Beth Cato’s fantastic Blood of Earth trilogy is set in an alternate turn-of-the-century America, and follows a diverse cast of characters as they attempt to prevent the United Pacific—the unified forces of the United States and Japan—from conquering the rest of the world. As a white woman, Cato knew that to honestly portray her characters, as well as the racism and/or sexism they would encounter in 1900s America, she would have to be open to criticism—and ready to do as much research as humanly possible. Here, she tells us how she approached creating a diverse world with respect and empathy.
My Blood of Earth trilogy may be shelved in the science-fiction and fantasy section of bookstores, but I’m writing about reality. A twisted reality, sure, because my books are alternate history, but I based my world on real situations, people and places. What seems like distant history to me might not be distant at all to people whose family stories and cultural memories keep alive the events of a century ago.
These were among my primary considerations as I researched and outlined Breath of Earth, the first novel in my trilogy. My initial concept was to rewrite the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, with bonus magic and incredible creatures. The fact that I wrote fantasy did not lessen my burden of accuracy. Instead, it complicated matters more because I delved into cultures and mythologies from around the world that were not my own.
My heroine, Ingrid Carmichael, is a woman of color living in a time period where many people assume she’s a servant and likely illiterate—that she is less of a person, with no place in society. On the contrary, she’s brilliant, compassionate and a gifted geomancer, meaning that she can channel the energy released by earthquakes. She’s just one facet of my cast.
Another one of my characters is Lee, a teenage Chinese-American boy. I extensively researched the experiences of Chinese immigrants in America during that period. It was not easy reading. The Chinese were repeatedly abused and even murdered, and the American justice system offered little succor for “Celestials,” whose very humanity was called into question.
I sought out primary sources foremost—the voices of Chinese immigrants who lived at the time. I found very little available in English, and soon found that many written records hadn’t even survived the period in Chinese. San Francisco’s Chinatown had been the largest in the United States until it burned down immediately following the 1906 quake. Through the late 19th century and into the 20th, other Chinese communities throughout the West were firebombed by anti-immigrant labor activists. Residents lost almost everything as they fled for their lives. To my horror, this happened in several towns near where I grew up in Central California. I never learned about these atrocities in school, nor had my mom or grandparents. The tragedies had been buried.
That made it even more important for me to show the genuine ugliness of the time period. As far as I was concerned, to do otherwise would have made me culpable in the continuing crime of erasure.
In my alternate history, the American Civil War ends early because Union forces ally with the Japanese. By the time 1906 rolls around, the two militaries are still closely allied and in the process of taking over mainland Asia. I drew on real events as I raised the stakes for the Chinese immigrants in my setting.
However, I knew I was writing about a time period and situations that weren’t widely known. People might think I made up everything wholesale.
Therefore, in each novel in my trilogy, I include both an author’s note and a bibliography. In my note, I explain the major areas where I twisted history and why. The bibliography (which is also available on my website) outlines my source material. It’s my hope that people will read my fiction and then be inspired to read nonfiction on the period as well.
Choosing What Not to Say
While it’s important to show the ugliness of the time period, I also took care to avoid overdoing it. Constant violence against the vulnerable and the use of epithets can run the risk of being exploitive. Less can be more. Each word should be effective.
Within a series it can be tricky to know when and where to repeat vital information. In Breath of Earth, there is a major reveal about fan-favorite character Fenris Braun. When I started work on Call of Fire, I deliberated whether or not to repeat that reveal in some way. After all, there will always be some readers who pick up the books out of order. I didn’t want them to feel lost. At the same time, I also realized that if Ingrid continued to dwell on Fenris’ secret, that made it seem like she didn’t accept him. That just wasn’t right within my characters’ relationship.
Most importantly, Fenris is a complicated, realistic character, and like any person, should not be defined by a singular trait. In the end, I settled for adding a few hints in the next two books in the trilogy, and left it at that. At this point, I’ve confirmed that readers who initially skipped the first book still loved and related to Fenris without any problem.
Revising to Get It Right
I want to treat my characters with respect. I also want to treat my readers with respect. That means I’ve done my due diligence at every step in the process. I researched and tried to understand my time period. I wrote and endeavored to incorporate the truths of the era, without overdoing it.
And then—most importantly—I tweaked and deleted through the revision process, because despite all of my good intentions, I screwed up sometimes. That’s why I relied on the diverse perspectives of critique readers, my agent and my editor to help me to fix those errors and make my books as solid as possible. The value of their feedback was immeasurable.
After all, my ultimate goal was to create a fictional world that feels genuine. I want people to relate to Fenris. I want them to cheer for Ingrid. I want readers to be furious about the dark, gritty pieces of obscured history that I bring to light. I want fantasy and fact to meld. The writing and research for the Blood of Earth trilogy often felt daunting, but the entire process has also been incredibly enlightening. I only hope that readers feel the same way.