Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.42: Alternate History

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Margaret, and Howard

Alternate histories (and historical fantasies) are a staple of genre fiction. In this episode we talk about the worldbuilding process, the tools we use, and the pitfalls we try to avoid when constructing these kinds of stories.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Write an alternate history by changing a cusp point in your own life.

Thing of the week: Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Worldbuilding alternate history stories? First, an alternate history is extrapolation of what would have happened if something different had happened at some cusp point. Often set some years after the breaking point. There are also stories where the world is basically the same plus X (e.g., magic). Extrapolation? Use the patterns! Worldbuilding, and research, for both types involves much the same approach, a broad view, an inciting incident, and thinking about what are the ripples and ramifications from that. There is also historical fantasy, which is grounded in the real world, plus an addition. It’s somewhat like the question of time travel stories, of how resilient the time line is. Does crushing one butterfly change everything, or do even major changes (such as the addition of magic) have ripples, but leave things mostly the same? When some of your readers may know more about something than you do — be willing to let it go and be wrong. Focus on telling the story, not being right. Talk to the experts! If you don’t know the answer to something, don’t put it in the story. Use a character who is not an expert, so even if they get it wrong, the reader can say, “Of course.” Have your character show they are competent with something you do know, then handwave past the other things. Be aware, common knowledge may insist that you have made up things in your alternate history, even if they are actual real things. Also, just because this wardrobe or furnishing is this year’s best, does not mean everyone has it! Most people have older items in their house!

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 42.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Alternate History.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Margaret] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Margaret] I’m Margaret.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Brandon] We have a really fun topic today. We are going to talk about how to worldbuild your alternate history stories. Mary, what is an alternate history?

[Mary Robinette] Well, an alternate history is where you take a cusp point in real… Like, you go back and you look at actual history and then you pick a cusp point and then you extrapolate what things would have looked like if a different thing had happened.

[Brandon] Okay. So usually the alternate history is taking place some years after this breaking point, this cusp point as you called it. How do you do that? Like, how do you guess what would happen?

[Mary Robinette] Well, as the person who writes alternate history… The thing is that history goes through patterns all the time. We… There are certain things that are fairly predictable, like the way people respond to certain stimulus, the way we respond to certain events. So what you do is just kind of look at the way those patterns shape when the different thing happens. For instance, we know that there’s a kind of 20 year cycle in fashion. So if something happens where there’s a cusp point, then fashion is going to go through a predictable change between veneration of the artifice and one of the natural. So you can kind of look at those things. We know that people react to Empire in predictable ways. We know that people react to oppression in predictable ways. That there are patterns there. So you can apply those. Like, a cusp point that I never got to exploit, but was really fascinated by, was the Prince Regent’s daughter died in childbirth bearing a male son. A male son. Well done, Mary. A male heir. Queen Victoria was born in response to that. There was a race to produce another child, because Princess Charlotte was the only option at that point. Had she survived, and the pregnancy was survivable… The doctor, her obstetrician, refused to use forceps. If he had used forceps, chances are she actually would have survived that childbirth and the sun would have, too. The British Empire would have looked totally different. Completely, completely different. So that’s an interesting cusp point, where you can sit there and go, “Well, we know how we reacted when Queen Victoria took the throne. What happens if we map that on to something that happens earlier?”

[Brandon] Now, I’ve heard people who talk about alternate history, kind of, maybe this is an artificial distinction, but make a distinction between books that are trying to explore what would have happened, like you say, on these cusp points, and books where one thing about our world is different, and instead of trying to go all the way back and extrapolate, you’re writing a story where our world is basically the same plus X.

[Mary Robinette] Like Naomi Novik’s…

[Brandon] Yeah. His Majesty’s Dragon.

[Mary Robinette] Right. Like the Glamorous Histories.

[Brandon] Exactly. So do you see these as a real distinction? Are they approach… Worldbuilding approached in different ways?

[Mary Robinette] I think the worldbuilding is actually approached in exactly the same way.

[Brandon] Okay.

[Mary Robinette] You’re looking at the ramifications and ripples. The inciting incident is different.

[Brandon] Right.

[Mary Robinette] In both case… In one case, it’s an action, a cusp point. In the other, it’s the… And now we have magic.

[Brandon] Right. Do you make kind of… I remember you talking about Glamorous Histories where… Something along the lines, I’m going to put words in your mouth, you can change it. But it was something along the lines of you were not interested in the butterfly flaps its wings and so America is suddenly communist. You’re not looking at “Oh. If humans had magic way back when, I’m not looking at now 2000 years later that we have completely different nations.” But some people might be writing history that way. I don’t know.

[Howard] I think of these… I do draw a dichotomy. There is the event-based, the trigger-based, the cusp-based alternate histories, and then there are alternate histories which I think of more as parallel alternates.

[Brandon] Okay.

[Howard] Where the events that we know all kind of happened, but they happened and magic was running along parallel to it. What we are exploring in some cases is… I think of the Glamorous Histories in this regard… How would the Napoleonic wars have fallen out had there been magic? Yet we still win the… I say we. The French don’t win the Napoleonic wars.


[Howard] In the Glamorous Histories.

[Mary Robinette] I think this is one of the reasons that we have the useful other term, historical fantasy.

[Brandon] Okay.

[Mary Robinette] So what I write are… With the Glamorous Histories, are historical fantasy, which is very similar to an alternate history in that it’s as much grounded in real world as possible, with this… But it has this addition. Calculating Stars, on the other hand, is a straight up alternate history. Things happen differently, but I’m not violating real-world in any way, shape, or form.

[Brandon] Okay. So, how have you specifically done research for say the Glamorous Histories or the Calculating Stars or Ghost Talkers?

[Mary Robinette] It’s… It’s, honestly, not any different from the way I do research for anything else. I start with a broad overview to kind of get a sense of the world. Then I start thinking about how things shift. With the Glamorous Histories, in particular, with my addition of magic, I didn’t want to shift the world very far, so I was very careful when I was constructing the world that I… That’s choices I made did not shift the world too far when I was constructing the magic. So, for me, the distinction is less about the kind of research I do and more about the ways in which I’m applying it. It specifically the way I’m dealing with the worldbuilding based on that research.

[Brandon] Okay.

[Margaret] It feels almost like you’re dealing with the effects of what… How do you see the timeline, and the resiliency of the timeline, if you were telling a time travel story. Whereas, do you believe, that… Is it a time travel where you crush a butterfly and everything changes, or is it a belief that the timeline is basically resilient, but if you go back in the past and make changes, you’ll see some ripple effects, but it’s not going to send us careening off into left field.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. So, with the Glamorous Histories, with the insertion of magic into the world, everybody has magic. Every nation, every people on the planet, have magic. So that’s… That doesn’t shift power dynamics at all. The fact that every… Because I gave it to everybody. If I had just given it to one nation, that would have shifted power dynamics. That would have been a very different story.

[Brandon] So, kind of a more general question. How do you approach writing about something, like, for instance, World War I, where you know a certain percentage of your audience is going to know way more about the topic than you will?


[Brandon] Howard, you run into this, I think, with Schlock Mercenary with the… You are very good at the sciencey parts, but I’m sure many of your audience are better at the sciencey parts.

[Howard] [sigh] At some point, I just have to be willing to let go. Because I’m more interested in telling a story than in being right. That’s… I found that that’s a healthy attitude in a lot of cases. It’s not that I don’t need to be right. It’s that I can say, “Oh, yeah, got that wrong.” But I’m going to continue to tell the story that I’m telling, because I’m enjoying telling it, and people are enjoying reading it. If I find a way to work better science into it, I will. The trickier bits to recover from if I’ve gotten it wrong are when I’ve misrepresented an existing culture in ways that future extrapolation don’t account for. Specifically, in my case, the interactions between officers and grunts. The whole military culture. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve stuck the landing several times just by having talked to the right people and gotten a sense for… Through being an old guy… A sense for how people react to other people. Because a lot of those things translated straight across.

[Mary Robinette] I think the talking to the right people is really key for a lot of this. Like, I basically went out and said, “I need World War I people to read this thing.” With Calculating Stars, I’m like, “I need astronauts.” I mean, I just want to hang out with astronauts, too, but I need rocket scientists, I need fighter pilots, I need… Asking the right people to talk to you. But the other thing is if you don’t know the answer to something, don’t bring it up in the story. Like, this is one of the things that makes me look like I really know what I’m talking about. In Calculating Stars, I very carefully never talk… Never tell you how much that meteor weighs.

[Brandon] Right.

[Mary Robinette] I never tell you how big that thing is. We did research… There’s a range that I am comfortable with it being within that range. But I am not going to get specific about it, because the moment I’m specific about it, that opens the possibility that I am wrong.

[Brandon] Yeah, we talk about this a lot, particularly in fantasy, that sometimes it is better to leave these things unsaid, because sometimes when you start down that path and start explaining, you work yourself into making it harder for the reader to suspend disbelief. One tool I also have found in this area, and I think I mentioned before on the podcast, is if it’s an area about which I know I’m not an expert and I know some of my readers are, I will generally take the perspective or viewpoint for that given chapter of a character who is not an expert. Who can be cabbage head. When they describe things wrong, the reader, who are my experts, can believably let themselves suspend disbelief and say, “Well, Kaladin just doesn’t know a lot about horses. Yeah, he got that wrong. He obvious… He talks about not knowing a lot about horses.”

[Margaret] One of the things that I’ve hit before when I’m working on a television show. One of the shows where I worked as a writer’s assistant was called The Unusuals. It was a cop show that took place in New York City. So, there are a lot of cop shows that take place in New York City. So the audience is familiar with them. We had police consultants that we talked to about things. One of the first things, one of the first cops we talked to said, “You guys know that there’s no such thing as an APB?” The All Points Bulletin is not a thing that the New York police use. If you put out what we think of when we think of an APB, it is called a Finest Bulletin.

[Mary Robinette] Huh!

[Margaret] Because like TV…

[Howard] You’re contacting all of New York’s finest.

[Margaret] New York’s finest. That’s what it’s called. We’re there, and we’re like, “Okay, this is accurate.” If somebody mentions a Finest Bulletin in dialogue, we’re going to have to stop and explain to everyone in the audience what we mean. Whereas, if we say, “We’re going to put out an APB on the suspect,” everyone watching knows what it is and we’re going to roll ahead with it.

[Howard] Elementary handled it a little differently the first couple of times they introduced that. It was… You need to put the word out. I’ll put out a Finest Bulletin. Then they just called it that. I see the decision going either way.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Our book of the week is The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.

[Margaret] Yes. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon. Which is… It’s funny, when it came up, I don’t think of it as an alternate history book, but it absolutely is. It takes place in an alternate version of our world where Jewish refugees during World War II, instead of settling eventually in what was then Palestine, are in Sitka, Alaska. This was based on actual historical research in… There’s this worldwide refugee crisis. Everyone’s trying to figure out where. One of the proposals somebody floated in the day was, well, we could send them to Alaska. Who’s up there? A lot of native Alaskans, but… Leaving that aside, as I’m sure they did at the time. So it takes place in a world where Sitka is this bustling Yiddish-language city, and you are following this intricate mystery which ends up tying into the politics of how everyone wound up in Alaska in the first place. One of the things that was so delightful to me reading this is, especially as an American Jew, seeing the ways it was both the same and different, the relationship that American Jews had with Sitka that you see American Jews having with Israel. That was really kind of cool and often funny.

[Brandon] I believe it won that Hugo, didn’t it?

[Mary Robinette] Yes. It won basically everything.

[Brandon] Everything that it could win.

[Brandon] Mary, before we jumped to [garbled] I saw you scribbling notes furiously.

[Mary Robinette] So, one of the things is slightly off-topic of alternate history, but… Which is how to handle it when your character is actually an expert about something that you are not, and you’re trying to deal with that in the alternate history. I’ll very quickly brush past this, which is that you have your character demonstrate competence on something that you do understand. Then, the reader believes that the character understands it.

[Brandon] Right.

[Mary Robinette] So they will grant you when you handwave past other things that you have thought it through.

[Brandon] That’s awesome.

[Mary Robinette] I use that trick all the time, because Elma is a mathematician and my math skills do not exist. The other thing that I was going to say is that one of the biggest problems with writing alternate history, like the all finest, is fighting common knowledge. There are things that people think they know because of the media that they have already absorbed. So when you go into the alternate history, sometimes you put something in there that is not actually a deviation and people will totally think it is. Like, so, Andy Weir read Calculating Stars, and was on a podcast talking about how he loved my alternate history touch of NACA, which is the NACA, the National Advisory Committee of Aeronautics, which was a real organization that predated NASA. This is someone who knows aerospace. But because common knowledge is so hard-core about NASA, NASA, NASA, NASA, it’s a thing that he just missed. Similarly, when I was writing the book, I was… I had… My beta readers were going, “Wow. I love this alternate history where there are women of color in the computer room.” I’m like, “These are based on actual real women.” But Hidden Figures wasn’t out yet. As soon Hidden Figures came out, those… That commentary totally went away. This is the thing that you have to fight when you’re doing an alternate history is… Is that line between how much do I want to shift the reader’s awareness and how much do I just want to tell this story and… It is an alternate history, so maybe the common knowledge thing is the way things happened.

[Howard] I was on a panel talking about how right do you need to get things. Somebody brought up the use of Chinese as swearing in the Firefly series. They loved how this was used to represent a melding of Western culture and Eastern culture. The linguist on the panel said, “But they got it all wrong. There’s no way that these people would be speaking in Western intonations and then would correctly inflect the Chinese profanity. There’s no way they’d get the pitches right.”

[Margaret] They should have crappier Chinese accents?

[Howard] They should have crappier Chinese accents. He’s absolutely right. Except if they had done crappy Chinese accents, the rest of us would have seen it as a slur on Chinese. So…

[Margaret] Or laziness on the part of…

[Howard] Laziness on the part of the actors. So, I’m happy that they decided to be wrong in their extrapolation of…

[Brandon] There’s a pretty good YouTube series called History Buffs which takes a look at historical movies and kind of goes down what they got wrong. But one of the reasons I like it is because about on half of those, they’d say, “I agree with this change. By doing this, you are actually emphasizing this part of history which is a real part that didn’t happen during this time or didn’t happen this way, but when you presented for audiences, you make this tweak and get the right effect so that they actually learn the history even though it’s technically wrong.” Once in a while, I think that’s what you do.

[Mary Robinette] When you were talking about going back and looking at movies and things that got things wrong or right… One of the things that I want to talk about when we’re talking about alternate histories is actually fashion. This is a thing that I see people get wrong all the time. It’s not, “Oh, your fashion is wrong, how dare you?” The problem is that when people do the research, they look at it and say, “Okay. This book is set in 1893. What were people wearing in 1893?” But if you look at your own wardrobe, you have clothes in your wardrobe that are at least 20 years old. Sometimes more. We are all nodding. If someone is wearing everything that is from that year, if there home is decorated in only things from that year, then either that is an enormous wealth display, or something has gone terribly wrong in their life, because they’ve had to replace everything that they own. Either way, you are making a character statement, and you are making it by accident, because of your research patterns.

[Brandon] That’s really cool. There is a very good tip. 

[Brandon] I’m going to have to cut us here and give you guys some homework. The homework I want you to write is I want you to do an alternate history of an event in your life. We’ve been talking about macroscopic scale, changes to historical events and nations. I want you to just look back at something that’s happened in your life and write that event as if it could have happened differently. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.