This morning I woke up to find a sack full of books – yes, a sack – waiting for me on my doorstep; a package of books I ordered a few weeks ago from the States that had finally arrived. These are next on my list to read; as well as being on topics that are of interest to me, all of them should be useful as research for the Battlecruiser Alamo series. Yes, I will be reviewing them on the blog as I get through them. As it happens, I just finished the Rawnsley book, so I should be getting onto these shortly, though I did start a reread of Bagnall's 'Commodore: A Company on the Edge', a very interesting book about the rise and fall of the Commodore computer company. There'll be quite a few books coming in the near future; I just traded in for a nice big Amazon voucher, and since reading my dissertation again, my old interest in the War of 1812 has been sparked to the point that I may well pick up a few the books in the bibliography to take another look at.
I've always liked small wars as sources of inspiration for books; the Great Lakes are a great example of this, almost being a war in microcosm. The range of literature is usually such that it is possible to become familiar with much of the material, allowing you to look at the whole war in full context; context, as ever, is absolutely key. When looking at larger conflicts – World War II, the Civil War, the Napoleonic War, for example, the tendency is to focus on one area of the war to the exclusion of others, and when the whole range is encompassed, the problem is that too much has to be compressed, too much is left out for reasons of space and time. With smaller wars, all the different spheres can be looked at – political, economic, strategic, technological, tactical – all of them are easier to fit into their proper place. Which means that if one is basing a conflict on, say, the War of 1812, or the Quasi-War, it is a lot easier to get a 'complete' sense of how the war works, to bring a sense of reality to the work. I reckon this is vital.
Having said that, there also remains the 'cool idea' requirement. There have to be some elements to hook the reader, and when it comes to science-fiction, there is a huge range of sources to choose from, to the point that it really boils down to the 'random luck' element. It's almost impossible to seek out the 'cool idea', but it is certainly possible to learn to recognise them if they turn up; this is why so many authors have notebooks stuffed into their pockets, after all. These should not really be the focus of the plot, having said that; what these provide is the window dressing that makes the reader stop for a moment. The element that they will remember in a year's time (when they are wondering if there is a sequel, hopefully.)
I'll give you an example – something that actually isn't going in 'Price of Admiralty' but will be in the sequel 'Not One Step Back'. A few years ago, I was reading 'The Hunt for Planet X', a book discussing the discovery of new objects in the solar system, with an emphasis on the Kuiper Belt (another one of my little pet interests), but also covering the hunt for such objects as Vulcanoids – asteroids that theoretically might exist inside the orbit of Mercury. The best part is that one of the key projects to locate them was done from the back seat of an F-18 – yes, astronomy done from the back of a fighter jet. Scientific fighter pilots. You can bet I'm going to use that one!