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Mind Meld Makeup: Jacey Bedford on Alternate History


Due to Mind Meld Coordinator Andrea’s oversight, author Jacey Bedford’s response was inadvertently left off of Wednesday’s Mind Meld post.  In an attempt to make up for this, Jacey gets her very own post to answer the following question:

Q: What makes for good alternate history? If you are a writer of alternate history, what is your research and writing process like? If you are a reader of alternate history, what have been some of your favorite alternate history titles?

Jacey Bedford

Jacey Bedford is a British writer, published by DAW in the USA. Empire of Dust, a Psi-Tech novel, and Crossways, its sequel, are out now and Winterwood, a historical fantasy, out in February 2016. Winterwood is the first in the new Rowankind series and will be followed by Silverwolf in late 2016 or early 2017. There’s also a third Psi-Tech book, Nimbus, in the pipeline. Her short stories have been published on both sides of the Atlantic in anthologies and magazines, and some have been translated into an odd assortment of languages including Estonian, Galician and Polish. She’s a great advocate of critique groups and is the secretary of the Milford SF Writers’ Conference, an intensive peer-to-peer week of critique and discussion held every September in North Wales. ( Catch up with Jacey at her website, on twitter, or on facebook.

Good alternate history is a mixture of concept, story (plot and character) and a believable historical background – not necessarily in that order.

Let’s take concept first – whether it’s an America in the 1960s under German and Japanese rule, or it’s a Britain where Richard III wasn’t killed at the Battle of Bosworth and went on to rule wisely for the next forty years – there has to be a tipping point between history as we think it happened, and the alternate history spinning out before us. On top of this layer historical accuracy, or at the very least verisimilitude. The jumping off point for the story has to appear to be as accurate as possible. Start from the real, introduce one major change, and from there try to make history follow logical steps. Into the concept and solid background you can then drop compelling characters, a big dollop of plot, and take it from there.

My new novel, Winterwood, is a historical fantasy, with an alternate history thread. Something happened at the time of the Spanish Armada which, over 200 years later, is about to have huge repercussions. The timeline has hardly been altered, thus far. It’s 1800. Mad King George is on the throne and Napoleon is causing trouble in Europe, while at home there’s an unpaid army of not-quite-human rowankind, biddable servants, loyal workers, underpinning the economy. Where did they come from? Why does everyone take them for granted? And because this is a fantasy as well as an alternate history there’s magic as well.

I did an enormous amount of background reading and museum-hopping to try and make the historical background believable, but this isn’t Regency romance territory. My heroine is no society miss seeking a gentleman who must be in want of a wife. She’s a cross-dressing captain of a British privateer, sailing the high seas, accompanied by a crew of barely reformed pirates and the jealous ghost of her dead husband. When drawn to her estranged mother’s deathbed, she inherits a half brother she didn’t know about and a task she doesn’t want. Completing that task means she’ll have to uncover family history which will lead her right back to that point where history as we know it diverges from history as Ross knows it.

It’s an adventure story with magic and an element of romance. The story and characters always come first for me when I’m writing, but there was a lot of minutiae to research which required studies of contemporary Plymouth and London street maps, old London Bridge, and even what Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens might look like out of season. I’m currently writing Silverwolf, the sequel to Winterwood, and there are still unanswered questions, such as who made the red coats worn by the British Army in 1800? (This was half a century before the army’s own clothing factory in Pimlico.) I can find out who was responsible for ordering them, and why they were red, and even how much they cost and what rake-off the regimental colonels pocketed, but before the advent of the sewing machine and the factory system, whose nimble fingers actually stitched the seams together and under what conditions? Are we talking about sweatshops, or maybe even a small army of out-workers, or a mixture of the two? Who were the middle-men involved? It’s all fascinating stuff.

I read more fantasy than straight alternate history. The first alt-history I encountered was probably Daphne Du Maurier’s Rule Britannia, about Britain invaded by the USA. It’s as much political satire as alt.history, but I loved it. I also like fantasy books that use historical themes. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion is set in a secondary world that is an analogue of Spain before Ferdinand and Isabella united Aragon and Castille. In her world Catholicism has been replaced by the Five Gods who act on, and through, humans. If I was running from a burning building and could only grab one book on my way out, it would be that one.

About Andrea Johnson (99 Articles)
Andrea Johnson also blogs over at where she reviews science fiction and fantasy novels and talks about other nerdy stuff. She's also an interviewer at Apex Magazine. Her apartment looks like a library exploded, and that is how it should be.
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