How Research Helped Create My Story

This the second post in a series of guest posts by authors who, like me, have found themselves falling down into a Research Rabbit Hole, often with hilarious results. Because this is the true danger of research….it sucks you in!


I’ve lived basically all my life in Auckland, New Zealand, so when I wanted to write a contemporary urban fantasy, I naturally set it there. This is the story of how Book 2 in the series arose almost entirely from research.

One of the criticisms I got for Book 1 was that there was too much incidental information about the city in it. One of the characters is a huge history nerd, and knows everything about the city, and she has a habit of tossing in irrelevant facts at odd moments. I responded to this in two ways: firstly, I trimmed a couple of the less germane references out and republished; and secondly, I turned it into a feature. People often talk about how, in urban fantasy, the city where it’s set can be like another character. I wanted to push that almost to the point of being literal.

To do that, I researched Zealandia. Not many people, even in New Zealand, know who Zealandia is. She fell out of favour after World War II, presumably because of a changing sense of national identity. She’s the personified spirit of New Zealand (the equivalent of Uncle Sam, if you like), the daughter of Britannia, and also one of the supporters on the New Zealand coat of arms.

NZ coat of arms (1911)

My plan was that Zealandia would manifest to my history-nerd character, Steampunk Sally, and act as a kind of wisdom figure, linking her to the power of the city and enabling her to save the day.

Now, when I started looking into Zealandia, I discovered that there was a statue of her which I’d walked past many times without noticing it – it’s on the opposite side of a memorial from the route I’d often taken after work, when I was working downtown and my wife was in the hospital. Nearby is Grafton Bridge, which crosses a gully to the hospital, and also sits partly over a Victorian cemetery. Here’s a photo I took on one of my walks, showing graves underneath the roadway of the bridge:

Graves under Grafton Bridge

Ever since I noticed that, I’d had a story in mind in which the people from those graves rose up and attacked the living people who kept driving above them. I was also aware of the mass grave beside the bridge, which holds the cremated remains of 4000 people whose original graves were dug up to make room for a motorway (freeway) in the 1960s.

All these elements came together and created almost the entire plot of Auckland Allies 2: Ghost Bridge. A necromancer is raising the Victorian ghosts to attack the hospital, using wedding rings stolen from the graves when they were opened 50 years ago. Only by taking on the power of Auckland, under the mentorship of Zealandia, can Sally help her team to contain the threat.

I gave my cover artist my photo to use as reference, and this is what he did with it:

Ghost Bridge cover

Not only was that book tremendous fun to write, it was a lot of fun to do the research, and to come up with a kind of “secret history” in which real-life places, objects, and events drove a decidedly fictional narrative. It’s the kind of thing I want to do again.


Mike Reeves-McMillan writes, as well as the Auckland Allies series, a steampunkish series about heroic civil servants and engineers (The Gryphon Clerks), and a sword-and-sorcery heist series that he describes as “Leverage meets Lankhmar” (Hand of the Trickster). You can connect with him on Google+ or Facebook, and read more about Auckland Allies at his website; he’s just published Book 3, which features Sally as Zealandia on the cover.


Follow Mike: Website/ Facebook/ Google+

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