Today we turn the blog over to author Beth Cato, who tells us about the “hard work” (wink wink) that went into building the world of her acclaimed (and recently concluded) Blood of Earth trilogy.
Alternate history is about the ripples.
Throw a stone in a pond. Watch what happens. Count every ripple and measure its exact volume. Calculate how long it will take each ripple to reach landmarks like a rock, a leaf, and the shore, and go bonkers in the process. Or… realize your limits, and focus on the ripples that matter.
When I started writing my Blood of Earth trilogy beginning with Breath of Earth, I quickly realized how maddening the entire research process could be. I’m a perfectionist with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. If left to my own devices, I could and would attempt to count every ripple from the moment my stone plunked into the water: the early end of the American Civil War due to the alliance of Union forces and Japan.
The action of my series needed to focus on 1906, where I rewrote the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire with geomancy and incredible creatures. Against that backdrop, America and Japan are allied as the Unified Pacific and trying to dominate mainland Asia. This brings up complicated ripples with historical, political, and cultural repercussions, with endless potential to muck it up. Writing alternate history with a dose of magic is not an excuse for lazy research and writing. A factual basis means everything.
A pep talk from my literary agent helped me accept that there could be no such thing as a flawless alternate history. To put it bluntly, I had to research to the best of my ability and in the end acknowledge that my own ignorance might be on display.
This weighed on my mind as I began outlining the finale of my trilogy, Roar of Sky. The first third of the novel would be set in Hawaii, the Big Island in particular. I hit the research books, as I always do, and found a wealth of old travelogues to draw on. (Two of the most useful that are still in print are Mark Twain in Hawaii: Roughing It in the Sandwich Islands, and Six Months in the Sandwich Islands by Isabella Lucy Bird).
However, I had another problem: I had visited the settings of my previous Blood of Earth novels. I had not traveled to Hawaii. I needed to do justice to a place and people that had been treated with horrid injustice through this period.
Therefore, I had to take a research trip to the Hawaiian Islands.
Yes, this was quite possibly the best tax write-off ever, yet also undeniably a work trip. I packed collapsible hiking sticks, not a swimsuit.
I learned a lot about everyday life on sugarcane plantations at Hawaii’s Plantation Village in Waipahu on Oahu, where 90-year-old Charlie–with the help of his little dog Tomo–gave us a two-hour tour as he ‘talked story.’ On the short flight from Honolulu to Kona, I followed our route on the flight magazine map and took constant pictures because I knew my airship Palmetto Bug would fly the same path. I sought out Japanese bakeries (Neko Pan from BRUG Bakery in Honolulu shown here), as sweet rolls like an-pan and jamu-pan are of incredible importance in my books and aren’t things I can find around Phoenix, Arizona.
However, the most important portion of the trip involved a stay in the appropriately-named town of Volcano at the boundary of Volcanoes National Park. My geomancer heroine Ingrid needed to trek into Kilauea to the burbling lava lake of Halema’uma’u, long-regarded as the home of Madame Pele, goddess of volcanoes.
A century ago, safety standards for visitors were a bit, well, lax. Tourists trekked across uneven, sharp dried lava in the dead of night to frolic on the shores of a massive, bubbling, spitting lava lake. They cooked sausages over hot lava and singed postcards to mail as souvenirs.
I toted a camera, not sausages.
The modern trail began in the same place as back then, at Volcano House, a famous inn on the rim that’s still open for business. On that bright, sunny afternoon, Halema’uma’u’s plume stood out from over a mile away.
Tourists back in the day, like my characters, did the first part of the journey on horseback; these days, it’s a foot trail. A zigzagging path down the steep cliff caused me and my husband to tread with care across uneven steps, slick mud, gnarled roots, and around thorny vines. Tourists over the years have pounded the trail into moss-furred holloways.
I came to collect sensory details to make my book feel real, and was surprised by what I encountered. Despite the presence of nearby sulfur-steaming cliffs, rain forest characteristics such as the scent of fresh greenery and moisture and constant bird calls and chirps dominated my senses.
Volcanic activity this summer dramatically changed the geography of the area. The lava lake not only drained out through vents in the Puna district to the east, but the caldera collapsed. A 1,500-foot pit marks where Halema’uma’u once was. Volcanoes National Park only recently reopened to a limited degree, but last I checked, this trail is still closed. A picture on the park’s Facebook page a few months ago showed a boulder like this completely blocking the trail.
At the bottom of the cliff, the forest abruptly ended. A cold black sea of old lava stretched beyond. A century ago, the trail horses stopped here in a corral made of stacked lava rock. I glanced back at the cliff to attempt to capture the scale of the bowl we stood in.
Then I looked ahead, to Halema’uma’u a mile away. So close, yet so far. Signs warned us not to hike farther due to toxic fumes.
I still needed to experience a prolonged hike across black lava so that I could describe my characters’ experiences. Nearby Kilauea Iki provided what I needed with a 3-hour hike that involved more switchbacks down a steep cliff and a long walk across the pit crater’s length. Iki only erupted in 1959 and has only been cool enough to walk across for a few decades–and parts of it are still steaming.
This last picture, taken from the cliff of Kilauea Iki, shows the plume of Halema’uma’u rising from the crater next door.
My trip to Hawaii provided me with not only the information that I needed to write my book, but also granted me a strange and unexpected emotional bond with my characters. I’ve been living in my novels’ world since 2013. I read over 70 sources for research, most of those full books. I don’t even know how many hours I spent writing and rewriting and rewriting again. The potential to err in this series has frequently terrified me–and yet I’ve also loved the process and the places it’s allowed me to venture in my imagination and on my own two feet.
This research expedition let me walk where my characters walked. To breathe in the scents, taste the pastries, and experience the cold night winds as they would. My characters felt all the more real to me because of that.
I twisted history in various new knots and twined in magic for good measure, but I did what I could to keep my characters and settings true to their time. I’ve thrown the stone and studied the ripples as best I can. The Blood of Earth trilogy stands complete.