Changing the World by Writing Alternate Histories (and Prepping for NaNoWriMo), featuring Mary Robinette Kowal

Oct 1, 2018

Mary Robinette Kowal

This episode kicks off a series dedicated to preparing for and getting through National Novel Writing Month in November. Guest Mary Robinette Kowal has embraced the structure and community of NaNoWriMo for all of her novels, and she shares with listeners about how she’s a “plantser,” and also some of her personal strategies around preparing to write a new novel. In this episode, Grant, Brooke, and Mary Robinette discuss the sub-genre of “alternate histories” and encourage listeners to gear up for NaNoWriMo by harnessing some of that “what-if” sensibility at the heart of alternate history storylines.


Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of The Glamourist Histories series, Ghost Talkers, and the Lady Astronaut duology. She’s a member of the award-winning podcast Writing Excuses and has received the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, three Hugo awards, the RT Reviews award for Best Fantasy Novel. Her stories appear in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and several Year’s Best anthologies. Mary Robinette, a professional puppeteer, also performs as a voice actor (SAG/AFTRA), recording fiction for authors including Seanan McGuire, Cory Doctorow, and John Scalzi. She lives in Chicago with her husband Rob and over a dozen manual typewriters. Visit and find Mary Robinette on Twitter @maryrobinette.

Writing Action: Soar to the Wildest Heights of Your Imagination

Even though writing a story is a huge imaginative act,it’s easy to become weighed down by the reality of the real world, so I’d like to challenge writers to conceive of an alternate history just for the fun of it, as a mental writing exercise. You don’t have to write it as a novel or a story, but let your mind go there and play with possibilities. Take a clean sheet of paper and write a bunch of “what-if” style notes. Google “alternate histories novels,” and you’ll see many lists of novels that present alternate histories if you want to see samples. Think about this: What if magic played a role in the Civil War? What if the Revolutionary War had been fought with pterodactyls. This can help you flex your imaginative muscles no matter what genre you write in. And, hey, who doesn’t want to change some of our historical time periods?

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