Alternative History.

I’m pleased to report that I’ve been given the role of Municipal Liaison for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in Dundee. As well as motivating members, I’m required to arrange meet-ups and participate in the contest. After sending my first bulletin on Friday, we’ve already attracted several new members, and there’s always room for more.

I’m equally pleased to brag that I’ve been accepted onto the MLitt Creating Writing module at the University of Dundee, where The Big Music author Prof. Kirsty Gunn and poet Dr. Jim Stewart will help me to improve my work. I matriculated on Friday and I wrote the first draft of this post on campus while showing off my new student card.

The two tasks together amount to an awful lot of writing work, but they also have a much less obvious connection.

The very first time I matriculated was in 2002 at the University of The West of Scotland, formerly the University of Paisley. During the few days I’d been in town, I quickly became aware of a phenomenon I’d never experienced at home. The people here thought nothing of striking up a conversation with strangers in bus stops, takeaways and even in the street.

That’s how I met Billy. I was leaning on the statue at the entrance sorting out the bundle of papers. He might have asked the time, he might have asked for directions, I really can’t remember. But after a little conversation, he suggested we visit the student union bar. I readily agreed.

As we made the short walk, I told him about my tiring morning. A member of staff had told me dismissively that the university possessed no record I was coming, so I’d wasted a lot of time making phone calls and tracking down documents and that I was indeed supposed to be there.

We passed my bank on the way. I then realised I’d forgotten to pick up my student loan cheque from the university. In the excitement of finding my documents, I’d walked straight out of the door past the finance table.

I stopped to mull over the choices: go back and collect it then, or leave it until the afternoon. This cheque would be the only money I would receive during the first term, so I elected to turn back, telling my new friend just to go on and I’d meet him at the bar. I don’t recall being away very long, but he wasn’t there by the time I arrived. In fact, I never saw him again.

I’d turned 18, completed my final year of school and moved away from home. Going to university marked the start of an independent life for me, so I sometimes wonder how differently it could have been if only I’d left the cheque until the afternoon. Would making the opposite decision have meant Billy and I becoming good friends? Might I have fallen in with a different crowd of people?

And it’s this type of question that I plan to explore in my NaNoWriMo novel, although on a larger scale. Namely, What if the petrol engine hadn’t been invented until 1999? The What if? device is a powerful one in fiction. What if the Germans had won World War 2? What if Charles Babbage had completed his Difference Engine? What if an asteroid hadn’t wiped out the dinosaurs?

I know where I’m going with the start of the book, and I’ve a clear idea how it finishes. It’s just the 49.000 words in between I need to find. To do this, I plan to adopt the same What if? device. I’ll write down the theme on an A1 sheet of paper, and all the words associated with it. For each one, I’ll then ask But what if? and combine it with a little historical research to fill the gaps.

Drawing charts or creating physical artefacts are not my usual method of planning, although for my 2012 piece, I built a model of one of the settings to keep its description consistent. I’m itching to start, but the rules don’t allow you to write the actual story until 1 November, so it’s one of the few things I can do right now.

There’s only a month and a half to wait.

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