Writing Excuses 5.21: Alternate History

Mary Robinette Kowal and Eric Flint join Howard and Dan for a discussion of writing Alternate History. Eric divides the sub-genre into two categories for us. Dan adds a third category for us later. Summing up:

  1. Our history, but with a key change occurring (the “branching point.”)
  2. Our history, but with a time-traveler going back and changing something (aka “duck, Mister President!”)
  3. Our history, but with magic (usually with said magic being the key change at our branching point)

Mary’s first novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, grew out of a love for Jane Austen’s work and a love for the fantasy genre. Eric’s alternate histories (including the wildly popular 1632 series) grow out of the fact that he enjoyed history enough to obtain a Master’s degree in it. Write what you know, and write what you’re passionate about.

During the second half of the ‘cast Eric and Mary give us advice on how to go about writing alternate history. We talk about research, about when to sweat the details and when not to, and about some of the biggest challenges Mary and Eric faced during these projects.

At 22 minutes and 39 seconds it’s clear that we ran a little long on this one.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week (Two-for-One): Crown of Slaves and Torch of Freedom, both by Eric Flint and David Weber. These books fit in Weber’s Honor Harrington universe, but don’t require you to have read all the Honor Harrington books.

Writing Prompt: Pick a major event in history that you love, and make it come out differently.

Session Notes: We recorded seven guest episodes while at the Superstars Writing Seminar in Salt Lake City. This is the first of these. Brandon was absent for the first three sessions, but joined us for the last four.

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39 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 5.21: Alternate History”

  1. I actually attended the Superstars Writing Seminar in Salt Lake City. And yes, it was expensive, but it was totally worth it. That panel on writing as it pertains to movies was actually one of the most instructive in the entire seminar, so I wouldn’t slander Brandon too much for evading this week’s podcast.

    Now I’m just waiting for the MP3 cds of the Seminar to arrive. They’re also quite pricey, but they have my recommendation.

    BTW, Eric Flint is awesome. I could actually believe that he himself is a character that escaped a fantasy novel and is now living in the real world. And his casual swearing livened up more than a few of the panels

  2. Glad to hear Eric mention Randall Garrett’s wonderful Lord Darcy stories. That was the first example of Type 3 which came to my mind, although it also combines Type 1. He (posthumously) won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History Special Achievement Award for the series.

  3. I call this “Orange Wishes”

    “Gran-daaa, why do I have to ware this stupid thing?”
    “Two things: one, stop using that Teutonic familiarity when in uniform. Two, Tuck in that shirt boy, there is a ration on good cloth. Third—I mean three, I did not give you permission to speak.”
    “Sir, permission to speak freely on the subject of this uniform, sir.”
    “Denied, but I will explain why that uniform is a point of pride. Oh and fetch me my pipe boy.”
    “Does sir wish to use the Lord Protector’s gift, (which is in violation of imperial import regulation 18B)?”
    “Fetch the tobacco, boy!”
    “Now as I was saying that uniform takes me back to the bad days of Britain. The empire was crumbling, commies were out to burn down the world, and Hitler was out to pick up the ashes. I was not much older than you when I put on black shirt and—I did not tell you to be at ease. Now where was I?”
    “Sir, sir was explaining why sir is requiring me to wear a green uniform and be formal with sir, sir.”
    “At ease. Now speaking of uniforms, mine fit like a man and I looked like a man. That’s what you have to do when they expect men to guard the meetings. The Lord Protector was just chancellor of the Exchequer Mosley at that time and the police were too weak to protect a street sign much less the greatest man in Britain.”
    “Weak like I am sir? I mean it does seem a bit much to—“
    “Boy, you are not weak. The sissy just has to be beaten out of you like the Lord Protector beat out of Britain. The money men sucked the life out the economy, so the reigns had to be taken by a man. A man who knew to keep trade in the family and take what could not be made. That’s why the empire was—is so important. Men need a big basket and a big basket has to come from somewhere.”
    “Sir, about the uniform—“
    “Oh there I was proud when I first saluted the Union Jack as we set sail to show the Hun what fore. I remember the night we had to show parliament to consequences of not tearing up that American weakness of a naval treaty. Oh they were sorry when we had to Trafalgar the colonies back into the fold. Strength is unity boy and unity begins with the—“
    “Uniform. Sir!”
    “Never forget that. Now look proud; the Lord Protector is going to make me a KCB tonight.”
    “But why do I have to ware green.”
    “Because the blues are too good for you. What, would you rather wear orange? I could have you fitted for a pink triangle so you can bend over for Wilde’s ghost while we’re at it.”

  4. Interesting show. I can see how Alternate History could be fun to write. One could explore a lot of “What If” threads. I have always been more into Alternate Worlds, but I will have to give this a try. Thanks for opening my eyes to even more writing possibilities.

    @Wesley Young, I think you meant …

    “Gran-daaa, why do I have to WEAR this stupid thing?”

  5. yes, I am a WEAR of that typo but a more important quibble is the use of the title Lord Protector which I suspect would be difficult to use given the association with Richard III.

  6. My first time commenting, just want to say this is a great rescource for writers, and you guys are wonderful people, keep it up.

    I was very excited to see Mary Robinette Kowal on the podcast. I was introduced to her book via Io9.com, read the first few chapters online and went out and bought it a week later when it came out. Had to order it through Barnes & Nobles. Apparently the publisher was obscure, or something, because they lady who looked it up for me at the store shot me a weird look and asked how I even knew it existed. She then ordered a stack.

    I find Alternate history to be a very appealing subject in theory but I always have an upset feeling when I see real people being used as more than background characters. It feels almost…rude, I suppose, to be putting words in a person’s mouth, even if they have been dead for a long time. Regardless though, the advice for writing it was very helpful.

    I have a question/suggestion for a future podcast, that ties into alt. history, history, and fantasy writing. You guys have touched on it before, but I don’t think you’ve really done one exclusively on the subject. Obviously people today have a certain mindset, have certain slang, speak a certain way, use particular idioms, etc. What sorts of things in particular are important to pay attention to, and keep out of your dialogue and narrative to stay true to either a historically-based world, or a Fantasy (or even science fiction) world that is not based on a society resembling modern America (or wherever one hails from)?

    Some are obvious, like slang and po-culture references, but I’m sure advice on the less glaring ones would be very helpful. Idioms in particular really mess with my brain. I’m never certain if I’m just making my brain hurt because someone will actually care that this idiom doesn’t fit into the time period or culture, or because I’m subconsciously a masochist.

  7. For Type 3 I heartily recommend Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell by Susannah Clarke.

    I read it a few years back and absolutely was one of the best books I’d read in a long time. I am surprised that it’s not been talked about as much as some other stuff out there.

  8. Crossing a letter: whoa! I grew up on Tolkein, and realized that my modern now-a-days writing problems with feeling bogged down with exposition in my own writing really grow out of how the modern attention-span lack that requires less exposition—but here’s what gets me: she took two or three sentences to explain that point…and she still insisted it was TOO complicated to explain. Can we not have ANY exposition now??? *sigh* Somebody please explain this to me.

  9. you should change your tag line! when was the last one under 15 minutes? Not that I am complaining!

    “under 20 minutes, because…”

    keep up the great work.

  10. @Steve: We usually run around 18 minutes to allow for the ad in the middle and the plug at the very beginning. There’s still only about 15 minutes of meat in most of these ‘casts.

  11. I tried to look up cross letters and couldn’t find much of anything – not even when I searched Mary’s journal. Does anyone know the “official” term? Google did not like “cross letters” in any form, and I wanted to read up on them (how in the world they could read the letter like that…).

    (I personally love longer shows – the longer the better! =D)

  12. Loved this one, but I love historical fiction and alternate history, I think for the same resasons I love fantasy and SF – I love being competely immersed in another world. And fantasy often is a kind of alternate history with magic.

    You mentioned some good ones in the podcast, like Naomi Novak, and I second Susannah Clarke from the comments (Clarke is Jane Austen with wizards). Another good one is J. Gregory Keyes’ Age of Unreason series, starting with Newton’s Cannon – a magical alternate history of the Age of Enlightenment, starring just about every major historical figure from a young swashbuckling Ben Franklin to Voltaire to Peter the Great.

    I also love reading straight history, and, if you can find a copy, Francis Mossiker’s The Queen’s Necklace, about one of the greatest criminal scams and scandals in history, is marvelous – it’s not so much an author’s narrative as an edited presentation of real journals and statements of witnesses.

  13. It’s interesting to me – when you mention the “Duck, Mr. President!” story type, you immediately think of a time-traveler saving Lincoln’s life. Does anybody write stories about time-travelers saving Garfield or McKinley?
    Or even telling the President to duck at the exact wrong time, and causing the assassination of Gerald Ford, or the premature death of Lincoln in 1864.

    @Skye – Try searching Google for “cross writing”; there are good results on the first page.

  14. @Skye Sorry, I’m not enunciating clearly. It’s a “crossed” letter. This is a crossed letter that Jane Austen sent. http://www.themorgan.org/collections/zoom.asp?id=443

    @Joe Kawano Exposition is fine, but there are times when the detail isn’t important enough to the story to warrant the effort. When I explained the crossed letter on the podcast, I was explaining it to a modern audience of people who didn’t know what it was. That automatically makes exposition easier. It’s why so many stories wind up with an “As you know Bob” scene.

    In the scene where I cut it, Mr. Dunkirk told my POV character that he had received a crossed letter. The challenge here is that my POV character knows what a crossed letter is. If the letter were physically present, then I could describe its appearance. Since it wasn’t present, I would have had to stop the action to have my POV character reflect on what a crossed letter is. To me, this would have been a breach of character because focusing on it would have raised the importance of the crossed nature of the letter out of proportion with what was happening in the scene.

    The easiest way to deal with the question of “What’s a crossed letter?” was just to cut the word crossed. That’s what I mean when I say it wasn’t worth the effort to explain.

    So. Exposition is fine, but one does have to weigh the cost of the exposition to the action and character development in any given scene.

  15. Thank you SO MUCH for doing an episode on this! I’ve been wanting to write an alternate history story for a while, and this was really helpful.

  16. I noticed AlanHorne mentioned getting MP3 CDs of the Superstars Writing Seminar. Will those be available for anyone to purchase, or are they exclusively for seminar attendees?

  17. This is sorta random, but going purely by voice, Eric Stone sounds like he’d be a fun dude to hang out with.

  18. @Sean

    Do you mean Eric Flint? (Eric James Stone is a different author who’s also been a WE guest.)

  19. This is kind of a stretch, but seems interesting: a “time travel” story that starts in an alternate history, and the effects of time travel change the course of events /into/ history as we know it.

    Thinking about time has given me a headache again.

  20. I second gav in heartily, heartily recommending Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell” and her short story collection “Ladies of Grace Adieu.” If she’s part of a movement introduce a new Regency Fantasy genre, I’m all for it.

    My only complaint about this podcast is that it’s too short. Can we get an hour every week?

  21. @Katya and G.W. Bancroft:

    My favorite example of what TV Tropes calls “Rubber Band History” is James P. Hogan’s The Proteus Operation (which they list.) I love Asimov’s The End of Eternity, too (also on their list.)

  22. I’m surprised the no-WWII concept didn’t come up. While the Treaty of Versailles pretty much guarenteed some type of violent uprising by the Germans, it’s quite possible that, with Hitler removed from the equation, the entire European theatre of WWII would have been a minor event (as to when it’d have happened, it’s impossible to say). And it doesn’t take a time travelling assassin to kill him off, either. He was gassed in World War I, and survived dozens of assassination attempts, many of which were early enough to abort the formation of the Third Reich – some failed because of a missed shot, others due to Hitler’s erratic schedule shifting.

    On the other hand, the only piece of fiction I know of that involves the prevention of World War 2 in Europe by killing Hitler is the Red Alert series of strategy games, and the story for those games is only enjoyable because it’s so ludicrous.

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  24. @Rashkavar: The Proteus Operation plays with that idea. We have a conspiracy of time travelers from a timeline in which the Treaty of Versailles marked the beginning of World Peace for over a century going back in time to stir things up because they want a world where they can be in charge.

  25. So I went for it on this writing prompt. I’ve always been fascinated by what if the bombs had fizzled at Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.

    Little Boy, is a short piece of Historical WWII fiction.

    Be warned, at times the language and imagery of this work can be strong.

  26. @Wesley Young

    That was a really neat bit of writing (and world-building), exposition without “as you know, Bob”. I would say by far the most notable Lord Protector was Oliver Cromwell, rather than any of the (few) others.


    I enjoyed this podcast, as I always do. I was a bit surprised when Mary mentioned “1814 with magic” and didn’t mention Jonathan Strange.

  27. I enjoyed this podcast, as I always do. I was a bit surprised when Mary mentioned “1814 with magic” and didn’t mention Jonathan Strange.
    Well, because of course Jonathan Strange is 1806 with magic. Totally different.

  28. LOVE this one as well as the prompt. Since I love history, the ideas keep coming but it’s been a busy work week. Will keep it on the back burner for sure.

  29. Love this episode. Mary, you’ve gained a new fan since you were on the last time and it’s been fun to communicate with you. I think you have a great take on things and your information has really been helpful. I’ve been considering an Alternate Reality story and this is giving me a little more information to make it really work.

    BTW, my vote is definitely on the “20 minutes long because you’re in less of a hurry than we thought and we’re smart, according to Emily” type of podcast.

    Thanks a bunch to the whole WE crew!

  30. there is a good game called chrononauts that focusses on alternate history as it’s theme. I would recomend it as a place to start if you’re looking for ideas to write about in teh alternate history genre.

  31. I just want you to know, Howard, that when you used the phrase ‘authorial prestidigitation’, I almost got in a wreck. That was fantastic. +2 to amazing vocabulary .


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