Research Notes · 07/03/2015

Bell Weather

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Dennis Mahoney writes about Bell Weather from Henry Holt & Co.

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Researching an Imaginary World

Bell Weather was my first foray into worldbuilding. Put simply, I made everything up as I went, but the reality was a lot weirder and more complicated.

The story’s earliest elements bubbled when I was still an unpublished author, six months before my first novel, Fellow Mortals, found a loving editor. I had begun to fear I’d never get published, but I knew that writing was good for me — a healthy compulsion — and that I would probably work on novels for the rest of my life. With half-a-century of writing ahead, I wanted to revel in the job, and so I conceived of new characters and places that would inexhaustibly fascinate me.

Three things were clear when I began: Bell Weather would be the opening book of a series, the main character would be a vivacious young woman named Molly Bell, and the story would be set in a strange version of colonial America, called Floria.

Molly felt right. I knew I could live with this woman for years — my wife is OK with the arrangement — but 18th-century America, a time and place of recurring interest to me, felt iffy. What attracted me was the romanticized spirit of that era: the exploration, the Enlightenment, the tricorne hats. I wanted mystery, danger, and superstition, a world where life seemed bolder because the safeguards were gone. I wanted the frontier.

What I didn’t want was years of meticulous research, or the confinements of historical or geographical facts. Many writers thrive in historical fiction, of course; Patrick O’Brian’s novels were the best reading experience of my life. But I wanted to sprawl and entertain myself in different ways, making up weather, animals, locations, and historical events on the fly, all of which would keep my imagination fresh and, I hoped, keep readers delighted.

Who knew where the story would go if Molly boarded a ship in an unfamiliar ocean? Anything could happen if my imaginary world came to war. Molly could have an interracial romance without anyone in my alternate 18th century batting an eye, and if the story called for clinging green lightning, I could invent St. Verna’s fire on the spot.

I admit that part of me was daunted by rigorous attention to historical detail. When the Daniel Day-Lewis version of The Last of the Mohicans was released, one historian strenuously objected to the passing sight of a rhododendron, which would not have existed on the continent at that time. In a reimagined 18th-century, however, I could plant any flower I wanted. I could be creator and explorer simultaneously, the only living expert on the continents of Floria and Heraldia.

And yet I researched for months regardless, because I wanted to know the real period enough to play with it, using what inspired me and ignoring the rest, and because the world needed to feel true. How does a flintlock rifle work? How do my characters light candles without fire? Is the supernatural nature of Floria simply magic, or is it something the science of that world could potentially unravel and explain?

Verisimilitude is important in most stories, and invented worlds need facts and rules like any other. My fantasy land would be familiar but peculiar — “Dickens by way of Fenimore Cooper through the looking glass,” as my editor wonderfully phrased it — and so I needed a solid handle on the nature, science, and superstition of the actual 18th century. My research, in other words, gave me a universe to warp.

I formed the world to my liking, establishing enough rules and faux-historical facts to tell the story well. The challenge continues now that I’m writing Book Two. I remain an explorer in this world I’ve conjured, and there’s much I don’t know and am eager to discover. I say “discover” instead of “invent” because it’s beginning to feel that way, now that I’ve delineated continents and topography, referred to imaginary wars of the past, and nailed certain realities into place.

While writing Bell Weather, I could introduce virtually anything into the stew. Now the inventions need to fit. This isn’t a hindrance, though, but a wonderful development. Bell Weather itself has become a reference text, and I have professionally illustrated versions of my crude, penciled maps. The danger now is having astute readers discover inconsistencies along the way — Florian equivalents of that misplaced rhododendron — but ah, what a wonderful danger to hope for: someone who cares about a world that, three years ago, didn’t even exist.

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Dennis Mahoney is the author of Fellow Mortals, a Booklist Top Ten Debut in 2013. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, son, and dog.