Through a funhouse mirror: the challenge of building alternate histories

Guest Post by Andrew Knighton 

Andrew has had stories published before in Alt Hist and has a new story for us coming up in Alt Hist Issue 7. Here he gives his thoughts on how to write alternate history.

Writing alternate history is an act of world building. Like science fiction and fantasy literature it involves creating a world like our own but different. Unlike science fiction and fantasy, alternate history is about the challenge of creating a setting that plausibly could have been. It is an act of adaptation rather than raw creation, taking the world and reflecting it as if in a funhouse mirror, distorted and yet familiar. That creates a unique set of challenges.

The right place to start

Most alternate history starts with a single jumping off point. This can be tightly specified, as when Josiah Ober explored the early death of Alexander the Great in Robert Cowley’s What If? collection. It can also be broader – I explored a Europe colonised by the Aztecs in one of the stories in From a Foreign Shore.

Whatever the jumping off point for your story, one of the challenges is getting it across without resorting to heavy handed exposition. This can come from showing the moment when everything changed, or it can come more gradually. Either way, that moment and its consequences should ripple through the setting, giving it its other-worldly element and reminding the readers of what has changed. You are faced with the challenge of asking ‘what about this world would be different, and how?’

This is further complicated by having two sets of readers – those who know the real history you’re deviating from, and those who don’t.

Being accessible

Readers unfamiliar with the real details are in some ways the easiest to please. Everything in the story is new to them, and they won’t be picking apart the real from the unreal, the convincing changes from the less plausible ones, the deliberate differences from the errors in your research.

But what they also won’t do is fill in the gaps as more knowledgeable readers would, or take an interest just because it’s about that moment in real history. You have to show them how the world hangs together and give them a reason to care about this world, regardless of its relationship with our own.

Ignoring that challenge can leave alternate history in a ghetto, accessible only to aficionados. Getting it right can create widespread appeal.

Being consistent

For the knowledgeable reader you have to go the other way, sweating the minutiae of your world. You won’t have created an alternate history consistent with their vision – no two imaginations are the same – but you can be consistent within your world and consistent with what’s known of history.

This is where research becomes important. If your story follows the triumph of the Spanish Armada, as described by Geoffrey Parker in another What If? article, then you need to know what sort of man Philip II was so that you can consistently show how he would have followed up on that victory. You need to know how many of the Spanish might have spoken English, how they would have been supplied, what their invasion plan was. You’re not writing about the real world, but by writing alternate history you’re claiming to spin out from it. There will be readers who know those details and who feel alienated when you get them wrong.

The writer’s tightrope

You’ll never please all of the readers all of the time. But as long as you’re aware of the challenges you face, you increase your chances of creating a plausible alternate history.

From a Foreign ShoreAbout the Author:

Andrew is a freelance writer based in Stockport, England, where the grey skies provide a good motive to stay inside at the word processor. His collection of history and alternate history stories, From a Foreign Shore, is available through Amazon and Smashwords. He blogs about books, film, TV and writing at andrewknighton. com and can be found on Twitter as @gibbondemon .

One thought on “Through a funhouse mirror: the challenge of building alternate histories

Leave a Reply