How Do I Introduce Alternative World Aspects?

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How can I seamlessly incorporate my fantasy world into the real world we experience today, especially without info dumping? For example, adding cities/towns to an already well-known city? A country to the globe? Even more specifically, I’m thinking of making Washington DC a state in my story? I ask this question because, as long as you are working the real world into your story, readers will nitpick realism.

Hey Kathryn, thanks for writing in!

The question of how to incorporate speculative elements into a world is a big one, so big that I can’t really answer it in a single Q&A. First, I’d recommend reading a few of our articles that touch on the topic.

In your case, it depends a lot on how different your world is from the real world. If DC being a state is the only difference, it’s no problem. Congress could make that happen today if they wanted to. You just have to find a reason to establish it early in the story, and your readers won’t have any trouble.

The same is true when creating a fictional town. Readers will generally accept that without too much trouble. An entire city might be a bit of a problem, since there’s a limit to how many cities can realistically fit into a given area of the country. Inventing a fictional country runs into slightly problematic territory, as American readers will generally accept a fictional country in Eastern Europe or Africa, but will get weirded out if you just plop a made-up country between the US and Canada.

If you’re going more complicated, like extrapolating out what 2020 would look like if Germany had won WWI, then the best thing to do is establish your point of divergence early in the story. Find a reason for characters to be talking about Germany’s victory on the Western Front or what have you. At that point, readers will generally accept that anything different is the result of historical divergence.

Hope that answers your questions, and good luck with your writing!

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  1. Cay Reet

    Yes, if you only want to make Washington DC a state, that’s easy enough to establish. You can do that in a dialogue or simply through a small information dump as your POV character arrives in Washington DC or gets ready to go there. If there’s more, it would be a good idea to introduce stuff slowly and not too far ahead.

  2. SunlessNick

    Find a reason for characters to be talking about Germany’s victory on the Western Front or what have you.

    I can’t remember what it was called, but there was an urban fantasy novel set in York, where history diverged in 1911 with the appearance of supernatural beings. It began with a prologue that was a brief speculation by an in-universe historian predicting how the 20th century would have been “different” had this emergence not happened – which of course tells the reader how the setting’s history is different.

    • Cay Reet

      I’m sure it wasn’t the novel you’ve referred to, but the Thursday Next series also does it to a degree – in this one, the Germans have held England for a while during WWII and there’s buildings from the occupation left. There’s, of course, a lot more difference from our world, what with time travel being a thing (Thursday’s father is a rogue time traveller) and technology being different – and books being very, very important.

      • SunlessNick

        In the one I’m thinking of, WWII didn’t happen at all.

  3. SunlessNick

    One thing you can do is tie a fact to that wouldn’t be common knowledge to one that is, so that you can have character explain the former while referring to the latter, rather than having an “as we both know” moment about the latter.

    In the case of DC, one person could tell another about a law that was on the same bill as the one granting statehood.
    Or, since one of the reasons for DC not being a state was so that the seat of federal government wouldn’t be in a state, perhaps section 150 of the bill granting it statehood was that the White House and Capitol would technically not be part of DC, and the fences around them would count as state borders. But a character mixes up section 150 with 115, prompting another to correct them – allowing you to explain that, getting across that DC is a state, and explain what section 115 is if you need another provision of the statehood law to matter. It’s also an opportunity for the characters to make clear whether this exclusion is taken seriously or as a legal fiction no one really buys.

  4. Lorenzo Gatti

    It’s often possible to be vague enough to allow the fictional places to slip away from precise historical and geographical references without losing useful background and stereotypes.
    For example, China Miéville’s “The City & the City” appears to be set today, in the real world, in some unidentifiable uncanny corner of eastern Europe where SPOILER happened: it doesn’t matter where, because nothing remotely similar ever happened in any real city, but having a general setting provides a lot of atmosphere and expectations about technology, places, objects, character behaviour in oppressive circumstances, and so on.

    Islands that keep to themselves, from R’lyeh to assorted strongholds and mutant havens in superhero comics, are another popular strategy. Ships and airplanes going to one more destination don’t stretch disbelief.

  5. Innes

    Also, people nitpick about dumb stuff all the time, but that doesn’t mean that your story and worldbuilding isn’t good. Youtube is full of thinkpieces about all the plot holes in Marvel or DC or Star Wars, and some of those are even genuine problems, but it doesn’t stop lots of people from loving these franchises.
    Go forth with confidence.

  6. Maria

    I came here to wave my non-specific “easter-european-but-really-central-cause-the-east-is-mostly-russia” flag. Please, for all of us, make up a state in the middle of the USA, I promise we won’t bat an eyelid.

    • Bellis

      Another European here who would not bat an eyelid about another US state

      Then again, I don’t mind fictional European countries either, even ones that probably border on my country.

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