Six impossible things

Time Travel the Easy Way

A few days ago, Beth my exercise buddy mentioned that she’d been rereading some of Connie Willis’ time-travel stories, and it inspired her to ask me a question:  If you could go back in time to do historical research, what time and place would you pick?

I mulled it over for a few days before I figured out why I was having so much trouble coming up with an answer. See, the problem is that I really, really like my creature comforts:  hot showers and central heating and air conditioning and the internet (and all the rest of the high-tech toys of modern life) and so on. And there aren’t very many times and places that have those things, and the ones that do…well, I lived through those, and my memory is pretty good. I don’t really see a need to go back ten or fifteen years to do on-the-spot historical research when all I really need is to look up the occasional fact. (Go back fifteen years and arrange to buy a big wodge of Microsoft stock, maybe, but not for historical research.)

Really, it comes down to the fact that I’m a writer, not a historian. I care about odd details of everyday life and peculiar historical events because they are useful in my work, not because they are my work. And I learned long ago that I don’t actually have to have personal experience of something in order to write about it. Which was a great relief to me personally; my entire genre would disappear overnight if “you have to have done it yourself” ever became a requirement for writing about dragons and magic and so on.

Even people with a strongly kinesthetic learning style don’t have to murder anyone to write a murder mystery. There’s a reason it’s called fiction – no matter how gritty and realistic the story, a lot of it is still made up out of the writer’s imagination. Besides, I don’t write historical fiction. I write historical fantasy, which ranges from the sort of thing that is historically accurate “secret history” through alternate histories of varying accuracy to things like Lois Bujold’s The Sharing Knife, where the only thing that’s the same is the geography.

My stuff is somewhere in the middle of the range. Depending on the story I want to tell, I play fast and loose with the effects of real, acknowledged, everyday magic on historical events (which, realistically, would probably result in things being very, very different starting from whenever real magic was discovered). I don’t do carefully extrapolated “make one change in real history and work out in meticulous detail what happens from there” alternate history – if that’s what people are after, Harry Turtledove has a long list of really fine books that will keep them happy.

I still do lots of research, though. If something in my story is going to be different from real history, I want to do it on purpose and not by accident. More than that, though, is the fact that consistency is one of the fantasy novelist’s most useful and effective tools, and the easiest way to make one’s worldbuilding consistent and complex is to use what’s already there in real life. But I don’t need to go look at it in person. I can get everything I need while sitting in my comfy chair with my cats sleeping on my legs. Books are a grand thing.

3 Comments
  1. I had to laugh at this post because I am an archaeologist and I wonder about time travel a lot due to my profession. People are usually very surprised when I say I would not time travel to a period in history I am interested in, whether it is to research the Anasazi or the ancient Egyptians. I’ve thought it through, and found it would be rather cheating to time travel as an archaeologist or an historian. The fun of the profession is to try to find out what one can from the clues left behind. What fun would archaeology or history be if you knew for a fact what had happened? I can’t speak for every archaeologist and historian, but even as this research is my work, I still would not time travel.

  2. That’s a great thing about fantasy. I’m going into History, and I think that’s probably not quite right for me, except as background. (Which I DO find interesting, don’t get me wrong.)I’m just the kind of person who doesn’t necessarily think it bad to not care about some of those little details which make history History. I’m more interested in where a story and history comes together. And what would happen IF…

  3. The 1840’s, definitely. Growing up with two historians for parents has made me rather aware of the shortcomings of historical research. The 1840’s isn’t that long ago, and we can read, and look at pictures, but we can’t *be* there. We can’t watch the eel dancing on the Buffalo wharves, or hear how the irish gangs in philadelphia spoke, or smell the steam coming up from the vents of the newspaper presses. And as a fiction writer, that’s what I want to know. As a historian, what you’re trying to find out is why things happened this way, who was involved, what are the dynamics that we can’t understand because our experiences are so different. But what history teaches you that’s really important, is how people behave under certain circumstances. And the work of historians is valuable because what it’s trying to do is tease out what might actually be the real story, the complicated, paradoxical, human story, underneath the myths that are told and remembered. And there’s so much there, in those moments that have just been forgotten.

    (And ancient Rome has awesome baths. Just saying it.)

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