Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Dover Whitecliff: What if There's a Connection?

Dover Whitecliff was born in the shadow of Fujiyama, raised in the shadow of Olomana, and lives where she can see the shadow of Shasta if she squints and it's a really clear day. She's also a bit mad, as you might expect, growing up in all those shadows. Her first novel, The Stolen Songbird, is set in a Victorian Age that never was but could have been, and will be out later in 2013. (The jewels decorating the article below represent the elements as described therein.) I'll just let her carry on from here.  

What and if are my two favorite words (after dragon and defenestration) and the question they ask together is the purpose of my existence as a writer. For me, writing is like breathing. I can’t not do it. I can’t not ask “what if…” Every writer in the history of storytelling knows something of what if. Otherwise, the tales we love would all be factual accounts of what was going on at the time. There would have been no Nautilus if Jules Verne had not inspired it. If Asimov had never written I, Robot, Honda's engineers might never have invented Asimo.

My first experience with the addictive nature of these two simple words was in eighth grade. My parents had a rule when I was growing up. I could read or watch anything of my own choosing for a price. For everything I chose, I would also have to read or watch something that they chose for me. For every issue of X-Men or Hardy Boys, I had to read a classic (thank you, mom and dad, for introducing me to Dumas and Pyle). For every Saturday morning cartoon or episode of Starsky and Hutch, I was plopped down to watch a documentary on any number of subjects from waterfowl to World War II. 

One of these ‘required’ shows was on public television, and was not in the least a chore, because it showed the chain of history in a way that I had never seen it before. For the first time, I didn’t pretend to take notes while actually scribbling stories. The pencil stayed motionless because I was entranced. I wanted to find out what happened next. That show was Connections with James Burke. In each episode, he looked at some simple item like the stirrups on a saddle, and showed how that invention connected to a chain of inventions that in turn led to something as massively life changing as global communication. 

In one episode, Mr. Burke is sitting in a dusty stone room in Egypt, wearing a linen suit, and casually telling the audience about the sacking of the Library of Alexandria. He then off-handedly mentions that all of our knowledge of Western Civilizatio--Plato, Pythagoras, all of the great things we know today--came from what was left of the basement of the library after it was burned. The basement.
When I heard that, what and if reared their heads, and my brain whirred into overdrive. If all of that was in the basement, what was up above in the stacks? What if all of that stuff was in the basement because it was just junk and we’d based our whole civilization on it? What if everything we know is wrong? That one thought led to my first serious attempt at a fantasy novel and from that moment to this, I’ve never doubted the power or creativity of what and if together.
Writing a story in a parallel or alternate history is one of the more challenging forms of what if, and requires you to think like Mr. Burke. Arguably, you still have to be consistent when creating a whole world from scratch, Tolkien being the consummate example of the consistent world-builder. However, with a home-grown world, the reader doesn’t have an idea of what your world looks like or what its rules are. This gives you more freedom in explaining those rules in the context of your story.

Alternatively, if your story is set on an earth where history has diverged at some point, you have to be more careful. Readers will bring their own knowledge of history along for the ride, and collaborating with that experience requires a bit more work on your part. Like James Burke, you then have to follow the connections for every point of divergence and look five or six or twenty turnings down the line to remain consistent.
The Stolen Songbird, which will be out later this year, will be my first book, and it takes place in a Victorian Age that never was but should have been. In creating the world, my coauthor and I asked a lot of questions starting with what if. What if the Battle of Hastings was only a part of what really happened at Senlac Hill on October 14, 1066? What if Elizabeth I had left an heir, the first Victoria? What if Napoleon had a clockwork army? What if America were still a colony under Victoria III? 

Each of those changes in history required a lot of diagramming to plot out what events they would either cause or stop from happening. And if a change precluded something later in history that was necessary to the story, it required even more diagramming to bring about the required change. Each and every divergence in this history-as-you-may-not-know-it requires us to map out the connections, whether those facts ever make it into the book or not. 

Knowing that what and if are out there and also in my soul is what gets me up in the morning. Because while dragon and defenestration may make for a great story, with what and if I can change the world.

Meet Dover Whitecliff

Dover Whitecliff is a wild and woolly wordsmith, a blogger, an analyst, and a jack-of-all-trades, but mostly a writer. She has been writing since the ripe old age of nine and won her first ten-speed as a fifth grader with an entry in the Honolulu Advertiser’s “Why Hawaii Isn't Big Enough For Litter” contest. 

She currently spends her free time blogging or playing Rock Band with her husband, big brother, little brother, and consigliere, all of whom will graciously allow her to touch the instruments on occasion, but mostly just hand off the microphone so she can sing. She lives in Sacramento, California with her very patient and wonderful husband and several hundred bears.

Get to know Dover better

You can find Dover:

Oh, and she's working on the website, so don't look for her here... YET


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thank you, Maggie for having me over to your wonderful blog! It's an honor and a privilege to be among such esteemed storytellers. I'd like to give a shout out to artist Ian Berget, who designed and created the images for the eight elements. He's also our cover artist! Thank you again for having me!

  3. Great blog. Thanks to Dover and Maggie for sharing it!

  4. And thanks so much for being my guest, Dover. I'm sorry this is delayed. I left for England the same night you posted, and I haven't been paying a lot of attention to anything else since then! :)