Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Laura Anne Gilman and Silver on the Road: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary!

We had a great time this week! We were joined by author Laura Anne Gilman to talk about her new book, Silver on the Road. Laura described the book as a historical fantasy in a divergent American West, in which the Devil stopped the Louisiana Purchase.

She says she prefers to describe this as "divergent history" rather than "alternate history." She says the divergence point is right around 1600 during DeSoto's exploration. In actual history he dies at the Mississippi river but his explorers continue on; in the book's version of history, a force stops the explorers at the river.

The story of Silver on the Road starts in 1801. At this point all governments and militaries are held back by "the Devil" from entering the territory that made up the Louisiana purchase. The Devil is not exactly the devil - it's clear that this is a nickname given to him by outsiders. He's known for hosting an honest card game in the town of Flood, and that's about all people know about him.

I asked whether there was a map in the book. Laura Anne said there was, but that she's not a fan of maps and would prefer for people just to go by the text. The area covered in the book is a reimagining of North America and Central America. Spain possesses Mexico, New Mexico, some of Texas, adn California. The United States exists, but stops at the Mississippi river. Louisiana is the Devil's territory. Washington hasn't been claimed. This area is huge, and full of all sorts of different terrains; it is also occupied by a lot of native tribes. Laura Anne has done a fascinating job exploring what the territory would look like without acquisition by the US.

Laura Anne told us she was a history major specializing in pre-1930's American political history. This was clearly a useful foothold into the information she used for this book!

She said at the beginning she knew far less about the physical aspects of the territory that come across so powerfully in the book. She says, "I've actually used the words 'flyover country' unironically." In order to research the book, she took a road trip through Kansas up to Colorado Springs, looking specifically for areas of restored or untouched land. Boots on the ground lets you discover more, including smells and feels, and the immense quiet that people must have experienced in this era, when you could travel for days without seeing anyone. She joked that this book is "epic fantasy with a cast of four."

When she could, she talked to people. One of the difficulties with the research was that the native people who currently live in these areas are not the ones who lived there originally, because of our history of displacement and genocide. She was specifically looking for oral traditions and would ask for stories, and for "the oldest tradition you can think of." Researching without a written record is very challenging, especially since there was huge change in this region in the 1830s, and most of our recorded knowledge comes from after that period. Laura Anne says, "Next time, I'm picking something well documented, with photos." She tries to use original names and histories, and hopes she doesn't get it wrong in ways that are obvious.

"I stole a lot from magical realism," she says. The feature of magical realism she picked out was the way that everyone is already immersed in the cultural milieu, and everything is so well understood that they would not think of questioning it. There is no "let me explain this to you," and no infodumping. She wanted to keep it as organic as possible.

She also played with expectations. "The Devil," also known as "the boss," cares for his people. You trust him, though you're not sure why, and not really sure if you should.

The magic system in the book is very organic, and I mentioned our earlier discussion with Silvia Moreno-Garcia where we talked about organic magic systems. Laura Anne explained that there is a physical basis for the magic in Silver on the Road, but it is expressed through culture. In this era, people haven't felt the urge to codify it. Very often it takes the form of a list of things one needs to remember in order to survive. For example:

  • Beware of demons because they are a pain in the ass, and also deadly.
  • Beware of crossroads, because they build up power because of the passing of people.
  • Beware of magicians, because they are "batshit crazy" with no civility or common sense. You should always run from them and let them prey on each other.
  • Always get permission before going into native territory, and behave like a good neighbor.
These are the kinds of things that you would teach your kids.

In the east (read: the US as we know it in 1801) these natural powers have been tamped down by too much science and too much civilization. Magical powers are uncommon outside the Territory. If you don't acknowledge it or teach it, it disappears. Fear pushes magic down. Laura Anne specifically mentioned the witch trials as something that would have forced magic down in this world.

Animals are very interesting in this book. There are wolves, bears, bison - which Laura Anne calls "buffalo" because that was the word that people used for them during that period - lots of mammals, birds, and insects. Most are actual animals, though the Reaper hawk was one she amended in a logically feasible way.

Laura Anne described blending the cultural myths of north and central America. Some of the myths she referenced are south American, and some are from northern Canada. She called it "my attempt to write a mythology that was entirely north and central American."

People in the book are very diverse and speak all kinds of languages. There is very little German, French, or English. There is more Portuguese, Spanish, Canadian French, and more Amerindian languages like Metis.

Laura Anne told us that she was trying to use historically accurate words and terms from the old West prior to 1810. She recommended the Online Etymology Dictionalry and said she had a bookmark of about 9000 websites from her research. She tried to learn about the first documented use of a word, and thought about how long it would take for the word to move west into the territory from its origin. She had to be careful about sourcing loan words and words for locations. Some of the native words for locations came from tribes that were displaced into an area rather than those who lived there originally.

One thing she noted was that the native tribes had areas in which they lived, but there was a lot of movement. She had to be very careful about the placement of towns. One book she recommended was Looking East from Indian Country, which talks about the history of migration into the West from the point of view of the peoples already living there. Laura Anne said "it reset my brain."

I asked about the title, Silver on the Road. She said she'd initially called it The Devil's West, or The Devil's Left Hand. The first one of those became the series title. She told us that in first drafts, she doesn't write the final scene. She discovered this title (Silver on the Road) well into later drafts, and thought it had no chance with the publisher, but in fact it was accepted.

Book 2 in this series is tentatively called "The Cold Eye." Laura Anne told us she learns as she goes. She's usually a plotter, but in this book she said she discovered a new level to add in with every pass through the revisions. She said it felt like learning a new way to write.

Silver, in the book, is a cleanser. It can also be used to indicate power buildup, as in the case of a crossroads. The territory's currency is silver coins cut into quarters. Only a Marshal has the power to cleanse a crossroads. Silver tarnishes if the area is unsafe, so everyone who travels on the road carries a bit of silver as a talisman.

The book, from concept to publication, took more than two years. Laura Anne said it was very challenging to find someone who could support it. However, it is now out! Book 2 has been drafted, and Book 3 is being planned. She has written two short stories in this world, "Crossroads," and "The Devil's Jack."

Laura Anne, thank you for joining us and telling us about your awesome book! Here's the video if you'd like to get more detail on our discussion. Next week's hangout will be on Wednesday, October 21 at 10am, and we'll be discussing Idioms. I hope you can join us!



  1. Fascinated by what was involved especially with the native peoples, as I am facing a similar challenge with a prospective novel set in an alternative Canada, where some of the original tribes survived.

    The Spanish Seaborne Empire was a major area of study, when I studied history, and I have always been interested in 'divergence' in the progress.

    I had to add Silver on the Road to my Must Read list.

    1. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, Roland. Good luck with your research and your project.