Today, we concentrate on alternating history. I’m delighted to be hosting Matt Mitrovich, the founder and editor of highly rated Alternate History Weekly Update and a volunteer editor for Alt Hist magazine. His fiction can be found at Echelon Press, Jake’s Monthly, The Masquerade Crew and his own writing blog. When not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the inevitable zombie apocalypse.
Welcome Matt! Tell us how you got started in creative writing?
I’ve been an avid reader most of my life and like most book worms I had the desire see my own name in print. I wanted to see my ideas and characters come to life.
There wasn’t any official path I took to get there. I studied history at Bradley University and law at The John Marshall Law School. I would often write down my ideas, but they were just brainstorming sessions not real writing. I talked about writing a lot to the point where everyone knew about my desire to be an author. It took a co-worker, however, who asked me if I had actually written anything to make me realize I wasn’t following my dream.
In 2011, I finished my first short story, which has sadly never seen the light of day. Still your first try is usually not that good and I have had more success with follow-up works such as A Perfect Hell on Earth and Revenants in Warfare.
So what drew you particularly to alternate history and specifically steampunk? And can you remember the first alternate history story you read?
It was a combination of my love of history and science fiction. History was my favourite subject in school. I got in the most trouble with the teachers during history because I would read ahead and not pay attention to where the class was. My teachers couldn’t complain too much, however, since I always got As on the tests.
Then there was reading. I love the classics, but sometimes I feel we force them to early on kids before they can appreciate them. Reading was tough for me until I started getting into science fiction. It began with Animorphs and the Star Wars expanded universe and dovetailed from there. It was only a matter of time before my two loves met.
That was on one fateful day when I arrived at a book store at River Oaks Mall near my home. I had every intention of getting a new Star Wars book that day, since I just finished one in a series and wanted to get the next instalment. Before I could leave with my prize, however, I saw the cover of Worldwar: In the Balance by Harry Turtledove.
I knew enough about World War II to realize that this picture was very, very wrong. There was no way Adolf Hitler or Winston Churchill would ever take a picture life this, especially in front of a gun that was not from the war…or this planet. Intrigued, I picked up the book and checked it out, learning it was about an alien invasion during World War II.
I probably never read a book faster. For a couple days it was all I did with my free time. It was an amazing book and completely sold me on alternate history. Afterwards I began searching for more information about alternate history and continued to read the rest of the Worldwar series and other books in the genre. A new hobby quickly became an obsession.
My discovery of steampunk isn’t as exciting. Steampunk often goes hand in hand with alternate history so I was always aware of it. During college I became a student of the European Imperialism of the 19th and 20th centuries, which is the prime historical period for most steampunk works. It was only recently that I began to read more of the genre. It has its hits and misses, but when it hits it hits hard.
You’re the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update. Tell us a little what it is and why you started it.
Alternate History Weekly Update is a group blog providing news, reviews and opinions on alternate history and related genres. We are always accepting submissions for article and we sometimes hold contests, like our DBWI writing contest running in June. Next month we are celebrating our two year anniversary.
Two years of constant blogging and I couldn’t be more thankful for the opportunities it provided. It finally allowed me to get the confidence to write my own fiction, it introduced me to wonderful and intelligent friends and it helped me enter the larger world of fandom with my new gig blogging for the relaunched Amazing Stories.
Why I started The Update is difficult to explain. Two years ago I worked as a contract attorney, doing temporary e-discovery assignments for companies and firms around the Chicago area. It certainly was not what I expected to be doing out of law school. While I was grateful to be paid while still working in the industry, I felt like I had little control over my own life. My wife said there were days where I came home irritated, depressed and generally miserable. I needed to do something just to stay sane.
As I mentioned before, writing had come back to the forefront of my mind after a co-worker had called me out on all my big talk. Thinking of something to write about, however, seemed like a daunting prospect. I didn’t have any ideas for stories. I wanted to write alternate history and thought I could post short scenarios and see what people thought. I would post it to my own blog so I could make the rules and not be under the thumb of a moderator or administrator.
Turns out blogs like that are dime a dozen. I wanted something different and unique. I thought hard and realized something. There was no single place to get general information about the genre itself. Most SF websites will cover an alternate history work at some point, but it is rare and they are often ignored by most genre fans. Even worse, the forums and wikis alternate historians congregated at seemed to be full of people who professed a love of the genre, but were ignorant of the people, works and story of the genre.
So I set out to rectify that problem. I wanted to keep people up to date, but I wanted to start slow. I decided to post a summary of week’s alternate history news just once a week. It wasn’t a stretch after that to call it “Alternate History Weekly Update”. Afterwards, I was amazed to discover how easy it was to write an article once a week. Last June I was writing 10 articles a week. Now, however, I have found a more sustainable goal of 5 articles a week. This allows me to turn my attention to other projects…and keeps my wife happy.
How do you research the technical and historic background to your stories?
I use the Internet mostly. I always found Wikipedia to be a good starting point, but it is never the end of my research. I also have a collection of relatively up to date historical textbooks that I found helpful and there is always the rare occasion I actually stop by a library…although I tend to get lost in the used book section where you can get as many books as you want for a quarter donation each.
To plot or not to plot? Are you a planner or do you just dive in?
You would think with my law background I would outline everything like I did for all the papers and briefs I wrote, but no I just dive right in and start writing. There are times I don’t even know how the story is going to end, but as you flesh out your characters and setting you will usually see there is only one logical destination.
What is the hardest part of the writing process for you?
Actually starting. I know a lot of people, including myself at one point, who talk about wanting to write a novel or a script, but when you needle them about when they are going to do it they give you every excuse in the book about why they can’t. Writing can be difficult, but to actually get the courage to start it can sometimes be nigh impossible.
Which authors have influenced you?
Harry Turtledove obviously gets a lot of credit for turning me onto to alternate history, but guys like SM Stirling and Eric Flint have had a greater influence on how I actually write it. I know a lot of people don’t think highly of Stephen King, but I haven’t found anyone who can write such realistic character dialogue as he can. I also have to give a shout out JK Rowling, Aaron Allston and Alastair Reynolds.
Tell us a little about your story that’s about to be published.
It is a steampunk retelling of the classic fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk and is called The Enchanted Bean. Here is the description from the back of Once Upon a Clockwork Tale:
How do you reach a fabled land of giants without any magic beans? Build an airship, of course. A British adventurer takes to the skies seeking wealth and glory, instead he finds ancient gods ruling an oppressive flying kingdom. With the help of their allies, these former masters of men want to replant the World Tree and rebuild their war machines. To stop the sky from falling, our hero will have to do more than chop down a beanstalk.
I really enjoyed writing this tale. Although it is more “pulp” than “punk”, I think readers will enjoy this adventure tale that pokes fun at some of the common steampunk tropes.
What are you working on next?
I have another short story called “Road Trip” being published by The Masquerade Crew this summer in a time travel anthology. More information on that to be announced.
After that I am finally going to sit down and try writing a novel-length story. I don’t want to give too much away (or fall into the mind trap of talking about writing instead of doing it), but it is a space opera set in the far future.
Thought I was going to write an alternate history? Nah, I’m too weird for that.
And finally, what advice would you give a new writer?
Don’t be disappointed if you are not the next Shakespeare. For every Mozart there are millions of Antonio Salieris. There are best-selling authors out there who wish there hands could dance over the keyboard like some of the greats. To paraphrase Stephen King, most people are competent writers, but it takes hard work to become a good writer and you need to win the genetic lottery to be a great writer. Work hard, keep improving yourself and have plenty of patience.
A great piece of advice to finish on!