Well, it seems that the Internet only gets you so far in world-building research. Even when you’re making history up as you go along, like I am. Because writing an alternate timeline still requires some common ground with the timeline we inhabit, so readers can have some sort of frame of reference. My current steampunk project may be set in an 1859 that has differed wildly from our history ever since Jefferson failed to get full funding for the Louisiana Purchase, but everything is still colored and flavored by the history preceding that point of divergence. And without a certain degree of commonality even after that point, the reader has no sense of continuity, nothing to connect my alternate 1859 with a possible 2012 that is not completely unrecognizable. (It would be way cooler than our 2012, though, rest assured.)
So, I need to learn my history. And that, my friends, means research. And lots of it. Yay, Internet! But like I said, there’s only so much you can get online. I have chosen to set my story in a real place, and I am finding that it makes my job easier and harder at the same time. Arrow Rock is a real town in the Missouri River Valley, and it has a great deal of history to it. So much, in fact, that much of it has been restored to its frontier appearance, and it even served as a stand-in for the too-modern Hannibal, Missouri, in a musical version of Tom Sawyer. Finding the history of Arrow Rock in books and online is a cinch. But as I flesh out the details of the story, I find myself perplexed to discover that the facts I need are not recorded anywhere. Because I need to know really oddball things. How long does it take a woman in steampunk attire to walk the length of the boardwalk? Or from the post office to the tavern? And how much steam-powered equipment could Godsey fit in his Diggings?
So, into the field I go! I will get but a few hours next month to explore the village, so I am furiously scribbling down all the bits of trivia I need to scavenge while I’m there. And I’m debating the wisdom of dressing in full steampunk attire while I wander about, pacing off distances and muttering to myself. Maybe I should go ahead and get that MWA membership card. I’m told it excuses (or at least explains) all sorts of odd behavior.