WHEN WE HEAR the term, "speculative fiction," we often think of that "what-if" cousin of science fiction, the genre that has produced novels such as Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (in which an emissary from earth is sent to a world in which people are essentially genderless, and he finds he himself incapable of relating to them unless he thinks of them as either man or woman).
But when you think about it, the vast majority of novels are "what-if" to a certain degree.
For instance, every historical romance falls into this category: the writer is speculating on what would happen if two individuals were to meet at a particular point in time. And many of today's most successful suspense novels operate against historical frameworks. The Da Vinci Code is the most well-known example.
My 2004 novel, Deep Blue, revolved around a background character referred to in diaries only as "W." a character that the heroes of my story later discover is none other than—spoiler alert here—John Wilkes Booth, the 19th-century actor and assassin of Abraham Lincoln.
Booth was not only an integral part of the novel; I chose him because, after reading a little about him, I decided he was the perfect element around which to build a story.
To begin with, there was his name. While "John Wilkes Booth" was the name that appeared on playbills around the country, to his family, friends and close associates, Booth was called invariably by his middle name, "Wilkes." So, by referring to him as "W" in documents, I could be accurate without giving his identity away too early.
Next, there was the fascinating time in which Booth lived—not only the American Civil War, but the period that preceded it, in which the Gold Rush of 1849 created a nation that was populated on both coasts, but still wilderness in much of its interior. It was a time when the fastest way to ship goods from San Francisco and New York was to sail to what is now Panama, offload the goods onto mule train, cross the isthmus, and then reload onto another ship for a run up the East Coast (after a coaling stop in Cuba).
Next, there was the fact that Booth loved grand plots. His assassination of Lincoln was not the lone act of a madman, as it is often portrayed, but part of a grand scheme in which several assassins were supposed to eliminate the entire head of the Union government. As it turned out, only Booth killed his target: one of his co-conspirators lost his nerve at the last minute, and the rest were unsuccessful.
Fourthly, there was the fact that Booth was such an enigma. There are huge periods in his life in which historians are still uncertain where this son of the world's most famous acting family was, or what he was doing.
And finally, there are the persistent rumors that the individual killed in the tobacco barn on April 26th of 1865 was not Booth, and that he lived on for several more years.
Based around these facts and rumors, I carefully constructed an alternate history for Booth. Given his love for grand plots, I thought it logical that Booth could be part of a pre-Civil-War scheme to bankrupt the Federal government by hijacking a shipment of gold—upon which the value of the dollar was based at the time—and then using the gold to manipulate the market. I used one of the gaps in his life to account for this, and had him and his stolen gold fall victim to a hurricane, causing a shipwreck in the Bahamas from which only he survived. Then I had him live on for years after the Lincoln assassination, assume a new identity, marry, and die in yet another shipwreck ... leaving his widow enormously wealthy.
To do this, I kept a notebook in which I recorded where the real Booth was during various years of his life, and then filled in the enigmatic holes with stories of my own invention. To keep track of what was real and what was invented, I used black ink in that notebook for the fact and blue for the fiction.
Was I successful?
Well, after the book came out, I got several emails from amateur historians who were very excited about the "new information" I'd discovered on Booth. I almost felt bad when I wrote back and told them that Deep Blue was a novel and I'd made it all up.
Everyone daydreams. And "what if" is the stuff of most daydreams: we all ponder what would have happened if we'd lived in another time, gone to another school, married differently, or bought a thousand shares of Apple when the stock was selling for $22.00.
From there it's not hard to put "what-if" to work. Focus those speculations on a time and a place in which people are interested, and you just may have yourself the basis for an interesting novel.