The website of the historical fiction writer.

Alternative History

The final workshop I attended at the Conference was all about Alternative History, something that is very interesting to me as that is going to form the basis of my next novel! When will it be set? You’ll have to watch this space to find out!

The workshop was led by Christopher M. Cevasco, a writer from the United States who has finished writing a novel set in an alternative 1066. Hopefully it will get published soon as it sounds very interesting.

Alternative history is a genre that is fairly new to these shores but fairly well established in the US, although there are some bestsellers here such as Robert Harris’ Fatherland, Len Deighton’s SS-GB and the 1960s film It Happened Here. However, asking ‘what if’ has always been a question people have asked and was a popular game in the nineteenth century. Topics such as ‘what if Harold had won at the Battle of Hastings?’, or ‘What if Boudicca had driven the Romans out of Britain forever?’ or ‘What about Napoleon having a BFG 9000 from Doom?’ (although these probably weren’t around in the Nineteenth century but what if…) Two periods of history stand out more than others, one being the Nazis winning the Second World War and a Confederacy triumph in the American Civil War. Like the popularity with Romans and Tudors here, this shows the effects of education on the writing market.

So, how does one go about writing an alternative history? Well, first of all you need to pick a period of history, choose a key event and change the outcome, such as William the Conqueror getting an arrow in the eye or Bonaparte unleashing huge storms of antimatter, Doom-style at Waterloo. (I should, by the way, point out that we did not discuss the use of weapons from popular computer games of the 1990s in history. I’ve just used them myself as examples.) Changing the outcome of a battle, a court case or a religious event is known as the point of divergence, diverging from known historical fact.

The author’s next task is to build a world that shows the possible effects from the point of diversion. One example is 1960s Britain under the Nazis where Edward VIII is re-crowned and popular bands are writing patriotic songs about the Fuhrer. Although you have free-reign on how this works out, the challenge is to make this believable.

So what isn’t alternative history? Hidden or secret histories (such as The Da Vinci Code) are not this as they happen behind the scenes and do not affect history. The same goes for personal histories (It’s a Wonderful Life) but the principle is very similar. Supernatural history and parallel worlds and tales with aliens changing events, like Doctor Who, may have these elements but they are science fiction or fantasy. An important fact to remember is science fiction is set in a different world in the future while alternative history is the same world in the past.

So, that is pretty much it for my conference posts! My thanks go to all those who made this a great conference and all the help and advice I received. The goody bags were really quite something, too! I wish everyone there well in their writing and look forward to the next gathering.

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2 responses

  1. Hi James, these posts were very interesting. Thanks for writing up and sharing the conference with us:o)

    11/10/2012 at 7:46 pm

    • James Bicheno

      No problem Jan! Thank you for your kind words. Glad you enjoyed the posts!

      12/10/2012 at 4:05 pm

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