Leaving The Old World

(Part 1 of 2. 2 tomorrow.)

I’ve been falling in love with worlds my whole life.

I first visited Oz when I was four years old, thumbing through the first book of Dorothy’s adventures on a hardwood floor in a house with a honeysuckle trellis (its own world).

One day, my uncle led me into a bookstore and said I could pick out anything I wanted. We rounded a corner into the Fantasy section and there they were, all in a rainbow row, tantalizingly out of reach: all fourteen Oz books, the Del Rey paperbacks, carefully numbered and begging to be mine. We carried those books to the counter, and I still remember that, all together, they cost one hundred dollars, which seemed a fortune to me at the time.

We got our money’s worth: I read the covers off those books, quite literally. As I ran through book after book, volume after volume, Oz opened around me like countryside rushing past a backseat window. I could stand in the Emerald City, Magic Picture at my back, and see Oz spread out, all four corners with a Deadly Desert keeping it safe from the outside world.

That outside world is shaky and uncertain; Oz was my bedrock. Friends change and move on; cliques form and exclude; Ozma, Dorothy, Betsy and Trot were my fast friends, and I could and did visit them whenever I wanted. Oz was safe, Oz was magic, Oz was mine.

My next door neighbor had a set of children’s classics she’d lend me from time to time. I read the real, terrifying Pinocchio, and the Swiss Family Robinson. There must have been many more, but they’ve since faded from my memory, because, one day, I lay down across my bed and opened A Study In Scarlet.

I packed up my luxurious bedroom in Oz and moved out.

The fact that I had recently discovered boys was probably not a coincidence.

The Detective was testy, impatient, sometimes full of righteous anger, sometimes casually cruel. He punished evil, and, when he wished, let wrongdoers go free. He died, was reborn, and accepted worshipful admiration as his due.

In short, Sherlock Holmes took me to church.

We lived in his world, not mine. We inhabited the cluttered flat at the top of the seventeen stairs, air choked with the smell and smoke of shag tobacco. I sat quietly in an out-of-the-way corner, hugging my knees, and pitied Mrs. Hudson. Then I followed him down Baker Street, jumped into a hansom cab, and plunged into his Victorian London.

Oz was self-contained, bounded by the uncrossable desert; the world of Sherlock Holmes stretched from Utah to Tibet. I was, again, obsessed; in the days before DVDs, to say nothing of DVRs, I combed over TV Guide every week and set my VCR to record any Sherlock Holmes-related show or movie. In the days before eBay, to say nothing of Amazon, I walked through used and new bookstores and read each and every book spine to find Holmes pastiches and coffee table books and speculations.

For scale, this photo represents less than half my total collection:


There’s a pattern, here, and it continued to repeat itself. Victorian London became Georgian England, the island’s last hurrah before Victoria’s disapproving glare. I pitched my tent in the History aisle and wrote a historical romance that was as authentic as I could make it, gave it a hug, sent it out into the world, and got a series of polite no’s that felt like individual sucker punches. “It probably wasn’t authentic enough,” I thought, and went back to the drawing board for six years.

In sudden bursts of creativity, I wrote 5,000, 10,000, 50,000, 75,000-word projects that stuttered and stalled. I refused to read fiction and, instead, doubled down on history, forcing myself to inhabit a 900-year span of European and American history. I have a book about 18th-century silverware and a 1910 edition of the Memoirs of Madame du Barry, and also dozens more. I have checked out a frightening quantity of library books over the years. I spent three years of unpleasant commutes listening to every pre-19th-century history audiobook I could find, enthralled by some, jerking awake and turning up the air conditioning during others.

And there I was, feeling the weight of history—history as hobby and history as compulsion—lighting my life and crushing me flat. I loved studying history, and spent years of my life making myself hate it.

One day, I left my job and found myself at home.

I stay-at-homed with kids and wandered the back hallways of consulting, until one of my old stories—set in prerevolutionary Versailles and rural New Orleans—drifted back into my consciousness. It played with slavery and race, it was, of course, a romance, and I’d been confused by it because it kept washing up on the shores of fantasy when I was all about making sure spats existed yet and then making sure people were wearing the right kind of spats.

This had happened a few times before, and I kept getting stuck on the spats.

Sumner & Longfellow & Spats

But, this time, I wasn’t really thinking about spats. The world around me kept shifting all over the place and shifting back, and that history I’d studied long enough to probably qualify for a master’s degree was remixing itself and turning upside down.

what if the United States had abolished slavery before racism had time to get hard-coded into law

and what if also the Cistercians had kept using the forge at Laskill and the industrial revolution started during the Reformation

no what if the Cistercian monks were extremely shady and all-powerful but also smart

no wait up what if there never had been any Christianity and there was no United States in the first place

what if magic

There were dozens of directions, and, honestly, the world was getting really…weird. If there had never been any Christianity, for example, there weren’t any churches, and the entire period I had been researching for literally six years…wasn’t. And, for each direction, I’d try to do my customary obsessive researching and fret and get confused and tired.

One day, over dinner, when I was complaining how difficult I was finding it to redesign 1800 years of human history with magic in while somehow making it historically accurate, my husband, who is very clever, said something for which I will be forever and profoundly grateful:

Why does it have to be our world at all?

My brain crashed and I got up and probably did a weird dance.

Then I ran headlong into a new world.

I broke this into two parts. This one is already a novella as it is.Part 2 tomorrow.