Creating The Matrix, Part I

All right, this is at least partly Pablo’s fault. He sent me an e-mail, a while back, saying that he thought people might be interested in how I do my research and where I get my background for the novels. He was looking specifically at the military and especially naval aspects of them, I think, but I got to thinking about his question in my copious free time.

(Oh, about that “free time.” If you’ve noticed that it’s been a while between posts for me, that’s because I’ve been looking at terminal deadline pressure. For reasons with which I won’t bore you (but which include having a collaborator who suddenly requires emergency bypass surgery) we were running just a little late on a book with a November release date. If you consult your calendars, you will observe that it is currently August, and we have only just turned in the completed manuscript. I leave it to you to visualize just how calm and laid back my life has been while we worked on this particular little problem. :-) It’s had a sort of concertina effect on my life in general for the last, oh, month or so.)

But I digress.

Getting back to Pablo’s question, I got to thinking about building universes and societies in general, but since I write almost entirely military science fiction, Pablo obviously had a very valid point about the centrality of military history and the military “mindset” to my novels. I’d love to tell you exactly how I went about doing all the basic research for the Safehold novels. The problem is that I don’t really know. Or, rather, I can’t separate it out at this point.

I’ve done some specific, directed research on particular points as I got into the books, but by and large that research has been directed at clarifying something which I already “knew” in a general sense. That’s because military history, and especially naval history, have been special interests of mine literally since grammar school. I have a rather extensive library centered around those interests, and pretty much all of the items in it are on the shelves because I’ve actually read them. For example, I don’t know how many people have actually sat down and read Norman Friedman’s design histories of the United States Navy from cover to cover. I have. I happen to find them fascinating, and I really read all of that technical stuff in there. As a more specific example, pulling one of them off the shelf pretty much at random, there’s US Amphibious Ships and Craft: An Illustrated Design History, which runs to 659 pages (with bibliography) and includes, among other things, an appendix (99 pages long) listing every amphibious warfare ship the U.S. Navy ever built, complete with launch date, commissioning date, decommissioning date, and notes on what finally happened to them. Now, I’ll admit, I haven’t read all the appendices word-for-word, but I find this kind of stuff fascinating. Especially when you get into the debates on design philosophy.

Why did Teddy Roosevelt create the Navy’s General Board, and why did the General Board issue a specific set of characteristics for a proposed new design of warship? How did the General Board’s position on what constituted a destroyer’s mission (and what characteristics were necessary for that mission) evolve out of input from the War College; the Bureau of Ordnance; the Bureau of Construction and Repair; the Bureau of Engineering; Commander, Destroyers Atlantic; and Commander, Destroyers Pacific? Where did the views of the battleship admirals and the carrier admirals come into play? And once those characteristics were issued, how did the designers go about trying to meet them—or, as seemed to happen even more often, explain why, “No, Admiral, you can’t do that in a ship of that small a displacement”? And how did the politics behind the design process work out? Who fought out the military operational concepts behind the national security goals the ships were supposed to satisfy? Where were the lines of battle drawn? How did budgetary considerations play into the decision process? Where did political and military leadership find itself in conflict, and where in agreement? And just how closely did the Navy finally manage to come to its carefully worked out building plans? Where did the cold wind of fiscal reality cut a class of ships short? And where did the brutal requirements of an ongoing war require production decisions that impacted adversely on the improvement of subsequent classes of ships? What ships were canceled, like the last two Iowa-class battleships, when they were already largely completed, and what happened to those unfinished hulls? When did construction costs shift to make platform costs secondary to system costs? Where and how did inflation impact procurement policies? Which congressmen and senators pushed to reactivate the Iowa-class ships in the 1970s and 1980s, and why?

I love that stuff. My beloved wife Sharon would tell you that it indicates something unhealthy about my basic personality, but I can’t help it. I’m really deeply interested in the process behind the hardware, at least as much as I am interested in the hardware itself.

I’ve used Friedman and his books about the modern United States Navy (he begins his consideration of battleships, destroyers, and cruisers with the steel-hulled Navy of the very first years of the 20th century) as an example because his books provide such a nice, concentrated, compact information source. But I’ve got a whole heap of other books on the development of armored vehicles and the concepts of armored warfare, on Republican Roman infantry tactics, on the Byzantine Empire’s cavalry tactics, the Greek phalanx, the Spanish tercios, Gustavus Adolphus and his mobile artillery, the development of the sailing merchant marine, the evolution of shipboard artillery in the age of sail, cavalry equestrian training techniques, encyclopedias of military and civilian aircraft development, Jane’s Fighting Ships, Jane’s Infantry Weapons, Jane’s Armor and Artillery. I’m an absolute geek for that kind of information, and all of it flows together when I sit down to write.

But what’s equally important—in fact, probably even more important—are military biographies, histories of campaigns, and official dispatches. First-hand accounts and memoirs by people who were actually there, and analytical history that looks at the interplay of political and military decision-making set against evolving technology bases and conflicting national policies and objectives. All of that flows together, as well, and what emerges from the other end in some ways is almost . . . I started to say “instinctive,” but that’s not really the right word. Neither is “automatic,” but both of them sort of come close. This is the kind of stuff I’ve churned around in my brain for so long that when I start structuring a particular military organization, or looking at a particular challenge or threat the characters in one of my books are going to have to confront, the bits and pieces I need sort of pop to the surface.

Of course, there’s a difference between simply having lots of information bobbing around and actually using it to create a consistent and coherent literary universe, and I guess that’s what I’ll talk about in my next post.


David Weber is the author of the very popular Honor Harrington series. His new novel in his Safehold series, By Heresies Distressed, is available from Tor Books.

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