How to write alternate history?

AC – This short article talks about how to write stories about alternate history. Alternate history stories are the ones that are set in the universe where something in our past is changed and that timeline proceeds on a different course. I personally like this stories. So, if you’d like to write some and send it to me, I would love to give you feedback on it. 🙂

Alternate history, or as historians sometimes like to refer to it, counter factual fiction, is a sub genre of science fiction that tells a story set in a universe in which history proceeded on a different course. Lots of people like to read alternate history. Lots of people aspire to write it. There are, however, certain rules and guidelines one should follow if one is to write alternate history successfully. These go beyond the usual stuff about plot, characterization, and description.

(A) Try to avoid alternate histories that are common and have been done before. These include the oldies but goodies of the Axis winning World War Two and the Confederacy winning the Civil War.

(B) The aspiring writer of alternate history can ignore Rule (A) is he or she has an original take on the scenario being depicted. Remember that the alternate history scenario is just the setting for your story. There can be an infinite number of interesting stories told in any alternate universe just as there are in this one.

(C) Do your research, especially if your story is close to what is called the “point of departure”, i.e. the event that changes to cause the alternate history. Even though the history you are depicting has never happened, it will have roots at some point in real history. Mistakes in detail, which can be anything from confusing officer ranks in the Nazi SS to modes of speech in 18th Century Paris, will be noticed.

(D) When depicting historical characters, have them behave true to their actual personalities. One example is in my own alternate history novel, Children of Apollo. The premise of the novel is that in 1969 President Richard Nixon decides to expand the space race against the Soviet Union. I do not have him do so because he suddenly became a science fiction fan or cared a whit about space exploration. Nixon does what he does for real politick reasons that he cherished in real life.

(E) Rule (D) can be ignored if you can convincingly demonstrate some event or changed circumstance that changed a historical person’s character from that of real history. An example might be having Adolf Hitler admitted to art school and, having picked up some training, becoming a celebrated artist. Such a Hitler would have fewer resentments and less of an incentive to-say-become Fuehrer of Germany, launch World War II, and kill fifty million people.

(F) Make sure that your point of departure is plausible. Do not, for example, have Archimedes invent the microchip. He might, instead, find a way to use steam power for a more practical purpose than opening the doors of temples, as Heron of Alexandria did. The outcomes of battles are often used as a point of departure. If you have another side than the one in our history winning, make a plausible case for it.

(G) Make sure that the course of your alternate history is plausible. Having a Roman Empire that has survived to have an industrial revolution and yet still retains wide spread slavery is somewhat implausible. Having people or countries behaving in bizarre, uncharacteristic ways, just because of a point of departure, is also something to be avoided.

(H) Finally, read other alternate histories, the good and the bad, of which there are plenty. You’ll soon get a feel of what works and what does not.

There! I hope you find it helpful. If you want to send some stories I will read them and publish them right here on Scifirama. Think about it!


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