Why Alternative Worlds? – Ellen Renner

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Today we hear from our ‘author in residence’…

Why Alternative Worlds?

Some of my favourite books feature ‘alternative worlds’. Joan Aiken’s Dido Twite books, which began with the famous Wolves of Willoughby Chase, are set in an alternative England where the Civil War never happened, King Charles kept his head and his descendents are on the throne.

My best-beloved writer, Diana Wynne Jones, often features a ‘multiverse’ in her books: series of alternative worlds, connected to our own but different in various, magical ways.

Alternative worlds are useful. They allow the writer to pick and choose which bits of ‘reality’ work best with the story they want to tell. And facts can be stubborn, uncomfortable things when they disagree with your plotline! But perhaps more importantly, alternative worlds can set the writer’s imagination free. Imagine how much fun Aiken must have had, imagining for herself and us an England which might have been, had history taken a different path.

When I sat down to write Castle of Shadows, I realised immediately that it would have to be set in an alternative world. I needed a princess in a country very like 1840s England, but my king, prime minister and princess were nothing to do with Victoria or her world. I also wanted an evil empire across the channel, run by a sort of amalgam of Cromwell and Napoleon, with all the most megalomaniacal features of both. By inventing my own world, I could create just such a monster. (Although you don’t get to meet him until the third book!)

I did, however, keep as much of the real world in my books as possible. I researched the 1830s-1850s thoroughly. It was a fascinating time, with interesting parallels to our own: a period of rapid technological change and social upheaval combined with frequent economic crises brought about by unregulated speculation in the money markets.

The technology I write about is also (mostly) real. In Castle of Shadows Charlie and Tobias have to travel through a tunnel under the castle on a pneumatic freight railway: a narrow-gage railway run by a vacuum system, where air is pumped out of the tunnel by a steam engine. These actually existed and carried both freight and, occasionally, passengers.

The book also features the above ground equivalent: an atmospheric railway. Again, a series of steam engines along the railway pump the air from a sealed metal tube, and engineless carriages are pulled along its length by the action of a vacuum. Isambard Kingdom Brunel built the only working atmospheric railway in Britain in the 1830s in Devon. It ran between Teignmouth and Starcross and remains still exist in the Teignmouth museum. It only ran for a year because the pneumatic tube was kept air-tight through the use of waxed leather flaps, and rats kept eating the leather! Had vulcanised rubber been invented in time (it came along ten years later) atmospheric trains might have triumphed over steam.

I had great fun researching the Victorian underworld for City of Thieves. Kidsmen, snakesmen, cribs, lockpicking, safe-cracking and mughunters – all of these feature in Tobias’ story as he is drawn into the dangerous world of his uncle, Zebediah Petch, the King of Thieves.

Thanks, Ellen. City of Thieves, sequel to Ellen’s Castle of Shadows comes out today. You’ll hear our review of it soon, but in the meantime, we’re lucky enough to be able to offer you a fabulous giveaway! Ellen has provided us with 5 copies of City of Thieves to celebrate it’s launch – thanks, Ellen!! To get your hands on one of them, just comment on this post, retweet it or Facebook ‘like it’ (UK only). We’ll pick a winner at the end of our online meeting on Sunday 11.30am. Good luck all..