3 Reasons Why I Set My Novel in an Alternative World

The question I get the most about my novel-in-progress is, “Why is it set in an alternative world?” My story takes place in the country of Silmara, not to be found on any map except ones I’ve drawn (alas, cartography is not in my skillset). Silmara is mountainous and it is often winter there. In Silmara, they have a parliamentary government but also a feudal class system. They’re becoming more industrialized but aren’t the most advanced technologically. Their access to a volatile mineral used as an energy source makes them the target of their larger and more developed neighbor, Perraedia. War ensues.

All of this may sound like the history (or present) of many countries and regions you’ve heard of. But here’s why I chose to tell my tale in Silmara instead of anywhere on this planet.

1. Freedom to make up my own history.

As much as I love history and historical novels, I found that placing my story in a historical context with a framework of historical events didn’t work for me. It was, for me, constraining. My novel contains several battles. Finding the right point in history for my story took too much time away from writing the actual story.

I’m a stickler for accuracy. History is important. Facts need to be right and place names and other details should be accurate. I get that for many, fiction is fiction and details can be altered for the sake of the story. I’ve read books that take license with small historical facts and they’re wonderful. I would like to get over my hang-up with correctness but have been unsuccessful. My early attempts at research took me so far into the weeds I lost sight of my story. What was fun became work.

In my alternative world, alternative facts are totally acceptable. It’s impossible for me to get anything wrong. If I describe a battle in Silmara, that’s exactly how it happened, from the aerial attack at dawn to the ragged withdrawal of infantry from the burning hillside. It’s nice to always get it right.

Finally, do we need more World War II novels? Apparently we do because they continue to sell. Shows what I know. After all, I keep reading them.

2. No worries about cultural appropriation or racial profiling.

This is a big one for me. If I made my characters come from actual countries existing on this planet at some time or another, I’d have to make sure I wasn’t claiming rights to speak for real people they represented. My research would have to be thorough enough to ensure that I portrayed any racial, ethnic, religious group with the respect they deserved.

To me, that seems a difficult task. All the writers who have written novels starring characters in a historical conflict, showing their dignity and humanity minus the stereotypes, I applaud you. I am not worthy.

Of course my fictional world has stereotypes. Some of them I’ve made up. Some of them come from this world and I might not notice they’re there. I work to eradicate those.

3. The weather can play more of a part.

This one might seem weird, to people who don’t like to write about (and apparently think about) weather as much as I do. In my alternative world, I can play with all kinds of crazy weather patterns. Blizzards that last for days. Acid rain that burns. Devastating windstorms. These things can all be made into larger obstacles than they would be on Earth. I could expand this beyond weather to include terrain, natural features, laws of physics, etc. All natural forces making trouble for my poor struggling characters.

Admittedly, I haven’t utilized many forces of nature in my novel. Earlier versions had an endless blizzard and a destructive ocean tide caused by two moons in the sky. Fun, but they turned out to have no relevance to the plot.

Those are the main reasons I have chosen to set my novel in an alternative world. What I should also add is, world-building is the best kind of fun. Sometimes the littlest details are a challenge. Would a kid in Silmara eat an English muffin for breakfast? Not in a place with no England. Would a drunken Perraedian soldier try to commit suicide by Russian Roulette? Not in a land with no Russia. How about describing a Kafka-esque bureaucracy or a Freudian slip? Coming up with ways to describe objects and concepts without using the proper names of this world is yet another great way to exercise my imagination. Imagination is where I find my joy.

Because, let’s face it. The real world can get pretty grim at times. A new place with different weather, different countries, different rules and no French fries, can be a welcome escape.

4 comments

  1. Anna

    Kat, every one of your arguments is spot on (including your correct use of the word “alternative” — why didn’t the headline writer follow through?). I appreciate the sensitivity you bring to portraying your characters and cultures. As a history major I applaud your respect for history. As a reader I look forward to your book and will enjoy this backstage peek at the fun you’ve enjoyed while constructing it.

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