I’ve been doing some more brainstorming for the story concept I outlined in my post “A Slice of Life at the Dawn of the Space Age”. I had a bit of an inspiration: why can’t the reclusive landlord (who will have a pale ghostly pallor and demeanor) make like Davy Jones from “Pirates of the Caribbean” and play a creepy organ that resonates throughout the boarding house whenever he plays it? It doesn’t dissuade the boarders much, because he doesn’t disrupt their sleep, and he’s actually pretty good; I’m thinking there’s a ballroom in the boarding house, and the boarders dance to whatever tune their mysterious proprietor is playing, be it a waltz, a tango, or something else completely.
Over time as the leading woman gets to know him she’ll persuade him to make anonymous videos of himself playing his organ (masked?) and post them online. Possibly his organ videos will get about as far as the woman’s blogging efforts, i.e. nowhere, but her and his efforts might bring some more joy into his life regardless and burnish a friendship, the only real friendship he has.
I was also thinking that instead of summer I’ll set it in the winter, over Christmas Night 1941 to be precise, the night of the first launch of a man into outer space, my alternate timeline’s version of Yuri Gagarin’s trip, which the boarders will watch live from their boarding house.
More atmosphere will come from the leading woman impressing upon the recluse the true meaning of Christmas by explaining to him the story of the Christmas Army of 1914, the soldiers who rose up against war and made peace on earth and goodwill toward men. She’ll explain that indeed the space race is their legacy, since the great powers can’t compete by war as much. She’ll inspire him to realize that Christmas is about all that, not about baubles, bows, or families.
The Great Christmas Snow of 1941
All this will take place against the backdrop of a record-breaking snowstorm for Astoria, Oregon, where the boarding house is located. Astoria averages 43 degrees Fahrenheit in December, and only gets 1.4 inches of snow in 2 snowy days in an average winter. But courtesy of its humid climate, when it snows it often pours. The most snow recorded in a 24-hour period is a whopping 12.5 inches on December 11, 1922, so substantial snow over Christmas is a possibility in this location. Why not have a storm like the December 11, 1922 storm instead occur on December 25, 1941?
Sure, it’s a bit contrived for the all-time record snow to occur not only over Christmas but on the same Christmas the first man in space is launched, but there are only 90 days in the cold quarter of the year, so in the grand scheme of things a freak snow happening on December 25 specifically isn’t that weird. South Texas got a landmark snowstorm on Christmas 2004, and Oklahoma City and Tulsa got a blizzard on Christmas 2009. And it might be worth noting the only blizzard warning ever issued in parts of the South came courtesy of a storm in 2012 that hit just one day after Christmas.
I’m thinking the storm will start on Christmas Eve, thus assuring a white Christmas, and will continue pouring down snow for most of Christmas Day, continuing into Christmas Night before it tapers off the next day. The storm will be cold; the minimum temperature Astoria sees in an average December is 27 degrees, so the snow will fall as it stays around that temperature all day; this would be comparable in rarity to the temperatures seen during the snowstorm that hit the Midwest last week, which is honestly my inspiration for this whole idea.
The thought process behind it is that the night will be weird and almost magical, with the confluence of events: the snowstorm, the launch, and the chance meeting of the leading woman and the proprietor.
Worldbuilding early Computing
The landlord playing an organ skillfully is a bit at odds with my previous idea for him to be a computer-addled NEET type…or maybe not. Consider that he might like to play his organ as a change of pace when he gets zonked out from too much computer. This is the early age of personal computers in my universe, so it gives an excellent chance to show some cool user interfaces that didn’t take off in real life. Think steampunk-style bronze-plated computers, Dvorak keyboard layouts, and most especially chorded keyboards, since this is an interface our recluse is already familiar with and would gravitate to.
More potential for worldbuilding tie-ins include the fact that Otto Reinhardt, patriarch of the family I track in my Reinhardt Saga of stories, is number one in the computer chip market. A Reinhardt Industries CPU may well be the heart of our recluse’s machine. I think I’ll go all-out for all the lush description and setting and worldbuilding. Sure, my “story” I have in mind is mostly exposition rather than plot, but who cares? As long as it holds the reader’s attention, right?
The Great State of Tacoma!
Another worldbuilding tie-in would come courtesy of some geography. It’s always irritated me that here in the United States we have a city of Washington and a state of Washington, and many a resident of the state of Washington feels irritated when they have to say “Washington STATE”, which is pretty much all the time outside their own area. Why not correct that in an alternate history, by giving the newer state of Washington its own name?
Interestingly, when the place was first organized as a territory in the 1850s the residents wanted to name it Columbia, after the Columbia River. See also British Columbia, which is also named after the river; what’s now the state of Washington would have been its American counterpart, American Columbia (originally the whole region was one entity, but it was divided by the 49th parallel US-Canada border). But no, Congress said; objections were raised that we couldn’t have a state of Columbia and a district of Columbia, so to avoid confusion with D.C. it was changed to…Washington. Yeah, great job, Congress! /s
In the 1880s there were suggestions that that was a mistake and it should be changed to a yet different name; David Dudley Field II shared my view that local Native American place names should be used wherever possible, and suggested Tacoma for the name of what’s now Washington, after Mount Tacoma (also known as Mount Rainier). In the end the residents preferred being Washingtonians, as they had been for some time by that point, so the place was admitted as the state of Washington.
In an alternate history it’s entirely possible that in the 1930s and 40s there could be a resurgence in favor of the state of Tacoma. In real life, interestingly, this was a time when the idea of redrawing the map of the United States had something of a boomlet. The proposals to craft the state of Jefferson out of northern California and southern Oregon were gaining real traction right before Pearl Harbor was attacked, and the movement to craft a state of Absaroka out of western South Dakota, northern Wyoming, and southeastern Montana had been simmering since the mid 1930s. Both of these movements were killed off by World War II. Alaska and Hawaii statehood also started to gain traction too around this time, and they eventually made it in 1959.
Sure, renaming Washington state to Tacoma has never gotten that much traction, but who’s to say that “redraw the map” energy we saw in our timeline couldn’t appear in the form of “let’s become Tacoma!”? I’m thinking in 1940 the movement becomes strong enough to organize a popular referendum in Washington state, which passes in November, and the Republican state legislature and governor ratify it, along with the federal government recognizing the change too when the new Republican Congress and Republican President Charles Lindbergh are sworn in in 1941. All this could be mentioned when the characters idly talk about the state right across the Columbia River from them.
“This Universe of yours looks like a Nazi Victory Timeline?” “Huh? What’s a Nazi?”
Only relatively recently have I realized that between the mass rocking of Germanic paganism, hippiedom taking over, swastikas popping up here and there, Wunderwaffen-style technology everywhere, and President Charles Lindbergh, not to mention Edward VIII keeping his crown for the duration, my alternate history could be mistaken for a Nazi victory timeline! Well, were it not for the fact that anarchists leap from strength to strength, Germany has a Kaiser (perhaps even Wilhelm II himself, considering he died only in June 1941 in real life; he might even hang on just long enough to see the launch, dying that same night), the Christmas Truce was a watershed event that ended World War I in its tracks, and Russians are a much bigger and more powerful and influential nation along with the rest of the Slavic peoples.
Much of the aesthetic of a Nazi victory is there, even if the historical substance of one is absent; this is even the most realistic outcome of a world like mine where Nazism never happened, considering a lot of Nazi-adjacent ideas, vibes, and aesthetics were swept away in the backlash, a backlash which for obvious reasons doesn’t exist in this timeline.
Between all this, and the fact that Astoria is a much bigger and more diverse city, with a much larger East Asian presence, where the lingua franca is Chinook Wawa, not English (in Cascadia this was actually the case in real life pre-WWI), this story I’m brainstorming will really bring home how my timeline truly is another world even as early as 1941, just four decades after the point of divergence (Tesla inventing the transistor in 1900, though after 1914 is when the divergence really takes off).
I quite like this little story concept, and with the amount of worldbuilding I’ve done that I can incorporate into this tale in a quite natural-seeming way, it may well be the next story I work on. It would have made a fine Christmas story, so it’s too bad I didn’t think of it before now, but I already had a Christmas story for this year, my “Heart of Proxima” novel. Assuming I write it up, maybe I’ll save it for next Christmas! Anyway, it’s been fun enough just thinking about it and writing it up here, and that’s what counts, doesn’t it? 🙂