Describing a Historical Setting

Well I’m up late Friday night, literally working on one of the very last scenes of Reaping the Whirlwind, and trying to get the juices flowing. Since its a scene that takes place in New York City circa 1895 I thought I’d write a post about how I “get a vision” for a place I’ve never been before, and that most modern New Yorkers wouldn’t even recognize. All I can say is that the internet is a wonderful thing. I simply typed in New York City Parades 1895 (the scene is a parade) and it brought up these wonderful pictures of a Parade in New York in the year of my story.

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Afterwards I typed in New York City 1895 and found a wealth of other pictures. Now I’ll let those interested in writing alternate history or historical fiction in on a little secret. In my very humble opinion the key to getting the setting right is an art of illusion. You describe enough to make it seem as though you’ve been there and you know what you’re talking about but in reality you are simply building a small framework of good historically accurate description while letting the reader’s imagination fill in the rest. But old photo’s like these are a treasure. Another things that I’ve made extensive use of in my work is Google Maps. One day I’ll do a whole post on that, but suffice it to say it makes it easier to describe battles in places I’ve never been when I can literally get on Google Maps and pull up satellite imagery of the terrain in question. This helped enormously in my description of the Confederate attack on Havana in Rebel Empire and also came in handy in several places in Reaping the Whirlwind. Anyhow, the juices are flowing and I’m getting back to it. I can literally sense the approach of those two magic words, “the end.” Unless you’ve ever written a novel from start to finish you have no idea how satisfying that moment is.

My Introduction to Alternate History

My first and earliest exposure to the realm of alternate history was probably an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation called “Yesterdays Enterprise.” In it an older Starship named Enterprise was thrown through time to the future. As a result an “alternate timeline” was created in which Captain Picards Enterprise was not a peaceful Starship of exploration but a space battleship fighting a desperate war against the Klingon Empire. Shortly thereafter I saw the movie “Fatherland” based on the novel by Robert Harris. When I got a little older I read the novel and enjoyed it more than the movie. Fatherland was my first exposure to “real” alternate history, meaning not an alternate reality in a show like Star Trek but where something in actual history was changed. I was fascinated by world war 2, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union etc and to experience a story where Nazi Germany hadn’t been defeated but was still battling the Russians in the 1960s was fascinating. Picturing Hitler as a white haired old man, in the 1960s, ruling an Empire that spanned a continent seemed surreal. A Cold War, not between the USSR and the USA, but between the USA and  Nazi Germany was equally thought provoking. It provoked my thoughts okay. It had me trying to come up with my own alternate history which at the tender age of thirteen I tried to do. My grandparents used to get “condensed novels” from readers digest. One of them was a short novel about the German Submarine U-20 and the sinking of the Lusitania during World War 1. So I took that as inspiration and came up with a story about a Confederate Submarine that sinks a British ship during an alternate World War 1. My first encounter with someone else’s alternate history of the civil war was a comic book called Captain Confederacy. Captain Confederacy was a superhero almost parallel to Captain America in our timeline. The story took place in a modern setting in a world where the South won the civil war. The backstory was never fully explained and the modern CSA was presented as a racist monstrosity but it was a good story. They published letters from the readers in the back of the comic and they had lots of ideas that I thought were cool, like the Czar living in exile in Alaska. Later I read another alternate history world war 2 novel called 1945 by Newt Gingrich and William Fortschen. Unfortunately it ended on a cliffhanger and the sequel was never written. Finally, when I was in High School I discover Harry Turtledove. He became and is my favorite modern author. I’ve read more of his books than any other. I loved Guns of the South. (Harry if you ever read this continue that timeline please!) I loved How Few Remain and the books that followed it. I don’t really like that the CSA turned into an alternate history version of Nazi Germany, but hey I’m a southerner! Who would like seeing their country portrayed that way? As one of my fans / critics put it in his review “we all have feet of clay” especially when it comes to our own historical heroes and nations. I don’t begrudge him his imagination and I loved the series even though I hated the ending.  I owe a huge debt to Harry Turtledove, just as all the High Fantasy authors of today owe a great debt to Tolkien. I can’t say enough about how much his books have entertained me, awed me, and inspired me since I was a kid. I would dare say he earned Alternate History recognition as the genre that it is today and I’m proud to follow in his footsteps. I’ve expanded to read others over the years. Fox on the Rhine stands out positively in my memory by Douglas Niles and Michael Dobson. I’ve read some others by various authors that I didn’t like, though I’ll not name or besmirch them here. I’ll close with this. Alternate History is a rich genre. Thanks to men like Harris, and Turtledove, and Niles and Dobson and others a trail has been blazed. I look forward to following as best I can.

A quick update on Reaping the Whirlwind. I’m still writing the final scenes and editing but I’m nearly there. I’m a lot  closer than I was last week. When I get near the end of writing a book I pick up steam like a train that’s speeding down hill. No hard and fast date but I’m very confident it will be out this month or next!