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So, You Want to Write a Timeline

You've seen others post timelines to soc.history.what-if. You've read many of these with interest. You may have thought, "I could do that too." Or just wished that you could.

Until now, something has held you back. You may have wondered how to choose the right approach or the right topic. You may have wondered how to get started, how to keep going or how to present your efforts. You may have other questions or concerns.

If so, this guide is for you. It presents common questions, in the order they might arise to an author of alternative history. And it gives answers to each. So read, that you may write:

1. Why do you want to write?

Begin your journey with self-knowledge, start with your intent in mind. Is there something you are burning to write? Are you looking for the acclamation of the newsgroup? Do you want to practice and improve your writing skills? Do you just want to contribute your share to the newsgroup?

If you are burning to write, then writing is its own reward. If you are looking for acclamation, there may be disappointment - often well written timelines do not get comments from many readers. There are tricks you can employ to increase the response rate, if this matters to you - see How do I present my effort? below.

If you want to practice and improve your writing skills, s.h.w-i is one place to do it. Read the rest of this guide first.
Nich Hills reminisces...

When I first posted to s.h.w-i I was a newbie's newbie. Suckered right into the political discussions that were rife back then, often initiated and fanned by trolls.

I wanted the space to present my points of view on what could have happened differently in 20th century history and how historical personages would have reacted. I also wanted to show my thesis that people are pretty much the same the world over, that evil isn't confined to one hemisphere but rather that it is social structures such as the rule of law that act as constraints on the more aberrant behaviour of politicians. And so Bodyline in New Zealand and General Secretary Reagan were born. Bodyline treats almost every featured politician with a healthy disrespect. General Secretary Reagan lets Reagan be Reagan but in a different milieu. Each is meant to simultaneously amuse and challenge the reader. And educate, too; each has been researched and so are not merely fantastical satires.

2. How do I choose the right topic?

A. What era should I pick?

Write what you know as a starting point. For subsequent works, if you crave variety you can research a new period. But be aware, even with knowledge of a period you'll still need to research to flesh out your timeline and answer questions that arise in your mind as you write. As a bonus, as you research, your growing command of the period will give you greater confidence in writing about it, and you'll uncover interesting tit-bits you'll want to put in your work.

Be aware of the dangers of writing about the very recent past, periods that are yet to become 'history', where there are no scholarly tomes discussing the events just gone by.
Doug Muir counsels...

I'm reluctant to overspecificize. There's a 'reasonable observer' / 'know it when you see it' component here. I have no problem with that.

And, you know, there are a lot of interesting post-1980 WIs. I've done a couple myself - Prishtina Airfield, the various Yugoslav War WIs and the Ceausescu stuff come to mind. Other posters have done some very fine timelines set in the last 20 years: A Missile for Mobutu, for instance.

Way back in 2003, Noel Maurer proposed a flexible standard:

  • (a) Enough time must have passed that we have sufficient information to evaluate alternatives.
  • (b) ETMHP to make the future alternatives interesting.
  • (c) ETMHP for political passions to have cooled.

I rather like this one, myself. I note that (c) is wildly variable depending on context. For some people, the Vietnam War is still, etc. etc. Other hand, non-US/Anglosphere PODs seem to have a much shorter statute of limitations. If I were to post a bunch of Eastern European WIs from the immediate post-Communist period, 1989-1994, would there really be strong objections?

B. What particular area of history should I concentrate on?

Ask yourself whether you want to focus on military, social, economic, cultural or political history. As a beginner you'll want to focus on your area of strength. As you grow in experience or confidence you might want to cover two or more areas. Carlos Yu's East Meets West is a good example of a multi-area timeline.

C. What provides the most inspiration?

Interest and desire. If it's an area you're interested in, you'll want to explore it. Desire is slightly different - it's when you wish something was different. You might wish that the Byzantine Empire had lasted longer, that slavery had ended sooner is Brazil or that the White Australia policy had never existed. With such a bee in your bonnet you'll quickly dream up points of divergence that might change the historical outcomes.
Jussi Jalonen muses...

The process which led to "Testvér a testvérért," my November 2004 addition to Johnny Pez's Drowned Baby Timeline (on the Hungarian volunteers in the Finnish-Soviet war) began five months earlier. Three things occurred simultaneously, independent of each other (although there was one defining factor in the background - namely, the weather in the early summer, which was rainy and cold, and made me want to spend a fair amount of my time indoors).

First, I was simply looking for something to read in the city library, and noticed Ruprecht Antal's new book on the Hungarian volunteers in the Winter War; second, MTV3 showed István Szábo's old motion picture "Sunshine"; and third, the memorial festivities of the 50-years' anniversary of the battle of Tali-Ihantala dominated the news for a week or two. After a while, I found myself thinking of the age-old Finnish-Hungarian contacts and sense of kinship, the position of Jews in inter-war Hungary, and the Second World War. Soon, I was thinking of these factors in an allohistorical context, and realized that they would fit perfectly in the context of the DBTL. I contacted Johnny, discussed the matter with him, and then focused on writing the actual episode - which did take a surprisingly long time, especially since I always try to be true to the details.

The DBTL episodes which I posted in September 2003 have a rather similar background. The few longer timelines which I've done are a bit more prosaic. The Poltava-timeline was an attempt to write alternate history as a series of academic observations. Stella Polaris was based on identifying a casual point of divergence and afterwards gradually realizing the potential in it; the story simply developed during the process of writing it. Usually, the sense of inspiration was necessary for writing each episode, but there were a few parts which I had to finish simply through effort, relying solely on the Lutheran working ethics. The two parts (as well as the unfinished third and fourth parts) of Red Light, White Heat have their background in the city that I live in.

D. What scope should I have?

Scope covers several dimensions. Are you more interested in people or structures? In exploring particular events or longer periods of time? Your choice of scope will determine what your timeline examines and how long it runs.

Other scope issues might include:

  • starting point: Do I start with the PoD; set the scene before the PoD; or begin well after the PoD leaving the exact divergence as a puzzle to the reader?
  • endpoint: When do I stop my narrative? Do I just cover the immediate consequences of the PoD or try to explore longer trends
  • parallels: If I see similarities between one historical epoch and another can I draw these out in my narratives? How explicit do I want to be in pointing to these parallels without drawing too long a bow our insulting my readers' collective intelligence?

Syd Webb pontificates...

I'm a 'small scope' man myself. I like little PoDs and a focus on individual people - who may nevertheless make big changes to history. Because my little PoDs can lead to big changes I also like to end my timelines within about 30 years because after then the changes from OTL can become so large. Occasionally I make minor exceptions: in my Pelicanchurch timeline I cover about 20 years from 400 AD before jumping ahead to 2000 for a final coda.

Scope can very easily get away from you. In Enlightenment I wanted to explore a different 18th century. But because of a changed event I'd rippled away almost everyone born after 1715. Because I'd lost control of my scope a large amount of research on figures from the later 1700s was thrown out the window.

There are tricks you can use to constraint the scope. In Great Renaissance Ladies I wanted to look at four significant women from different parts of the Renaissance. But the changed history caused by each one would ripple away the career, or birth, of the later women. I decided to make a virtue of this and write a series of vignettes backwards, starting with the most modern woman. Each subsequent episode was written at an earlier time showing how the events of this episode nobbled the protagonist of the previous episode.

3. What is the right approach?

A. What are the three main styles of timeline writing?

There are three main approaches to writing a timeline:

  1. The 'pure' timeline. This is also known as the PowerPoint timeline: a series of bullet points that describe the events of a series of discrete intervals (either days, months or years). It is broad-scoped, and short on details; it does, however, provide a fairly full picture of the development of the world. The advantage of using a PowerPoint timeline is that it's very easy to write. The disadvantage is that it can become monotonous over extended lengths. You can put in as much or as little detail as you like, though a high level of detail is inevitably going to start shading into the second approach, history. Examples of PowerPoint timelines include M.S. Alderman's Engines of History, Kris Overstreet's Lone Star Republic and Andrew Reeves' Kingdom of Italy.
  2. The history text. Writing in the style of a history book. You can even pretend that you are writing an extract from a history book of the ATL. These can also often be used to augment type three, adding a more expansive view of limited events. The advantage of using the history text approach is that it flows more naturally than a timeline, and can include considerable detail. John Trungove's Shades of Grey for instance tells of the outbreak of World War I on a day-by-day, and even an hour-by-hour basis, much like Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August (which was the work that originally inspired Trungove). The disadvantage of the history text approach is that stylistic and grammatical lapses can make it less readable. David Johnson's Trolleyworld is a good example of the history text approach, as are parts of Kaisar Wilhelm III's Decades of Darkness and most of the components of the collective Submission timeline. The best-known example of the form is Robert Sobel's For Want of a Nail, a professionally published book-length ATL history.
  3. Narrative. Writing a short story or novel about characters in an ATL. For example, the Drowned Baby Timeline is a collection of dozens of short narrative pieces set in a timeline where Adolf Hitler was drowned at birth, and the collaborative For All Nails timeline is made up of narratives set in Sobel's For Want of a Nail timeline. And, of course, most published AH consists of short stories or novels set in ATLs.

There are existing, classic historical novels - such as those by Henryk Sienciewicz, Mika Waltari, Sir Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas - that may be used as inspiration when writing a narrative piece.

There can be narrative sub-styles: epic, humorous, dramatic and so on. When considering this, review the source material for your era--Epic poem, play, bible, whatever. They can give you a sense of period-pitch milieu and a borrowable cast of characters. Robin of Loxley and Juliet Capulet appeared in Faeelin's Prince of Peace, while Luke Schleusener's Long May He Reign hijacks Regency and Victorian literaria too numerous to name. The difficulty in using this style is noted by John Kenney: "It's fun when one has read the book. Can get confusing when one has not, although I enjoyed it despite my confusion" on Luke's inclusion of the cast of Vanity Fair in Part the Sixteenth.

So, if you use characters from literature from or about your era, be mindful that it may further encipher your work, and make it harder for people to digest for pleasure, and comment on with knowledge. Also, be aware that writing a narrative requires not only getting historical details correct, but also dealing with the techniques of narrative fiction: writing interesting and/or believable dialogue for your characters, paying attention to character point-of-view, and even giving thought to what language your characters are speaking (a conversation between Hitler and Stalin, for example, should take into account the fact that the two men had no languages in common, and would have relied on translators).

Other approaches are possible and have been used on s.h.w-i successfully. One example is the playscript used in parts of Arkadiusz Danilecki's Furrorum Hussitorum Filmscript or television transcript could also be used but would be difficult to maintain for an entire timeline.

B. How much should I rely on poetic licence?

As little as possible at first. You want your readers to maintain their suspension of disbelief. However, there will be moments when you may find it necessary to employ certain degree of artistic freedom. Mostly, this will happen when you're working on a historically controversial topic, or perhaps on an event of which only a limited amount of source material has survived. In a situation such as this, don't hesitate to use your poetic licence, as long as you do it in a believable and plausible fashion.

Syd Webb pontificates...

Poetic licence is there to be taken, if you know what you're doing.

My Thomas More series is ostensibly about a Tudor timeline where Martin Luther was burnt at the stake during the Diet of Worms. But it's also a James Bond satire, a reflect on moral issues facing us in the early 21st century and a piece written by an author who doesn't much like the character of James Bond or the concept of a 'licence to kill'.

So it can be read and enjoyed on one, or more, of its four levels. There is the injection of historical fact but the audience is encouraged to see beyond the straight AH level. The audience joins the conspiracy with the author and is content to read on, aware that the AH has been bent somewhat to fit the constraints of some of the other levels.

On His Majesty's Most Secret Service was my fourth major timeline on s.h.w-i. I couldn't have written it when I was first starting out, it would have been too ambitious.

4. How do I choose sources?

A. How much historical information is there available? What reference material should I use?

Information on the Web can be less reliable than printed works. As a general rule, you should seek corroboration for every 'fact' you find. That said, there are a great many excellent bibliographies and archives available in the web. Most of these collections are maintained on the websites of universities, libraries, museums, or other academic institutions. The historical research projects launched by various national governments or private institutions (such as the Nizkor project) also provide good sources for online information on history. The examples are too numerous to mention here, but in order to give a general impression of the nature and quality of the best online collections, some useful links are listed below:

  • The American Memory collection from the Library of the United States Congress provides a great overview on the history of the United States and North America in general.
  • The Avalon Project at Yale Law School, with the documents of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials.
  • The American Radicalism Collection from the Michigan State University Library sheds light on the flip side of the American political life.
  • Spartacus Educational deals with prominent socialists as well as figures from the First and Second World Wars.
  • Australian War Memorial provides articles, maps, photographs and even digitized images of war diaries, presenting the Australian wartime experiences all the way from the Boer War to Vietnam.
  • For people interested in the classical times, Pierre Mends-France University at Grenoble provides an excellent collection of the Laws of the Ancient Rome, from the Etruscan times to the Byzantine era.
  • and for those whose interest lies even further in the ancient times, be aware that there are even papyrus collections available in the Web!
  • When studying the Middle Ages, the Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies, as well as the irreplaceable Labyrinth at the Georgetown University, are always good places to start. Even the late J.R.R. Tolkien would have gladly endorsed these websites.
  • On matters relating to the history of the Christian Faith, the Catholic Encyclopedia provides a handy online reference. As always, the use of source criticism is recommended. The 1911 edition can be found here.
  • The Hanover College maintains an excellent internet archive of texts and documents from the times of European Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation and many other subjects. Currently, the collection is under a partial reconstruction, but should be completely available in the future.
  • Dedication to learning and gathering of information have always been a part of the Mormon faith, so it's no surprise that the Harold B. Lee Library at the Brigham Young University provides a handy, extensive collection of links on the primary sources of several European nations.
  • The Napoleon Series is an all-volunteer online project containing information on the Napoleonic Wars and the First French Empire. The quality of the articles on the website ranges from OK to excellent, but all are at least decent, and provide a reasonably good, quick overview on the subject.
  • And, as the obligatory odd one out, the Power from the Rapids-website from the University of Tampere deals with the history of that charming Finnish city (partly available in English).

Printed references are generally regarded as more reliable than run-of-the-mill websites but can be selective in drawing from primary sources. As a rough minimum you may want to read at least two works on your chosen period. Don't limit yourself. The more you read, the more you learn, and the better you will be able to measure the reliability and usefulness of the information that you receive.

Remember the paramount importance of source criticism, especially when familiarizing yourself with subjective material such as memoirs. Be aware that even primary archival material may often be collected or written by contemporary observers with their own special interests or only limited knowledge. In other words, don't take anything for granted, but don't be overtly sceptical, either. Once you get familiar with the period, you will become able to easily contextualize all information and gain your very own vision of the historical process. Assuming that you're either an amateur or professional historian, or a university student, you're already familiar with this approach.

B. What if there is only limited information on the subjects that I find interesting?

The only thing you really can do is explain to your readers that this is an area of history suffers from a lack of sources, and explain why.

But while a lack of data is a challenge, it's also an opportunity. You can fill in the empty spaces that sources don't cover in a logical way that fits your timeline, and you aren't constrained by the historical details. You also can increase the scope of your timeline, and instead of focusing on the life of, say, Milinda II, examine the wider events of his time and place.

In such situations, it's often better to focus on the grand picture and not on the minute details. But this doesn't mean that you should neglect the small picture. Just because we don't know the details of an era does not mean that it wasn't important.

We don't know, for instance, exactly what was happening in Bactria and Northwest after the fall of the Greek states; but there is surely some significance to the fact that this was the area where Mahayana Buddhism arose.

In short, use your best judgement. If it's plausible, and well thought out, people will support it.

C. What if most of the relevant material is written in a foreign language?

There are no easy answers, and a lot depends obviously on what exactly is your own first language. Although the study of history is an international field and a great deal of material is published in English, the history of certain regions is still often covered mainly by research made on native languages. One such example is the history of Eastern Europe, still under constant re-estimation by the domestic scholars in the aftermath of the Communist rule. What's more, when writing an alternate timeline focusing on the history of a specific country, one should not dismiss the local historiography simply because of the language barrier. Thus, linguistic issues are something that you may wish to consider already when determining the scope and the subject of your timeline.

As a general, encouraging comment, don't be daunted no one expects you to be a polyglot, and you don't have to learn a foreign language just for the sake of an alternate timeline. However, if you do have extraordinary linguistic talents, don't hesitate to use them when conducting your research and writing a timeline.

Also, remember that the newsgroup is an international community. If you need a quick translation for a short text written in some difficult language (such as, say, Polish, Finnish, Arabic, Japanese, Ojibwa or Maori), don't hesitate to ask for help from the group (more of this below).

D. Are there any online bibliographies?

Yes. The links listed above provide a good start, and the various university departments of history usually provide a selection of bibliographies and short lists of research literature on their websites, depending on the field that they specialize in.

E. Can I consult the newsgroup?

There are two answers to this question: 'yes' and 'no'. If you do approach the newsgroup be explicit that you are trawling for information, in effect asking the group to 'do your homework' for you. The downside of this is that you are alerting the group to what you are researching and in some way spoiling the surprise for them when you showcase now-familiar information in your work.

F. To what depth should I research?

The variety of the useful sources depends on the chosen subject of the timeline and on the depth that you are looking for. Relying simply on the available research literature and/or online sources is OK. You don't have to visit the nearby city or state archives but if, say, you are an enthusiastic genealogist or even a professional historian who regularly stops by at the archives anyway why not look for material from there as well? In this way, an alternate timeline can just as well be a spin-off from a real life profession or a hobby.

5. How do I get started? How do I keep going?

A. How do I start the writing?

You have already established why you want to write, you've picked a topic, determined your scope, chosen an approach and conducted your initial research. Now it's time to start writing.

Typically you'll either introduce your point of divergence or else give your readers some historical background of the times before introducing the PoD.

If you are writing a narrative style timeline you may instead introduce your point-of-view character. This need not necessarily be a literary psychological insight - s.h.w-i has a long history of introducing characters with, "X was not a happy man."

B. How can I present my point of divergence?

"The point of divergence" or "point of departure (PoD) has in practice a flexible definition. Some s.h.w-i posters maintain it is the decision made by an individual - or sometimes a natural event - that occurs differently from OTL that causes the ATL to diverge. Others take a less rigorous approach and use it to mean a visible and significant change from our history that might occur after the first change. An example of the first PoD is "What if Lee's lost orders were not found by the Union prior to the Battle of Antietam. An example of the second is "What if the South won the American Civil War?".

The second style can be easier to write and may take the action of your piece into 'interesting' territory sooner. But you are more likely be challenged by readers if you take the second approach, as many will want to see the underlying causality of your PoD.

C. How will I know what happens next?

Once you've described your PoD you'll want to show plausible consequences. Be aware of the historical actors - individuals as well as communities and classes - and their likely responses. Your actors will have interests which they will pursue. They are humans just as 21st century folk are but some of their thinking will be blinkered by modes of their time. Be aware of these.

Often the historical behaviours will work against the PoD. Even if King John dies early from a surfeit of peaches and cider the barons are just as likely to attempt to assert their power against his successor. The result might still be Magna Charta or something like it.

On the other hand there can be ripples and butterfly effects. A PoD and its consequences may result in further changes from OTL beyond the obvious ones. Historical events can be contingent on earlier events and emergent ripples from the PoD can remove these earlier events.

Syd Webb pontificates...

Contingency and emergence can even take the author by surprise.

When I wrote Thaxted it was without much of a story arc. I was trying to move Peggy Roberts and her family to the village of Thaxted, which I knew to be a hotbed of leftism in the 1930s, to see if I could have her grow up to be a left-wing extremist in the 1970s while retaining the essential Margaret Thatcher personality.

In the course of subsequent chapters she married, not Dennis, but a leading politician of the left. Being ambitious, when he was ruled ineligible to retain his parliamentary seat, Peggy seized it. Without hubby fighting for his seat a whole branch of the British political class remained ineligible to sit in the House of Commons. A consequence of this was that the compromise candidate Lord Hume did not become PM in 1963, the job falling to the more capable RA Butler. This lead to a Tory victory in the close 1964 election and the UK being enmeshed in the Vietnam War.

It was not my intention to write a Britain in Vietnam story and such an involvement does not seem, on the face of it, to be an immediate consequence of the Roberts family moving house in 1935. Nevertheless, I was happy to embrace the emergent circumstances that presented themselves and they certainly made Thaxted a longer, if not richer, story.

D. How do I avoid dead-ends and crossroads?

A dead-end might be the untimely death of your perspective character. If you're not ready to cut your piece short, consider writing a less plausible but still possible scene to retrieve the situation.

A crossroad can be a situation some way into your piece where you are faced with two or more equally plausible directions to take a timeline. How you keep going at such a point is a question of personal taste. Up until now you have taken the PoD and proceeded with logical consequences. Now you have a choice of plausible paths. You could choose to pick the most appealing to you. However, some authors are uncomfortable at this juncture, they see the cross-roads, rightly, as another turning point and the choice feels too much like a second PoD - generally frowned upon on s.h.w-i. Doug Muir faced this dilemma in his FDR Assassinated in 1933 timeline when he reached the assassination of Huey Long; he ultimately decided to split the difference, allowing Long to survive the assassination attempt, but forced by his injuries (and the resulting morphine addiction) to put his political career on hold.

If you're feeling ambitious, you can explore one path for as long as you like, then go back and explore alternate choices. The Los Alamos Crisis from Johnny Pez's Drowned Baby Timeline spawned a (sadly, short-lived) variant timeline called For All Drowned Babies which followed the course of a war between the USA and Europe that was avoided in the main timeline.

Anthony Mayer reflects...

For me the difficulty is almost inherent to the nature of writing a timeline. The way I treat a timeline, even one expressed as a story, is as an extrapolation from the PoD. Given a PoD, I get great pleasure in trying to infer a chain of events that plausibly derive directly or indirectly from that PoD. But after a while the major events in the story will depend upon arbitrary authorial choices that take place chronologically after the PoD, and in some senses independently from it. They become new PoDs, points of choice, diverging not from real history but from the fictional one.

I think being aware of this situation, and planning at least some sort of closure in advance is essential to a good timeline.

E. Can I use real historical parallels and precedents?

Why not? It's possible to draw parallels between actual historical eras. For example, the alliance structure at the start of the Peloponnesian War may remind you of the rival power blocs at the start of the Great War. Be aware that any pair of historical events can be distinguished as well as equated. Parallels can be overdone - try not to have too many leaders who are 'the most evil man since Hitler' who, if not stopped, "it will be Appeasement all over again".

Precedents can also be valuable. If people have acted in a particular way in the past they may do so again. Unless they've learnt from the experience.

Jussi Jalonen muses...

Parallels and precedents are something I happen to use very often. Usually I prefer to utilize some very, very unknown and obscure events from the same period and then apply them to the timeline mutatis mutandis; this way, people will not immediately recognize that I'm stealing from real history.

F. How do I keep my timeline plausible?

Generally you'll want to avoid your work 'jumping the shark' where your readers can no longer suspend their disbelief at your description of your alternative timeline. A timeline can become implausible if events to closely parallel another historical period - such as a carbon copy of Lord Nelson as an admiral in the Third World War. Or if a character acts in a way that would be alien to their OTL counterpart or in defiance of common sense or what they know.

By aware that many of your readers will find it implausible if you violate a law of physics by, say, introducing time travel.

Your readers are a good barometer of plausibility. Generally, if they find something unlikely, they'll say so. If you have a number of critics, especially people who've posted their own timelines, it can be worth while paying attention to what they say. If you think what you've done is plausible, say so and give reasons. Otherwise you way want to ret-con (use retrospective continuity, a comic book term) and re-write an episode that addresses your readers concerns.

G. Are there any ethical principles I should apply?

Yes. Be aware that many recent historical figures may be still alive, or that some of your readers may have known them. (The world is a very small place.) Keep your local libel laws in mind.

You will also want to be true to your characters. Try not to let your own beliefs and emotions detract from the way you present your characters. Where possible have their actions based on their documented behaviours from OTL, making allowances for the changed circumstances of the ATL.

Other ethical considerations are those that you follow in real-life or other e-mail communications. Give respect where due, do not betray confidences and in any dispute, try to see your antagonist's perspective.

Jussi Jalonen muses...

Ethical responsibilities include:

  • commitment to the truth and realism
  • obligation to base all claims on the critical study of existingsources and/or convincing and plausible extrapolation
  • responsibility to provide the people with means of understanding what was and what could have been.

Ethical responsibilities should not include an obligation to abstain from those issues which might somehow offend the sensitivities of the other people.

As long as the subject matter is history and the alternate possibilities which it offers, and as long as it is discussed in a balanced and serious fashion... well, it's fair game, no matter even if the topic happens to be genocide.

The ethics of alternative history should be no different from the actual ethics of historical science.

H. Is there any value to reader feedback?

Yes. Feedback can be encouragement to keep writing, the correction of factual errors or the provision of new references. You will want feedback. Weigh up the feedback and the reputation of the provider. But in general you'll want to respond to feedback politely and attentively in order to secure more, later. Be aware that you have a large audience who may judge you on how you reply to a single poster.

6. How do I present my efforts?

A. Should I post a stand-alone or multi-part scenario?

A stand-alone scenario is easier to write than a multi-part timeline It offers a simple starting point. And, if feedback is favourable you have the option of continuing it into a multi-part timeline. (The Drowned Baby Timeline, to cite one example, was originally a stand-alone scenario. Due to the feedback he received, Johnny Pez decided to continue the timeline past the original endpoint.)

Many experienced authors find multi-part more rewarding. It allows a more detailed exploration of the PoD with regular feedback from the group.

B. Should I use footnotes?

Footnotes are generally used in s.h.w-i for two purposes: to point to sources, and to make humorous asides, in the style of a Terry Pratchett novel.

Footnotes can interrupt the flow of the narrative for the reader. On the other hand they can make reading more free-flowing than having the extraneous information in parenthetical comments (like this).

C. Should I pay attention to group commentary?

Yes. There are three main forms in which the commentary will come: positive, critical and non-existent.

Bathe in the positive commentary. Be aware that there may be some constructive criticism there and mark it well.

Read critical comment carefully. Appraise it. Who is providing it? Are they an expert? Can you confirm what they say? Most criticism of a timeline is well meant and you should read it in that light.

One of the s.h.w-i posts most likely not to get a response is an episode of a multi-part timeline. Often readers will respond to something with which they disagree - a factual error or an off topic post - while reading a well-written piece in silent enjoyment. If you are keen for commentary you can ask explicitly with a "Comments?". And accidental or deliberate factual error in your post may give a gauge of your readership.

D. Can I possibly publish a finished timeline?

There are barriers to publication. By posting on Usenet you may have compromised your copyright or made your work unattractive to a publisher. Check with your literary agent.

The market for alternative history fiction is small. It is even narrower for the more plausible, less fantastic, fiction encouraged on s.h.w-i However, there may be something exceptional about your writing that would appeal to a sufficiently large market segment that would make publication of your work commercially viable. Check with your literary agent.

These days publishing houses seldom read unsolicited manuscripts. In order to get published you'll probably need a literary agent.

7. What else should I know?

A. What's the deal with collective timelines?

A collective timeline has more than one author. There are also participative timelines with a single author, responding to and shaping their story extensively based on reader feedback.

There are different models for writing collective timelines. Submission was anarchic, initiated by Anthony Mayer but with other writers free to participate. Bronze Age New World and For All Nails were managed by committees (or 'cabals') who plotted off-line in advance and reviewed each others work before posting. This allowed them a coherence approaching that of a single-author work while allowing the talents of each contributor to sparkle. (It should be noted that both the BANW and FAN cabals benefited from the presence of a guiding intellect, Doug Muir for the former and Noel Maurer for the latter, helping to maintain an overall vision for each project.) There is also the timeline that is begun by one author but then opened up for contributions by others. Johnny Pez's DBTL, where Demetrios Rammos, Dan McDonald and Jussi Jalonen have made Some additions, is the stand-out example. Collective timelines will develop differently because of their different structures.

B. What if English isn't my first language?

The s.h.w-i community has always been more concerned about substance than form. If you can express your thoughts in a comprehensible way, you won't be called out on minor lapses of grammar and spelling. Of course, the more clearly you can express yourself in English, the more success you'll have in getting your ideas across. As is usually the case, practice makes perfect: the more you write and read in English, the better you'll become.

Anthony Mayer
Last modified: Fri Dec 6 12:31:13 GMT 2002