Friday, July 17, 2009

Writing the "What if" Scenario

By Stuart Nachbar

If you enjoy history, have you ever imagined an America where John F. Kennedy survived and served eight years in the White House? Or where Lincoln lived to oversee Reconstruction?

I appreciate those authors who have taken true history and attempt to rewrite it around new scenarios, and I have learned much about rewriting history and doing historical research from completing my first novel, THE SEX ED CHRONICLES, as well as my second story, DEFENDING COLLEGE HEIGHTS.

Writing an alternate history requires an understanding of the true history behind an event. When I researched sex education, I went back to the Sixties and Seventies for guidance; 21st century attitudes, while somewhat applicable, could not be used in a story that took place in 1980. I read news coverage from the Sixties through the Seventies as conservative politicians were elected to office across the country. More important, I read a National Education Association guide to help teachers deal with “right wing extremists” and transcripts of state board of education hearings in New Jersey that were underreported in 1980.

There was public opposition to sex education back in 1980, but it was not well documented or well organized. So, in writing my story the What If question was: Given the political events of the time, what if opposition to sex education in New Jersey was politically powerful, well-funded and well-organized, much like the national conservative coalition that elected Ronald Reagan to the presidency? This raised additional questions about political strategy and public actions that needed answers.

To get those answers, I had to study not only the true history and the news coverage of the day, but also the viewpoints of the people who lived the history or knew people who did. During my research I had lunch with the former executive director of the Republican majority − they are the minority today − of the New Jersey Assembly. He had worked for Republican candidates during this time, so we “strategized” how a conservative group could have succeeded or failed and what it would have taken to sustain its momentum. I was referred to other Republicans so that I could take a longer walk down that side of the political aisle. This showed me a viewpoint that had received little media play in 1980 and helped me present a more balanced story.

In addition to the exercises of strategizing and searching for the obscure, but interesting, factoids, I learned the importance of details. I had to provide information from the true history to write an alternate one, even though my main characters and my secondary characters were fictional. I had to assume that other events of the time, such as Ronald Reagan’s ascent and President Carter’s fall from grace, still happened.

Had I changed too much background, I would have drifted too far from the main question and I would have confused my readers. I was also working with historical events that were not well-known outside 1980s New Jersey, so I felt a responsibility to inform. But I also had a responsibility to get important state national events and their timing down right. Some events, such as the successful fundraising of the Moral Majority and Reagan’s victory in the 1980 New Jersey Republican primary, helped drive the stories of my fictional characters.

In DEFENDING COLLEGE HEIGHTS, I set the novel in modern day, but used history to answer another What If: what if a military recruiter, a subject of campus protest, was murdered on a college campus? To answer, I used the news coverage of the present, but also true stories of campus protests against the Vietnam War. I also asked a college provost how the administration would react to a murder on campus and how it would work with the police. And I wanted to use a less likely venue: a small, private and largely male engineering school that would more likely be friendly to the military. That required some study of the history of such schools.

While a military recruiter has never, to my knowledge, been murdered on a college campus, there has been taunting and physical exchanges between students and campus security during job fairs protest events. And students and bystanders were also killed at Kent State and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I read several books about these protests, as well as military recruiting and I had personally visited many job fairs during my working life.

But the Sixties and Seventies are not the 21st century. The activists of the past and antiwar attitudes are not the same. Nor are the reactions of college administrators. In fact, I have met several who participated in campus protest while they were students, only to come to work in higher education as adults. I saw that as ironic; the military would never want an officer who had protested against the war, nor would a corporation hire a former activist who had blocked students from buying their products. The behavior of the academic community in my fictional school helps take DEFENDING COLLEGE HEIGHTS to conclusion.

I’ve also thought that it would be fun to insert historical figures and historic places into new realities. For instance, suppose President Reagan had fully funded Star Wars. A year later, an alien war counsel contacts him, complaining that the global defense shield has contaminated their sector of space. The alien leader issues an ultimatum: tear down the defense shield, or else. We have weapons that will penetrate the shield and destroy the planet.

In this scenario I would not need to devote much space to explain who Ronald Reagan was. But I would need to read extensively about his mannerisms and situations where he had been coerced into a negotiation where he was dealt a bad hand at the start. I would, obviously, have liberties with the make-up of the aliens and their technology, but I would have to let Reagan be Reagan. He was a popular president who was well covered in the news. A book that distorted Reagan’s personality traits would not be respected because the former president was well-liked by many people who are still alive.

I could not, for example, imagine the former president as an irrational man on the eve of an alien attack - historical evidence has proven quite the opposite - unless he was the victim of an alien weapon or pharmacology. This is the only way that the writer can change a person who will be quite familiar to readers. Once he’s been altered by an alien force or substance then Ronald Reagan can be anyone, or anything, the author wants him to be.

Rewriting history gets even harder when you use several real characters from history. In my Reagan example, I’ve inserted a real person into a setting with fictional people. But suppose I added cabinet secretaries or infamous operatives from the real presidency?

I would have to know what made those characters tick. That means more research and meetings, as well as a big travel budget. Works with multiple characters from history are best left to historians or people who lived in the moment. They have had the time or the experience to bring in the obscure details the readers will appreciate.

What If scenarios are fun to research and develop. But whether you attempt to reinvent history using fictional characters or famous figures from history you need to do your homework and be true to true events. Even the most far-out science fiction would let Lincoln be Lincoln or Reagan be Reagan.

About the author: Stuart Nachbar became a writer to offer different viewpoints on education and politics. He has addressed issues such as the teaching of sex education in public schools, school board elections, military recruiting, free speech, town-gown relations and the anti-war movement. Defending College Heights is his second novel. For more information, visit


Sheila Deeth said...

I guess most of fiction is a sort of "what if," but not quite such a big-picture what-if. My guys are always discussing the what might have beens of history and politics.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

My life is crammed with "what if's" every second of every day. It drives me crazy. Sitting in the back of a high school musical practice, driving to work, gardening... my books have all come from wondering "what if a saborteur lurked backstage?" or "what if I came across an accident that wasn't an accident?" or "what if I found a green marble in the garden that propelled me through time and space?" It's one of the best facets of writing - that joyful flight into fancy.

Thanks for joining us today, Stuart! All the best wishes for Defending College Heights.

Marta Stephens said...

I'm impressed witht the amount of research you do for your books. My WIP takes place in 1962 Los Angeles. In one scene, I thought of letting my character drive home on the Santa Monica freeway, but when I checked, it wasn't completed until 1966. Ooops!! Every detail has to be right.

BTW, asking the "What if" is how I come up with plot twists too.

Great post, Stuart. Thanks so much for joining us here at MB4!

Kim Smith said...

this sounds like a book i would like to read. thanks for sharing!