First, thank you to the mods for the invitation to start up a conversation about AUs. I'm looking forward to hearing everyone's questions and comments, and learning from all of you as much as sharing any insights I have! So, let's get rolling . . .
As I thought about the way I write AUs, I realized there were three very broad guidelines I follow in every instance.
1. Write what you know.
[A Farm in Iowa] came about after a conversation with a friend, in which we tried to imagine John Sheppard and Rodney McKay (two of the central protagonists on the show Stargate: Atlantis) in places we knew incredibly well – fishes out of water, as it were. For my friend, the place she knew best was Berkeley, and resulted in the story [A Supermarket in California]. For me, the place I knew best was eastern Iowa, having just moved away after living there for nine years.
At first it seemed ridiculous to imagine an Air Force pilot and a globally renowned astrophysicist in rural America – and perhaps, to many, it still is. But as I did my research I realized there were a host of hooks on which I could hang the story – a well-respected physics department at the University of Iowa; my knowledge of the university system; a store that sold fantastic coffee beans; a concert hall that premiered music written to sounds captured from space; the frustrations of being cut off from bigger cities, as well as the joy of living in a wide open somewhere.
As I wrote, I knew the towns I described, the roads the characters drove, the places they ate and the people they encountered. I knew where they'd get gas, and the best grocery store for frozen pizza on their drive home. I knew the places cell phone coverage blips out in the country, and the way time runs a little slower outside cities. Iowa, as a place, became as much a character in the stories as John and Rodney themselves – I wanted to describe it in a way that make it a real, living presence, not just an abstract backdrop to the things the characters did.
I cannot imagine I would be any good writing AUs set in cities. I'm not a city girl – I love Chicago and Minneapolis dearly, but to visit, not to stay – and I couldn't paint urban life with any kind of detail. That would, I'm sure, make any story I set there fall flat on its butt.
eta: lamardeuse makes some smart observations about this [below], suggesting that perhaps the better term is 'write what you're grounded in' - however that grounding comes about.
2. Make sure your characters are recognizable.
In every AU that I love, even when the main characters have been transformed into cookies or unicorns (oh, SGA fandom, how I love your crack), their personalities remain true to outlines set up by canon. That's not to say characters don't change – in my own AU, John and Rodney are now parents; that means they're different creatures from the John and Rodney who went off to fight space vampires in another galaxy – but certain bedrock principles of character stay the same. John says little but feels much; he has a troubled relationship to his larger family; he's suspicious of unthinking military decision-making; he's tremendously loyal; he loves risking life and limb, whether it's by flying or climbing up on the roof to fix the shingles. Rodney hates stupidity; he talks at a rate of knots; he's frequently outraged; he's socially inept; he has trouble believing others care about him; he's a genius who doesn't suffer fools. Work out what the bedrock personality quirks of your characters are and maintain them. (That holds especially true when you change their professions. In the Farm stories, for example, Ronon is a poet, not a warrior, and half the joy I take from that is in making him the opposite of his canon self. But he's still taciturn, still dead-pan sarcastic, and still disarms Rodney with what he says and does.) The best AUs are always those where your characters are themselves under different circumstances, rather than different characters written on an unfamiliar stage.
This is a catch-all that likely applies to most writing, not just the writing of AUs, but when you're putting your characters in a non-canon setting, look around you; observe what happens under those circumstances; pin down the details of what goes right and wrong; watch – crucially! – for the comedy.
In my Farm stories, John and Rodney have a son, Finn, who comes into their lives quite unexpectedly. I don't have children, but many of my friends do – I've been a babysitter, kid wrangler, and Auntie Too-Bad (so named for my propensity to shoot down wild ideas like jumping on the couch for an hour with the words 'Too bad!') for a long time. It's my friends' kids who end up in Finn's body, whose crazy thought processes come out of his mouth, whose fearlessness shows itself when he climbs trees and thinks going up in a Piper-J would be the best thing ever. As I wrote Finn I really wanted to capture the overwhelming absurdity that characterizes so much of parenting, as well as the exhaustion, and the fact that many first time parents are baffled by the things their kids do. I write a mostly idyllic life for my characters, but Finn also melts down, has tantrums in the grocery store, unearths quarters in the dirt, and acts recklessly. For me that's because parenting, as I've observed it, isn't about loving your life because your kids are perfect, but loving it because after they've painted your walls with ketchup and smeared marmalade on the cat, thrown a fit in the middle of Target, and told you they hate you because you're so mean, they smile at you with their whole heart in their eyes, and you're absolutely lost. I couldn't know that if I hadn't looked, and hadn't shared my own lost moments as Auntie Soft Heart beneath Auntie Too Bad's exterior.
It doesn't just apply to writing kids – if you're writing a chef, watch how someone handles a knife; if you're writing an artist, watch how they squint at the light. And if you can't watch first hand, do your research – I'd be lost without google and wikipedia and every other means of getting information that we have!
Some of my favorite Stargate: Atlantis AUs
[Romance at the Roadkill Grill] by lamardeuse
[Stars of Track and Field] by unamaga
[Revelations] by trinityofone
[No Refunds or Exchanges] by astolat
[Converging] by purna
[Unidentified] by fiercelydreamed
[House Keys] by dogeared
[Junk Cheap] by devildoll
[String Theory] by toft_froggy
[Escapade] by siriaeve
[The Twenty Year Thaw] by denynothing1.
And so . . .
The floor's open! What would you like to ask? What have you learned by writing your own AUs? What makes an AU work for you? Jump on in.