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Alternate Life in an Alternate Universe

September 25, 2011

I learned the term “alternate universe” during the time I read Harry Potter fanfiction (I still do that, though now it’s dwindled to following a single author, while for some time after Deathly Hallows came out, I devoured anything I came across, no matter how bad, just because I didn’t want to let those beloved characters go.)

As I became more selective about my fanfic reading, alternate universe stories were the first to go. For the most part, calling a story “AU” was just an excuse to change something the author didn’t like about the Harry Potter series and write something that didn’t have all that much in common with the original books.

Though there were also a few good ones. Stories in which one small “fact” from the books had been changed, and which then explored the larger consequences of that small change.

I’m reasonably sure there are also AU stories following that “rule” – change a little thing and watch the big changes it causes – about the real world, although I can’t for the life of me think of any.

Thinking about this, I realized that many of my own stories, the ones set in what I call the Kivailo World, are also best described as Alternate Universe.

Mostly random picture: Kivailo flag, found in a huge box of Kivailo-related notebooks and file folders

Describing those stories has always been frustrating. The first time I encountered that frustration was during Art class in grammar school, when we were supposed to design a book cover, and had to include a short summary of the story and some other info, one of which was “genre”. The rest of the class made up cheesy romances or parodies of well-known novels (how I wish I remembered those titles – I know they were funny, but I can’t remember a single one.)

I, however, decided to create a cover for a story I had been working on for years at that point, “The Road Is All There Is”. The cover was easy. The summary was easy. But the genre… now that was the frustrating part. I still remember having to walk up to the teacher, who I didn’t like all that much, and having to describe the story to him (which made me feel like the story was pretty stupid… well, it was) and asking what genre he thought it was, all the while avoiding actually using the word “genre” as I didn’t know how to pronounce it.

I don’t know what the teacher told me to write then, but it would all have been so much easier if I’d known the expression “alternate universe” then. And it would have been so much easier so many times afterwards, all those times when I started to talk about a story from that world – “The Road Is All There Is”, “Daughters of Shaomay”, “Masks”… – and had to explain that it was set in a world not quite like ours, but that no, there was no magic, no, it wasn’t Fantasy…

Although the Kivailo World wasn’t created by following the rule of “change a little thing and watch the how the big things change”. Like I said in an earlier post, at thirteen, I was too lazy to either make up an entire world (at least when it was only going to be inhabited by humans – making up planets for the couple of science fiction stories I’d started had been fine), or do the necessary research to set the story I was writing in the real world (actually, I think I was willing to do the research, but didn’t know how – that was years before I started using the Internet, and I was too shy to go to the library or bookshops by myself, and didn’t even know how to find something useful there.)

So at the time I wrote the first version of “The Road Is All There Is”, I just made up a few countries – Tokre, Taresh and Tumay –, decided that they were situated somewhere in central Europe, because that’s where I’m familiar with the climate, fauna and flora, scribbled some maps, gave Tokre and Taresh made-up languages, but because I was too lazy to make up another one, I decided the inhabitants of Tumay spoke German.

"scribbled some maps", indeed... on the left, the first ever map of the Kivailo country*. On the right, an attempt to improve it - I never got further than the rivers and lakes. And I know the writing is upside-down - it was either that or have north at the bottom... I don't know what I was thinking when I made that map.

Even worse, then my characters started referencing to books, movies and politicians that exist in our, the real, world.
But to make all that up, to invent a whole body of literature, music, movies, re-invent all the countries in the world and their governments, their languages… that would be an awful lot of work.

So I decided not to. The Kivailo World would be an alternate universe all right, but I’d do things the other way round. I’d change the big things – squeeze in a few imaginary countries, change the geography a little, add some cultures and languages –and watch how little the small things changed. Keep most of the languages and countries in mostly the same places, keep the literature, the movies, the music, the politicians and other public figures… it’s quite possible that in the Kivailo World version of Austria, there is a Kivailo World version of me just writing a blog post about her imaginary world (which might even be our real world, though I don’t know what would be so exciting about our world that you’d need to make it up to set a story in.). In that Kivailo World version of Austria that would be different from the real Austria in shape, which would border on Tokre in the East instead of Hungary, which would have ten states instead of nine (in addition to Vienna, Upper Austria, Lower Austria, Carinthia, Styria, Tyrol, Salzburg, Burgenland and Vorarlberg, there would be Tumarn, which is what the Tumay of the earliest Kivailo World stories morphed into.)

But there would be a second version of me in that world, too.

Because within that “change the big things, watch the small changes” AU, I set a “change a small thing, watch the big changes” story. A girl as much like me as possible – with the same birthday, the same family and friends, the same classmates, the same house, the same neighbourhood, the same books, the same childhood experiences… only not living in peaceful Austria, but in Tokre, with its government of fanatical Catholics, with racial segregation and terrorism…

I’d always told my Kivailo World stories from the “victims” side – always from the point of view of the Kivailo, Tokre’s darker-skinned, mostly non-Catholic (or not voluntarily Catholic) and systematically oppressed minority. (Cliché much? Probably. But what can I say – I was thirteen when I invented the Kivailo, and I’ve put too much work into their culture, language, history, mythology, religion to change anything now.)

First ever map of Tokre and the surrounding countries - as you can see, I had no access to a scanner or copier then, and had to change the size with the help of a grid, which I never bothered to erase.

With the creation of my Tokrean alter ego, Emma, I meant to explore the life of the white majority, the Ternin. How would be the life of an average middle class Ternin girl differ from an average middle class Austrian girl’s?

I only wanted to explore the little differences. How Emma wouldn’t be able to use public transport or be in crowded places without the nagging fear of a terrorist attack. How the student at her schools and at university would be almost exclusively white. How there would be jobs she wouldn’t even think of taking, because they were lowly, dirty Kivailo jobs. How there would be parts of town you “just didn’t go to”, because that’s where the Kivailo live.

I only wanted to write random scenes from a different life… but Emma had different ideas. Before I even began to write anything down, the story took a different turn. Lying in bed one night, in my dorm room in Vienna, during my unhappy (but thankfully, short) time at university, I thought back to the last weekend, when I’d nearly gotten lost in the snow-covered forest at nightfall. Which led to thinking about the fact that in Tokre, even the forests might be inofficially segregated – that there would be parts of it that a white girl like me just wouldn’t go to, because it was too close to a Kivailo part of town, and vice versa.

Yet, knowing me, who had even sneaked across the motorway bridge to explore the forest on the other side of the river, my alter ego Emma wouldn’t be content with the “Ternin” part of the forest.

So I transferred my own recent experience to Tokre, and let Emma get lost in the snow, in the growing darkness… in the Kivailo forest.

I don’t remember why I made that decision. But it was the point where Emma’s story turned from “random everyday scenes” to “story that I have been working on for years now”. Because, instead of marching on through the undergrowth by herself, as I did, Emma bumped into a group of Kivailo. One of whom declared they couldn’t just leave her there, and she would have to come home with them to warm up.

It’s always hard to explain to a non-writer how things like this just start happening. “But they’re your characters. You’re the writer – you decide what they’ll do,” people have told me. But no, I don’t.

There may be writers who work that way. I’m not one of them, and I know many others aren’t either. I’ve always known my best friend was just the same, and on the NaNoWriMo forums, I’ve met many more writers who’re sometimes completely baffled by their characters’ shenanigans.

And it just got crazier from there. That Kivailo family did not only invite Emma into their house to warm up and eat dinner with them, no, they even let her stay the night when they saw how badly it was snowing. And one of the daughters, Jo, ended up making friends with Emma.

And it got crazier. Emma and Jo kept meeting, mostly in secret. And then they meet Lionno. Who is the craziest of the lot, because he fell in love with Emma.

A Kivailo and a Terne, that’s of course completely unthinkable in Tokre. And yet, it happened. And suddenly, I had a story worth telling. Even more so when I combined it with some events from the first Kivailo world story, “The Road Is All There Is”.

Suddenly, I felt like writing again. I’d spent months absolutely unable to write, first so busy studying for grammar school finals, then so worn out from it that I couldn’t find the energy to work on any stories. But suddenly, there was a story needing to be told, and I was writing again, scribbling away in my notebook during boring lectures, buying separate notebooks, writing, writing…

I always lose interest after a while, and go off to write something else for a while, but Emma’s story, now titled “Masks”, is one of those stories I keep coming back to. I gave up the first draft entirely, but I’m still on the second draft – usually, I’d be on my fifth or so already, never getting further than the first few chapters. Admittedly, I’m still no further than the first few chapters, getting slowed down by messed-up timelines/not being able to decide what year it is. But the time will come when I feel excited about “Masks”, the story of my alternate life, again, and I’ll write again. Actually, I think it’s coming – I’m excited enough to write about writing – actual writing can’t be far off!


I have the suspicion that this whole post may be a little rambly and disjointed, but I’ve had a long day, about seven hours driving a car – which I don’t like at the best of times, and even less so when I’m supposed to learn what to do when said car spins out of control.


* Apparently, I can’t put links into captions, or I would just link to it… looking at that map, I really can’t complain about “Balaia”:

Then again, I was thirteen, which I doubt can be said about the person who came up with this crap map.


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