With real-world historical fantasy, though, the rules and histories are predetermined. While this frees the author from the need to pull them out of thin air, it instead places them under the restrictions of actual rules and actual history. These limitations are further compounded when the chosen historical setting is familiar to the public mind through other books and movies. In some cases, the image the public has of a specific period in history and its residents can actually work against an author striving for accuracy. Popular films and books of dubious accuracy can warp the accepted perception of how past peoples lived and worked to the point that accurate reconstruction can seem wrong.
Such was the case for me when I started researching Old West life for The Dead of Winter. The environment of the Old West is nothing new to me. I grew up in a city that bears the name of the frontier fort it replaced, I regularly made trips into the mountains as a kid, and I even had to do a fourth-grade history project on the state of Colorado. One of my favorite pizza joints is a repurposed bank that still boasts a sandstone false front straight out of a John Wayne Western. Still, in spite of this (and perhaps because of it), I had some misconceptions about life in the Old West that I had no doubt gathered from those same John Wayne Westerns.
Most of all, I was surprised to learn that the word “gunslinger” was never actually used during that time period. Despite its ubiquity when talking of outlaws and cowboys nowadays, the term originated in Hollywood a good while after the last mysterious stranger had ridden into the sunset. The vernacular of the 1880’s dubbed them “gunfighters” or “gunmen,” both of which are admittedly less catchy. Having read Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series prior to writing The Dead of Winter, extracting “gunslinger” from my vocabulary took some work, but historical accuracy is not known for its mercy. Furthermore, I learned that the iconic way Hollywood gunslingers wore their six-guns (with the grips facing rearward) was never employed by actual gunfighters. As anyone who has tried to quick-draw a long-barrel Colt in such a fashion can attest, it’s a slow and awkward way to pull iron on someone trying to kill you. Although contrary to popular understanding, including such minute details can make a book feel that much more real. Also, they’re helpful for convincing yourself that the hours lost to research were not lost in vain.
Another beneficial side effect of historical research is the chance of stumbling across actual people that might fit into the story. For me, that person came in the form of Leadville marshal Marten Duggan. Duggan was the marshal of Leadville from 1878 to 1883 and was known for his love of whiskey, his short temper, and his direct method of dealing with criminals. His tendency to handle problems himself instead of waiting for judge and jury actually saw him removed from office temporarily. After a short time without him, however, the townsfolk realized he was the only man who could keep any semblance of law in Leadville, so they reinstated him. He sounded like an interesting and solid character, one of those neutral good lawmen that keep the peace through unorthodox means, so I decided to make him a character in The Dead of Winter. He ended up being one of the primary characters, which I didn’t initially expect, but it worked well with the story, so I went with it. Ironically, his character is probably the one that stands most vulnerable to accusations of being a stock Western character.
All in all, research for historical fantasy can provide both new insight into the chosen time period and culture as well as confirmation that sometimes things were exactly the way you thought. I’ve yet to attempt writing an otherworld fantasy or hard science fiction novel, so I can’t comment on how those sorts of research differ from historical investigation. I could be all wet on that account and they aren't all that different. I suppose I'll just have to wait until a solid, sustainable idea knocks me into those trenches. When that does happen, I'll be sure to report back on my findings.