How to build a world

alternative worlds illastration

In the beginning, the author created…

When I first began writing historical fantasy, I was inspired by times and places rooted in our own familiar world – but leavened with a dash of the unreal. A world that might have been.

I wrote about locations which might have been identifiable, with greater or lesser ease, as something that had existed in our own history and geography, as we know them – except that I gave such places different names of my own devising, and if I used things that were supposed to have happened in the “true” history of our world I sometimes fudged the precise timing, or the order of events, so that I could create a more consistent story rooted in my own world.

I wrote the book that became “The Secrets of Jin-shei” at white heat, 200,000 words in less than three months. It was set in a China that never was, a mythical land inspired by Imperial China which I named “Syai”.

I’ve been explaining ever since that no, I did NOT set out to write a historical novel, that Syai was a place INSPIRED by China, not China itself.

After I had written “the end” at the conclusion of Jin-shei, the history of Syai and the mythical world in which it existed didn’t stop there. It continued, and it blossomed naturally into the events I wrote about in “Embers of Heaven”, a follow-up and not a sequel to the original Jin-shei book.

It was becoming clear that this was a developing and ongoing story in a developing and ongoing world which had the same kind of timeline as our own did.

While Jin-shei took place in Syai, my world inspired by Imperial China, I moved the the country’s history forward four hundred years for Embers in a time very similar to China’s Cultural Revolution.

A great deal of research was done for both historical periods in our own – our “Real” – world, and my alternate history is built on very solid foundations. In Embers this was particularly important as I was dealing with issues and events which were much more historically recent, and within reach of, if not a living memory for most people, then certainly the memory of a descendant of somebody who had lived through that time. It would have been disrespectful to this kind of recent history and its survivors not to ensure that all necessary research and education had been undertaken, and properly applied to my alternate world that is so very like the China that never was.

This was a real world, to me. It just wasn’t OUR world. It was an alternate universe, with its own rules and laws and history, existing beside and in spite of our own.

Alternate History for a World That Might Have Been

Map where three books were set in Alma's worldMy recent novel “Empress” was set in my alt-historical fantasy of ancient Byzantium, a bit further back in time and in a different part of the same alternate world. Things became looser in terms of what I could do with the material I was working with, in order to make my story flow more smoothly,

I reversed the order in which two documented historical events took place in “real” time and place – but that decision made absolute sense in the context of the world I was creating in my story, a world which was deeply rooted in and inspired by a certain era in the Byzantine empire but which was also a story seen through my own reinvented prism.

I made the studied decision, for example, not to use any known form of a religious faith in this context. That meant working out a complex hierarchy of Heaven and its denizens for the Syai books, with an intricately detailed Great Temple in which these were worshipped (in a manner which was – again – inspired by some real things but which was also organically reinvented for the time and place I was creating.

In “Empress”, I created a system of belief that was similar to, but deliberately not directly using the religions we know as Judaism or Christianity. That meant, once again, reexamining what we think we know as “historical” events or decisions in the light of these newly re-imagined systems of belief.

Just when I became aware that I was literally writing the stories which would build that alternative history into a complete and cohesive whole, setting books in times and places which would somehow fit on the same alternative geo-historical timeline, I’m not entirely sure – but by the time I came to write “Empress”, it was already gelling into that idea. A world explorer in “Empress” talked quite naturally about taking the trade road to a place called Syai. My world was already real enough for that.

More such books are coming. All of them will become integrated into a lush alternative world with its own past, its own current events, its own future. I am literally rewriting the (fantastical) history of our world, novel by novel, building it brick by brick, character by character, word by word.

The Alma Alexander Historical Fantasy Bundle

The first three strands of this net are the three currently published historical fantasies – “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, “Embers of Heaven”, and “Empress” – and I am now offering them a Book Bundle.

The bundle is currently only in ebook format. In the meantime, print copies of each book are available now on Amazon and elsewhere and I will offer them as a bundled package later.

Purchasing a three-eBook bundle of these historical fantasies as a package also subscribes you to a quarterly newsletter, and it puts your name on a list of people who will be notified first when the next historical fantasy volume appears. One is currently in progress, and at least one other planned – dealing with medieval Balkans, and the shifting empires and loyalties which roiled in that era, with protagonists which are crying out to have their stories told.

Buy eBook Bundle 1 for $10 via PayPal HERE

The “Blessed Book”

The Secrets of Jin-shei cover frony and back

Hard cover of U.S. HarperCollins edition

An ebook version of “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, a historical fantasy that I wrote in a white heat in 2002, was released this year and has sparked renewed interest in the story of a group of women set in a China-that-never-was.

White heat means exactly that. Its 200,000 words took me less than three months to write and what came out was was a clean first draft which required very little editing. This was a story that was ready to live, and to fly.

I’ve never managed to match that blazing speed with any of my other books.

It’s a sweeping epic set in a land I called Syai that is modeled on medieval China; it is the story of a group of women, the Jin-shei sisterhood, who form a uniquely powerful circle that transcends class and social custom. They are bound together by a declaration of loyalty that transcends all other vows, even those with the gods, and by their own secret language passed from mother to daughter, and by the knowledge that some of them will have to pay the ultimate sacrifice to enable others to fulfill their destiny.

It has been published in 13 languages in more than a score of countries. In the United States it was put out by HarperCollins with the help of a wildly enthusiastic editor who loved the story fiercely… but the HC division which produced this book promptly went away as an entity. The book, after an initial publicity push, was pretty much left to fend for itself after the editor who had spoken so eloquently for it was out of the picture.

And yet it did exceedingly well in foreign editions. In Spain, for example, it sold more than 30,000 hardcover copies and “Bestseller” was stamped on the cover, I call it the Blessed Book.

It’s still in print, at least in the USA, but sales had dropped dramatically… until an ebook version as issued and it has been selling steadily ever since.

I am astonished and delighted that it still gets constant and on-going attention on reading venues like Goodreads where it has received 1,480 ratings (averaging just under four stars) and 166 reviews.

It has scored a respectable number of reviews on Amazon but because of Amazon’s astounding marketing power, I’d love to see the number of reviews climb there. (Hint, if anyone reading this blog has read Jin-shei and would like to add an Amazon review, I’d love to know what you think of it.)

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News about Children of a Different Sky

Carl Slaughter interviewed me on my themed fantasy anthology filled with  tales of migrants and refugees, with profits going straight to charities working with refugees and migrant..

CARL SLAUGHTER:  What prompted you to do an anthology with this theme?

ALMA ALEXANDER:  There are seven words that underlie the status of any refugee in the world, ever: “There but for the grace of God…”

It is not a new issue — people who run from disaster in the hope of finding a better future have always been with us. But what IS new is that now it is all being televised on 24-hour 7-days-a-week news channels, always available online on news websites.

We can no longer hide from the misery of these displaced souls because we see them running now — we see them on the crowded boats on open seas, we see them clawing to shore and drowning on the doorstep of salvation, we see them languish in camps where conditions are enough to horrify any sane mind, we see them crowding against barbed wire and against walls and being denied harbor because they are hated and feared and basically unwanted by the populace already on the ground in the places where the migrants wish to go.  People who cannot see that the refugees in this restless and lost crowd might one day, some day, just as easily be themselves.

 

I was eager to do what I could to help and the only way open to do that for someone like myself is to do that thing that I do – Tell Stories. And since there is always strength in numbers and I knew many stellar writers whom I knew I could ask to help this endeavor and who, if they were on board, would make a magnificent contribution.

That is how Children of a Different Sky came to be.

CS:  What was the story selection process?

AA: The theme of the anthology was the migrant/immigrant/refugee experience, and the story criteria were simple enough:

“Make me think; make me feel.”

And oh boy, did the stories in this book deliver on those terms. As an editor, this is a collection of which I am very proud. As a reader…this is one of the most luminous collection of stories I have ever seen in one place. This anthology began as a project with an idea – a charity anthology with proceeds of sales to go to organizations helping migrants and refugees on the ground. During the process of its incarnation, it grew into a living thing with breath and heartbeat.  And every story and poem in this book is one essential component of this transformation.

Read the whole interview HERE:

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Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

TIME MACHINE REACHES FUTURE!!! … nobody there …
– Harry Harrison

More from Wired HERE

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Quote of the day

Memory is not a storage place but a story we tell ourselves in retrospect. As such, it is made of storytelling material: embroidery and forgery, perplexity and urgency, revelation and darkness.”  — Psychologist Noam Shpancer

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