Remaking the Past: Research for Writing Alternate History

by Carrie Vaughn

Wild Cards is about superpowers.  But it’s also about history. 

The very first book is rooted in history, and a branching timeline where history went…differently. Since then, the writers have dipped back into that history over and over, revisiting the secret corners and pockets throughout forty, then sixty, and now seventy years of the Wild Cards timeline.

There’s always more history. This is true of actual history, not just alternate history. There are always unsung heroes to discover, new takes on old events. With alternate history – the rabbit hole is endless.

So, how do we even start? Here I am, I’ve pitched a Wild Cards story set in 1981, or 1987, or 1961… What do I need to do to get the details right? To make you, the reader, feel like you’ve gone back in time to that year?

The secret to writing alternate history is to get the actual history right. The more real-world details you can nail down, the more believable the changes you make will be. This is one of the reasons Walter Jon Williams’ story “Witness” is so powerful – Walter is meticulous, he knows the history, and is great at adding the details that ground the story firmly in reality, no matter how outrageous the fantastic elements get. HUAC was real, McCarthy was real, and it’s not that big a leap to consider that the Red Scare would have expanded to include Wild Card victims. If that stretch of Wild Cards history is terrifying…well, it’s because it basically actually happened. 

The bigger picture is always there. The Wild Card virus would have affected everything. What corner haven’t we looked at? What details will illuminate not just that specific topic, but the Wild Cards world as a whole? Reality TV? Pro sports? Legal issues? Hollywood? And so on.

Confession:  When I reach back into Wild Cards history for story ideas, it’s often to indulge my own particular interests. To explore details I’m interested in. I picked 1981 for “Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan,” my story in the updated Volume 1, for two reasons:  It was one of the gaps in the Wild Cards timeline we were looking to fill; and I knew that famous punk club CBGB was located on the Bowery, right next to Jokertown, and I wanted to tell a story about what that scene looked like in the Wild Cards world. (You’ll find that a lot of Wild Cards stories reflect their authors’ interests and obsessions. Because of this, as I mentioned, the rabbit hole is endless. We’re all constantly bringing new material into Wild Cards. If you think that sounds a little overwhelming, you’d be correct.)

Once the topic is narrowed down, it’s time to start researching. This is always a big subject of discussion among writers. Do you research before you start writing? Or do you write the story first, to find out what details you need? Many writers talk about the research taking over – it’s so easy to just keep reading, discovering new and fascinating details, learning even more information. They might never start writing the story, because so often these topics are just so fascinating. But at some point you do need to write the story. I often give the advice:  you don’t have to become an expert on the topic. You just need to convince the reader that you are.

I land somewhere in the middle. I like to do some research before I start writing, particularly to get a feel for the era, but also to get ideas that I wouldn’t have been able to think of without some grounding. I read some general overviews to help me narrow in on the most useful details. 

In the course of writing, however, a lot of issues will come up that need more work. Things like:  What was the actual layout of CBGB? I never got to go there. The bathrooms were famously hideous—but where were the bathrooms actually located? Where was the bar in relation to the stage? Were the drinks good or watered down? Details like will come up throughout. I’ll often just put brackets around the sentence and come back to fill in the blanks later. I want these details to be correct, so that someone who was there and does know will read my story and think, “Yes, this is right! She’s got it!” Because then they’ll trust me. If they don’t trust me, the entire story won’t hold up for them. I can’t assume that my audience won’t notice when I get things wrong.

I’ll often start with a web search, including browsing summaries on Wikipedia. Mind you, Wikipedia is the place to start, never the place to finish. I use it to get the timelines down, to get names, to get the rough idea, and to get resources for the next phase.

I look for both primary and secondary sources. This is a big deal for historians and scholars, but I think it’s useful for fiction writers as well. Primary sources are the writings and output of people at the time, directly involved with events. Letters, diaries, records, eyewitness accounts.  Secondary sources include summaries and analyses by later writers. Both are important. With primary sources, you can really get the feel for a specific time and place, the voice and concerns of people living through it. But getting the bigger picture, the analysis, means you can infuse your writing with some of those conclusions. “Witness” needs both the feeling of being there—and the historical understanding that what happened during that era was awful and tragic.

One of my favorite sources of research are memoirs. Reading the accounts of people who lived in the time and place I want to write about is invaluable. This isn’t just the dates and events of history – this is what was important to people on the ground, how they lived their days, what the events looked like from their personal point of view and how they coped.

Similarly, I’ll read novels written in the time and place I want to set my story, to get a sense of tone, for what being there might have actually felt like. Novels will tell you what authors expected their audience to know, what their assumptions were. For example, Jane Austen never spends much time describing the clothes and food of her world, however much the modern movies based on her works dwell on these. Her readers already knew those things. But the way people talked? What they worried about? Those details are on full display.

When I wrote “Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan,” I watched a lot of videos. Urgh! A Music War, a documentary about the punk scene made in the early 80’s, gave me an overview (and has LOTS of great music). I also watched a bunch of YouTube videos actually filmed at CBGB, and a bunch of other videos to help me pick the one real-world band I’d feature on stage in the story:  Sonic Youth. I needed a real-world band to make my alternate history CBGB feel that much more believable. Another thing I did was ask on Facebook if anyone had been to CBGB and could tell me where the payphones were. (This is one of the benefits of writing stories that are both historical but still take place within living memory: eyewitness interviews.) Details like this are the ones that trip me up more than the big sweep of historical events, which are relatively easy to get right because they’re so well documented. 

Sometimes, you just have to wing it. You have to reconcile yourself to the fact you’re not going to get every single thing right, and that sometimes you’ll need to sacrifice a detail for the sake of making a great story. You’re not writing a documentary, here. I aim for enough detail to ground the story, but not so much that it starts to sound like an essay. It’s like seasoning. You want to bring out the flavor of the dish, not overwhelm it. You can write the most historically correct story in the world, but if the characters don’t come alive and the plot isn’t interesting, all that research won’t matter a bit. What’s more important than making the alternate history factually correct? Making it believable.