Research for an alternate universe novel?
September 26, 2010 5:55 PM   Subscribe

Novel-Writing filter: How do I go about doing research for alternate universe novel?

What I'm struggling with is getting down believable military and political details, as that's what would be required for this particular piece. Are there any go-to sources for, say, military rankings, how to create political systems, etc? Also, are there any SF/F novels that would be worth reading to get a better grasp of what I need to do?

If it helps, this is in a historical-esque setting, and military combat is swords (no guns, tanks, etc.) with a limited use of magic.

Anon post in case this manuscript turns into one embarrassing fail whale.
posted by anonymous to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Take a look at this world-building site.
posted by lollusc at 6:02 PM on September 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

The extreme end of the worldbuilding/ alternate-universe/ alternate-history spectrum is pretty much all of the written output of S.M. Stirling. Try Marching Through Georgia and Dies the Fire, and then realize that this is out at the Tom Clancy Hyper-Detailed Competence Porn end of the spectrum.

Then try Jacqueline Carey's first three Kushiel novels, and see that it's light on the super-detailed stuff but still conveys a strong sense that Terre d'Ange is, in fact, nothing like Provence as we know it.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 6:23 PM on September 26, 2010

I've never done this, but I have a friend who's written a quasi-historical novel, and I've read descriptions of the process by writers of historical and alternate-historical works. They all seem to have spent a lot of time in libraries. I imagine that this would go much better if you can regard it as "fun" rather than "work." Also, it might be a ton of fun for the librarian(s) helping you, assuming they have the time to spare and are up for the challenge.

That's all pretty vague and general, so here's a more specific idea: Identify the branchpoint between the timeline in which we exist and the one in your story, and research the hell out of that one piece of history. Did a major geopolitical shift occur after a bright young diplomat's assassination derailed a great plan? Did an unexpected economic advance (or setback) alter the relative strength of two belligerents? Why and how? What happened next? I have a feeling that if you can dig deep enough to build a convincing representation of that particular period of time, it will be easier to construct what follows.
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 6:25 PM on September 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Are you asking about alternate history - takes place on earth, the same stuff happens until a specific point, and that's where your story comes in - or a straight-up non-earth fantasy novel? I assumed the former, but on reread I'm not nearly as sure.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:28 PM on September 26, 2010

I can't really help on the research side of things, but I do have a suggestion for inspirational reading: Guy Gavriel Kay's books are almost all historical fantasies. Here is his page on Amazon; I particularly recommend The Lions of Al-Rassan (set in ~11th c. Moorish Spain), The Last Light of the Sun (8th-9th c. England and Wales), and his newest, Under Heaven (9th c. China). I believe he also has lists of his research materials over on his website, Bright Weavings.

(On preview: these are all historical-Earth-type settings, with some fantastical elements, and with some but not all of the plot elements inspired by but not reflective of actual events. If you're going for more of a "what if" type of alternate history, these books might not be as helpful, though maybe the bibliographies will still help.)
posted by Janta at 7:08 PM on September 26, 2010

Heh. According to cstross the correct answer is a monstrous amount of research.
posted by Artw at 7:32 PM on September 26, 2010

It's not out yet, but metafilter's own zompist is writing a book about world building.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:42 PM on September 26, 2010

A question: how much do you want your alternate history to stand up? It's the setting and all, yeah, but how deep does it need to go? Are we going to see it from a distance? Kick the tires? Check under the hood (of history)? Do you want it to feel like it exists outside the influence of the author (I'll get to this in a second), or do you not mind it showing that it's a big prop?

These are the two biggest troubles fictional universes seem to have, I think. Either they are so huge and well-researched that they seem to run on their own, to their own detriment. The best example of this is probably Robert Sobel's For Want of a Nail, where the creation sort of stalls under the weight of its own plausibility (the issue of a literal sort of multinational aside); a lot of the little flavor stories that create our understanding of a period are missing, and it lacks some of the unpredictability that I think real histories have.

On the other hand, there's stories that don't hold up very well on examination, but exist at the beck and call of the plot. I always have thought the Draka stuff is more along the lines of this - as a plot device the serfs are pretty good and all, but if you think about how the world would work on a day-to-day basis it doesn't really make much sense at all. (The background appendices are online for perusal.) This review of Philip Roth's The Plot Against America also gets into the effects of this in the middle bit; I guess you can probably see where my loyalties lie but a setting that seems to be held up by some external fiat always draws me out of the story.

Aside from this long spiel about what I, uh, feel about alternate history, I'd nth going to the library, but also I'd say to check out - I realize this isn't really fantasy- or magic-based, but just for the nuts and bolts of the thing - this board (I haven't been there in a while but it seems to still be running ok) and browse through your favorite tabletop rpg forum for threads on GURPS Infinite Worlds. I'm particularly fond of this riff on early utopian socialist genre sf.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 7:57 PM on September 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Surely you've already seen James Burke's Connections and The Day The Universe Changed. Maybe it's been a while. Watch again and take notes.
posted by wobh at 8:13 PM on September 26, 2010

Read "The Man in the High Castle" by Phillip K Dick
posted by Biru at 4:17 AM on September 27, 2010

To heck with the research. Alternate history is one decent excuse to just make shit up. Authentic? Compared to what?
posted by ovvl at 4:52 AM on September 27, 2010

Mary Gentle wrote a long medieval Alt History novel called Ash. She did a Masters in medieval history to get the military details right. So yeah, lots of research.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 6:48 AM on September 27, 2010

I respectfully disagree with ovvl. I'm writing a novel set in an alternate version of London, and I did a huge amount of research before I began. I've found it immensely helpful in two ways. First, being able to mix in real-world details makes my flights of fantasy feel more believable and grounded; and, second, often some random little real detail has given me a jumping off point for an entire chapter.

Anonymous, it might help to pick a single real-world analog for your fictional world. Is your world most like imperial Rome? Modern-day Tokyo? Sheboygan in the 1960s?

You might be very literal in your analogy -- if there's no guns in your world, you might decide choose a real-world era before the invention of gunpowder. But do, at least, consider being creative -- even if modern-day Tokyo is completely different from your setting in terms of technology, maybe it's exactly right in terms of culture and feel.

You might also think about combining real-world cultures. What if you transplanted English culture to Mexico?

Once you've chosen an analog, research the hell out of it. I think researching the structure of government in modern-day Japan would be much less daunting than trying to find some sort of universal theory of government structure.

It's up to you to decide how you want to use your research to give texture to your writing. You can copy military titles verbatim, for example even if they're in a foreign language, for example, or you can copy the military titles but translate them literally into English.

But before you copy anything (verbatim or in translation), pause a moment, and ask yourself: why does this detail exist in the real world? Would the changes I've made in my alternate world have a trickle-down effect that would change it?

For example, just to go back to my silly England-in-Mexico example, you might sit down to write a scene where your characters drink a cup of hot tea. But first, ask yourself: why do the British like tea? Well, in part because of Britain's cool, damp climate, and partly because Britain's imperial holdings meant they could grow tea in India. But if you move England to Mexico, they'd be in a hotter climate and have access to different crops -- so maybe they'd have the same sort of cultural rituals centered around an iced chocolate drink.

Obviously I'm not saying that everything needs to come from your research-- just however much you find helpful, to flesh out the stuff you've made up completely.
posted by yankeefog at 7:59 AM on September 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

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