On Writing Alternate History

There is a maxim that if you write a story set in history, you better be sure your research is meticulous because if you make a mistake, someone is going to let you know about it. However, it doesn’t take much research to realize the truth of another old saw, “history is written by the victors.” To complicate matters further, a lot of people know their history from popular culture such as other fiction books or movies, so sometimes our hypothetical “someone” mentioned at the outset might be complaining about history as they saw it portrayed in a movie, rather than anything they researched in depth.

Alternate history takes on an added dimension because you’re writing about a history that didn’t actually happen. At first cut, this might appear to be freeing because you’re not constrained by history. However, one of the reasons I write alternate history is because I like to consider what might have happened if something in history was nudged a somewhat different direction than actually happened or to imagine what history would have been like if a different element such as vampires or aliens were introduced. To make such alternate history credible, it’s good to be as realistic as possible.

The problem is, you still have the problem that history isn’t necessarily absolute. It’s not that there is no truth to history, it’s just that history is often interpreted through the lens of the person writing about it. Sometimes there’s a blatant agenda to that lens (“history is written by the victors”). Sometimes that history is filtered through social bias, perhaps unconsciously.

Other reasons I might write about alternate history are to comment on issues of the past, or to comment on issues of the present through the lens of the past. Again, both of these require some effort at accuracy to give weight to that commentary. That said, another reason I write alternate history is to spin a rip-roaring good yarn. Doing that, I have to make a judgement call between whether to follow history closely or deviate to suit the story.

My approach to plotting an alternate history story is to start by looking at the time period and location I’m interested in and learn as much as I can about the events going on there. I particularly like to read books and essays written by people living those events. Although Wikipedia is much maligned, I find it a great resource for historical photos of people and places.

Clockwork-Legion

My Clockwork Legion series is set in a world that, for the most part, mirrors our world up until an intelligent swarm of microscopic computers that calls itself Legion starts interfering in the affairs of 1870s Earth. One of the important parts of this statement is “for the most part.” I have allowed some differences in the world of the Clockwork Legion even before Legion’s involvement. I’ve done this for a few reasons. Admittedly one of those reasons is to simplify some plot elements. For example, the railroads are a little further along in the book than they were in history, which allows a little more freedom of movement, but for the most part the bump is by months rather than by years. Allowing the differences also gives me the freedom to make judgment calls on uncertain pieces of history where research and scholarly debate are still ongoing. Finally, it was important to me that Legion didn’t advance humanity by giving them the answers. The point of Legion is that the alien frees humanity’s dreams and saves some steps by helping them avoid mistakes.

I once heard an interview with Isaac Asimov in which he said to write science fiction, you don’t necessarily have to be a scientist or even get the science dead accurate. What you have to do is respect the scientific process and do the homework to make it plausible. I think the same applies to history. I’m a trained astronomer, not a historian, but I respect the work of historians and appreciate the process. Hopefully I’ve avoided making any mistakes, but if I do, hopefully I have enough of my history correct that you can believe the changes are the result of the subtly different world I’m creating.

I hope you’ll take a ride back in time with me and explore the world of the Clockwork Legion. Follow the links below to learn more about the novels.

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5 comments on “On Writing Alternate History

  1. In some ways, it seems like Steampunk is a kind of Alternate History. So Isn’t the point of Alternate History to play with a history where things are different? Whether that be who is in power or social attitudes, if everything is historically faithful, you might not have a Steampunk story at all.

    • You make a good point, Deby. I’d argue, though, that alternate history is a history where many things are still recognizable. Once things have changed sufficiently, you’re no longer writing alternate history, but fantasy. Of course there can be both fantasy and alternate history flavored steampunk. That’s one of the beauties of the genre. I chose to ground my world in one that was very close to ours because I like exploring how close our world might have been to becoming a steampunk world if things had been tipped just a little bit. That said, you’re right, if everything is faithful, then it’s no longer steampunk, or even alternate history, it’s just historical fiction.

  2. abdaley says:

    I like the mix between actual historical events and the fantastical spice. You have to have just the right mix for it to be Alternate History as opposed to fantasy. Personally, I think the best mix is to make the place and people as historically accurate as possible, then just sprinkle in the fantastic. But this is the important part: have the people react as those people would, the more realistic a reaction the better.
    I really like it best when the ‘realistic reaction’ consists of something more than screaming in fear or utter confusion.

    • Thanks for dropping by. Yes, I think we’re very much on the same page. I think the key to getting the reactions right is to pay attention to how people react to new and strange things in real life, which really depends on what those things are and whether they’re beneficial, destructive, or just new. In the case of war machines, just pulling a random example, yes, you might get some people who will run away and scream, but you’ll also get some people who will try to stand up and fight them.

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