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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

On Writing Alternate History

Ah, good day my little turtledoves. Alas I have been neglecting you. I know. I tend to get brain-frazzled whenever I'm knee-hip-eye-deep into whatever obsessive project is going down. Namely, the steampunk novel.

While re-writing the last half, I changed around the time period from 1890s to the 1850s. And what did this lead to? More research. Why in the hell does anyone ever decide to write alternate history, or historical novels at all? I think it's a form of self abuse, is what it is. Or love of history. And wanting to mess with it. HISTORY. No longer just a Michael Jackson album, but something you have to look up. Not that I didn't do research before jumping into this Victorian thing, it's just that little things you didn't think of in the first draft now you have to double-check if that shit was around back in the day.

In re-writing one line: "Eliza could see a group of people gathered in the middle of Pont Neuf," this spawned like an hour of reading about the bridge in Paris, despite the fact that I've physically walked over it, went under it on a boat, and took pictures of the damned thing. Why? Because history, man. Was it even there in the mid-19th century? (Why yes it was, and it was under re-construction, but history could've made it like a modern thing without me knowing).

Of course, I tend to get a little detail obsessive about the history thing. Mostly with words, and if they were used during the time period I'm writing about. So: www.etymonline.com is an online etymological dictionary that I've been using since my History of the English Language professor suggested it for all of the Old English nonsense I soaked up that semester (and apparently according to that prof, I speak Old English with a bit of an Irish accent. How I managed that I will never know). Now, I'm obsessively checking if some of the diction I'm using was around at all. Which actually makes it more fun to make up words for something that didn't exist yet, but totally does nowadays. Plus, it's fun to see where some curse words originated.

So, in addition to re-writing, I've been reading about the history of medicine in the 1800s, medical gadgets, the introduction of germ theory, the history of anesthesia, the history of surgery and midwifery, outbreaks of cholera, Baron Haussmann's rebuilding of Paris and adding sewer systems, absinthe (let's get drunk!), and yet more reading on mental asylums. Makes me glad I live in a time with modern medicine. 

Of course, I have to remind myself that if all else fails: make shit up. This is fiction after all. I mean, there weren't really automatons, aeroships, empaths, and half-man half-machines running around like I wrote about. I sometimes have to tell myself: Dude, it's time to mess with yo' history a bit.

Also: women's undergarments are ridiculous in this time period. Seriously. How did a lady ever bone down through all those layers? Well, if you were rich...methinks it was easier if you were poor. I got so fed up with figuring out how to get one my female characters out of her dresses for a bit of sexy fun time, that I just decided to have her cross dress. Which fits her character actually. But men's fashion was a ridiculous too, though easier to de-trouser yourself in order to get jiggy 'wit it*.

Which brings me to Doctor Who. How did I get from crinolines to The Doctor? Since half of my characters are British, and I'm well...not, sometimes I forget there are differences in how we of the former colonies speak. And since actually writing 1850s Queen's English would be clunky to write, I've been doing it more subtly. Luckily, I made sure in the first draft that they say rubbish and not trash. And clever and not smart. Don't get me started on my Parisian characters. They only remind me that my French is atrocious, and perhaps I should just stick to the English translation of what they're saying.


So, what's the most interesting and random bit of history that you've ever come across? I'm always surprised by weird quirks of culture and tradition. Regale me. 

*I have been informed by my lawyer to rescind the jiggy 'wit it reference, as no one has used this phrase since the 1990s and is no longer "cool" or "in."

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