I recently spoke at Confluence on a panel about history and mythology in science fiction and fantasy. I knew it wasn’t a ringer for my typical topics, but I’m happy to try to help out wherever I’m asked.
When the moderator turned to me and asked how I incorporate history in my books, I froze.
I hate history.
I’ve hated history for a long time.
But the truth of it is that I did a lot of research to try to get things right: from the background of the Air Force UFO research to characters’ reactions to alien technology to the way characters interface with Earth tech.
When I brought up historical research for my 1998 setting, the whole room groaned. Is that really history? It’s so recent! Even I remember 1998. But the world has changed in many ways since then, and we all agreed that tech anachronisms are to be Avoided.
So, what history went into Rights of Use?
First was the tech. The flying saucers in this book use touch screens, and I needed to understand whether this technology would seem like evidence of an alien environment to my fourteen-year-old characters or to their parents. I found that touchscreen ATMs were already in use in 1998, so it made sense that adult characters shouldn’t be surprised by it. But teens? I thought it was a toss-up, so I listened to the voices reminding me of modern audiences and left this one alone. After all, teen and adult readers now won’t be wowed at all by touchscreens.
Cell phones were next. I feel like folks my age are among the youngest who have any grasp of what life was like without cell phones. Since I’ve always had one as an adult, it’s hard to image how communication traveled differently without them. I needed to know what was appropriate to show. A little research revealed somewhat stagnant cell phone development in commercial markets between the late 1990s and early 2000s, so it was reasonable to assume my upper class characters would have workable mobile communications. Plus one for not laying the groundwork for modern audiences to respond with disbelief!
Amid all my research into the mindset of politicians, the role of the Speaker of the House, and the Capitol, I felt it was critical to understand what was going on in the House of Representatives during the course of the book. What issues were hot? What may have been on the Speaker’s mind when he wasn’t worried about his kidnapped daughter? I relied heavily on the Congressional Record (which is a wonderful and absolutely underutilized resource).
Some of my Congressional Record research made it into the book, especially in the opening scene. I was writing about ongoing UFO defense programs. How could I not address the missile defense discussions ongoing that week? Were we defending against Middle Eastern rockets or extraterrestrial craft?
Some of my Congressional Record research didn’t make it into the book. The evening the book starts, there was a shooting in the US Capitol that killed two police officers and injured two others. I found out, because of tribute speeches afterward. I did not feel that it would be respectful to mention this as a diversion from the events in the book. It works out with the events in the book, but it did not work out for the two officers doing everything they could to protect the people within the building.
I didn’t have that problem with the Air Force’s history researching UFOs. I know Wikipedia is not a great resource for accuracy, but it was accurate enough for backstory. I augmented it with discussions from the University of Colorado report on the Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects.
The last main portion of historical research I undertook was to try to explain how humans had appeared from other planets and where they came from. I have a head canon on this. It’s backed up by Dr. Daniel Jackson-level fringe research and some coarse historical knowledge. It’s enough for me to work from and to provide the series with internal consistency. It is not enough, however, for me to share with any confidence. That will have to be a discussion for a different day.
All in all, I’d say there’s a lot more history in Rights of Use than I ever intended or expected. I guess I know a few things after all.