My last post was more introductory in nature than these next few posts will be. I hope that it was interesting to read. Over the next several posts that make up this section I’ll be looking at Alt Worlds, pure Historical Fiction, and how they can be combined like when someone sets a Horror story in a historical setting. Even better in my opinion, I’ll be doing a practical section when I’m done showing how I actually use the methods I outlined.
So, now that I’ve said that…let’s move on!
What is an Alternate World and what is an Alternate Reality?
If you’re a Fantasy or Science Fiction reader, you’re well aware of what these things are. But it never hurts to talk more about it either way, and the best way to explain it is by using popular examples that we personally connect with. In my case that would be Star Trek Alternate Original Series for Alternate Reality, and Lord of The Rings for Alternate Worlds.
Why did I pick those two? Well in addition to be things I enjoy, they’re pretty much the perfect ones to use to describe these combined concepts. Star Trek: AOS changes, or becomes an Alternate Reality the moment Kirk’s Dad dies. And it diverges even more from the original universe of the first Star Trek series when Vulcan is destroyed. Alternate Realities are all about changing something in the original timeline, and things diverging from there. It’s the “what if this was changed?” What if Vampires were merely a facet of human evolution? What if Neanderthals had survived and lived alongside us right now? There’s many more of this kind of question, but I’m sure you get the idea.
Lord of The Rings, and most of Tolkien’s other work for that matter, are set in a world that is entirely not our own. An Alternate World if you will, with an entirely separate history from the one we live in. There’s different cultures, deities, animals and beings that live there. It isn’t Earth in any other way except maybe allegory and some minor parallels between the two. And yet, despite not being our world, we connect with it as if it is.
Researching for Alternate Realities?
When writing Alternate Realities, or Alternate Universes if you prefer, the first thing you do is find a setting or time period you like. There’s an entire sub-genre dedicated to this that overlaps with Historical Fiction called Alternate History. But not all AR/AU stories fit that sub-genre, some are just plain Science Fiction. It’s writing a contemporary world where Homo Neaderthalensis never went extinct, vs writing one where they help us win WW2. Or where aliens help or hinder us when it comes to winning the war.
Sometimes this comes to you right off the bat: What would our current society be like if Neanderthals were still around? What would the American Civil War look like with aliens or Neanderthals in the mix?
Other times you have to go looking for a period that interests you, so you can find the perfect jump off point. Your “What if…?” point. For things like that, I suggest brainstorming. And also comparing and contrasting things. If you know more about one time period than another, but the other one is more interesting to you then work with that one. There’s no real technique I would suggest to do this, just make a list of five or ten time periods/historical events that interest you. Cross things off till you get to the two most interesting, the ones you think you can really go the distance with because they’re so interesting. From there you can look at an overview of whatever you’ve chosen, and hopefully one will pop out more to you. A good place to start is by textbooks or any reputable nonfiction book that can provide you with a complete overview. Wikipedia is hit or miss and I don’t recommend it for serious research, but it CAN be helpful if you need an extremely quick overview.
For me, chances of me getting through an actual book dedicated to whichever topic isn’t going to happen if I can’t read a simple Wikipedia article. It cuts down on spending unneeded cash.
Once you’ve done that, it’s time to start reading up on the period/event more thoroughly. If you’re working with a time period or long event like WW2, you’ll probably want to make a list and narrow things down further again. In the case of something like my Neandertal example further up, you’ll want to start researching them before anything else.
Fun fact: The current dominant theory regarding their extinction isn’t one of being killed off, starved out, or even climate. It involves being absorbed into our population by interbreeding. We did fight and compete for resources with them, but we also interbred, resulting in parts of their genome still living in us today.
This would be the point where you look for first hand accounts of your WW2 battle of choice, so that you get the human experience and not just the facts. Letters, journals, newspaper articles etc. If you’re an Architect, you probably will start outlining right now. If you’re a Gardener, you’ll probably start just writing with the facts in mind.
Researching for Alternate Worlds?
In many, many ways researching Alternate Worlds are much more difficult than Alt Realities. You’re piecing together these Secondary Worlds from different things, a mish-mash of information. You’re world may have an African, First Nations, or some other basis for how the society is formed/run; it may also have tech from a different part of the world. Even if it isn’t like that, you’ll likely want to look up matriarchal and matrilineal societies if you are making women more socially powerful. You’ll want to look up colorism if either dark or light skin are more valued in this world you created.
If you’re sending a valiant female blacksmith on a quest to reclaim a throne or help someone do that, you’ll want to know about sword-making, the likelyhood of a female blacksmith etc.
I don’t have much in the way of tips for this, except that I would personally make a list of the information you feel you’ll need. That way when it gets to your big fight scene, it is both awesomely entertaining and realistic.