Hello Silverline Family, today’s contributor is going to be very familiar for any follows of our weekly live-cast. I have the pleasure of working with Scott Wakefield every Wednesday on WHAM! so it felt natural to ask him for a piece here. Scott and I both share a passion for history and with his upcoming book focused on a subject he heavily researched, I asked him to talk about the process. So here is Scott Wakefield talking about how he applied research to writing comics.
I’ve seen many illustrations about an artist’s work behind the work the public actually sees. A good example is the image of an iceberg with most of its mass hidden below the water’s surface, or mountains of notebooks, or 3×5 cards beside the final piece. In almost every instance⎯a speech, painting, novel, anything ⎯ those images hold true. It’s rare for any dedicated artist to jump into their work without study, thought, planning, rough drafts, character sketches, or any manner of methods before their final creation. Everyone’s methods are as different as their art, but we can’t deny that countless hours go into making something beautiful.
In my case, I must admit to fighting off a neurotic desire to study every piece of the relevant history, because if I didn’t, I’d have a treasure trove of knowledge, but no actual story. As Rory and I create Steam Patriots we have mountains of material to draw from, and if we don’t curtail our zeal to include everything that tickles our interest, this story could very easily fly out of control into a useless collection of trivia. The American Revolution has been studied from every angle imaginable, and analysis continues to this day. We had to decide on specific events and people we wanted in our story, and not get distracted by every nugget of shiny history that caught our eyes.
We likewise decided at the very start that we wanted to include bits of lesser-known history and individuals who didn’t share much of the historical limelight. This serves two purposes for us: we’re able to inform readers about interesting US history that might have otherwise been left out of common lessons; and we have material at our disposal in which the details are sometimes slim, allowing a little leeway for creative interpretation of so-and-so and such-and-such. Real people did actual, truly heroic acts, and we never want to steal that from them with our fictional re-telling of the Revolutionary War.
That may sound a little silly, since we’re telling a story about steam technology, improved by Benjamin Franklin, being used in the late 1700s. Why not just throw real history out the window and write the darn story however we please? That was certainly an option, but Rory and I decided that the real story is so interesting that we didn’t want to overshadow it with our steamified whimsy.
After the initial kernel of our idea solidified, we then looked at establishing the big timeline picture. Our story would start at the Battle of Long Island in 1776, and end, well, at the end of the war in 1783, with perhaps some epilogue of sorts. Then, we needed important milestones along the way. Here we created a spreadsheet to begin logging our discoveries. Our fictional hero, Felix Ward, wasn’t going to flit about the continent participating in every key moment, so we limited events to those around New York, Philadelphia, and the northern campaigns. Wikipedia can be a great resource if you scroll to the bottom and use the sources of particular entries. Finding a timeline with hyperlinks started us down a rabbit hole of open browser tab after open browser tab.
This is why the spreadsheet has been an invaluable tool. With the story timeline as the initial goal, we were able to plug in information as we worked our way through research. When something caught our attention, and fit within our story parameters, we’d find out what happened and who was there, and as we built this collection of data, we’d see if and how Felix could be involved. Oddities and the obscure have been the true gems. Our goal then became finding out how much was actually known, with the hope that details were scant, which would allow us to lay claim to it, in a manner of speaking.
At the start, one key resource has been David McCullough’s 1776. As we read, we highlight and tab, while adding pertinent information to our spreadsheet. And as I mentioned at the start of this article, we discard most of it, including only the minutest fraction in the story.
In the world-building aspect, we looked to biographies and autobiographies of important figures to help us craft their character, and give us insight into the day-to-day particulars of late 18th-century life. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is a quintessential example of contemporary source material. Similarly, first-hand accounts of battles written at the time of the event are indispensable.
I wish, as most artists probably do, that consumers of our craft were able to see the effort that goes into creating, but it’s not feasible. Besides, while we think the background information is just the bee’s knees, not everyone wants to know how the sausage is made.
In the end, I hope the time put into the final distillation will shine through and prove a delight.