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Monday, May 27, 2013

Guest Post: Researching a Shared World Alternate History

Today we have an interesting guest post from an old writing buddy of mine from my Tucson days. I first met David Lee Summers at Tuscon, a great local f/sf/h con. I was immediately struck by his boundless enthusiasm and dedication to the fan community. He's such a nice guy I even forgave him when he rejected one of my short stories for his magazine!

He's come out with several books over the years and is here to talk about his latest.

Last year, Robert E. Vardeman asked me to write a novella in a steampunk shared world he created called Empires of Steam and Rust.  As a steampunk author who has read and admired Bob's work since before my career began, I leapt at the opportunity.

The concept of the world is that it's an alternate 1915.  Queen Victoria is still on the throne and getting younger.  The Russian Revolution failed and the Czar is still on the throne.  The Meiji Restoration never happened and there are still Samurai in Japan.  Teddy Roosevelt is still president of the United States and has ambitions of creating an American Empire.  In the meantime, holes are opening up in the fabric of reality.  Strange substances leak out of these holes, such as gasses that defy description.  In some cases, the holes serve as portals to another alternate world.  My first challenge was to decide what story to tell in this alternate world.

A few days later, I happened upon a T-shirt my wife brought me from Palomas, Mexico with a photo of Pancho Villa dressed jauntily in a pith helmet and cravat, very similar to the public domain photo shown here.  This was virtually a steampunk vision of Pancho Villa.  I realized I could tell the story of Pancho Villa in this world.

This project essentially required three stages of research.  The first stage of research involved getting to know the Pancho Villa of history.  I watched some documentaries, looked up some history on the web and at my local library.  Villa clearly was a larger-than-life figure.  He was a man who loved beautiful women and liked to overwhelm his opponents with the speed of cavalry charges.  I did my best to understand the motivations of the men who surrounded Pancho Villa such as Álvaro Obregón, Rodolfo Fierro, and John J. Pershing.

The second stage of research involved getting to know the alternate world Bob Vardeman had developed.  Bob, with input from several of the Empires of Steam and Rust authors, including Steve Sullivan assembled a "bible" explaining what was going on in different parts of the world.  The bible mentioned two things of interest to my story.  The United States had invaded Mexico and no one had yet invented airplanes.  Only airships had been developed.  I knew that Pancho Villa would seize any opportunity he could to create a "cavalry of the air" to go after invading American airships.  Of course, I also read Bob Vardmeman's novella Gateway to Rust and Ruin and Stephen D. Sullivan's novella Heart of Steam and Rust, both set in this alternate world to understand the world better.

Finally, I decided to set a large portion of the conflict on the U.S./Mexican border at the towns of Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Mexico, a place Pancho Villa was known to have been.  One of the landmarks of Douglas is the Hotel Gadsden.  It was a classic old hotel used by ranchers in the area at the time of Pancho Villa.  I was fortunate enough to be invited down for a book signing in Douglas at the hotel, which allowed me to do the third stage of research, which was a visit to the location of the story.
Inside the lobby of the Hotel Gadsden is a beautiful marble staircase.  There are two chips in the marble halfway up the first flight.  In the photo, you see my daughters posing with the chips in question.  A sign in the lobby claims the chips were made when Pancho Villa rode his horse up the staircase.  Later research has since cast some doubt on whether this really happened, particularly since the Hotel Gadsden suffered a bad fire after Pancho Villa died.  The hotel owners claim the staircase survived the fire.  Whatever the truth, it was too good a story not to use in my novella, especially since I had a scene that would allow Pancho Villa to ride up the staircase, guns blazing!

For me, part of the fun of writing alternate history is to gain new insights into the people and places of history by imagining them in circumstances that weren't the same as the ones we're familiar with.  Even though the events are different than those of history, it still means getting to know the characters involved well enough that you can imagine how they would react in new circumstances.

My novella of Pancho Villa in an alternate 1915 is Revolution of Air and Rust.  I'd love to hear what you think of this alternate Pancho Villa and his comrades.  The novella is available at Amazon and Smashwords.


  1. I like alternate histories. Outlaws and bigger than life people are great for steampunk stories. Good Luck with this book, I'm sure history buffs will like it too!

  2. i can't imagine the extensive research for all that. wow! sounds powerful

  3. Smart and creative! What a great combination.

  4. I enjoy reading alternate history books where anything could have happened.


  5. Thank you, Tammy and D.G. This was a fun book to write and I actually found the research pretty enjoyable.

  6. Thanks for dropping by, Gina and Elizabeth. I definitely enjoy asking questions about what could have been.

  7. Interesting to read how you came up with the idea for your story.

    The research sounds so interesting and fun to do. :-)

  8. I enjoy reading alternate history books where anything could have happened.



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