Writing Excuses 15.27: Alternate History, with Eric Flint
Key points: Alternate history makes a change to real history, and explores the ramifications. One kind involves a time travel element, while another just makes a change. It takes research, and people will complain about details. One trick, use locations that were later destroyed. Use historical characters where possible. Also, crowd source your expertise! Think about how to use thoughts and actions of historical people rather than modern thinking and behavior. You may want to use old attitudes to tell a story. But, be aware that your audience may not like those attitudes. Time travelers may help you here. Also, pick the right historical period, and characters.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 27.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Alternate History, with Eric Flint.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Brandon] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star, Eric Flint. Thank you for coming on the podcast with us.
[Eric] You’re welcome.
[Brandon] We’re also recording live at SpikeCon.
[Brandon] So, Eric, you are one of the established masters of alternate history. We’re really excited to have you on the podcast about it with us. Just in case there is someone listening who doesn’t know what alternate history is, how would you define the sub genre of alternate history?
[Eric] Basically, the author makes some kind of change in real history, and then follows what the ramifications of it might be. You can broadly break it into two parts. There’s a lot of alternate history also involves a time travel element.
[Eric] Where you take somebody in the modern world and put them back in older times. But then there’s a different kind of alternate history, what you might consider pure alternate history, where there’s no time travel element at all, where the author just makes a change in something. It can be something very minor. But something that’s going to have a cascading effect. I’ve written both types.
[Brandon] So, that sounds to me really hard.
[Brandon] Because I write epic fantasy. No one can tell me I got my history wrong, that I… But it feels like if you pick a time that people have studied a lot, say World War II or something like that, and you say, “Well, this battle changed and I’m going to explore the ramifications of what happens all the way into the future if that one battle was fought differently.” It sounds like you have to do a lot of research and listen to a lot of people grumble that you got it wrong.
[Eric] I make it a point… I have not, and have no intention of ever writing an alternate history set in World War II, the Civil War, the Napoleonic era, where there are a jillion reenactors and fanatics who will go berserk over every little goddamned jot and tittle [garbled]
[Eric] “No, those uniforms only had three buttons…”
[Howard] Well, your problem is that historians, they will let you know when you’re wrong, but the reenactors…
[Eric] No, no, no.
[Howard] They’ll come to your house.
[Eric] Well, what really drives you nuts is that the issues they’re going to give you a hard time about, who in the hell cares? I mean, they really don’t have hardly anything to do with the story. My biggest series, Ring of Fire series, is set in the middle of the 30 Years War in central Europe in the 17th century. There are, in the United States, exactly one group of reenactors of the 30 Years War. I made it a point to get on good terms with them a long time ago.
[Eric] Yeah, it is a lot of work. Whenever I’m… At least when I’m starting an alternate history series. It gets easier if you go along, as you go along. But whenever I’m early on in an alternate history book, I have to budget about twice as much time as I do for pretty much any other kind of novel. The only other kind of novel I’ve ever done that requires that kind of research is hard SF. Yeah, there are plenty of times when I envy dirty rotten fantasy writers like you…
[Eric] Because you can just wing it.
[Eric] I mean, you do have to be consistent and care… I mean, there’s actually quite a bit of work goes into it, but it’s not the kind of…
[Brandon] No. I’ve… Most of my career, I wrote just in secondary world fantasies that I’d made up. The first time I even touched our world, I made sure to make it post apocalyptic. Cities that had suffered in Norma’s disasters that had changed the landscape, the physical landscape. I still got things wrong and got complaints about… I took Chicago and I changed it to steel and blew up most of it and I created an underground and most of it takes place in the underground. Still, people were like, “You know what, that street actually doesn’t intersect there.”
[Brandon] I’m like, “Uh. Man. You’d think that I could change the world enough that I could…” But it is… It’s difficult. How do you… What’s your go-to method for research?
[Eric] Well, all right. There are some tricks I use. When Andrew Dennis and I wrote 1634: The Galileo Affair which is part of the Ring of Fire series, and takes place mostly in Venice. Every single important location except the Piazza de San Marco and the Doge’s Palace, which are quite well-known and you can visit them. But every other location that figure in the novel, we situated somewhere in Venice that got destroyed later. So, Mussolini razed it and put up a railroad station in one case, and I’ve forgotten everything else. So there’s nothing left for anybody to go and prove that we’re wrong. It’s far enough back, there’s not enough of a historical record.
[Howard] So, you’re like time travelers trying to hide your tracks…
[Howard] By putting your activities where something’s going to wipe it out.
[Eric] It’s not just [garbled]. Another thing I will do, I like to use historical characters if at all possible. But what I try to do is… One of the major characters in the Ring of Fire series is a Danish prince, Prince Ulrich. He existed. I mean, he was a real Prince of Denmark. But in real history, he was murdered at the age of 22. Very mysterious episode. So he died at the age of 22. Well, prove me wrong as to how he…
[Eric] Evolved afterwards. So I try to find people that were young. In one way or another. It’s hard for somebody to… They can second-guess me, but, it’s like, “Prove it.”
[Eric] There’s a lot of that. No matter how you slice it, though, you’re still a lot… Actually, in terms of writing excuses, the two things I tell people there’s the biggest and most dangerous forms of procrastination are research and worldbuilding. Because you can do that forever. At a certain point, you just have to say, “Enough!” And start writing a book. Then, yeah, a lot of times, you’ll have to go back into more research and do stuff. There’s no way around it, there’s a lot of work. It gets easier if it’s a big long series, the farther you go. Because the farther you get from the breakpoint, as we call it, the more possibilities open up.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop and talk about our book of the week, which is the first book in the Ring of Fire series.
[Eric] All right.
[Brandon] Will you tell us a little bit about it?
[Eric] Yeah. The premise of the whole Ring of Fire series… The first novel is called 1632… It’s a very simple premise. There’s a cosmic accident that’s caused by basically irresponsible behavior on the part of a very powerful alien species, who enjoy manipulating space-time, and what amounts to a fragment of their art hits the earth and causes a transposition in time and place of a whole town in northern West Virginia in modern times. Modern times being the year 2000, which is when I wrote the book. A town… About a 6 mile diameter… I mean, the whole physical area is transposed, not just the people. So that this town materializes in the middle of Germany, in an area of Germany called Thuringia, which used to be southern East Germany, in the middle of the 30 Years War. They just boom, they show up, and there they are. That’s the MacGuffin, I mean, that’s the premise. That’s the only premise. I… It’s a three-page premise. I don’t spend… It’s really let’s get on with the story. Take my word for it that this happened. Yeah, I know it’s crazy, but who cares.
[Eric] We’ll go from there. What the whole series is about is how this town of 3500 modern Americans… The impact that this has on the world in general, particularly Europe in the middle of what was probably the most destructive war in European history, at least since the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire. It’s also a very fascinating period in history. From there, the series has sprawled out all over the place. There are seven novels that I call the mainline, that sort of run in the center of this series, followed… They depict the main characters and the main actions that happen. But then there are all kinds of side stories that branch off from there. Some become pretty major storylines in their own right. I believe we’re up to about 24 novels published by Baen Books. Then, in addition, starting about two years ago, we launched our own publishing house, which we call Ring of Fire Press, which… We have a booth in the dealers’ room if you want to drop by. We’re publishing our own stuff set in the series. It also has a magazine called the Grantville Gazette that’s been in operation professionally for about 12 years now.
[Eric] [garbled] done really well.
[Brandon] If you guys don’t know about this whole thing, go research it. Because it is one of the most fascinating like emergent storytelling cultures in science fiction fantasy that these novel started. The people loved reading them, started talking about them, and creating forums. Out of that grew a magazine which has fiction that is kind of members of the community are writing that is all canon about this town, and they know all the people who are in it because it’s a somewhat small town and just what they’re doing. They’ll be like, “We need to get rubber? How do we get rubber? Well, we need to write a story about somebody going…” All of these things… It is really… The network around the 1632 books is just fascinating to me.
[Howard] Well, that’s the thing that I would like to ask, with regard to alternate history and the research that needs to be done, how much of that in the last 10 years have you been able to crowd source? Have you been able to go out to members of the community and…
[Eric] I was crowdsourcing it right from… When I wrote the first book, I talked to Jim Baen and we set up a special conference in Baen Bar’s discussion area devoted to that book. I said to people, “I’m going to need help writing this, because all kinds of… The kind of research I have to do is impossible for one people to do.” It’s like, “What can you do with modern engines?” So a lot of it was technical. The basic rule I followed, with one exception, was that I used the real town of Mannington, West Virginia, as the model for the town of Grantville. The only big exception is I moved the power plant, which, in the real world, exists in another town called Grant town about 15 miles away. I moved it because I really needed a power plant.
[Eric] But that’s the only thing I cheated on. So the basic rule, that’s been true ever since, is if it’s in Mannington, you can put it in Grantville, if it’s not in Mannington, you can’t. That’s the rule. People spend a ton of time, believe me, researching what is and isn’t in Mannington.
[Brandon] Do people in the actual town know about this?
[Brandon] Do they get tired of…
[Eric] We haven’t been out there in quite a while. The first… Four years now, going back, I don’t know, close to 20 years, the fans of the series hold an annual convention. It’s being held here this year. WesterCon is hosting it. The first five years we held it in West Virginia. We couldn’t hold it in Mannington, because Mannington doesn’t have a motel. That’s how small a town it is. So we held it in a larger town of Fairmont, population about 30,000. We did that for five years in a row. But at that point… There would always be new people coming every year, but about at least two thirds of the people had gotten to be regulars. They came up to me and said, “You know, Eric, there’s only so many times you can visit a town of 3500 people.” I mean…
[Eric] So… Which is fair enough. So what we started doing after that, Conestoga in Tulsa was the first one that did it. We’ll go to a convention and ask them if they’re willing to host us. What they get is maybe 50 people showing up who wouldn’t otherwise show up. We do all the organizing and tracks and everything else. But basically, it means we don’t have to organize a convention because somebody else is already done it.
[Brandon] So, kind of getting back to how to write alternate history. I’m actually going to pitch this at Dan first. I know you haven’t done true alternate history, but you’ve done cousin genres.
[Dan] I’ve done secret history.
[Brandon] You’ve done secret history, you’ve also done historical fantasy. So, my big question is, how much do you worry about getting the thoughts, mannerisms, and actions of the historical people right when you’re writing a story like this? I preface this by saying when I write epic fantasy, I generally am not trying to write… This is my mode… People who acted and thought like people did in the Middle Ages. I get away from this because I’m writing secondary world fantasies, generally with magical technology that would really place people more post-Renaissance and things like that. But really, they’re thinking more along… If not contemporary, modern lines for thought processes. How much do you worry about this?
[Eric] Oh, a lot.
[Dan] I actually…
[Eric] Oh, I’m sorry, Dan. Go ahead.
[Brandon] We’ll go to Dan first, and then we’ll…
[Dan] I love this question, because I actually got into kind of a big ongoing argument with my editor and copy editor on my Cold War book, which, by the time this airs, will already be out. It’s called Ghost Station. Straight historical, not alternate or anything. Set in 1961. Part of the plot hinges on the inherent sexism of the era. That there are two different places where people miss obvious clues because they assume that the bad guy is a man. Which is not to say that the bad guy is not a man, but… I’m trying to do this without spoilers. Anyway, that sexism was important. The editor and the copy editor were both trying to impose more modern sensibilities on this. Changing just kind of some of the minor language. In a place where I would say man, they would want to change it to person. Just in a couple of places, saying, “You know, we kind of want to be more sensitive about this.” If it was in narrative, I let it slide. If it was ever in dialogue, I’m like, “No. The fact that this person has this attitude, the plot hinges on it. We have to keep that attitude there.” So, it does matter. I think if you’re using it on purpose to tell a particular story, you want to have those old attitudes and you want to have those older kind of more antiquated personalities. If you’re not, then sure, go ahead, because obviously it’s a hot button issue, if everyone who worked on the book kept trying to change it.
[Brandon] I know that when I read Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, like, the way that she made people feel, I don’t know, I’m not an expert in that period, but they felt like they were from the period. It really was a big selling point for the book for me. Eric, do you… How much do you worry about this?
[Eric] It’s… Oh, you worry about it a lot. I mean, it’s kind of at the center of what you do. Because if the book isn’t historically plausible, it’s not going to work as a story. You have to realize that people in the past do not necessarily think the same way, or behave the same way, they do today. There are various ways that I have found to deal… By the way, the issue may involve, at a purely practical level, is that if your audience is so repelled by your heroes, it’s awfully hard to sell a book. To give an ill… Unless it was written 2500 years ago. Then, people will give it a pass. But, to give an instance, the Odyssey, the hero Odysseus, the very first thing he does after Troy, they’re sailing down and he says, “Oh, there’s a village there.” And they stop, rob and plunder it. These are the good guys. Okay? There’re two… There are several things you can do. One of them is that if you introduce a time travel element and people from the… Our time, then at least you’ve got a binocular view of what’s happening. So you can be depicting the attitudes of people of the time, but you’re also depicting how modern people are looking at it. The other is to pick an historical period… One of the reasons I picked the 30 Years War is that that world was not that different from ours. It was different, but it wasn’t like ancient Greece, or Ming China. It wasn’t that different. The same was true, even more so, with the series I’m doing set in Jacksonian America. Then what I did was went looking for the right character. I needed a Southern character, an effective political leader, whose attitudes would be at least okay for the modern audience. I was lucky, because such a person actually existed. That was Sam Houston. Sam Houston’s attitudes on race were not the same as modern people, but awfully close. He was partly raised by Cherokees, so he’s very friendly to Indians. He was asked once by Alexis de Tocqueville what he thought about the capabilities of the different races of North America. He said, “Well, there’s no question the Indians are equal to Whites.” He said, “Blacks are considered to be childish… Childlike and inferior, but nobody ever gives them a chance to do anything, so how can you really know what they’re capable of or not?” That’s an attitude that a modern audience, okay, they can go with that. Then, I think the other major character is a Northern Irish radical of the time. He’s not exactly got modern attitudes, but they’re a lot closer. It’s a real issue, though. I mean, because you have to do it in a way that’s going to be plausible all the way around. So far, I’ve been able to put off. But there are some areas of history I would just stay away from.
[Brandon] Right. Probably good advice there.
[Eric] Well, unless I could put a time travel thing in it, but other than that, I’d just stay away from it.
[Brandon] We are out of time. I want to thank our audience at SpikeCon.
[Brandon] I want to thank Eric. Do you have, by chance, a writing prompt you can give to our audience?
[Eric] A writing prompt?
[Eric] When you’re… Writing takes a lot of intellectual and emotional energy. It really does. It’s hard to get started at the beginning of the day. Wherever that day may be for you. I found two things help. I plot ahead of time. Which I strongly recommend, because one advantage to having a well-developed plot is I don’t have to sit down in the morning and say, “Gee, what am I going to write about today?” I can look at the damn plot and say, “Okay. Here’s where I am.” But the second thing is just write. Write a sentence. Just get a sentence down on paper and keep writing. If it turns out that sentence didn’t work out right, you can always scrap it later. But start writing, because once you do that, you’ve kind of gotten into the story. The story itself will kind of pull you into it. But it really is kind of hard to do it. It’s kind of like jumping into a pool of ice cold water. It’s like the only way to do it is just do it. That’s about… That’s what I do every day.
[Brandon] Thanks for the advice. This has been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go write.