by Iver Cooper
When a 1632 fan sits down at the computer keyboard and starts tapping out a story, the motivation is often to explain how some gizmo of the future gets introduced to the 1632 Universe. Radio. Rubber. Machine guns. Whatever. The catch is, that’s the background, not the story. Stories are about people, not gadgets.
A gazette story typically has three basic elements:
- The Big Picture.
- Some technological, social or political change which is directly, or indirectly, attributable to the Ring of Fire.
- The People Story.
- This is the level on which you introduce characters, have them say and do things, and most important, make us care about what happens to them.
- The Link.
- Some connection between the Big Picture and the People Story. How did the characters affect the Big Picture? How did it affect them? The Link can get the story started, create a mid-story crisis, or help with its resolution. Or all of the above.
The Big Picture
In framing the Big Picture, the immediate problem is being consistent with “canon.” That term was first used by Sherlock Holmes fans to refer to stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle himself. For the purposes of the Grantville Gazette, “canon” refers to the 1632 Universe novels and anthologies (Ring of Fire and Ram Rebellion), the issues of the Grantville Gazette, the manual for the 1632 roleplaying game, and the “Grid” (more on that in a moment). In case of conflict, paper trumps electrons, and paperback trumps hardcover. And I don’t know if the issue has arisen, but I think it’s a safe bet that anything written by Eric Flint prevails over anything written by someone else.
The Grid contains basic background information for all uptime characters who passed through the Ring of Fire. You can’t create an uptimer, you have to use one who is in the Grid. You can’t change the character’s sex, year of birth, marital status, uptime education, uptime employment, or uptime religion. (Of course, the character can get married or divorced, change jobs or religions, or study something new, after the Ring of Fire.)
You can create downtimers, but an invented downtimer needs to be, as Eric said about Gretchen Richter, “beyond the reach of history’s notice.” No inventing princes or princesses. You can add members to historical families (as Eric did with Rebecca and Balthazar Abrabanel) or create new families (like the Richter clan), just so long as they aren’t too prominent.
Which brings us to the second problem, which is historical accuracy. When your story deals with events which occurred before the Ring of Fire (April 2, 2000, and May 25, 1631), it needs to meet the standards of historical fiction. In essence, you must not be inconsistent with reasonably accessible historical sources.
Obviously, at some level, if you invent a downtimer, you are at odds with history because that person didn’t exist. But you are safe as long as the records to prove that the downtimer didn’t exist are either non-existent or so obscure that you can confidently assume that no reader is going to complain about it.
If there is a legitimate controversy among historians, then you as the author have the right to pick which of several plausible versions is historically correct for purposes of your story. Perhaps the best example of this in the 1632 Universe is Eric’s handling of the authorship of the “Shakespearean” plays. (Okay, it was also good for a laugh.)
When you write about events after the Ring of Fire, you have moved from historical fiction to alternative history.
Some of our writers have referred to the changes wrought by the Ring of Fire as a “butterfly effect.” The term comes from the title coined by Philip Merilees for a chaos theory lecture by Edward Lorenz: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas.” (I don’t know whether Merilees was at all influenced by the Ray Bradbury time travel story “A Sound of Thunder,” in which the accidental death of a Mesozoic butterfly changes the future which the time travelers return to.) It’s not a term I am real happy with, because it only presents half the picture, i.e., that history might be sensitive to small disturbances. The other half is that if the Ring of Fire occurred, there would be millions of small disturbances, many of which would cancel each other out.
Hence, if what you are describing is noticeably at odds with what happened in our timeline, there has to be some reasonably plausible and apparent explanation for why that deviation could have occurred. (As opposed to saying it is because a swallowtail flew out of the Ring of Fire.) Many of the deviations recorded in canon already are because of direct interaction between the downtimers and the uptimers (or their possessions). As we move away from the date of the Ring of Fire, the repercussions become indirect. Charles I orders the arrest of Cromwell because of what William Harvey read in the library copy of Trevelyan’s History of England.
In my story “Grand Tour”, I had Thomas Hobbes take young William Cavendish on his Grand Tour earlier than he did in real life, the excuse being that his patron wanted Hobbes to check out the Grantville Library references to the Cavendish family.
On, the other hand, while it would have been very dramatic to have Mount Vesuvius erupt just when Hobbes and Cavendish visited, I couldn’t do that, because there was no such eruption in 1633 in our timeline, and there was no reason to expect that the arrival of the uptimers, or even of the Assiti Shard itself, would have caused a tectonic disturbance a few years later in faraway Italy.
Even for human actions, which could plausibly change as a result of the Ring of Fire, you have to make the timing reasonable. The effects of the RoF propagate outward at a speed which, for most purposes, is the speed at which down-timers travel. So you can’t have something non-historical happen in Japan the day after the Ring of Fire, because it would take months for a sailing ship to reach Edo with news of Grantville. In “Grand Tour,” Hobbes’ departure was months after William Harvey returned from Grantville, so it was plausible for the Cavendishes to know of Grantville and its special resources.
When I deliberately depart from history, I like to work into my story some kind of brief, oblique reference to it, so that the historically knowledgeable reader will realize that the departure is deliberate and not a flub on my part. But there is no requirement that you do this — just be ready to explain your reasoning if challenged.
Also remember that changes which might, initially, have been possible, may have become prohibited by the development of canon. For example, it was theoretically possible that some early Italian visitor to Grantville could have brought back a warning of the imminent Dec. 16-18, 1631 eruption of Vesuvius. But in “Grand Tour,” the narrator says about their 1633 visit to Naples, “only a little more than a year before, Vesuvius erupted with great force, killing over three thousand people.”
The third possible Big Picture problem is giving abilities or resources to the uptimers which they are unlikely to have (or which it would spoil the story to let them have). Indeed, the Grid was created to make it more difficult for authors to create (and bore readers with) superheroes. (Read Eric’s essay, “The Many Halves of Grantville.” on www.1632.org.) As Eric explained in the Epilogue, 1632 is about what can be accomplished by ordinary people. As for uptime material resources (books, machines, etc.), the town of Mannington, West Virginia is the model for what can reasonably be expected to be available to the uptimers (or visitors).
It is equally undesirable to over (or under) estimate what the downtimers are capable of, both in terms of duplicating uptime technology, and accepting social change.
The “Resources Checklist” summarizes the points you may want to think about before postulating a radical economic or technical change. Bear in mind that for many “hot” ideas, others have thought about them before you. Search the WebBoard and the Archive, and review the FAQs. And look, of course, at past issues of the Grantville Gazette. Every issue has several articles dealing with the question of what can plausibly happen when. And to make life even easier for authors, all of the articles from issues 1-10 have been collected into an electronic Fact Book for easy reference.
The People Story
Now let’s look a little more closely at the People Story. Your characters need to interact (with each other, not just with machinery). We want to see Romance. Hatred. Rivalry. Cooperation.
It is desirable (but not absolutely necessary) that at least one of the characters change in some way in the course of the story. This is called a “character arc” in the trade. In a “coming of age” story, you are looking at how a youth becomes an adult. The change can be for the better, or for the worse (or first one and then the other). In a tragedy, someone falls. In the best tragedies, the protagonist is one with some admirable traits, but a fatal flaw. Like Othello. Or Faust.
The change can be internal or external, or both. The usual “rags to riches” story of a century ago tended to focus on external changes (wealth and social status). But you can have an external change for the better, and an internal change for the worse (a “corruption by success” story). This isn’t a new concept; consider The Picture of Dorian Grey. Ideally, the character change is related somehow to the Big Picture, and more specifically to some scientific or social change which is directly, or indirectly, the result of the Ring of Fire.
Don’t make life easy for your characters. The classic story structure is three acts: setup, complication, and resolution. Sometimes described, more colorfully, as “chase your protagonist up a tree, throw rocks at him, let him come down.”
Keep your characters believable. If your character is a superhero, it is tough to put plausible obstacles in his or her path. Worse, your readers are going to have trouble empathizing. You want the readers to worry about your protagonist.
Good people have flaws. Bad people have redeeming qualities. Richelieu likes cats, after all.
Stories in which the characters are making the change happen (e.g., re-inventing vulcanization) are more difficult to handle well. I say “difficult”, because they tempt the author to focus on the Big Picture. With the people acting just as Talking Heads to reveal the New Technology.
This tends to lead, in turn, to the sin of “info dumping,” which is telling us more than we need (or want) to know about the background. Worse, doing it in such a way as to break the dramatic flow.
What the writer needs to do is stay on the “Edges of the Idea.” As the Turkey City Lexicon puts it, “the mechanics of an interstellar drive (the center of the idea) is not important: all that matters is the impact on your characters: they can get to other planets in a few months, and, oh yeah, it gives them hallucinations about past lives. Or, more radically: the physics of TV transmission is the center of an idea; on the edges of it we find people turning into couch potatoes because they no longer have to leave home for entertainment.”
Let’s look at a few examples of these principles in action. I am deliberately picking stories which fit the model clearly. I have picked four of the stories in gazette 9, all written by authors who have been published more than once.
Warning. The links are often spoilers, so if you haven’t read “Mail Stop,” “Waves of Change,” “Trip to Paris” or “Tool or Die” yet, you might want to do that before you read further. And re-read those stories after you finish this essay.
Virginia DeMarce, “Mail Stop”
- Big Picture
- The Imperial Post; duplicating technology.
- People Story
- The romances of Jeffie and Gertrud, and Riffa and Davi, David’s contentions with his family over his career aspirations; Martin Wackernagel encourages David; Rabbi Menahem gets to act as peacemaker.
- A scandalous pamphlet, made with the new duplicating technology, gives a boost to the Jeffie/Gertrud relationship; Martin plays detective and with the aid of several other characters, tracks down the perpetrators.
Paula Goodlett and Gorg Huff, “Waves of Change”
- Big Picture
- crystal radio sets and their impact on society.
- People Story
- Marie’s rivalry with Johan, Marie’s prospects.
- Marie and Johan compete to build a crystal radio; Marie’s success results in an economic advantage to her village and ultimately results in an invitation to join the electronics guild (thus improving her status).
Kim Mackey, “Trip to Paris”
- Big Picture
- Finding chromite to make stainless steel.
- People Story
- The Josh-Colette-Regina-Catherine relationships, seeing the “benevolent” side of Richelieu.
- Regina’s friendship with Catherine leads to a fortunate leak of information about the medical significance of the chromite project to Richelieu and his niece.
Karen Bergstralh, “Tool or Die”
- Big Picture
- Hazards of industrialization, especially when the new 163x machines are cruder than their late twentieth century counterparts.
- People Story
- The relationships of Martin Schmidt with Herman Glauber and Jakob Betche.
- a steam-driven drop forge injures Jakob, and Martin and Herman must cope with the crisis and its aftermath.
There may be some gazette stories which don’t fit this three element model. That wouldn’t surprise me; after all, there are over 170 stories set in the 1632 Universe. But if you’re new to writing fiction for the gazette, the model is worth thinking about.
Authors have different approaches to developing stories. But here are a few suggestions. First, you can start with a character. This could be a historical downtimer, a created downtimer, or an uptimer. A created downtimer gives you the most freedom of action; the others give you a scaffold on which to build. Whatever you choose, you need to understand your character’s personality, skills, situation in life, and aspirations. Look at the character’s relationships (other family members, co-workers, fellow church members, patrons, wards, etc.) and think how they might evolve as a result of the RoF.
It is worth noting that the Grid does more than fix the uptimers’ status as of the RoF. If an uptimer is mentioned in a canon story, he or she is promoted to the rank of “canonized character”, and the Grid will identify the story in question. So the Grid is an index which helps you find the post-RoF history of your character of choice. (It also tells you if another author already has a claim on the character.)
Secondly, you can start with an incident which has already appeared in canon. The siege of Amsterdam, for example. The siege had, as they say, a “caste of thousands,” but Eric only looked at the role of a few people. You can focus on someone else. The incident doesn’t have to be a military one. It could be the opening of a school or church.
Or it can be an incident which hasn’t happened yet, but which should happen. A very common choice among authors is, of course, the re-invention of some uptime technology. But while that may be your motivation for writing the story, you have to force yourself to put the technological change into the background, and find something more personal to put into the foreground.
Or perhaps where you begin is with a plot idea which has nothing per se to do with the Ring of Fire. You start out, for example, thinking “I want to write a ghost story.” Or, “I want to write a mystery.” Well, now you have to develop characters to fit, and establish more of a connection between the story and the 1632 Universe.
Don’t be surprised if, once you start writing, your characters start doing things you didn’t plan. David Carrico likes to say, “…it seems that once again my outline has not survived contact with my characters.”
Start writing, and good luck.
Author’s Manual, http://1632.org/authors_manual/ (start here, includes style sheet, manuscript guidelines, sample manuscript, submission guidelines, posting to 1632Slush, Eric Flint’s Words of Wisdom, The Many Halves, and Suggestions from the Board, and this fine essay that you are reading right this moment.)
1632 Story Search Engine, http://www.crucis.net/1632search/ (search here to see find the past appearances of characters or gadgets you’re writing about. Warning: it probably doesn’t include the last few Gazette issues.)
Maps, http://1632.org/1632tech/maps/ (has a link to the additional maps on Mike Bartholemy’s site. Warning: the maps are an interpretation of canon and are not canon per se. There are known inconsistencies between the superimposed Mannington/Thuringia map and canon. Remember, Grantville is based on Mannington, but it isn’t Mannington)
1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, http://1911encyclopedia.org/ or http://encyclopedia.jrank.org/ (two copies exist in Grantville. Also, one copy of the 9th edition, an unknown number of copies of “modern” editions, and several other encyclopedias, notably Encyclopedia Americana, World Book Encyclopedia, and Collier’s Encyclopedia)
MARion Libraries Online, http://marlo.fairmontstate.edu/ (electronic card catalogue for Marion County WV libraries. You can limit searches to Mannington Public Library, North Marion High School, Mannington Middle School, or Blackshere Elementary Schoolbut warning, the listings are incomplete. Still, I was pleased to discover recently that the high school had a copy of the 1958 Van Nostrand’s Scientific Encyclopedia).
Mannington Middle School Library Booklist, http://1632.org/1632tech/middleschoollibrary/ (sci-tech holdings of the Mannington Middle School Library, recreated from photos. Warning—I didn’t get to shoot the reference section).
http://1632.org/1632tech/faqs/ (1632.org’s FAQ collection)
Biographical Note: Iver is the author of the following gazette stories: “Federico and Ginger” (Gazette 6), “Painter’s Gambit” (8), “At the Cliff’s Edge” (9), “Under the Tuscan Son” (9), “Grand Tour” (10), “Stretching Out, Part 1: Second Starts” (11) and “The Chase” (RoF2 anthology).