Tuesday, June 14, 2011

WIP Wednesday: World Building and the Alternate History

So it's not Wednesday. I'm going to be busy tomorrow, though, so I thought I'd post today. Okay, Work in Progress Tuesday...

Ah, world-building. The double-edged sword of the speculative fiction genre.

While some readers are content with well-drawn characters--a necessity in any story--others want more world-building. Particularly in dystopian novels, where the world of the future (or not-too-distant-future) has changed drastically from our own. Some readers want, nay, NEED, to know where things went wrong, why the world got to be the way it is, HOW the world changed. And if it ain't believable, they ain't buying it. Not saying you should write your story with these people in mind, but should you decide that world building comes secondary to plot, I just might call bullshit. And some other readers probably will, too.

For many stories--alternate realities more than any other genre--there is often a defining moment when everything changed, veered from the norm.

(An exception would be Naomi Novik's amazing Temeraire series, which I just had to include since it's one of my all-time favorites. Instead of a defining event, there are, and have always been dragons. I'd say more, but that would ruin the amazing adventures in Novik's books. Read them!)

In novels of the "steampunk" genre (one of my favorites, so I'm glad it's gaining popularity), the inciting "incident" may be the invention of the brass goggles. ;) Seriously, though, at some point in this reality, steam-power technology surpassed steam technology as it developed in our own history. This is obvious in the copious use of steam-powered machines--like Westerfeld's Clanker constructs in Leviathan.

Which brings us to the WIP. Some of you may remember the last WIP I blogged about, which I have mercilessly shoved in a drawer despite being only half-finished writing it. I NEVER do this. Well, almost never. But even though I loved the premise and the characters, I never felt the plot was grand enough, if that makes sense.

So I've ruthlessly cannibalized the premise, gone back in time to the 1800s, and rewritten history. It's the "steampunk-esque" story I've been dying to write, but never had the right plot or premise for before. Instead of setting it in London (as is typical for steampunk) with steam-powered technology (ditto, ditto), I've given it my own American twist and set it in the west. And instead of steam, the denizens of my Western have begun to use a mysterious gas called aether to power their trains. Of course, this is just the tip of the world-building iceberg. I've had to pin down the exact moment when life was irreversibly changed by the development of aether trains, and change history accordingly.

See, the premise of my original WIP, Aether, involved a secret brotherhood of sorcerers who used aether to power their many tools and weapons. Since the Brotherhood had been around since the 16th century, I wondered... What would have happened if they'd traded us normal folk some of their technology?

Of course, knowing my sorcerers, it would have to have been a major cause they were defending, or to stop a war. I figured, why not both? So in my "As-yet-untitled-Aetherpunk-western", the sorcerers in question--who have seen how rich southerners have grown interested in developing the railway system--decide to act to change things for the better. Disguised as a group of inventors, they offer to trade aether-train technology--these trains travel upwards of 150mph, and require NO coal--for nothing less than the emancipation of all slaves. Which would, of course, have all kinds of crazy repercussions. :)

First, all slaves are free by 1840--but still don't have the vote. Which is why Lincoln still decides to run for office, to push the 13th amendment. At the time the story opens, his vice-president, Johnson is president. "Lucky" Lincoln has served two full terms in office, and has survived several assassination attempts. Hence, he's not known for his honesty in this time so much as his luck.

So without the Civil War, and with the Transcontinental Track built decades sooner, westward expansion has changed the nation. The trip across country now takes only six days, and there is no need to call for homesteaders. Overpopulation threatens the east already, particularly the south, since the factories to forge aether into steel plates for the Trans are in Atlanta.

Then there's the fallout of the sorcerers trading this barely developed technology to a developing nation. There are many dangers associated with the mining of this particular type of aether--which is the only type of aether the general public knows exists. Without the safety practices the sorcerers used in place, miners don't last long. But if the government wants to continue to lay new track, they need to mine more aether.

In addition to all this, there are rogue groups of sorcerers who broke away from the Brotherhood. Many of them disagreed with the decision to give aether-tech to the uninitiated, others wish the Brotherhood would take responsibility for the miners, who are dying from over-exposure to aether, or for the land that is being ravaged.

So as you can see, I've got a lot to think about. But I was surprised to find that talking things out about the world with friends immediately helped to clear up some of the obvious plot holes. Never underestimate the input of the non-writers in your life. You may not want them to crit your book, but they may be able to offer logical responses to your problems. Chances are, you're already too close to the mini-world your characters inhabit, and might not see issues with the bigger picture.

Anyone else out there write alternate histories? Love steampunk? What is it about this type of story that draws you in? For me, it's the juxtaposition of the familiar and the strange, and the way history feels more like fantasy.

So far, re-writing history has just been a ton of fun!


Cynthia Lee said...

Your book sounds really awesome. I'd love to read a YA steampunk that set in the South or the West. For real. You should write this one up quick!

I wrote a steampunk-ish book. It's kind of a Jane Eyre meets Pan's Labyrinth with some steampunk elements. It doesn't have zeppelins or anything. There's only one pair of goggles. So I guess it's kind of steampunk lite.

Would His Dark Materials trilogy be considered steampunk? I loved those books in a huge way. I'm trying to remember what drew me to the books and I think it was the first few pages. They just kind of plopped you into the story, taking it for granted that the reader knew this was a Completely Different World That Is Still Somewhat Similar To Ours. There wasn't a whole lot of explaining to wade through. The first few chapters hinted at Much Bigger Things and I love that. I like to be drawn into the world somewhat slowly - not yanked into it.

Honestly, though, just reading anything set in the 19th century is like reading fantasy to me. I'll read Jane Austen and sit and marvel that people once talked to each other like that.

Tere Kirkland said...

Cynthia, thanks! His Dark Materials has a lot of steampunk elements with the zepplins and other technology, but since Lyra's Jordan is just one of those worlds, sitting side by side so closely that only the Subtle Knife can separate them, I *think* I'd call it an alternate dimension.

I know what you mean about marveling over historical fiction (or contemporary fiction written in the past). It's difficult to imagine a world so different than ours, separated only by the years.

Thanks for commenting!

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

WOW. Seriously, just...wow. I'm so impressed with this world you're creating. I love it, all of it. I love the original twist on steampunk. I mean, oh man, aetherpunk? AWEsome. You've got a winner here. I hope you can write FAST.

Krispy said...


I sorta love U.S. History AND steampunk, so it's beyond cool that you've kinda merged them, and anyway, people are always saying the Wild West is underused when it comes to steampunk. I'm guilty of this, but that's just because I love the atmosphere of Victorian London. :P My current WIP is set in a steampunk-skewed, magic-rich pseudo-London.

Totally get you on the world-building point. I don't need detailed explanations for how things are the way they are, and you know, I don't necessarily need to even know the cause for the Big Change, but I need some line of logic and plausibility.

As for the usefulness of outside sources for world-building, I totally agree! They ask the questions I don't even know to ask or like really obvious things I miss, they'll ask about. Alz mentioned once too that sometimes when you read a lot of a certain genre, you take certain things for granted and so people outside the genre will ask about aspects you might not even have noticed!

Abby Annis said...

Just the idea of writing something that would require that much research kind of freaks me out. I like to make stuff up. ;) And I've never read anything steampunk--lame, remember--but I'll be reading one soon and it sounds like it's going to be awesome. :)

Rachele Alpine said...

I really admire the way writers of fantasy, paranormal and other worldy tales world build. It's so intricate and detailed. I can only imagine the work that goes into creating this world and its backstory. Your piece sounds interesting! I like secret brotherhoods and societies...very cool!

Brigitte said...

Woah, it's such a weird coincidence that you post about this because I changed history with my plot last week, too! I didn't think it was grand enough at first either, so I changed some things and placed some plot elements in historical context.

Julie Musil said...

This sounds amazing! I admire writers who create completely unique worlds. I just finished CATCHING FIRE and marveled at the dystopian world.

Julie Dao said...

That does it. I am so buying your book when it comes out - that sounds AMAZING. I've heard a lot about steampunk, but I haven't read any books in this genre yet. I think I'm holding out for a really good story. Personally, I like sticking to history and writing my stories around events that actually happened, but I think it's so cool and brave that you're rewriting it. Very creative!

Missed Periods said...

Your book sounds incredible. Seriously. Rewriting history would be fun. I know that a lot of research must be involved, but it would be so interesting. Also, it's going to be so fun for the reader to be a part of this alternate history.