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Writing Excuses 5.21: Alternate History

Writing Excuses 5.21: Alternate History


Key Points: Alternate history: take real history and change something, then write a story based on that history. Pure alternate history just changes a historic event. "Duck, Mr. President" alternate history usually triggers a change through time travel. Fantasy alternate history adds magic. Write what you know, and write what you're passionate about. IF you want to write alternate history, be ready to do a lot of research. Use the little fact, big lie technique -- distract the reader with facts and details you know, so that he doesn't notice the blank background over there. Find the scholar who knows what you need and make friends with them. Only put details in that move the plot forward, build character, or set the stage. Beware the historical detail that can't be explained easily to a modern audience. Work hard to make your alternate history accessible to a modern audience, with characters who readers identify with that do not have modern attitudes. Be true to the period, show your reader how and why people thought then, and avoid caricatures.

[Howard] This is Writing Excuses Season Five Episode 21, Alternate History with Eric Flint and Mary Robinette Kowal.
[Mary] It's 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Howard] I'm Howard Tayler.
[Dan] I'm Dan Wells.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Eric] I'm Eric.
[Howard] We're being joined, as I said before, by Mary Robinette Kowal and Eric Flint because we're here at Superstars' Writing Seminars in Salt Lake City at the Red Lion Hotel. Brandon can't join us because he's on some panel about movie rights and none of us are interested in movie rights. We are interested in alternate history. Mary, tell us a little bit about yourself, and... introduce people to you.
[Mary] All right. So, I won the Campbell award for best new writer in 2008. I'm the vice president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. And my debut novel is set in 1814. It's basically Jane Austen with magic. Hence my interest in alternate history.
[Howard] Eric, tell us a little bit about yourself.
[Eric] I have a background in history. I have got a master's degree in history. I've been following it all my life. So when I started writing science fiction, I got my first novel published in 1997, which was not alternate history, although it was kind of closely related. I just sort of naturally wound up doing a lot of historically-based fiction because that's what I know.
[Howard] Excellent. Well, welcome to the cast. We're excited to start. Dan, you got some questions for us?

[Dan] I do. I want to start off by asking, in case any listeners don't know, what is alternate history? What is that genre of fiction?
[Eric] Broadly defined, it's... you take real history and change something. Then write a story based on what history would have looked like or could have looked like if something or other had changed. It broadly divides into two different types. There is a type of alternate history that is sometimes called pure alternate history which is where it's really purely historical fiction, you just make a change in some historical event.
[Howard] So if like the V2 rockets had worked and the shelling of Britain had... if Britain had fallen?
[Eric] Yeah. The classic instance... this has been done several times now, is what if Robert E. Lee had won the Battle of Gettysburg? That's a sort of very common one. All right, now there's a second type that involves a time travel element. Where the... it's an alternate history, but what triggers it off is someone... usually someone from modern day goes back in time and his-or-her arrival is what makes the change happen.
[Mary] This is often called the "Duck, Mister President" theory.
[Dan] Which I'm assuming does not mean that the President is a duck?
[Mary] No.
[Eric] No. You show up in the booth at Ford theater and yell out...
[Dan] And save...
[Eric] "Duck, Mister President!" Then you wrestle, and hopefully don't get killed, Booth to the ground.

[Dan] All right. So that's what alternate history is. What is it about that, that drew you to it? I know you said, Eric, that you had a lot of background in history already. What was it that got you excited about 1632, for example? What led you to want to write that?
[Eric] Well. Basically, all the fiction I write, whether it's technically alternate history or not, reflects my own interests. What I'm interested in, and what I write stories about, are sort of broad social changes. I tend to write those kind of stories rather than... although I have written a few that weren't... but I tend to be drawn to that more than for instance adventure stories involving a small number of people. I have written a few of those. But... So even fiction I write that's not alternate history is going to tend to be very close. For instance, I'll give you an example. With Kathy Wentworth, I'm doing a series that started with Course of Empire. It's based on a premise that about 20 years from now, an alien species conquers the Earth. But the underlying model for it that I have in mind was the Roman conquest of the Greek world. And the way...
[Howard] So you're using the history as a modeling...
[Eric] I'm using real history, and I'm using it... it's not a direct model, I make some changes. But I've always been kind of fascinated by... you have one culture that is militarily dominant conquers another, but the other culture is actually more sophisticated. So over time, it becomes very... it's hard to figure out who exactly conquered who.
[Howard] Who won?
[Eric] Because for instance by the time you get to the later Roman Empire, a few hundred years later, Greek is the official language of the Empire although they kept calling themselves Romans, and they considered themselves to be the continuation of the Roman Empire. It lasted until 1453. It lasted another thousand years. But they spoke Greek. It was... the culture had actually become more Greek than Roman. So, that's the underlying premise. I just... it's the kind of stories I like. So I'm sort of naturally drawn toward alternate history, because you can tell that story very easily in that setting, and I have a background in history. So... writers tend to write what they know about, because you can feel your fiction with a kind of texture and density that you can't if you're writing about something that you really don't know much about.
[Howard] I'm hearing two things that are good takeaways for our listeners. The first is what you just said, write what you know. With a master's degree in history, you probably know a thing or two about it. The second is, write what you're passionate about. These are things that you love, and so... that's probably why I loved reading 1632 so much, is that you loved writing it.
[Eric] Yeah, I did. Very definitely.

[Howard] Mary, what about you?
[Mary] Well, for me, it was also much the same, the writing what you love. Because I love Jane Austen, I love fantasy. In certain ways, what I was really interested in was what would happen to fantasy if you try to cram it into Jane Austen's world. Jane Austen herself hated... like, was writing all of her books as a reaction to the gothics of the period. So she would never write a fantasy in a billion billion years. The only way I could make that...
[Howard] Wait. What about Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies? Is that...
[Mary] Not hers. I know...
[Dan] Despite what some historians may tell you.
[Howard] I guess I'm illiterate. Sorry to interrupt.
[Mary] But I mean, that's technically alternate history as well.
[Howard] Exactly.
[Dan] Now, when we were talking about types of alternate history, I think we neglected a major type, which is our world except with magic. We have, for example Naomi Novak's Temeraire series, your series which is our world except this kind of illusionary magic that you [inaudible -- made up?]
[Howard] The Dresden Files novels.
[Eric] Well, they're...
[Mary] Cherie Priest's Boneshaker.
[Dan] Yeah, that's true. Steampunk falls a little bit into this as well.
[Howard] The whole steampunk genre.
[Mary] It's very much alternate history.
[Eric] Probably the classic was Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy stories. There's a long history of crossing alternate history with fantasy. I'm doing a series with Mercedes Lackey that's of that type. Starts with Shadow of the Lion, it's now up to four novels. The premise, it's set in the Renaissance... what is recognizably Renaissance Europe, a lot of things are different, because there was a change, it's actually theological. It goes back 1000 years. So the church is different, everything's different. Plus there's magic, so you've got demons and everything else you're dealing with. It's kind of a hybrid. Whether you want to call that alternate history... I actually tend to think of it as hard fantasy, because it's fantasy, but we're routing it very narrowly through a set social framework so you can't do anything you want.
[Mary] If you go back to the idea of urban fantasy... not so much fantasy set in a city, which is what urban fantasy really is, but the idea of fantasy in a real-world setting, what I'm writing is basically urban fantasy just 200 years ago. There's not that much of a difference. It's like... one thing that people talk about is the deep story, which is the change point. So you'll have the story that you're telling, and then there's also the deep story, which is the change point. Like Aliette de Bodard writes several stories in which the Chinese discovered the New World first. Oh, I'm sorry... is that Aliette? We'll pretend that it is for the moment.
[Howard] You know what? If it's not, we'll fix it in the liner notes.
[Mary] But she also writes, mostly she does stuff with the Aztecs where the Empire didn't collapse. So she's writing... she'll have stories that are set in the contemporary world, but the Aztec Empire never collapsed, so it's just affected everything. But she doesn't mess around with...
[Howard] Which means you could get good moles at a barbecue in Houston.
[Dan] Man, that sounds like a great world [inaudible]

[Howard] I want to live in that world. Let's take a break for just a moment for our book of the week. We are sponsored by audible, and this week's book is Torch of Freedom by Eric Flint and David Weber. It's available on audible. Eric, can you tell us a little bit about the book?
[Eric] It's part of David Weber's Honor Harrington universe, which is a very popular series that is now up to...
[Howard] A dozen books in it, I think.
[Eric] Oh, it's over a dozen novels and four or five anthologies of short fiction. The way this story got started is I wrote a short novel for an anthology called From the Highlands. David liked the characters, and asked me to continue it. I wrote a long novella for the next anthology called Fanatic. He liked the character and he suggested that we would do a novel together set in his universe, but not... where the main character, Honor Harrington, she only appears or has a cameo appearance once. This is in the prequel...
[Howard] So you don't need Honor Harrington's continuity in order to appreciate the story?
[Eric] No, you don't. Although it's got a very rich backstory, and I honestly would recommend that people not start with that book. Start with the Honor Harrington series itself. But Torch of Freedom just recently came out in paperback. It's actually the sequel to the book I wrote called Crown of Slaves, which is also available on audible, which is the first book in the series. That came out like three years ago.
[Howard] So, Crown of Slaves and Torch Of Freedom?
[Eric] Crown of Slaves and then Torch of Freedom.
[Dan] You get two books of the week for the price of one.
[Howard] Two books of the week for the price of one! Yes!
[Eric] For anyone who likes the Honor Harrington series, it comes in from a slightly different angle, but it's kind of woven into the main line of the story, and... I think it's a good book.
[Howard] Excellent. Well, thank you Eric. For those of you following along at home, go to and you can start a 14 day free trial, download a free book, and we're recommending Crown of Slaves?
[Eric] I recommend Crown of Slaves.
[Howard] Crown of Slaves, and then go ahead and pick up Torch of Freedom second.
[Dan] Sweet.

[Howard] Back on topic.
[Dan] Yes. Let's go into some specific advice now. For listeners out there who want to write alternate history, where do you recommend they start? What kind of things do they need to keep in mind?
[Mary] Well, start with a period of history that you're excited about. Because you're going to have to spend a ridiculous quantity of time researching it. Any period of history that you pick, there will be someone who knows intimately, and will call you on every single thing you get wrong. At the same time, don't obsess over the details, because this story is the important part. It is an alternate history. So the thing that they're complaining about, it just didn't happen that way in your history.
[Howard] What do you think, Eric?
[Eric] Well, first, I absolutely agree with Mary. Pick a period that you like, that you want to write about. It also helps if it's a period you know a great deal about, but that's less important. I did not actually know that much about the 30 years war when I started... when I got the idea of 1632. It was not an area I had ever specialized in, and I actually wound up having to do a lot of research. I will warn people that alternate history, to do it properly, requires a lot of research. The only sub genre in science fiction or fantasy I can think of that requires an equivalent amount of research is hard SF. Just be aware of that. I have to budget twice as much time to do an alternate history novel if I'm doing it. I'm not familiar with that I do if I write like fantasy or straight science fiction or adventure. Because you have to do a lot of research. It's true you can't obsess with it... over it, but if you don't do the research and don't do the... get to know that period, the book is not going to be a very good one. It just... it really won't. It won't read right to readers. It will... they'll be able to feel... even if they don't know the period, they'll be able to sense, there is something not...

[Howard] Can you get away with the little fact, big lie trick? You take something small, explain it in great detail, so that you can convince your audience you know what you're talking about, and then just sort of whitewash past a whopper that you're going to ask them to swallow?
[Eric] You have to do that, if you're an author. You honestly do. I don't care what you're writing. If it's got any kind of real background. What you do is, you try to bring in lots of facts and details that you know about, so it looks very rich to the reader, and you sort of distract him from the fact that a lot of this is just kind of a blank background. Because... you have to do that anyway...
[Howard] Authorial prestidigitation. We've talked about it on other casts.
[Eric] Because... you honestly have to do that, no matter what you're writing.
[Mary] At the same time, like Cherie Priest in her Dreadnought series, basically, the Civil War has lasted about 20 years longer than it did originally, there are zombies, and she needed the King Street Tower to be built about 10 years before it was. So she did.
[Howard] I remember her Seattle had a much larger population than Seattle back then.
[Mary] Yeah. Which she figured made sense given the war lasting longer. People will write in and complain about The King Street Station Tower existing 10 years before it really existed. They have no problems with the zombies, they don't have any problems with the Civil War lasting 20 years longer, but people have... I mean, I have seen comments on Amazon that people have thrown the book down in disgust because she's got The King Street Station existing and it shouldn't yet.
[Howard] That's funny.
[Eric] Although... she's right. Mary's right. Although my advice to any author is, do not pay much attention to Amazon reviews.
[Howard] Hey, you know what? If somebody read your book and threw it down in disgust... you've got their money.
[Eric] Well, beyond that, it's... there's also... there is a self selection process as to the kind of person who's likely to write... most people are going to take stuff like that in pretty good humor. I mean, if the book's good and they are enjoying the story? Anybody who gets that bent out of shape about something like that is probably somebody who was waiting to get bent out of shape about something and oh boy, you happened to be the one who gave them a target. I honestly don't worry too much about that. The reason I do tend to get a little obsessive about the details is just because... I'll give you an example from the 1632 series. Most of the... we call them down timers, the people of the 17th century who appear in the series. If they are of a certain high enough social class, they're almost all people who actually existed. We will do the research and find someone who actually existed who sort of fits the character, even though the number of people even in Germany which is where most of the series is set who are going to know that is tiny. As far as American readers or most of them... there may be three doctoral... people with doctorates in German history who will know any of this. But still, it keeps the author...
[Dan] Honest?
[Eric] And authors honest and on their toes. It really does.
[Howard] Well, and it's... it probably feels... if you're writing... if you're interested in writing alternate history, the ability to open up a genealogy of southern Germany from the 16th century and lift out a name and a family and put that in the book, is probably kind of thrilling for you. You've brought somebody back to life.
[Eric] Yeah. The other thing I would recommend is, try, if you possibly can, to find some people. Because Mary's right. If you're writing historical fiction and you're a novelist and you're making a living at it, you have a few months to do the same research that a scholar would spend an entire career doing. So if you're smart, you'll try to find that scholar.
[Howard] Exactly.
[Eric] Make friends with them.
[Howard] See far by standing on the shoulder of a giant.
[Eric] In hard SF, you do the same thing. I've written a hard SF novel [inaudible -- before?] and we had real rocket scientists who were advising us to tell us if we got something wrong.
[Howard] That was Threshold and Boundary, right?
[Eric] Boundary, yeah.

[Dan] I think this brings up a good question, which is how much of the detail that you research do you want to put into it, and how do you find that balance between telling a good story and making use of the research you've done?
[Mary] It's the same as any other story. You only put the detail in if you need it to move the plot forward, tell something about the character, set the stage. There are things that I put into Shades of Milk and Honey that I cut because the amount of effort that it would've taken to explain it to a modern audience was just not worth the effort.
[Howard] And it wasn't salient with regard to plot and character.
[Dan] I know one of the examples of that from your blog was crossing a letter.
[Mary] The crossed letters. Which is basically they... in the Regency... this is too much detail for this. But in the Regency, there was this type of thing called a crossed letter, which you can visit my blog to find out more about and...
[Howard] Reusing paper?
[Mary] It wasn't reusing paper.
[Dan] It was conserving paper.
[Mary] Now I'm just going to explain it, because we've spent so much time on it. Basically you would write the letter, and then you would turn it 90 degrees and write across it because postage was charged based on the number of sheets of paper. The person receiving the letter was the one who had to pay for it.

[Howard] I actually wrote notes like that to girls in grade school. I thought it was a form of encryption. But it's not. Let's do one more question. We're pushing the boundaries of 15 minutes significantly. Well, you know what? We afford a little pad in the middle for the ad. So. One more question. This question is what is the biggest challenge that you faced personally writing an alternate history, and how did you clear that hurdle? How did you overcome it?
[Mary] One of the things... it's twofold. One was making it accessible to a modern audience, and the other was making sure that my characters did not have modern attitudes, while making them people that a modern reader would care about. A woman in 18...
[Howard] That's not a tall order at all, Mary. How'd you pull it off?
[Mary] Sometimes not successfully, sometimes successfully, hopefully. Basically what I did was, I did a little more explaining about emotional reactions than I would if I were writing a contemporary book. I treated the history as if it were a secondary world fantasy, because it is a foreign country to my modern readers.
[Howard] Cool.
[Dan] All right. Eric? Same question.
[Eric] It's very similar, actually, to what Mary said. When I wrote my series set in American... Jacksonian period. There are two books so far out in that series. 1812: The Rivers of War and 1824: The Arkansas War. The theme of the book, it deals very heavily into race in America. And your guy carry... this is pure alternate history, there is no time travel and all that involved, so I can't bring in a modern character with modern views. All white people at the time at attitudes that we would consider racist today.
[Howard and Mary] Egregiously.
[Eric] Egregiously. So it's tricky, how do you have characters that modern readers can still identify with? So one thing I did was, I chose Sam Houston as my central character, because of all the people prominent at the time that people know about, his attitudes on race were the closest you'll find to modern ones. So you make him the central viewpoint character, and he's attractive. I also invented a character who is a... sort of loosely based on a real one who is an Irish revolutionary nationalist from the men of 98. He's now emigrating to the United States and he's got radical attitudes on race, mostly because he's got radical attitudes in general. So I've got characters people can identify with, and then you give the different viewpoints of whites, Indians, and blacks, and you try to be true to the period and enable people to understand how everyone's thinking and why they're thinking so nobody is a caricature. It's a challenge, it really is. I think I did a good job of it. But it was... I felt at times like I was walking on eggshells.
[Howard] That sounds fascinating. What were those titles again? The Arkansas War and...?
[Eric] 1812: The Rivers of War and 1824: The Arkansas War. I published them initially with Del Rey, and then Del Rey didn't want to continue the series, so I took it over, and Baen has picked it up. So I've got a contract to do two more books with Baen.
[Howard] Excellent. Well, Eric, Mary, thank you for joining us. We're going to wrap up with a writing prompt. Dan? Do you have a writing prompt for us?

[Dan] I do indeed. We're going to just do the classic branching point alternate history. Pick a major event in history that you happen to love, decide that it comes out differently, and then write a little story.
[Howard] So a Duck, Mister President?
[Dan] Not a time travel, but like a branching point. A... where somebody won the wrong war or lost the war...
[Howard] Horseshoe fell off.
[Dan] Or the wrong thing happened. Then write a story that takes place 100 years later.
[Howard] Excellent. Well, this has been Writing Excuses, you're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: alternate history, attitudes, character, details, fantasy, magic, plot, research, setting, time travel, writing excuses
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