4 Ways My Perspective Changed While Writing My Debut Novel
1. To write about the future, start with the past
When I began outlining, I knew my book would take place roughly 100 years in the future. I knew I was opening with an Earth that lost the ultimate war against the aliens, and my main character was a defeated soldier with no home to return to. Instead, she would cross paths with a cult, one believably ignorant of the alien invasion.
I knew what I wanted to happen, and I had a strong idea of who my characters were, but I had to decide the setting to inform the rest of the story.
Where would a futuristic solider come across a strange, cloistered community in the mid-2100s? As I asked myself where a cult in the future might be located, I realized the question I actually had to ask was: Where would the early beginnings of the cult gather today…in my own time?
I turned to the prepper movement, looking specifically at where prepper communities are springing up now. Top states include Utah, Idaho, and Montana—states with low population density, ideal food production land, high support for gun culture, the ability to homeschool, and a certain kind of politics. I knew then I wanted to set the book in the Rocky Mountains where there is plenty of wilderness and places to hide from the rest of society. Though little of the research I did on modern-day preppers made it into the book, it created the foundation for the development of my setting and a cast of frightening yet complex characters.
However, the thing about books set in the future is that we read them, yup, today. It’s only relevant to readers if it’s relevant now. The themes that grip me in 2021 (worries about war and capitalism and the patriarchy) were the fuel for the book. Futuristic villages that floated on water and soldiers that fought aliens in mech suits were the candy.
2. I kinda believe in aliens, I guess
While designing the alien species and hammering out the logistics of how they would get to Earth, figuring out why they would even come in the first place, and deciding how they would treat us Earthlings, I tentatively decided I believe in aliens. Probably.
Twenty years ago, a belief in aliens was akin to what flat Earthers are today, but belief in extra-terrestrials has become much more common. Reasonable people can believe in aliens and not be pegged as deranged conspiracy theorists. Note I said, “I kind of believe in aliens,” not, “My cat is an alien.” There are still lines to be crossed.
Though it’s likely in this wide universe there are other beings out there, the meeting of us and them is the fiction at play in first contact stories like my own. Sure, there may be aliens several stars over, but it’s incredibly unlikely we would ever know. Or that we would cross paths with them. The time and resources it would take to arrange such a rendezvous are on a scale my tiny mind cannot comprehend, so it might as well be impossible.
The beauty of fiction is that imagining what such a meeting would be like tells us more about ourselves than aliens.
It’s a thought exercise, one that thrills us, but isn’t likely to come true.
3. Fiction can be as personal as nonfiction
I always thought I was a writer who didn’t write herself into her stories.
I remember when my husband read the very first short story I wrote and immediately asked which character was based on him. I put on a patient smile and explained to him it was a myth that every character is based heavily on someone in the writer’s real life. Professional writers might incorporate lived experiences and watch people to pick up on ticks, language, and more, but a fictional character is a fictional character. I didn’t copy real life. I was a creative, a budding professional. One that built universes from scratch with her mind.
Then, I finished writing the first draft of It’s Over or It’s Eden. It took a few days before I realized I wrote myself into both POV characters.
Marah and Arwen deal with big issues—power struggles on local levels as well as galaxy-wide and the existential crises that come in the wake of the end of life-as-we-know-it. While I hope to never stand on a mountainside and watch an alien spaceship descend, Marah and Arwen deal with many of the same issues I do as a woman in 2021. More importantly, they discern the difference between how society dictates they respond as women, and what actions they take when they free themselves of societal expectation. Both characters are complex, both make mistakes, and both bumble into doing at least some good.
I don’t see a mirror when I look inside my book, but rather a facet. One that breaks me apart and builds something new.
4. Speculative fiction clarifies our lived experience
When I meet new people, I usually don’t talk about my writing career right away. We talk about the community group or mutual friend that brought us together, or perhaps a shared hobby. Because I am a middle-aged woman with two kids, new people are often shy about asking what I do. They sense I spend a lot of time at home and don’t want to commit a faux pas by asking about a job if I don’t have one. As such, it’s usually not until later that people discover I write science fiction. And that fact doesn’t always align with the picture they’ve built of me.
“Didn’t you say you studied English literature in college? Like Chaucer and Faulkner? Why would someone so nice and serious—someone who volunteers in the community for Pete’s sake—write rubber monster sci-fi? And excuse me, did you say… ‘aliens’?”
The reason I’m drawn to science fiction and the reason everyone should read it is because speculative fiction gives us the opportunity to examine our society in a way unique to the genre. Just as traveling to a new country opens your eyes to things you’ve never noticed about your hometown and the way your family lives, speculative fiction gives us the opportunity to look at important themes in unfamiliar environments. It allows us to draw conclusions we never would have considered before.
Why does Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale scare us so much? It’s because we see our own world within. Consider N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became. Or Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God. They all build a fictional world that exposes the fault lines of our own society.
Then they ask us what we’re going to do about them. As the stories linger with us, we resist those haunting plot lines. If we don’t, then fiction becomes true with every choice.