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Alternate History (or “alternative history” for the grammatically strict) is a burgeoning genre. It is by no means anything new—people have been asking “what if things had gone a little differently?” since the days of Job wondering why he had been cursed. Two thousand years ago, the Roman scholar Livy discussed the ancient Alexander the Great, pondering what might have been if the great conqueror had marched west against the Roman Republic instead of storming the Persian Empire. In accordance with Roman pride, Livy of course suggested that they would defeated him.
Whether it’s called alternate history, alternative history, or the scholarly studies of counterfactual history, all of it begins with a “what if?” The most common what ifs stem from big events, such as what if the South had won the American Civil War or what if Nazi Germany had won World War II? A lot of alternate history immediately jumps into the fallout from such a change, not worrying about the details. Depending on the story, the details of how exactly the change occurred might not be as important as describing the changed world where, say, the western trenches of World War I stretch from the Appalachians to the Rockies or struggles against censorship in an America patrolled by the SS.
When crafting an alternate history, however, it is important to determine the “POD” that acts as the change to the timeline. POD stands for “Point of Divergence” or “Point of Departure,” depending on taste. I personally enjoy “departure” as it illustrates the hypothetical journey that you are about to take as you map a new timeline.
Like a butterfly being killed in the age of the dinosaurs or a drop of water trickling down the hand of a paleobotanist, when one little thing changes, the whole course of events change. Knowing how that first change happens is key to determining what the world will become, so do your research all about the people, places, and events circling around what you plan to change.
With the classic “what if the South won the Civil War?” example, there are numerous different takes on what exactly caused the South to win. One of the most popular is Confederate General Robert E. Lee winning the Battle of Gettysburg. Some writers and alternate historians get even more detailed, talking about the artillery barrage just before Pickett’s Charge or Union General Meade’s individual reaction. Once the change happens, the writer can follow through with its impact on 1863: Meade retreats, Lee seizes the railhead at Harrisburg to cut Washington, D.C., off from the rest of the country, and the draft riots in New York City intensify (these happened the week after Gettysburg, which shows that not all Northerners were eager to keep the war going). The anti-war sentiment spreads until the North demands an end to the war.
In my latest alternate history Hellfire (releasing June 8 from Tirgearr Publishing), there are arguably two PODs. The background steampunk world begins when Isaac Newton discovers a crystalline catalyst that makes fires burn hotter than they should for the fuel present. Newton, called “last of the magicians” by John Maynard Keynes, wrote more than a million words about chemistry, and rumors say that a lot more of his work was burned in an accidental fire. Circa 1700 during Newton’s lifetime, such a discovery might be little more than a parlor trick or a curiosity, like much of Robert Boyle’s work with gasses. As the industrial revolution begins, though, “free” heat from a fire is world-changing.
With ultra-efficient fires thanks to the catalyst, steam engines become much more powerful with less coal or wood needed to boil water. Factories can churn out more goods more cheaply. Further, without needing to haul fuel around, transportation booms as locomotives and steamboats conquer distance with ease. A powerful furnace not needing so much fuel could heat up ambient air to fill a balloon, giving rise to airships in the sky. Since the catalyst is such a powerful technology, it of course is a carefully guarded industrial secret, manufactured in one location by a cult-like workforce so dedicated that many people whisper some of them never leave the factory.
There are plenty more superstitions about the catalyst. It gives the fire it burns in a foul odor, reeking of rot and sulfur. Many people won’t even have it in the house. Some say that amid the roar of the flames, they can hear voices that whisper evil ideas. Those who spend a good deal of time near fires using catalyst go mad, often violently. Over the course of generations, this “Stoker’s Madness” is accepted as a part of life, a trade for having trains, factories, and airships. New mental institutions are put up near industrial centers.
Following the Law of Conservation of Energy, the extra heat has to come from somewhere. People say the catalyst acts as a wormhole, opening gates into hell itself, leaching the heat of the Lake of Fire while it lets slip the words of the damned.
With all this as background for the setting, the more obvious POD in Hellfire is the state of Gloriana. In 1806, Aaron Burr, of the famous Hamilton-Burr Duel, bought a huge parcel of land known as the Bastrop Tract in what is today northern Louisiana. In our own timeline, he was arrested for treason with suspicion of conspiracy toward sparking a war with Spain, and the colony fell apart.
For Hellfire, however, Burr successfully defended himself before Congress with such vigor that he not only won attention for his colony but embarrassed Thomas Jefferson and his supporters for legal shenanigans, causing James Madison to lose the 1808 election. There is then no war of 1812, and instead American-British relations improve as Burr spends a great deal of money importing Newton’s Catalyst to establish a city of industry at Lake Providence on the western banks of the Mississippi. The settlement grows into a territory and finally Gloriana, a powerhouse in the western South. Yet progress comes at a cost: people work endless hours pursuing wealth, and stagnant putrid clouds from the many catalyst-driven fires linger over the city.
Hellfire opens in 1856 with Newton’s Catalyst practically commonplace around Gloriana. Then something more than whispers begins to break through, as seen in this excerpt from chapter 1:
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Even with the gushing hot wind from the furnace, Nate shivered. He lifted his boot from the pedal and let the doors swing shut again.
“Everything all right?” Jones called.
Nate shook his head slowly. “No. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not right. There’s something in the fire.”
“Can you dump it with the ashpan?”
Nate kept shaking his head. “I don’t think so.”
A jarring bang rang from the firebox doors. Nate jumped back and held up his shovel like a weapon.
The doors rattled again, and then the one on the right shifted open just a crack. A fresh sound of wailing poured into the cab. Something not quite black and not quite gray slithered out like a headless snake.
“What is that?” Jones screamed.
Nate swung at it with the shovel, whacking it with the dull side. A roar like the wind out of a cave came from the firebox.
Jones screamed louder, “What was that?”
The tendril grew longer and pushed back the firebox door. Steadily, fighting the weight of the heavy door, the thing climbed out of the firebox. The tendril was like a tail reaching from a shoulder. Its five other legs were segmented like a spider’s, but its body was fat and grotesque like nothing Nate had ever seen. It had eyes, shining, black eyes that blinked all over its bulbous body.
It cleared the door and fell to the metal plate floor of the cab. Sounds came off it: gurgling, whining, and guttural spitting. Nate stood frozen, watching the horror as it squirmed.
Jones jumped forward and stomped it with his boot.
The thing squealed and wrapped its legs around Jones’s boot, somehow bending them backward by twisting its own knees out of socket. Jones gave a horrified shriek. He stomped again and again, but the thing didn’t seem to get hurt.
Nate shot forward with his shovel. “Hold still!”
Jones froze with his leg in midair. The thing held tight around his boot.
Nate whacked it with his shovel again. It gave another unholy rumbling scream. Several of its legs came loose and wagged in the air.
Nate lifted his shovel and stabbed downward with the blade, running it just underneath Jones’s sole. It caught the thing on its belly or back, Nate didn’t know if he could call it either of those, and the force was enough to shove it off.
The thing fell to the floor again and writhed.
“Throw it back in!” Jones shouted. He had pushed himself against the side of the cab as far as he could.
Nate whacked it again with his shovel and then scooped it up. Its legs wriggled, but they didn’t seem able to grab hold of the blade. He stomped on the pedal to open the firebox.
The heat and wailing of the flames leaped out at him. Nate fought past and shoved the thing back inside. He stomped the release and sealed the doors again with a clang.
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Hellfire is available on Kindle US, Kindle UK, Smashwords, Apple, Kobo, and Nook. Check out more alternate timelines from Jeff at his blog, This Day in Alternate History.