I’ve written a lot of history and alternate history in the past year. They seem to go together for me. I research history, and as I think about the mystery fiction I can write in the “real” past, I also find myself looking for those historical pivot points, those moments when life changes in an instant. Those get my brain going “What if” more than almost anything else.
The history that interests me isn’t the history that seems to interest the casual history reader. The history tomes that I see are mostly about the People In Power Dealing With the Big Event. I’ll be honest: I read some of that, mostly for context. But what interests me is how people lived—or how they survived—something I consider unimaginable.
For instance, when I read about the American Civil War, I’m interested in the women who fought in it, or the women who were spies. I’m interested in the people who stayed home or the people who endured the prison camps, the African-Americans who suddenly found themselves free, or the freed former slaves who got captured by the Confederacy.
Fortunately, a lot more historians are interested in such things now than historians were in the past. They write social histories (which, honestly, can be so dull) or they focus on a single event that stands in for other events, like the Pulitzer Prize winning Devil in the Grove, which looks at a legal case that Thurgood Marshall took on for the NAACP in the 1940s.
Generally, I write mystery stories based on the history that most people aren’t familiar with. Many of those mystery stories appear under my Kris Nelscott pen name. (The latest novel, Street Justice, came out in March.)
But the alternate histories—they spring out of any old inspiration, and sometimes out of dire circumstance. Dire for me, the writer, who has made stupid promises to write stories that are just beyond her grasp for anthology editors. I always think I have more time than I actually do. (For someone who writes time travel fiction, that’s a bad thing.)
I got pushed against a deadline a few years ago, and nearly bailed on a story for an anthology called Sidewise in Crime. I had three days to write 10,000 words, and do the research and develop the alternate world and come up with a mystery. I talked to my husband Dean Wesley Smith about it and he asked me if I had any ideas. Of course I didn’t. I just had blind panic.
I was in the middle of a Kris Nelscott mystery novel set in 1969, so the research in that era was fresh in my mind. But I wasn’t thinking about alternate history. I was thinking about untold “real” history. (You’ll note that I’ve put “real” in quotes twice now; that’s because historians—and even people who lived through the time—disagree about what happened at any point in the past and/or that event’s impact.)
Dean said, “What would have happened if J. Edgar Hoover died in 1968?” (He died in 1972.)
I said, “Nothing. If he had died in 1964, maybe, but not 1968.”
And then Dean gave me his gotcha grin. Because he had.
I wrote a story called “G-Men,” which got nominated for the Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History, Short Form, in 2008, and got picked up for two different year’s best books in two different genres that same year.
But “G-Men” just touched on the investigation. I hadn’t really explored the impact of Hoover’s early (at least in alternate history terms) death. I had to finish that part of the story, and did so in a novel that just got released called The Enemy Within. But now, I have a whole new series, with a bunch of characters, and a three-novel arc. Thank heavens the books stand alone, because otherwise, I’d be working as hard to finish them as I am to finish this Retrieval Artist story arc that I mentioned last time. (That arc has grown to 5 novels, not 4 like I originally thought.)
History is my leisure reading, and I’m doing a lot of reading about 1919. A year ago, I would have told you that 1919 was a very dull year. Then I started to read about it, and it made 1968 seem tame. The number of people who died in riots across the country were in the millions (no one knows the exact number). Cities burned. Entire towns got destroyed.
Those riots were mostly about race and trying to maintain Jim Crow. But add to that the growing technological change—cars, telephones, radios—and the end to a devastating world war, and the entire planet was in flux. Quite literally.
I love times like that. It makes my historical brain go crazy, and my alternate history brain look for those pivot points.
Some stories set in 1918 to 1925 are leaking out—one in Fiction River: Time Streams and another coming up in Fiction River: Past Crime. But the bigger ones are lurking, waiting for me to finish the research.
The research always takes me interesting places. I’m buying books now about things like the Federal Reserve and the global economic system, in addition to books on the summer of 1919, which was known as Red Summer. I’m not sure what exactly will come from it, but you’ll see all sorts of weird test stories from me in various digest magazines and in Fiction River.
That’s how I work. I read a little, then I test the ideas, then I read some more, and try again.
It’s not efficient, but it’s fun, and it gives me an excuse to learn something. I’m learning a lot about the year my mother was one year old and my father was five. The year my beloved grandmother was a 26-year-old mother, and my grandfather was struggling to take the postal exam that would enable him to feed his family (and half of a very small town) in the Great Depression.
Those are the small lives—the ones the historians often neglect, and the ones I like to read about. I then try to imagine what it was like to live in that time period, and I always regret I didn’t ask the right questions of the people who were alive then. My parents are long gone, and my grandmother died in 1992. I can’t ask her anything. (I doubt my father would have remembered much about the time.)
So I use old books and newspapers and guess. And write a few stories to amuse myself—and, with luck, to amuse you as well.