by Neve Kaslakovic
I’ve written two time-travel whodunits and am about to embark on the third in the series. My characters, Julia Olsen, science dean’s assistant, and Nate Kirkland, chief of campus security, solve crimes in STEWie’s (SpaceTimE Warper) lab and wherever its time-traveling basket happens to go. When I got the idea for the series, I thought it would be fun to have a different setting for each book: in The Far Time Incident, Julia and Nate would head to the Ancient Roman world; in The Runestone Incident, to medieval Americas; and so on.
And it has been great fun. But with the optimism of a writer whose eyes are bigger than her stomach, there was one small matter I’d forgotten to take into account.
Each of those far-flung places and times has to be thoroughly researched before you can make it come alive on the page. And so I’ve had to roll up my sleeves and get to work, especially given the plan to release one book per year.
I’ve discovered that I enjoy reading history books (it may very well be that what drives my writing in the first place is the opportunity to learn new things.) And I’ve enjoyed playing the detective in figuring out the answers to some unusual questions that popped up as I wrote. For instance, for The Far Time Incident, I needed to know if there were any signposts on the outskirts of Pompeii to alert Julia, Nate, and their co-travelers to the location. I was lucky enough to be able to find the answer in person, on a well-timed research trip. At Pompeii’s Vesuvius Gate there stands a tablet, a public notice regarding some town business, which contains that key bit of information so important to travelers from afar — the name of the place where they find themselves (next-to-last line on tablet below).
Other times, the answer could not be found in person or in history books, like with the exact day of the eruption witnessed by Pliny the Younger in 79 AD. The oft-cited August 24 has been recently disputed by researchers and is only one of many dates mentioned in medieval manuscripts. Not having a history background, that was something that surprised me, how much experts’ opinions can differ about some of the small — and not so small — aspects of life in past places and times. Maybe it’s my engineering background, but I expected exact answers.
But it turned out to be a good thing for the book. The uncertainty of the eruption date became a key plot point.
For Book 2, I stayed closer to home and read about the history of the state of Minnesota, where I live, from the ancestral Dakota whose homeland this was, to the Vikings that give the football team their name. I came across tantalizing clues that Norse explorers may have reached the middle of what would one day become the United States — or not. Geological evidence in the form of a runestone (below, in its spot in the museum) pointed in one direction, linguistic in the other. Once again, that uncertainty turned out to be where the story lay.
So what have I learned? To keep an open mind and expect the unexpected.
A little wiser, I’m about to embark on my next historical adventure, for Book 3 in the series. I can’t reveal yet where Julia and Nate will be heading this time, but I can say this: I now know that the place to look for the story is right there, in that fuzzy intersection of the known and the uncharted.
Neve Maslakovic is the author of the Incident series, as well as a stand-alone novel, Regarding Ducks and Universes. Before turning her hand to writing fiction, Neve earned her PhD in electrical engineering at Stanford University’s STAR (Space, Telecommunications, and Radioscience) Lab. Born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia), Neve currently lives with her husband and son near Minneapolis/St. Paul, where she admits to enjoying the winters. Booklist called her debut novel, Regarding Ducks and Universes, “Inventive… a delight.” The second book in the Incident series, The Runestone Incident, is due out in February 2014.