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Touchpoints for somewhat nonspecific alternate history, redux?
tamtrible wrote in little_details
I asked about this here, and got lots of nice discussion about where I was failing at history, but very little on the part of what I was asking that really *was* a little detail. So, I figured I'd try again, *just* asking that part.

I'm toying with a story idea, and rather than either set it in an entirely fictional world, or set it in the real world and pretend the presence of magic wouldn't alter history in a lot of different ways, I figure I'd kind of aim for "obviously this world, but different"--for example, I was thinking of having the major language and dominant country of the British Isles be named after the Saxons instead of the Angles (that is, Saxon and Saxony instead of English and England)

I'm not sure how to search this, it... relies a lot on what people would find plausible and/or recognize, rather than on objective fact.

The hard, absolute difference between that world and this is the presence of magic--specifically, magical items of varying descriptions that are made from living people (the process kills them, it's generally done on those who were dying anyways for whatever reason), as well as a fraction of the population (probably in the neighborhood of 1%) who can both make such items, and recognize the general nature of any that exist.

The story will probably be set somewhere in the neighborhood of the Enlightenment or the early industrial revolution, in part because I didn't want to do Yet Another Vaguely Medieval Fantasy Story.

There may or may not be some difference in how Christianity took over Europe (I still think it's likely that there were a few pockets of "paganism" that there weren't in our own timeline), but the general arc of history (Roman empire, dark ages, Renaissance, and so on) were about the same. But there would be a lot of one-off differences between our timeline and theirs in terms of who won a particular battle, who had what children, and so on.

Any thoughts for specific, concrete, simple little things that might plausibly be different between this world and our own at the same point in history? I'm thinking things like different (but recognizable) names for the nations/regions/cities/etc (a la my England/Saxony example), differences in national/empiric boundaries (for example, might Scotland still be an entirely separate country?), and the like. Also, any that you think might be "attractive" to me but strike you as completely improbable would be good, so I know what to avoid. I don't want to throw my readers out of the story...

I think you may have trouble getting the kind of answers you're looking for; if you change who won a battle or who had what children (assuming you're talking about royal lines), you change _everything_ that comes afterwards. If Arthur survives long enough to have a son, for example, the reformation in England is going to happen in a totally different way; not at all, or sooner and more sincerely, or more violently. History isn't a straight line, with events being mere sideshows; events in history determine the future course of the timeline, so changing one "small" thing is probably not going to a matter of just having a different name for a place, it's going to rewrite everything that comes after it. Basically, there isn't really any such thing as a one-off historical event which has no other effects
Which is not to say you're not going to be able to write the story you want to write; you're just going to have to do an _awful_ lot of handwaving, or be very vague, or limit your changes to very minor ones and hope your readers don't think too hard about alternate timelines.

I'm aiming for "similar vague arc of history", rather than "everything turned out identical". For example, I probably won't go into the genealogy of the monarchs of England (I'm probably going with Anglia, as suggested below), but will instead pull a likely-sounding name out of my hat. I'm just aiming for enough hints that you will conclude you're on a world that is, at least geographically, basically ours.

Well, if you named England Saxony you would run into the problem with the other (German) Saxony and considering the importance of Saxony throughout the Middle Ages all the way into modern times you would have to change a lot of European history.

Changing the name of England sounds doable but maybe not to Saxony because that name is linked to a lot of history and a lot of well-known historical personalities and offices (the Duke of Saxony for example was one of the prince electors of the Holy Roman Empire).

Maybe condensed to Saxland, if that doesn't sound odd, the way Angleland was condensed to England, and the original Saxon territories were likewise condensed (Wessex, Sussex, Essex)?

I got a few good suggestions downthread a bit. Good point about the other Saxony, which I obviously didn't know about [g].

Edited at 2014-04-09 03:41 am (UTC)

I think it may be hard not to go off pretty far into the weeds with the snowball effect over time of seemingly small changes, but a place to start thinking about differences might be with the effects on a balance of power that magic could create: for example, the "paganism" question often got resolved in the actual timeline by the accumulation of small advantages by one group (stirrups, say) until they were able to outcompete their neighbors, take their land/stuff, lather rinse repeat until somebody ended up with all the toys. So, is the presence of magic going to be an equalizer in this situation? You may end up with scenarios where, f'r'ex, Scotland and Wales are still autonomous regions because they were able to successfully repel/deter anybody who wanted their stuff; how big is the Roman Empire even going to get if it meets capable resistance? A force like Christianity might even be their competitive advantage in that situation, depending on where you want to set the sliders on how effective/attractive ideology is as a tool of conquest -- if the neighbors are in a stronger position to say "sorry, we've already got one", because they're perhaps not as afraid of the military consequences of refusing to be assimilated, then you may have a stalemate on your hands instead of a unifying force.

Although Scotland and England unified because of the converging royal line, not through combat; when Elizabeth I died, she named James VI of Scotland as her successor (he was the grandson on her aunt, who had married the king of Scotland, and thus the nearest legitimate protestant male relative). You'd have to do an awful lot of re-arranging of the royal line in order to avoid that unification, and it would completely change the royal line thereafter, so I'm not sure there's a good way to keep Scotland independent without making major changes.

Details like this are extremely difficult to suggest without worldbuilding provided, or nearly complete. The worldbuilding is up to you; but so is the level of detail and continuity. How much are the readers going to actually know? Are you going to have maps? Info dumps? Narrative clues like climate, flora and fauna, physical geography and landmarks, and/or references to ancient (unchanged) history, to make it clear that this is an AU Europe? The less you explain in-text, the less you have to handwave or rely on suspension of disbelief.

What national areas/boundaries are even relevant for your story? If the Balkans aren't involved, tell us so we won't worry about it. Can you provide specific suggestions, as you did with Saxony vs. England? That gives people the opportunity to assess implications of different names. This is your world to build; build it, or provide the full structure, and we (or I) will be better equipped to evaluate what's improbable. Even a brainstorming list would help. I haven't the remotest idea what would be "attractive" to you.

True.

I was going to be vague with the history, and just drop hints. Our Heroine probably starts out in England-or-equivalent, then ends up on an ocean voyage that... I haven't figured out yet. Central Europe probably won't come up much, but anywhere coastal might.

Aside from the occasional pocket of pagans (probably mostly in relatively remote/outlying areas), I'm thinking that the Vikings or their descendents still have at least trace contact with the Americas, so while England and so forth may have sent over colonies, the natives were... not unfamiliar with white folks, and Columbus probably never "discovered" America (he or his equivalent may still have tried to find a short-cut to China by sailing west, but he wouldn't have been surprised to find a continent in the way, I think). And Europe may have gotten new-world plants, like tomatoes and potatoes, a bit sooner.

And as far as the "what's attractive" thing, I'm kind of asking "what have you seen others do in this vein, that's Just Wrong On So Many Levels" or whatever. Or, if someone suggests something (like I suggested the Saxony thing that everyone's called me on) and you think it sounds implausible or wrong...

I believe the English Fens had a rather spooky reputation. Perhaps the Fenmen could have fought off the draining? There might even be a few grendels still lurking in the depths. If you want, you could make them human enough to be an oppressed minority. Maybe Ezo could be an independent, or at least separate, Ainu polity. A stronger Brittany?

How do 'the Russias' or 'the Germanies' strike you? Or the Seven Irelands? Pictland? Dumnonia?

Would Avalon or Kitzeh or the Hesperides being real, even intermittently real, work in your verse?

Different titles for similar works, such as Shaxcper's Fourth Witch?

The Library of Alexandria/Hephaistonia surviving? Venice's magic keeping her power for longer? A modern Granada?

Though based on the same laws of nature, the Turkish shaman uses them differently to the conventional European or West Asian sorcerer?

How would the Atlantic (or East African) slave trade differ if the dying slaves could sometimes use this magic?

The Russias and The Germanies strike me just fine. 7 Irelands seems to be a tad much somehow.

Where is/was/would be Pictland and/or Dumnonia? Or Granada (I feel like I should know that one)

The world has the same physical geography, and the same complement of species (give or take an extinction or 2). The magic involved calls entropy names and makes fun of its mother, but tends to leave the rest of the laws of physics more or less alone.

The *entire* Library of Alexandria surviving strikes me as... less than likely, but I can definitely see more of its contents having been saved one way or another.

I think I would agree about the paganism. Demonstration of verifiable powers/magic would certainly aid people in keeping their original faiths, IMO. Imagine magical duels between missionaries and local priests/shaman/Druids, each trying to prove the superiority of their deity! But with that paganism (depending on where) comes a possible retention of old technology or knowledge. We've all heard that our distant ancestors had knowledge or did things we couldn't duplicate until, say, the 1800s. (plumbing in Crete, for example, or astronomical knowledge seen in Celtic henges & barrows or Aztec calendars). And really, certain pagan customs lasted well past the Renaissance, despite the Church's disapproval.

Side note: I wouldn't call England Saxony--there already is a Saxony in Germany. Anglia, Albion or even Britain (used by the Romans) would be just as recognizable as England, I think. As for other places, you might look into their older names, Gaul or Gallia might work for France, or even Frankland (since the French were called Franks for some time into the Middle Ages).

Power will shift based on who has magic itself or one of the magical items. So some places might stay independent longer or never be conquered or absorbed. French duchies or German principalities, Baltic countries (which stayed pagan longer than the rest of Europe--1300s?), Italian city-states/kingdoms, parts of the Ottoman or Austro-Hungarian empires--pick whatever appeals to you. Same might apply in the Americas, so consider there might be trade with the Aztecs or Inca (although my husband mentions the possibility that despite potential strong magic, the iron and tech levels of the Europeans might still overpower them), not to mention Africa, Asia, or Australia.

Since you mention Scotland--if you keep Tudor history roughly the same (Henry VIII having the 3 children, etc), the only way to avoid James of Scotland from becoming king of England too is to give Henry VIII a legitimate grandchild. If you're willing to say Edward VI lived long enough to get married and have a child, or that Mary I's marriage was fruitful, or Elizabeth I got married and produced children, then union with Scotland is unlikely. At least in 1603. And German monarchs on the throne even more unlikely.

Is there only the one type of magic? What does the Church think of magic? Magus might become a rank in the Catholic Church; in fact, they might insist any born with the ability be taken into the clergy, so all magic is under their control. However, depending again on who has what and how strong is it, Christianity might have fractured a lot sooner than Martin Luther. There were a number of heresies that lasted such as Cathars and if they had the strength, they could have flourished into the modern day.

Some of this presumes the magic can be used offensively (or defensively), of course. If I understand you right, this kind of magic (and its frequency) does not hinder scientific progress, so that should probably run much the same as it did in our world. Medical might be more advanced, depending on how those items are made--an earlier understanding of how the body works?

I seem to recall that a big factor in Europe's conquest of the Americas was also the disease carried by Europeans; if some of the more centralized native cultures had items that could heal disease or confer immunity, the colonial period might resemble European efforts in India or African nations (in that there was still a sizable native population, and colonists couldn't just move in on mostly empty land), even if the natives couldn't throw out the invaders.

Anglia sounds good. As does Frankland.

Most of the magical items... would be enough to nudge the balance of power, especially en masse, but would not be enough by themselves to make a *huge* difference. Think, say, unbreakable swords, or shields that will move to intercept an incoming arrow (as long as you're holding them). Or pens that give you perfect handwriting.

It's likely that the Spaniards... weren't as much of a *surprise* to the South American natives, so the Spaniards likely at least had a little more of a fight on their hands. And I'd imagine... the Aztecs would have a *lot* of artifacts, if they distilled people rather than simply ripping their hearts out...

Though, I kind of want the Aztecs to go down, those bastards creep me out. Maybe the Spanish... kind of fought a nasty war with them, it was bloody and horrible on both sides, and at the end of it the Aztecs were basically gone but the Spanish had kind of lost their taste for conquering Central and South America... which probably wouldn't be called that. I could go with the vague term "the new world", but I really should think of something better.

And there is only one type of magic. The ability to turn people into magical objects (which is... a slow enough process that it can only be done with someone you have incapacitated, at least for the stronger version. And what magical object results depends on the person being turned, not the one doing the turning). Maybe 1% of the population can do the deed (or, at least, have the necessary inherent potential, the "strong" version requires a learned ritual), and anyone can be turned into an object, though as I said it's usually only done on those who were going to die for other reasons, like illness or execution.

Other than the Baltic countries, any likely candidate you can think of for "festering hotbed of pagan beliefs"?

I tend to agree with the other commenters that even this "little" detail isn't a little detail, and that you may be underestimating the ripple effect from historical events. But to answer your question about names, I would recommend learning the etymologies of words you intend to use, and then draw your new word from a different linguistic root. English borrows much of its vocabulary from Latin (sometimes indirectly through French), Greek, or Germanic languages -- if you hop next door to a cousin language, you'll get a word that will feel familiar-ish to your readers, but not be the word they use every day.

For example, the Latin word for the number four is quattuor, which gives us words like quarter, quadrangle, quart and so on. The Greek word for the number four is tessera, more familiar to us in the prefix form tetra in words like tetrahedron and tetrathlon.

So if, say, your unit of currency is divided into fourths, you could call them tetras instead of quarters, and your readers will quickly pick up what you mean. Philip Pullman did this a lot in his His Dark Materials trilogy, which is a parallel world kind of like the one I think you're imagining. For example, our word electricity comes from a pseudo-Latin word for "amber" popular in the Renaissance. Pullman calls the same force anbaric, based on a different word for amber. Similarly, the people we know as Gypsies (a garbled version of the word Egyptians), he calls Gyptians, making the etymology go one step sideways.

I think that even this "little" bit is a much bigger project than you might imagine, but the naming could be a lot of fun to do if you're willing to commit to it.


Of course, the etymological choices should reflect which cultures you're strengthening. A quarter produced by a more anglo-saxon-favouring culture would be (as it really was) a farthing.

As others have said, change one thing and there can be wide-reaching consequences.

The England thing is tricky. The language was, until a few decades ago, known as Anglo-Saxon (now Old English, which causes all sorts of confusion among people who think they will be able to read it with no further study). And the name England came out on top despite Wessex (the land of the West Saxons) being dominant, at a time when the Angles were all living in the Danelaw. Welsh still doesn't call it England; it's Lloegr.</p>

As for pockets of "paganism": we still have them, particularly in the area of the Peak District/Pennines where I live. Mostly coexisting with church going, though recently there has been friction with evangelical vicars.

If you want an idea to play with, in real history Aelle King of the South Saxons appears to have risen to great prominence with a very surprising victory, became the first Bretwalda with kings under him - and then dropped out of sight, with nobody claiming descent from him. Probably his line died out; if it hadn't England might have been unified many centuries earlier than it was, after the model of France under the Merovingians, and presented a more united front against the Danes. As Christianisation first among the Franks and then in successive generations among the Saxons and the Angles was kick-started by queens, it would probably have taken the same patterns, politics and dynastic marriages being what they were.


I see what you mean about paganism in the Peak District. Well-dressings are a very curious business.

What if some magic items were very much fixed in place because they are, in fact, wells which had had people thrown into them in the distant past?

Did you see Rory Stewart's recent two-part documentary about 'Britain's Lost Middleland'? There was plenty you could argue about but he had a point; there was nothing inevitable about a binary division of Britain into Scotland/England, and if things had gone differently, there's no reason why Northumbria shouldn't have remained a valid state. In which case, no reason why there shouldn't have been an independent Wales as well (if it could only have unified itself) it was the preponderant size of the English state after the Viking Age that caused it to start sucking the other parts of the island in.

Are those pockets of paganism actually survivals, though? I would think it's more likely that they are revivals than survivals, if we're talking about self-identified pagans. Or if we're talking about stuff like well-dressing, that's been christianised for hundreds of years, so I'm not sure it can really be classed as a pagan survival?

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You certainly put a brand new spin on a subject that's been written about
for many years. Excellent stuff, just great!

Query: would any of the magical artifacts have an impact on technological advances (e.g., The Marble of Perpetual Xeroxing might negate the need for the development of a printing press)? And is there any sort of racial/genetic/geographic specific correlation between either the occurrence of people who can craft these artifacts and/or the type of artifact crafted? For example, if you have an artifact that results in the discovery/introduction of gun powder earlier than it would have occurred in our history, would this have led to an earlier dissolution of the Mongol empire?

Personally, I think you're going to have to be very careful about what certain artifacts can/can't do. For example, the black plague resulted in major class reforms in England; if there's an artifact that cures/protects against the black plague then this class reform might not have happened. Similarly, if Christianity -- by which I mean Catholicism -- isn't as strongly rooted in England in your world as it is in this one, then would Henry VIII have created the C of E and dissolved the monasteries, or would the pope have shown more leniency and granted his petition for divorce? Would there still be Huguenots in France and would the presence of the Huguenots result in such turmoil and upheaval?