Thursday, August 1, 2013

Roberta Rogow: Alternate history's pleasures and perils

To my horror, I realized the other day that I had run out of scheduled guests for Wednesdays! So at once I put out the call, and not only did I find lots of talented, interesting authors to introduce you to, but the delightful Roberta Rogow even managed to provide me  overnight  with a wonderful post about the research and techniques she used in creating the world of her new historical mystery. So we're only a day late and not even a dollar short. Roberta, I owe you one!.
We live in a Reality that is the culmination of a series of events, We learn all about them in school: how Western Civilization began with the ancient peoples of the Middle East and Egypt, how Greece and Rome rose and fell, how Europe evolved and became dominant, how our own United States prevailed in the twentieth century, thanks to our unique blend of democracy and technology. it all seems so logical, it must have been meant to happen that way. Many people believe in a divine plan to human history, that it was all foretold by some greater being than ourselves, and that questioning it is blasphemy or worse.

But what if the world we live in came about by pure chance? What if something or someone did something differently?  What if a key battle was lost or won by the other side? What if someone died, or lived, who had lived or died in our history? What if...? And this, friends, is what alternate history is all about.

My  'what if' is the notion that the Muslim Moors hung onto the Iberian Peninsula far longer than they actually
did, so that the seafarers who “discovered” the New World were  Muslim traders, not Catholic conquistadors.   What I call Nova Mundum is settled by colonists sent by the Caliphs of Al-Andalus and African kings from Ghana and Malawi, who plant cotton and raise tobacco and use other Africans and captured Europeans as slaves. The northern areas of Nova Mundum,  which do not appeal to people used to tropical and sub-tropical climates, are taken over by Northern Europeans. The locals, Creek and Cherokee in the south, Iroquois and Algonquin in the north, are treated as equals by the Africans, who have no color biases, as long as they are willing to accept “Ilha” and the Prophet. Jews (Yehudit in my world) are able to live peacefully in Al-Andalus, but are persecuted everywhere else.

More or less in the center of the coast-line of Nova Mundum is a  natural harbor, fed by a broad river into the interior, and an island shaped something like a man's foot. The Locals call it “Manahatta”, which the Moors slur into “Manatas”. Today, we call it Manhattan Island.

To this island comes Halvar Danske, the hireling of Caliph Don Felipe of Al-Andalus, with a simple mission: find the louche genius Leon di Vicenza, whose brilliant mind might be able to devise some way of preventing the northern armies from overrunning Al-Andalus and turning it back into Roman Hispania.   The very first day on the island Halvar trips over a dead body, which may or may not be the missing artist/engineer. And things go downhill from there!

There are  more murders, which may or may not be connected. There is false coinage being circulated in the annual trade gathering, the Feria.  There are rumors that a rival Local tribe is planning an invasion from the north.  As the Caliph’s personal hireling, Halvar is expected to deal with all of this, in spite of his protestations that he is only there to get Leon and take him home to Al-Andalus.

Halvar is faced with a totally unknown country, a law enforcement agency headed by someone with secrets of his own, and a lover from his own past. He sticks to his orders with dogged determination, but Nova Mundum has a way of changing people, almost against their will. Such is the Saga of Halvar the Hireling, which I have begun in Murders In Manatas (Zumaya Publications, 2013).

The fun of Alternate History is the research. In order to change something, you have to know what actually happened, and have some theory as to why, so as to extrapolate what will follow the change.  My research is both literary and concrete.

I have a selection of books on hand that cover the topography of Manhattan Island; the original history of what the Dutch called Nieuw Amsterdam, the culture of the Dutch 16th and 17th centuries; Islamic history and culture, with the emphasis on Spain, and the so-called Golden Age; the convivencia, the unspoken agreement between Muslim, Christian, and Jew that allowed the three religious communities to co-exist on the Iberian peninsula during a period of intense religious persecution almost everywhere else in Europe. I also have materials on the Native Americans who settled in, on, and around the islands of Manhattan and environs, since they, too, play and important role in Manatas,.

I live in New Jersey, right across the Hudson River from Manhattan, so I can actually walk where Halvar walked. There isn't much left of Dutch Nieuw Amsterdam after three hundred years of building and land-fill, but I can get a sense of where things are, and how long it takes to get from one place to another. I have access to two great collections of artifacts from the Dutch Colonial era, the Museum of the City of New York and the New-York Historical Society, both of which have libraries and displays that have been a great help in formulating the Manatas Universe.

The peril of writing alternate history is the lure of getting sucked in by the back-story and forgetting to tell the tale of the people who live in your version of history.

If I wanted to write a historical tract, I'd be a historian. I'm a storyteller. I have to remind myself that my readers don't really care how Manatas got that way. They want to find out whodunit, who killed the girl in the clam beds, and why. They want to find out if Halvar and his long-lost love Dani ever get together. They want to know what's going to happen when the Bretains, the Locals, and the Andalusians realize that Al-Andalus might not be able to protect them from the ravages of a Huron invasion.

If you want to know what happens.... I'm already working on the next installment of The Saga of Halvar the Hireling. Meanwhile, Murders in Manatas is available for Nook and Kindle and in paperback from

And you can reach me at Facebook: Manatas Skyline, or at almost any SF or Mystery convention on the east coast of North America.

Salaam Aleikum, God-be-with-ye, and Happy Reading!


  1. Dear Maggie, found you through the facebook Fantasy Writers' group.

    Congratulations! You’re the recipient of the Super Sweet Blog Award. Here’s the link to get you started on your own post where you can pass on the award to other bloggers:

    I love alternate history, so I'll return to check on your blog posts.

  2. Why thank you, Swati! that's very, uhm, sweet!