somewhat close to correct time.)


  1. I keep meaning to–there’s a gigantic abandoned sulfur springs resort a county or two away that would be *perfect* for the cult headquarters for the baddies… the main thing that’s prevented me is that I’m not sure how I’d get anything useful without doing some Really Stupid things I don’t plan on doing. @_@

    I did convince my husband to break open one of our prepper just-add-water cans to see what it actually tasted like, though. ^_^

    I gotta admit, yours sounds ridiculously cool, though. o_o I mean, lengthy drivetime aside. Take pictures, okay? ^_^

    1. Hey, you’ve got to make sure your emergency food tastes good enough that you want to eat it in an emergency! And that you have everything to prep it. “Just add water” is easy, “Just add boiling water and simmer for 5 minutes” requires a bit more hardware and setup, whether a grill or a camp stove. …As well, says the lactose intolerant person, making sure that everyone actually can eat it. And that it’ll be great as long as you have some Cajun seasoning, or extra black pepper and garlic powder, or…

      Peter broke open a can of hardtack, because he wanted to check that it was tasty and edible. He was surprised when I immediately went “Pilot bread! Awesome, where’s the peanut butter? Um, love, tell me that for the love of all that’s holy, you’re not dipping this is seal oil?” (It’s not that seal oil is terrible. It’s that seal oil is usually, by the time I’ve encountered it, long gone rancid, and rancid seal oil is …wretched and retch-inspiring.) …Apparently not many places besides Alaska eat hardtack anymore?

      1. Huh. It’s been my understanding that hardtack was the next thing to inedible, and was only eaten when it was the only thing between living and dying. I guess not everyone does it as badly as those I’ve heard describing it.

        1. Nah, hardtack is usually about the consistency of something between a stiff cracker to beef jerky – not the soft, squishy jerky that requires refrigeration after opening, mind. Now, if you make it too thick, and too hard, then it’s basically impossible to chew a piece off… but that’s when you let it soak in your soup, stew, or drink, and then gnaw the softened chunk off.

          Pilot bread is hardtack that’s thin enough it’s just a super-heavy-duty never-crumbles cracker that you can put any spread on without worrying about the force of the knife spreading stuff breaking the cracker, and takes a bit of molar action to really chomp it compared to, say, the wafer-thin of a saltine cracker or tortilla chip.

          …Now mind you, there’s been plenty of really bad hardtack throughout history, made with storeability and transport more in mind than eating without soaking. There’s also plenty of cases when people have loose teeth (like sailors with scurvy), something that requires a lot of chewing is an object of hate. And, to top it off, the old Law Of Cafeteria Food applies: If you have to eat it, you’ll grow to hate it.

          1. Interesting to know. I rather coincidentally read what I had heard not TOO many months before I heard about Sarah writing Uncharted with KJA.

            They were saying how bad it had gotten for the expedition and how the cooks were reduced to making hardtack, which was barely edible. I remember thinking how odd it was that they didn’t mix up the dough in the evening and let it rise overnight, then cook it in the morning, so it wasn’t hard as rocks.

            1. Getting the dough to rise requires yeast – part of the reason old Alaskans were called sourdoughs, was because they were known to keep a jar of starter tucked close to the skin so they could have bread & flapjacks instead of hardtack.) If you’re in an area that has lots of wild yeast, then you’re in luck – if not, you’re out of luck.

              Also, bread is kind of fragile and hard to transport, goes stale (very fast without oil in the bread), gets moldy, and is generally a real pain when travelling. And it bakes much better in an oven than on the coals, which you also don’t have when travelling.

              1. Where I live I can’t imagine not having wild yeast, but I guess in exceedingly dry climates it might happen.

                I was working on the assumption that there would be enough yeast in the air to cause the dough to rise at least a little. Then cook enough for the one day, or maybe two.

                1. Wayne, yeast exists – but it’s not in sufficient concentration for baking. Making a starter from scratch, in a non-baking/brewing area (so there’s not a higher background concentration), takes 12-17 days

                  1. Again, I speak from skewed experience. Here, I could walk into any grocery store, buy a bag of flour, a bottle of water, a plastic bowl, and some aluminum foil, go out into the parking lot, mix up dough and set it in the sun (in the summer of course), and it would definitely double in 12 hours. Without a starter.

                    So that’s where my error was coming from.

                    1. You know those medicine commercials where they say, “Tell your doctor if you’ve visited anywhere where certain fungal infections are common”? Turns out THIS is one of those areas.

                      We always thought they were talking about exotic tropical regions, and yes, those are some of them, but the Ohio River Valley is, too.

      2. I’ve never seen pilot bread anyplace but Alaska — now I’ll have to do some searching! (Even though I can’t eat anything with wheat in it.)

        It really IS important for writers of historical novels to do their research. I just read one where the author had margarine playing a part in the story in 1875. Yes, it was invented about six years before that, but it wasn’t in common use for a long time after that. And there are all the writers (many of them) who talk about bales of hay in stories set well before baled hay became common; some of them set long before even the stationary baling machine was invented. Oh, and the writers who have cotton being the fabric used for some lower-class person’s dress long before the cotton gin was invented, when cotton was still as expensive as silk….

          1. It does! Peter got a can of Saratoga Farms, and was mildly confused when I was all “Not as good as Sailor Boy.” Alaska! Where you have opinions on pilot bread brands!

      3. I remember hardtack! It was served at school in East Berlin, in the afternoon.They served it with what I called ‘colored water’ – we were to soak the hardtack in it before eating it. I smuggled home a bit of the hard stuff to get my Dad to identify it; and he was endlessly amused at my first encounter with chamomille tea. “Colored water.”

  2. Long list or short list? 😉
    Yes, sort of. I tend to get ideas based on where I know I’m going, and if I can sneak in other stuff, as happened last summer, then gravy! But yes, background reading gives me some ideas, and lets me focus on what I need/want to observe or look for. And then serendipity, like the mine tour, sometimes strikes. Large amounts of preparation and a willingness to poke my nose into odd places also helps. (Although if I’d known what was in the tin-figure dioramas about the Thirty Years War, I’d have skipped that floor of the museum.)

    1. Yep, Peter has a checklist of places to look at, and things he needs to see. Me, I have a couple things I want to see, and otherwise I’m just along for the ride. (There will be judicious use of “explore nearby attractions” on the GPS, though. Here’s to serendipity! Maybe I can get past the 30,000 word mark on a story out there!)

      Look forward to seeing you for a hug and a meal when we come through your way!

    2. Google earth is another way to explore places. I used it constantly when I was house-hunting last year, to see how the land lay (I didn’t want low spots, or steep slopes, or anything that wasn’t going to get any sun in the winter) and how close the neighbors were (took several nice houses off of my list for being elbow to elbow with the neighbors, even though the houses were on a couple of acres of land). In a couple of cases, I found that the house sat between two roads and we didn’t want to be that close to traffic. You can’t always get the kind of detail you might like to have, but you can learn a lot with Google earth.

      1. Enough to start asking the right questions. Which is a hard part of Research. Knowing where to start the rabbit trail is more difficult than it sometimes feels like it ought to be.

  3. I still need to attend one of my local rocket club’s launches. Yes, here in Sunny Arizona, they tend to quit for the summer, and that’s even before I mention the intergroup rivalries and the fierce competition for free airspace between the airlines, the Air Force, and the FAA that make it harder to find a convenient launch site than it rightly ought to be. How am I going to write convincingly about my hero’s Bright Shiny Idea for breaking into the space business if I don’t know the scenery?

    1. Sounds awesome! I hadn’t thought about rocket club launches – I do want to witness a SpaceX rocket stage launch &landing one day, since I never made a space shuttle launch.

    2. There’s an old launch site in Green Valley, south of Tucson. It WAS for launching a Titan II missile, but now it’s a museum. Real ’50s technology, with some later updates.

  4. And if you can’t get there, Google Earth is your friend. Or was until they lost the license to all those wonderful pictures!!!! Grr.

    Yes, I tend to write places I know, or far enough into the future that I don’t have to be totally accurate, or better yet, that I imagine altogether. If I do the work to make it believable.

    1. Yep, that makes it a whole lot easier than having to remember if there’s a café or a flower shop on that corner, much less if you have a convenient alley where you want one…

      1. I just finessed Old Town Mombasa by showing it only through the eyes of an American with no sense of direction, so she was lost all the time anyway.

  5. This makes me chuckle. I wrote a story set in a hospital but it was a great breakthrough for me when I realized that I was writing *fiction* and could change the layout of the place to suit my needs! I was thinking of a real place but I didn’t have to stick to it when it was inconvenient. After all no one has committed a murder there that I’m aware of.

    I think I write only about places that I already understand. The current research comes in whatever activity they are carrying out, which was the next question.

  6. Research is a necessary and useful skill for a reader also, preferably BEFORE critiquing a book for a supposed anachronism. 😉

    Just the other day I was upset with the author of a Regency-era (1815) novel who had the male protagonist gifting a woman with an inexpensive bracelet of cameos set in cut and faceted steel bezels. My first reaction was “That’s not Regency jewelry!”

    A friend said I was wrong, so I did some research into Georgian-era (1714-1837) jewelry trends, and learned that steel was actually widely used and popular thru much of the era. It was shiny, took fine detail, could be cut and faceted to reflect light, and was considerably cheaper than diamonds, among other advantages. This was eye-opening, especially since it is the first mention of faceted steel jewelry that I can recall despite having read a few hundred books in the genre.

  7. If either this trip or any other take you anywhere close to Ogden Utah I highly recommend visiting the four in one museum downtown in the old Union Station.
    Utah State Railroad
    John M. Browning Firearms
    Browning-Kimball Classic Cars
    and Utah State Cowboy & Western Heritage
    Speaking of John Browning, if your travels ever take you through the upper midwest plan a stop at Rock Island Arsenal on an island in the Mississippi river between Rock Island Illinois and Davenport Iowa. The Arsenal’s museum has a fantastic collection of military arms including those developed by Browning and produced there when they were second only to Springfield Arsenal in production of US small arms.

  8. Dorothy,

    Blue Origins launches rockets from West Texas. It is not difficult to get close enough for a good view.

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