Writing History, Pt 2

Last week I went kinda gung ho and, by the end of the week, I was kinda worried about my posts being overlong. So when last week’s Friday post started to edge up over the fifteen hundred word mark, I decided to break it in two. If you didn’t read last week’s post, here it is.

Okay, so what does all that have to do with writing fiction? Well, one thing that annoys me about modern world building is how it has a horrible tendency to only present the past from one or two points of view. Usually, there’s a prevailing point of view and an underground, occult (secretive) or subversive point of view. In Marxist terms, a thesis and an antithesis. Usually, the main character uses these two viewpoints to figure out what really happened and uses this new point of view (a synthesis!) to figure out the correct course of action.

Authors have been using this very straightforward literary device to help characters resolve conflict and bring an end to stories for years, and making millions of dollars in the mean time. (Eat your heart out, Marx.)

In addition to being a simple way to assemble your plot, this makes thing easier on your reader as well. After all, having to keep track of too many perspectives can clutter your plot and confuse your reader. It really isn’t the best way to engage and keep a large audience.

The thing is, this approach is also overly simplistic and unrealistic, and the best authors take great pains to avoid it.

Look at Isaac Asimov’s Prelude to Foundation. It shows us the young Hari Seldon searching for the history of the Galactic Empire. What he finds instead, more or less, is a history of robots. Some people say they were helpers, some traitors, some think they were never even real, or if they were they obviously weren’t important, because they didn’t survive to the modern day, did they? Piecing it all together is central to understanding the story. Not every story needs to delve so deeply into its history, but if you’re going to make your own you need to at least hint at that level of complexity if verisimilitude is something you value (it doesn’t have to be, of course).

History falls into many chunks: Documents like newspapers, government paperwork and diaries generally form the backbone of history. Rumors, myths and other forms of oral history can be very hard to verify but give a definite picture of what people were thinking and talking about. Cultural context gives us a lens with which to see both documents and rumors through. Outside viewpoints must be balanced against each other as well as the experiences of the people who were there.

As Helix winds through Project Sumter he primarily leaves his mark in documents- paperwork is bureaucracy’s stock in trade and agents of the Project can easily generate a book’s worth of it during a busy week. Circuit, on the other hand, is not in the greatest position to leave incriminating paperwork behind. He leaves a trail in rumors and speculation which is rarely centralized outside of tight-lipped people like Hangman. The marks they leave on their culture, and what people think of them is what makes the story tick.

And even with all that, it’s not the whole picture. I’ve been looking into their history for years, and I don’t think I’ll ever have all of it. That’s the nature of writing history, whether it’s fiction or real. So the next time you take a trip to the halls of antiquity, keep an eye out for all those little hints. Grab them from anywhere you can, and do your best to make sense of them, but don’t ever fall for the trap of thinking you have the whole picture. Because then the story would be over.

And where does that leave us?

Changing History

History is vitally important to writing a story. Everyone has history, so it’s important that any story you write not actually start at the beginning, but before it. The backgrounds of your characters influence their prejudices, interests and reactions to new situations. By extension, the history of a society and a world influence how it reacts to large scale changes in circumstances or the ideas of individuals.

The farther a world is from what we know, the larger its differences from our own history must be. But changes in history have large ranging repercussions, and if you’ve decided that you don’t want a world radically different from what we know in the modern day you’ll have to take steps to compensate for that. (Of course, if extrapolating the changes to the modern day situation is what you want to do, that’s fine, but we’re not all Harry Turtledove.)

There are a lot of options for how an author might make significant changes to history and still manage to keep their fictional world similar to what we know.

The simplest is to make your changes very recent, occurring within the last twenty-five years or so. In this case you can generally get away with saying that whatever your unusual element is, it hasn’t had time changed the world too much yet. A corollary to this is to make whatever change you want to take place totally apocalyptic in nature, like a zombie plague or a sudden ice age, changing all the rules after the point of departure, keeping the old and developing the new.

Another option is to make the changed history an occult element, in other words, totally secret. If only a select few people know about the different history, it’s really easy to justify it not making any real changes to history as we know it.

A third possibility is to hand changes to historic figures with such overriding circumstances or goals that they could only do one thing with them, which reinforces our own history. Abraham Lincoln, for example, is going to use just about any innovation or discovery handed to him to preserve the Union. Likewise, Churchill would probably have used anything he could against the Nazis. If Albert Einstein had laid the foundation for practical nano-tech instead of figuring out how to split the atom, I guarantee it still would have gotten used against Japanese sooner or later. Not that World War Two with nano-tech would ever make a good story.*

Heat Wave is, in many ways, a combination of approaches two and three. This is one difference between Heat Wave and the early days of comics, where superheroes were typically a new occurrence. I’ve chosen this approach for a number of reasons, but the biggest one was to allow for the back story I have in mind. Also, it’s different from the norm, which is a good thing so long as it doesn’t make things any harder to grasp, which I don’t really feel it does.

So as you read, keep your eyes open for hints to Project Sumter’s slightly different understanding of world history. Hopefully it will be as much fun for you to figure out as it was for me to put together.

*Note to self: Story idea..