The Summerhall Historical Fiction Festival in Edinburgh – Review by Paul F Cockburn

Lucy Ribchester speaking with Lee Randall
Lucy Ribchester speaking with Lee Randall

The third Summerhall Historical Fiction Festival began with a simple question: why history? Amiable old trooper Allan Massie – author of rather a lot of good historical fiction – launched this year’s three day festival hosted by Edinburgh’s Summerhall arts centre, with an appreciation of the historical novel’s hybrid nature. Not only is it both fiction and history, he said, it’s also – paraphrasing Robert Louis Stevenson – both “dramatic” (focusing on people’s conduct) and “romantic” (concentrating on the circumstances which affect them).

Some critics see this as an inherent weakness, but for Massie (relaxed, as if delivering a fireside talk – though the venue was sadly lacking the warmth of a real fire) the greatest historical novels simply remind us how events in the past were once the unknowable future, and that the people involved were living beings “of flesh and blood” with desires, beliefs and dreams just as real and valid as our own.

Massie pointed out that writers of historical fiction enjoy one comfort denied most other authors; they don’t have to worry about “what happens next”. Yes, they still have to work hard to create on the printed page the semblance of living, breathing people within what feels an authentic world. They still have to fill in the details, to actually get people from point A to point B. But knowing what the plot has to be can be a relief.

However, Massie also insisted that writers of historical fiction – unlike historians – must necessarily conceal that knowledge as much as possible, if only to help persuade their readers that the characters they’re reading about are just like ourselves, uncertain of what tomorrow will bring and how events will turn out. Almost immediately, however, Robert Fabbri – currently seven published novels into his life of the largely overlooked Roman emperor Vespasian – pointed out that his central character was allegedly aware of certain omens made at his birth. While a cynical historian might suggest that many “omens” were later ad-hoc biographical additions made for propaganda purposes, Fabbri insisted that he had to take into account how his character’s belief in his assured destiny would genuinely influence many of the decisions he would make throughout his lifetime.

Both authors agreed, however, that it was important for historical fiction writers to stick, as much as possible, with the known facts – unless they were quite deliberately writing “counter-factual” narratives. “If a fact doesn’t fit the plot, it’s the wrong plot,” Fabbri insisted. Yet he also conceded that, if he was sure from all his research that there was nothing to suggest something didn’t occur, then all bets were off. For example, with no evidence to the contrary, he just couldn’t resist putting his soldier hero in Roman Britain during the Boudicean Revolt.

Research is important for any writer, but especially that of historical fiction. Douglas Jackson, author of the Hero of Rome novels, explained on Sunday how each new book had been inspired by some fact or idea he’d unearthed while researching its predecessor. But how much research should a writer do? Speaking on Friday, Catherine Czerkawska, currently writing a novel about Joan Armour (the wife of Robert Burns), insisted that an author must eventually stop researching in order to write the fiction, after which they then realise what research they still need to do!

Lucy Ribchester, whose debut novel The Hourglass Factory linked the suffragette movement with the world of circus and music hall, went even further on Sunday afternoon: she said that an author almost had to forget all the research they’d just done in order to “create something else”. That said, she accepted it was “gutting” not be able to get all the facts and information she’d unearthed into her novel – some writing could just be “too history heavy” for its own good, while other ideas would, if lucky, turn up in some of her short stories.

In any case, “there are more important things about historical fiction than getting every single fact and detail right,” Ribchester insisted. Iain Gale, who has written fiction, history and “faction” books about the Battle of Waterloo, would certainly agree: on Saturday he pointed out that factual inaccuracies don’t automatically spoil the effectiveness of a book or film. Yet he does remain concerned when certain deliberate falsehoods – which first appeared in somewhat biased historical fiction – essentially become the most publicly recognised history through their unconsidered repetition.

200 years on, according to Gale, Waterloo remains the most written about battle in history, proof that there are plenty of approaches to any historical subject, whether it’s the Roman Empire or the world of the Tudors. Yet for author and stand-up Robert Newman (whose latest novel, The Trade Secret, is described as “a rollicking Elizabethan yarn”), the main attraction of writing historical fiction remains the opportunities it offers to undermine common assumptions that we all might have about not just the past but also the present day. Yes, the past may be like a foreign country (to paraphrase L. P. Hartley) where people do things differently; it can show us that other lives, and ways of living, were – are – possible.

This might also help explain what the journalist and writer Kaite Welsh described, in a panel with authors Ronald Frame and Laura Macdougall on Saturday morning, as “the recent rise of queer history fiction in the mainstream”; that is, an increased focus by writers of historical fiction on characters who are not white, heterosexual and male. In part, this is simply down to changing social attitudes during the last 50-odd years; authors of all stripes, but especially those who identify either as queer or LGBT, simply feel more confident writing about such aspects of people’s lives, and also have publishers (albeit, not necessarily the biggest publishers in the world) who are willing to get such work out there.

Altogether, this festival proved to be a hive of ideas and experience. It’s just a shame that, for reasons as yet not clear, it failed to attract large crowds.

Paul F Cockburn
Paul is Freelance magazine journalist specialising in arts & culture, equality issues, and popular science. Recent clients include The Herald, BBC Sky at Night, and The Scots Magazine.

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 .

Alt Kafka – Franz Kafka in Alternate History

Franz Kafka
Cover of Franz Kafka

This blog post is written by Séamus Sweeney. Séamus is the author of Dublin Can Be Heaven from Alt Hist 3.

Writers often write about writers and writing.  This is hardly surprising for many reasons. One is the simple fact that writers generally like books, and that books therefore feature prominently in stories. Another is the postmodern turn of literature in the last number of years, in which allusion, reference, and even recapitulation of texts play a more prominent role in modernism or in the traditional realist novel. And specifically in alternate history, as the genre is by definition a literary rewriting and subversion of the historical record, literature and its power to reshape reality is a theme with a clear appeal and relevance.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, literature and literary figures feature prominently in alternate history fiction. In Bruce Sterling and William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, the great romantic poets of the early 19th century Keats and Shelly  do  not die young of consumption or drowning, but live on as a “kinotropist” (an operator of pixelated magic-lanterns) and a Luddite  respectively. The Man In The High Castle prominently features Hawthore Abendson’s The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in which Roosevelt is not assassinated in 1940 (as in the reality of  Dick’s novel) and the Axis is defeated (although not quite in the manner of our own history).

John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly’s Kafkaesque (which I did a general review of here: is a sparkling anthology of stories inspired in various ways by the works of Franz Kafka. Some stories are “Kafkaesque” in the literal sense of Kafka-like. Some echo specific Kafka stories, or are rewrites of them. Some stories are from now-deceased, writers highly-influential beyond speculative fiction, such as  Jorge Luis Borges and J G Ballard

Several of the stories concern themselves with alternate history. These play upon themes of Kafka’s own life and work to thought-provoking effect. I personally found the stories never strayed into irritatingly clever-clever allusion, even though many postmodern tics were on display.  For instance Johnathan Lethem and Carter Scholz’s “Receding Horizon” features Kafka surviving his tuberculosis, crossing the Atlantic (which the author of “America” never did in his own life), writing scripts for his near-namesake Frank Capra under the name “Jack Dawson (Kafka/Capra . This story could easily have tipped over the edge into arch literary knowingness; “kavka” is Czech for “jackdaw” and  Lethem and Scholz insert themselves into the narrative. There is a punch to the story, an emotional resonance in what becomes a sort of mirror of Capra’s most celebrated film.

Carter Scholz’s “The Weight To Carry” again brings Kafka to America, this time to attend an insurance convention. The image of Kafka as self-torturing neurotic is somewhat belied by his known competence at his day job. In Scholz’s story, Kafka is not the only conference delegate whose later fame extends far beyond insurance; the poet Wallace Stevens and the composer Charles Ives also attend.

Philip Roth of course is the author of the alternate history novel of recent years most respected by the literary establishment, The Plot Against America, and here another excursion into the shifting of historical timelines, “”I Always Wanted You To Admire My Fasting’, or Looking At Kafka” explores familiar Rothian themes, with the twist of Kakfa moving to America rather than dying in Europe. Personally I find a little Roth goes a long way as he is rather one-note writer, but there is no doubting his craft.

Paul di Fillipo’s “The Jackdaw’s Last Case” is the wildest reimaging. Yet again we have Kafka in America, this time as a mild mannered reporter by day, crime fighting superhero (“The Jackdaw”) by night. Kafka writers for one of the papers of Bernarr MacFadden, media mogul, proponent of physical culture, muscle man and generally a historical figure I had never heard of whose acquaintance I was very glad to make.

The word “jew” never occurs in Kafka’s writing, yet his work has been seen by many as foreseeing the fate of European Jewry. Tamar Yellin’s “Kafka In Brontëland”, which may or may not be fully alternate history , but does locate a mysterious Mr Kafka in the English countryside , is the most explicit treatment of this theme (which is present in many stories here, especially Roth’s). Once again, however, this is primarily an excellent and affecting story whose literary concerns do not overwhelm the narrative effect.

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Guest Post: Brain Munchers, How We Love Thee by Ty Schwamberger

It gives me great pleasure to provide readers of Alt Hist with a guest post from  Ty Schwamberger. Ty is an expert on zombies and their emergence on plantations in the American South during the nineteenth century. Over to Ty to tell us more about his novella The Fields, and the history of zombies.

Ah, there’s nothing like a nice radioactive chemical spill, a once-in-a-lifetime lunar movement or another strange phenomenon to reanimate the decaying dead, making them dig out of their own graves and come looking for the living. Hell, who doesn’t like to tote around a double-barrel shotgun, while scrambling away from the oncoming hordes? Right. No? Oh, come on, you’re sitting there and reading this article about the undead on your computer and you don’t like our brain-munching brethrens? Blasphemy! Zombies are cool, man! Well, at least when safely housed inside the TV or printed as words in a book. Not so sure I’d use the word “cool” if they were knocking on my front door, asking if they could borrow my brains for a nice, midnight snack. Nope. Not one bite, err, bit.

Since we’ve established we enjoy watching or reading about zombies, just not actually having to deal with them in “real life”, let’s talk a little about where zombies came from. Came from, you ask? Yes. The origins. The beginning. Way back in the day.

When people think of zombie movies in particular, who’s the first person you think about? Danny DeVito? Mel Gibson? Marlon Brando? Uh, no. We think of George A. Romero, of course. But, there are a couple notable zombie films prior to 1968. Films such as White Zombie (1932) and Revenge of the Zombies (1943). These two films centered around the idea of digging up bodies are removing them their graves right after burial. Voodoo was then used to turn the dead into living, mindless slaves, obeying the biddings of their human master. A few years later came a small budget, black and white film titled Night of the Living Dead, written and directed by George A. Romero. NLD hit theaters and drive-ins in 1968. The effects of Romero’s ground-breaking treatment of the theme are of course still seen today. The 1970s and 1980s brought films such as: Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972), Garden of the Dead (1972), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Dead and Buried (1981),The Evil Dead (1982), Zombie Island Massacre (1984), Day of the Dead (1985), The Return of the Living Dead (1985), Night of the Creeps (1986), Evil Dead II (1987), The Dead Next Door (1988). Ah, the good ol’ days. Then the 1990s came and, well, the movies sucked. Then the 2000s – zombie subgenre has really taken off, with such films as: I Am Legend (2007), Dawn of the Dead (2004), Shaun of the Dead (2004), 28 Days Later (2007), Zombieland (2009) and who could forget Zombie Strippers! (2008)!

What about the history of zombie books, you ask? Well, fine. I guess I can spare a few more minutes and tell you about that too. Tales of undead fun more or less started back in 1921 with Herbert West: Re-animator by H.P. Lovecraft. There were some zombie books between Lovecraft in 1921 and the 2000s, but the subgenre really took off in 2003 with The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks and The Rising by Brian Keene. Other notable authors that have ventured into the graveyard after midnight, include: Stephen King, David Dunwoody, J.L. Bourne, Kim Paffenroth, Gary Braunbeck, Joe McKinney, Jonathan Maberry, along with several other great folks.

Now it’s time for me to enter into the fray… I’m pleased to announce that The Zombie Feed Press, an imprint of Apex Publications is releasing my zombie novella, The Fields. Below is a brief synopsis about the book.

Billy Fletcher learned to farm the family’s tobacco fields – and beat slaves – by the hands of his father. Now, his father is dead, the slaves have long since been freed, and the once-lush fields are dying. Salvation by the name of Abraham knocks on the farmhouse door, bringing wild ideas. He can help Billy save the plantation and return the fields to their former glory…by raising his father’s slaves from the dead.

Can the resurrected slaves breathe life back into the Fletcher farm? Having brought the slaves back from graves that his father sent them to, can Billy be the kind master his father wasn’t? Is keeping the farm worth denying the men the freedom they earned with death?

Billy’s conscience holds the key to those mysteries, but not the biggest one: what does Abraham really want from the former slave owner’s son?

Welcome to The Fields.

New York Times bestselling author, Jonathan Maberry, wrote the introduction for the book. “[The Fields]…ispart horror story in the classic sense – misdeeds from the past coming back to haunt the present. It’s part zombie story. It’s part adventure. And it’s part social satire in its darkest sense.”

I hope you’ve enjoyed the little history lesson given today. I’m also going to ask that you take a chance on The Fields. This is a very unique twist on the subgenre that we all love watching and reading. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with my entrance into “the field”. If so, you can give me a shout, and I’ll come running to assist the next time a crazed zombie comes knocking at your door, while looking to feast upon your nice, fresh hot brains.


Ty Schwamberger is growing force within the horror genre. He is the author of a novel, multiple novellas, collections and editor on several anthologies. In addition, he’s had many short stories published online and in print. Two stories, ‘Cake Batter’ (released in 2010) and ‘House Call’ (currently in pre-production in 2011), have been optioned for film adaptation.  You can learn more at:

You can pick up a copy of Ty’s new zombie novella The Fields from Amazon.

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