History Isn’t Carved In Stone
(Even When It Is)
Drop a rock in water and ripples will emanate outward from the point of entry. Skip a rock across the water and ripples will appear at each point of impact. Time is an ever-flowing river, winding its way from the beginning of time until time is no more. Once a moment passes, it becomes a part of history—eternal, unchangeable, history. Because of this, “what if” becomes one of the most magical phrases in any language. To a writer, it is the most important question that can be asked.
When a writer asks “what if”, he or she is, in essence, picking up the stone to throw into the water. Most writers drop the stone in the water and focus on one ripple. For example, Shakespeare asked himself “what if the Montegues and the Capulets hated each other but their children were in love?”. The story focused on the tragic love and lives of these two young people. Had he chosen to focus on a second ripple, he might have explored the effects of the suicides on their families. He might have shown what happened to their businesses and the effect it had on the city of Verona, Italy.
Sometimes, a writer will explore multiple ripples, letting us see the changes to the world around their characters. Many dystopian stories fall into this category. The writer will put the world through a cataclysmic wringer, usually a nuclear war, then turn their characters loose. The event is the point the rock enters the water and the ripples are the repercussions. There is usually a global lack of food or fuel. Civilization breaks down and tribal warlords arise. Mutants, cannibals, and Amazons with big hair and even bigger guns rule the wasteland. Throughout the story, we get to experience this changed world.
And then a writer comes along who isn’t content to just toss a rock in the water and follow a ripple or two. They are the ones who prefer to grab a smooth flat stone and send it skipping across the water’s surface. Rather than just follow one or two ripples, they choose to alter history in numerous places. Wherever their metaphorical stone makes contact, they make a change and follow multiple ripples. The challenge is to make certain your new histories don’t contradict each other at the point where the ripples meet. Harry Turtledove, for example, is one of those writers has mastered this method. In fact, he is referred to as “The Master of Altered History.”
If you decide to enter the alternate history genre, research is a necessary beginning point. When you decide what you want to change, it is advantageous to know what led up to that moment. It also helps to know what should have happened next so you can get an idea of what needs to be changed. Researching the events surrounding the moment you change history can provide you with story ideas you may have never even considered. Whether you are using encyclopedias, old newspapers, books, or the internet, keep a notebook handy so you can jot down anything of interest. Even if you don’t include it in one story, it might become the basis of another. Let’s look at an example.
During the First World War, Adolph Hitler sported a full, bushy, mustache. During a gas attack, he discovered his mustache prevented his gas mask from sealing against his face properly. As a result, he chose to shave most of it until he ended up with his familiar Charlie Chaplin mustache. For story purposes, let’s say he never shaved, a minor change to history, but one with many possibilities. Things could have continued in our story world as they did in actual history. Perhaps he was involved in a second gas attack, only this time he was unable to make his mask seal against his face. Does he become deathly ill or is he killed outright? If it affects his health, he could still become a voice of rage that leads to a second world war. What if he didn’t survive the attack? We might have never had another global conflict. As a result, we would have had no need for atomic bombs. Germany might not have developed rocket technology, so America and Russia would have taken longer to send rockets into space. The possibilities are endless…all because you chose to let Hitler keep his bushy mustache.
If you choose to alter history, remember, you have to show cause and effect. When you kill Hitler during the Second World War, the war has to end or someone has to take his place. If Washington joins the English navy, America might remain a colony or he could be ordered to track down the rebels. Whether you choose to drop your rock in the water and follow one ripple, or skip it across the surface and follow many, have fun.
Just thought I would jot this down.