Worldbuilding: Points of Divergence

All right, Russia. For the sake of a good alternate history, your Empire is going down.

Er. Let me explain.

I don’t know how most writers do alternate histories, though I get the impression that people usually pick a point in history and make one momentous decision based on a coin flip go the other way. So I may be doing this all wrong: I’m deciding on the setting and working backwards to what the alterations had to be.

The story setting is an alternate 1618 Korea; mostly peaceful (outside of monsters and magic), but with war and the Little Ice Age looming near. That’s where I want the story to start, before it potentially ranges across the globe and at least two worlds.

With that in mind, I’m looking at the timeline between when the story is set, and when the actual alternate-historical divergence happens to see what needs to be shifted. Said divergence being about 350 years before, when the Great Comet of 1264 did not slide ominously past in the night sky, but instead slammed into Earth, bringing along an influence totally out of this world. Locals call it magic. Good enough for most practical purposes. (Though Jason will have a vested interest in finding out exactly what it is, why it happens to people, and why you have to keep it under control if possible.)

Why a divergence so far in the past of the story? Two main reasons. One, the comet is an awesome image, and 1618 had three of them. So in-setting characters would already be holding their breaths, so to speak, ‘cause the last time that heavenly phenomenon occurred times got dangerously interesting. And second – honestly, I’ve run across too many badly-written “modern world gets magic and people figure it out in hours!” stories.

No. Just no. A working reality-warping system should take time to figure out, even if you have a scientific method established. Time, and likely a lot of experimenters who didn’t survive. See, for example, the real-world history of organic chemistry, its pages red-spattered with the deaths of people who went around tasting arsenic, isolated chlorine and fluorine in the same air they were breathing, or accidentally created nerve gases. That’s not even considering the formerly-normal plants and animals affected. Yao, anyone? Lots of them.

(Oh, and vampires. Yep.)

Skilled, cultivation-level magic users would take decades, if not centuries. So the setting’s going to get those centuries.

Which has the added benefit of, if I note things that got destroyed in the real timeline, I can see if there’s a way they might survive in the fantasy one. I am not immune to pretty. And the Goryeo kingdom of Korea (918-1392) had beautiful blue-green celadon pottery… that was lost in the Mongol invasions of 1231-1270. (Apparently fairly recently recreated by a modern Korean potter, awesome.) When it was lost, exactly, is not nailed down in the sources I have.

Meaning I have wiggle room to say there were still a few celadon potters around after 1264, and when the Mongols came calling, oops! A tiger yao ate enough of the invaders that the tradition survived….

The tigers that haunted Korea up until fairly recently were, genetically, Siberian. Siberian tigers, even today with their limited ranges, will travel over 600 miles in search of mates or prey. A magical one might travel even farther. And Siberia has a lot of space really empty of people, meaning it’s an excellent place for a comet to come down without directly wrecking too much of history. See the Tunguska Blast.

…This would also let me shove some historical problems a little west and out of the story start area, because now it would be a matter of “area X is a demon-haunted wasteland that humans have been slowly, carefully reclaiming” and even the Jurchens might not all want to be there….

On top of all that it gives the Korean kingdom major reasons to seize and control as much of the natural ginseng-growing areas as possible, because ginseng as an adaptogen is one of the best ways to keep mages stable and sane. (It’s far from the only herb that can be used that way. But it is one of the most effective.)

Which further means that while a bunch of history might change Japan and Ming China would still have about the same reasons to clash that they did in the historical Imjin War, meaning the timeline gets dragged a bit back toward “real” history. (And keeps all my reference books useful.)

But it does kind of take out eastern Russia from the Tsardom of Russia and the Khanate of Sibir. Oops?

(And there are Things in Lake Baikal. Eep….)

38 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Points of Divergence

  1. I don’t know how most writers do alternate histories, though I get the impression that people usually pick a point in history and make one momentous decision based on a coin flip go the other way. So I may be doing this all wrong: I’m deciding on the setting and working backwards to what the alterations had to be.

    Getting the idea at the opposite end from some people doesn’t make it the wrong way around. I’m also not convinced that’s really how most people do it, because while “pick one change and work out the implications rigorously” sounds great, whether the AU is of real life or another work of fiction, I think most people even when trying to work strictly forward are probably influenced at least a little by “is this implication part of a story I want to tell.”

    Liked by 7 people

    1. The problem I have with those is that the changes would be unpredictable. Catherine of Aragon’s son lives, much depends on his (unknowable) character. Constantine does not execute his oldest son, and again the consequences turn on his character. Rigor is impossible.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Your historian is going to be so twitchy. Also this is hilarious to me on a strange level. Most stories that I read that involve time travel have the (non historian) traveler using Nazi’s as their quick time check.

    On the other hand, no Romanoffs— good call! But now you have me wondering about the cascading effects this would have on European monarchies when their breeding pool just got further reduced. This is what I get for watching documentaries on royal genetic defects. While your Asiatic dynasties might not have the same inbreeding problems (I genuinely haven’t a clue), or even need to be concerned with marrying on overly inbred Euro…this might eventually effect trade and politics. Depends on how/if rapidly they get progressively crazier and sicker, they may or may not breed themselves out of existence.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I adore actually having historians…and then they realize their hstory theory is very heavy on theory, not accuracy.

      Without Romanoffs, maybe recognize the results of morganic marriages? (would be MAD drama)

      Liked by 4 people

      1. sniff

        She’s Not Our Type, Dear.

        It was literally the law that a dynast could only be born from a equal marriage with a member of a sovereign house. This was why the morganatic marriage revived the faded custom of a morning gift; the bride and her children were entitled only to the agreement made at the time of the marriage, not to anything else from the bridegroom, including his title.


      2. But if the magic was a thing and seen as advantage, then I think they would want a bloodline with powerful magic. Regardless social standing. Which would make interesting decision on low-class wife standing. And hierarchy of children, since “first born” claim would only work if the child inherited magical talent. Otherwise it would be “useless” kid with less-than desirred pedigree. It would be one big mess…

        Liked by 1 person

      3. It’s not like they wanted people with industrial knowledge even with industrialization being so vital. Even in Great Britain, you needed to escape the factory for a genteel profession to be acceptable.

        Magic is for the commoners whom you employ.

        Does depend on its nature.


    2. Eh, not so much. His specialty is more early modern Japan. So why’s he in Korea? Well, he was interested in an adventure…. (Careful what you wish for.)

      And actually I doubt this would take out the Romanoffs. It’s the Eastern part of what would have become the Empire that gets thwacked.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t know how most writers do alternate histories, though I get the impression that people usually pick a point in history and make one momentous decision based on a coin flip go the other way. So I may be doing this all wrong: I’m deciding on the setting and working backwards to what the alterations had to be.

    I disagree, my hostess!

    I think that most writers *explain* stuff the prior way, but they really do it the latter way.

    Afterthat, carry on. 😀 (Well, and carrion, because history = death.)

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Counter-argument for “folks figure it out in hours.”

    OK not really it’s an elaboration of what I think you already think.

    They totally do figure it out in hours.

    With a gerzillion folks totally NOT figuring it out, and glomming to the almost-true nearest known model.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. (And there are Things in Lake Baikal. Eep….)

    Of course. You LIKE ‘things in the water.’

    (#approves, as someone who has a bone-deep assurance THERE IS STUFF DOWNTHERE!!!11)
    ((…yes, that made the Navy interesting.))

    Liked by 5 people

  6. Along with “figure it out instantly” there’s also the tendency for magic to be easy/simple.

    So many settings will have the MC invent a magic spell on the fly for some situation without any compromises or failure.

    “Oh, I need a fireball, but with ice? All I have to do is think cool thoughts!”

    If you include the hazards and failures inherent in developing a new industry, then there might be a chance something could go wrong for the MC!

    And everyone knows no author would ever make things problematic for the MC….

    Liked by 4 people

      1. Okay, that is an awesome take on the fantasy classic of magic types all having one costume look. Would it be important enough to be institutionalized in law? And if it was, would that be for the benefit of the public (a warning) or the wearer (this is important for your safety, ignore at your own risk)?

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Both. Both is Good.

        I’m not sure it’s in law so much as Very Serious Custom. (In Confucian systems, almost the same thing.) But they’re not in plain view all the time – you have to take off someone’s hat to see it. Which implies the situation is serious anyway.

        Examples: vampire Lee Cheong has purple for darkness magic, Jason has red for fire, and Hu Qingse (ether mage) has a multicolor fall of hair that’s usually bound up so you only see bits of black… but when she lets it down, people notice.

        Liked by 2 people

      1. Snape did. It was never really explained, but he was one of very few people who could make a new spell? But yes, spell making was dangerous and very likely to accidently kill you. Why try when you had already invented ones…

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Cometary impact? Urk…

    Yeah, Tunguska as a role model is one thing. But a comet big enough to have been called “Great” IRL, striking at cometary velocities, is *easily* an Extinction Level Event. Just look at Shoemaker-Levy 9 — it broke into 9 large chunks (and a bunch of gravel) before hitting Jupiter, and *each piece* left a hole in Big J *bigger than the Earth*. Any *one* of those chunks, hitting Earth that fast, would have left Sol with *two* asteroid belts.

    Of course, since your protag is an historian, not a astrophysicist, they may not recognize just how *strange* it is that the impact was so (ahem) minor in its physical effects. OTOH, “That *really* should have hit a *lot* harder” might be Yet Another Clue as to the impactor having been something other than a normal giant dirty snowball.

    Not that I expect the poor protag to have time to ponder much on the root causes of OMGWTFBBQ HAPPENED TO THE WORLD!?!?, b/c they’ll be too busy trying to survive the “right now” aftereffects….

    Liked by 8 people

    1. Okay I’ve snickered enough that I gotta compliment your freakout acronym. The first time I saw it I registered all caps and the first and last letters, categorized it as “keyboard smash,” and moved on. Then my brain processed the rest of it and went “waaaaiiiit a second…”

      Cue a more careful reread, and cackling.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Yes, I imagine mermaids really are far worse than a demon tiger to run into.

      Starting with the fact that their environment alone can kill the unwary in under three minutes, without said mer actively aiding and abetting it… There’s usually other factors involved, but still.

      Do people actually go on the lake? Fishing, Travel? Is the shore relatively safe, or do only the foolish and the desperate go near the lake at all?

      Liked by 2 people

  8. I tend to go for Fantasyland with a history wash, which does simplify.

    OTOH, magic has existed for centuries, giving them a few minutes to work out the kinks. This opens the other problem, of stasis, so I work on that.

    In *A Diabolical Bargain*, there is an old university I give a history for. First there was the Wizards’ Wood, which attracted wizards, which attracted aspiring wizards looking for instruction.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. An alt-history setting with magic emerging in the mid 1200s centered on Korea…..

    Considering some of the history podcasts I’ve recently listen to, I can’t help but wonder how much more of a nightmare Admiral Yi Sun-sin was for the Japanese invaders in this TL.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Poor Jason! Considering that country, history period, language , sumptory laws AND magic he’s not familiar with he’s gonna be stumbling alot! (Although clothing restrictions can allow for some fun identity mambo not to mention what changes is inflicts on trading)

    Liked by 1 person

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