Now that the 2012 Election is over, people are already starting to wonder, “What if?” What if Romney had won?  What if my local candidate had managed to win a seat?  What if that new state tax or ballot initiative hadn’t passed?  What if the speech hadn’t been so late and I’d managed to have more than three hours of sleep?

“What Ifs” are a classic method of story creation.  These questions are questions we already ask ourselves all the time; the writer in us just takes the extra step and answers them.

Image credit: Tony Fischer

It’s true it can be unhealthy to dwell one’s own past too much, wondering: “What if I’d gotten that job?” “What if I’d talked to her?” “What if I’d managed to say ‘Yeah, but at least my face isn’t a pizza’ in the eighth grade to that one guy?” But asking the right questions can help solve problems and spark new creative ideas. Don’t just stop at the obvious answer to the “what if.” Keep going. Push farther – you’ll be amazed at where simply asking questions can take you.

When Authors Ask “What If”

Counterfactuals have always been a great way to establish new and interesting worlds for your story.  You could certainly argue that any fiction starts out with a “What if?”, but grounding a story in actual events can make the story-world all the more fascinating.

The growing genres of Alternate History and Steampunk have only just begun to explore what might have been.  They take a “Point of Departure” from our history’s timeline and see what the world would be like if things had gone differently.

For example, Eric Flint’s sci-fi Alt History 1632 takes a wild “what if,” plopping down a modern-day West Virginian mining town in the middle of the Thirty Years War. As bizarre as that sounds, this idea has launched a huge franchise – and a dedicated base of fans who spend hours contemplating what the average town would bring along on its journey through time.

And Harry Turtledove, an actual historian by trade, has written numerous “what ifs,” perhaps most famously the classic question: “What if the South had won the American Civil War?”  That question has been asked over and over again – even by Winston Churchill in the 1931 anthology If, or History Rewritten. In Churchill’s essay he poses as a historian in a world where the South triumphed, then asks from an alternate reality’s perspective, “What if the South had lost the Civil War?” Here’s where Churchill gets mischievous – describing a new potential timeline completely different from our own, in which British intervention would have prevented World War I.

Image credit: Marion Doss

In all of these examples, the real gold of asking “what if?” is not the immediate result of one altered moment in history – it’s in the fallout.  History is a crisscrossing of untold numbers of variables including political forces, technology, disease, climate and food production, and the general beliefs and activities of the time.

Pop-culture explorations of Chaos Theory – like Ian Malcom’s rants in Jurrasic Park – have taught us that changing one little thing can change everything else. A divided United States makes for a much weaker American presence abroad, meaning that other nations, such as the Empire of Japan, might not have any problem seizing oil fields in the Pacific, meaning no enormous World War II.  No WWII means no Atomic Age, no GI Bill sending millions of servicemen and women to college to change the scope of the nation, and, in many ways, no contribution toward racial integration.  Everything affects everything else, creating a sometimes familiar, sometimes shockingly foreign story world.

This Day In Alternate History

I started on my own Alternate History explorations with a blog, This Day in Alternate History.

During a bout of bad-yogurt-induced food poisoning, my addled brain kept throwing around strange thoughts, finally settling on, “What if Will Rogers had survived his plane crash?”  I had no idea, so I decided to do some hefty research not only into his own life, but the lives around his.

I learned that his wife, Betty, died in 1944 from cancer…so what if Rogers sought distraction by turning to a life of politics as an invitee to Democratic National Convention as a speaker?  At the same time, FDR was looking for a new running-mate, so why not the wildly popular Rogers?  That would mean, of course, upon FDR’s untimely death that Rogers would become president, a position he’d often joked about taking.

Naturally, this would mean that it would have been Rogers’ decision to drop The Bomb.  While Harry Truman was a hard man who never lost any sleep over ushering in the Atomic Age, Rogers was much more innocent, and it could have torn him apart.  Now there’s drama.

When creating counterfactuals and asking “what if”, always look in on those little extras.

Image credit: Vincent_AF

Crafting New Histories in 3 Easy Steps

  1. First, the timeline being created needs to make sense.  If magic is something most people can do in this world, why would people bother to farm?  Why wouldn’t people create golems or ensnare demons to farm for them?  See how everyday needs and desires would change.
  2. Check for the fallout.  Follow the guiding line of history to see what happens next.  If large-scale airships are invented in the Napoleonic Wars, how would that affect the settlement of the West?  Indian raids wouldn’t be a problem for Air Coaches, until, of course, the Apache get their own airships, and then we have Geronimo’s air pirates setting ambushes from behind the Rocky Mountains.  In addition, there would be no need to hurry to construct intercontinental rails or canals.  Panama might still be a part of Columbia, and Utah, rather than being a gateway of transit through Promontory Point, could be nothing worth noting, just an out-of-the-way place known for eclectic Mormonism.  Research into the history (or create your own if it’s a fantasy world) to see how all the pieces fit together.
  3. Third, and foremost, look for the story.  Where is the drama to be found?  Who has something to lose in this world?  All-powerful heroes are interesting for a while, but they never carry the depth that a character who faces great hardship and struggle does.  Wondrous landscapes are beautiful to imagine, but we need to feel for and root for the protagonist crossing them, otherwise our imaginations will want to move on.

Going Forward

Keep an eye out for chances to ask “what if?” The next time the TV’s on the History Channel, or an old newspaper catches your fancy, or somebody mentions George Washington, give some thought and exercise to reshaping our world. You might just discover some fascinating and dramatic new ones.

What visions of alternate realities inspire you? Let us know in the comments! 

Still not sure where to start on your next writing project? Check out our free e-book, “A Year of Inspiration: 52 Writing Prompts from the Renegade Word.”