Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Guest Post by Dusk Peterson, Author of Sweet Blood

I was fifteen when I asked my father to teach me how to research history for a book.

This isn't as odd as it sounds. My earliest datable memory, from age three, is of my father, –a literary historian and later a printing historian, –describing to me the history of nearby buildings while we waited in a hospital room after my mother had surgery. By my teens, my father was talking to me nearly every evening about his research. Meanwhile, my younger brother had decided he wanted to be an archaeologist; our helpful parents took us to archaeological sites. When I became enthralled in Arthurian Britain, my mother took my brother and me to Arthurian sites when we visited England. Soon we were all watching historical documentaries and historical dramas together.

So one day in the summer of 1978, my father took me to the Library of Congress (which he had first introduced me to five years earlier, when I was at the tender age of ten). He showed me how to use the library's new electronic catalogue, and he introduced me to the National Union Catalog: 130 feet of books collecting catalogue entries from libraries around the United States.

Afterwards, he quizzed me about my chosen research topic: the Agrarian Revolution, in which the British working class clashed – sometimes violently – with the ruling class over new farming practices that favored the elite. My father suggested that I might benefit from looking up newspaper accounts written at the time of the events I wished to research. Soon I was absorbed in 1819 newspaper accounts of the Peterloo Massacre.

All this whetted my appetite for real research. In high school, I decided I was tired of reading blandly written textbooks about historical events; I wanted to work with actual historical materials. So I ended up at St. John's College in Annapolis, which had a Great Books program. We read Homer and Dante and Shakespeare and Mark Twain. We learned political theory by perusing the writings of Machiavelli, Marx, and U.S. Supreme Court decisions. We learned math by studying Euclid, Isaac Newton, and Einstein. We learned science by recreating the experiments of Galileo, Lavoisier, and Faraday. We debated with fury and delight over whether Aristotle or Kant was correct about ethics. My best friend and I dressed up on Halloween as Ancient Greek parts of speech.

After college, I took a few graduate courses in history and worked in publishing and journalism, freelancing as a history writer so that I could write about everything from Renaissance calendars to American colonial churches. I also worked as a historical researcher for other writers. I spent a lot of time in the Library of Congress.

My father had given me my first computer in 1987; now the digital era was upon us, and my father introduced me to Internet research in 1994. I began surfing through some of the earliest history sites on the web. I published a news e-zine and did research for that. By 2000, I was spending up to eighteen hours a day researching online.

Then my health broke.

That health crisis, which came close to ending my career as a writer, proved to be a blessing. I found myself asking, "Am I really doing what I want to do with my life?" The answer was clearly no. I'd known what I wanted most to do since age nine: be a novelist.

So I dusted off a fantasy series I'd started in 1995, based on a story I'd written at age sixteen, which in turn was inspired by Arthurian tales of fifth-century Britain and by what I learned in my high school Latin class. I created an empire, sent it to conquer a neighboring country, and the next thing that my young protagonist knew, he was a slave in the empire and could only be rescued from destruction if he befriended the very young man he'd previously vowed to kill.

The Three Lands series was history-light: inspired by history, but without substantial research backing it. By 2002, however, I'd discovered the online fiction community. For that community, I started what turned into an eight-series cycle of alternate history stories, set in a version of America that had been settled in ancient times and therefore retained certain classical and medieval customs. The Eternal Dungeon, Dungeon Guards, Life Prison, Michael's House, Commando, Waterman, Young Toughs, Dark Light . . . Each time I started a new series, I ended up plunging into a new research topic: nineteenth-century prisons, turn-of-the-century warfare, early twentieth century lives in theater and poverty and prostitution, 1910s boarding schools, 1910s battles between fishermen, 1960s visions of the future . . . All of this set in a variety of locations in an alternative version of the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States.

I think that, if I'd been an academic historian who spent decades researching a single topic, I would have gone mad with boredom. What I wanted to do as a novelist of historical speculative fiction was learn about a lot of different topics of American history. My background was as a journalist and as a history writer for general audiences; I was used to immersing myself in topics that I'd previously known nothing about.

As a novelist, I researched in the Library of Congress, in university libraries, in regional studies libraries, in museums and historical sites, and – more and more – in the substantial offerings of the Internet. Worried that I was becoming overly dependent on electronic research, I checked with my father, who was now retired from his job as a university professor and was devoting his time to his research projects. He told me that eighty percent of his own research was now done online. Digital history had become that important.

I issued my stories initially on e-mail lists devoted to online fiction. Readers asked for more stories. By 2007, I was publishing my stories as e-books. My Turn-of-the-Century Toughs cycle was an odd blend of alternate history, adventure, suspense, romance (gay, heterosexual, and asexual), and even a few science fiction stories and young adult tales. My Three Lands series also didn't seem to fit neatly into normal genre categories. But I continued to be prodded by readers for more stories. Clearly, there was some sort of audience for what I was writing.

It was in 2016 – more than twenty years after I began researching online, and nearly forty years after my father showed me the National Union Catalog – that it occurred to me that there might be other novelists who were earlier in learning how to do historical research than I was by this point. And perhaps there were also novelists out there like the nonfiction authors I'd researched for in the 1980s and 1990s, who chose to farm out some of their research tasks.

I knew that the film industry made heavy use of historical consultants, to supplement the research done by historical scriptwriters. Curious now, I decided to see how many historical researchers worked with novelists. I figured that the number must be substantial.

To my shock, I discovered that only a handful of historical researchers specialize in working with authors, and only a small percentage of these specialize in working with novelists.

So I set up my shingle.

I recently opened my business, Historicalfic: Historical Research for Fiction Writers. I'm looking forward to being able to learn about new topics through my research for other writers. But most of all, I'm looking forward to recreating that day, long ago, when my father took me to a library and taught me a bit of what he knew. I'd like to hand on what I've learned since then to other authors, and to learn from them.

Dusk Peterson's latest novel is Sweet Blood, from the award-winning alternate history series The Eternal Dungeon. The Eternal Dungeon has been split by a civil war, with the division clearly marked by a quarrel between two Seekers (torturers) whose faithfulness to each other has already become legendary. Into this explosive situation arrives a new Seeker, one who is determined to see that past evils do not continue in the dungeon. But can he keep control of himself when assigned a prisoner who falls in love with him?

"The word-building in this story is phenomenal, and the fact that it's inspired by historical events is even more exciting."Rainbow Awards 2017 judge.
Honored in the Rainbow Awards, Dusk Peterson writes historical speculative fiction with diverse characters: historical fantasy, alternate history, and retrofuture science fiction. Friendship, romantic friendship, and romance often occur in the stories. Dusk Peterson also runs Historicalfic: Historical Research for Fiction Writers. A resident of Maryland, Mx. Peterson lives with an apprentice and several thousand books.
To learn more you can visit both their author website and research website and connect on Twitter (both author and research accounts), Facebook, and Goodreads.

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