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By author Harry Turtledove

When doing alternate history or historical fantasy, two areas in which I've worked a good deal, you need to worry about a couple of issues along with writing as well as you can and making your characters as vivid as you can. The world you're creating becomes a character, too, and the verisimilitude you bring to it will have a lot to do with how well your readers can suspend disbelief and go along with the impossibilities you're spouting. I'll talk more about researching alternate history than about fantasy, because the books set in the Videssos universe are based on years of specialized (sometimes much too specialized) academic training, something to which the average person who wants to write Byzantine-based fantasy (assuming there is such an individual running around loose) cannot casually aspire. But the principles of research and writing remain the same, whether you're dealing with Byzantium or the American Civil War (as I did in Guns of the South) or World War II (as I did in Worldwar: In the Balance, Worldwar: Tilting the Balance, and the rest of that series), both of which are considerably more accessible.

The first and most basic is simply to read widely. It's far better to find out more than you need to know and pull chunks together from many different sources than to be totally dependent on one source, which may, unbeknownst to you, have serious shortcomings. Whenever I use a paragraph's worth of material from a book I've bought, I think, "Okay, that one's paid for itself." You'll end up with books you don't need for the project of the moment. That's all right. Sooner or later, something in them will probably come in handy for something else.

The second basic principle is to depend as much as you can on primary sources--those written at or near the time about which you're doing your homework. Modern books about past times inevitably filter those times through the sensibilities of the author. You're going to want to perform that filtering function yourself for your reader. Not only will you get a better feel for past attitudes from from primary sources, you'll also notice patterns of language contemporary with your period--and how they differ from the way we speak and write now. The language of the educated during Civil War times, for instance, was far more formal and had far more influence from Latin than what we commonly use now. Showing that in dialogue gives a period feel to your work. Making Abraham Lincoln or Robert E. Lee speak with modern rhythms would wreck the illusion of the past you're working to create.

Third point is, books aren't enough by themselves. Wherever you can, get your hands on things that have to do with your story. When I was researching Guns of the South, I had invaluable help from Chris Bunch, who was a LRP during the Vietnam War and who let me handle, and videotape him handling, a Chinese copy of an AK-47. A project on which I'm currently working involves a society at 1930s-level technology, wherein airships are a common means of transportation. I'm lucky enough to live close to one of the Goodyear blimp hangars. I'd done enough homework on airships that I was able to talk my way onto a blimp flight and even take the controls for a few minutes. I can't ride the Hindenburg, but I've done the next best thing--and that will show up in the book.

Finally, and maybe most important, once you've done all your homework and settled down to write, omit anywhere between ninety and ninety-five percent of what you've learned. The trick is not to tell the reader everything there is to know about the world you've created. There's a name for that: it's called "I've done my homework and you're gonna suffer for it." Nothing makes the audience flee faster than huge expository lumps. What you want to do is subtler. Suppose you know five hundred things about your world. You need to pick, say, twenty of them, and use those in such a way that they're not only telling in and of themselves but also create a certainty in the reader's mind that you know the other four hundred and eighty, too. In Worldwar: Tilting the Balance, for instance, I have a German panzer officer in a new-model Panther tank grumble that it's as unreliable as if Englishmen had built it. That shows something of his character, says something about the state of both German and British tank production in World War II, and also says I know something about the subject--all without clogging the story with unnecessary detail.

A colleague of mine once remarked that writing alternate history is the most fun you can have with your clothes on. Maybe, maybe not. But as with other things you do with your clothes on--or off, for that matter--as you do more of it, you find ways to do it better. These are some of the ways that work for me.