The past is another country — but an alternate history is a whole new world. The best alternate histories can make you see the real history of our world in a whole new way, and make you realize that events that seem like they were inevitable... may not have been.
But an alternate history novel can easily turn into a disaster of historic proportions, if you don't know what you're doing. Here are 10 writing mistakes that authors of alternate history fall into. We talked to some of our favorite alt-history authors, to find out what classic mistakes bother them. Here's what they told us.
Top image: Mayflower II, via National Geographic, thanks MaryKate!
10. Failing to bring it up to the present.
This is an "uncommon but grievous rookie mistake," says Terry Bisson, whose alternate history of 1968, Any Day Now, comes out March 1. If you don't bring your alternate history up to the reader's present, then you leave out half the fun. "Philip Roth, who had never read and therefore didn't know he was writing alternate history, committed this sin of omission in his otherwise excellent The Plot Against America," Bisson adds.
9. Not recognizing that some historical developments were probably inevitable.
Often, we think of history in terms of a single person who did something heroic and historic — like, Columbus sailed across the Atlantic and started the European age of exploration. The big breakthrough that allowed Europeans to sail the world was a greater knowledge of deep-ocean currents and wind patterns, says Tears of the Sun author S.M. Stirling — once you know the winds blow consistently from East to West off the coast of Northwest Africa, and from East to West further North, it's fairly easy to sail the Atlantic. So if Columbus hadn't sailed to the New World from Western Europe, someone else would have fairly soon after. Basque fisherman may already have been sailing to Newfoundland a few years before Columbus.
So if you wanted to change the Age of Exploration, says Stirling, you'd need a fairly major change, much earlier in history — not just a major setback for Christopher Columbus.
8. Ignoring historical factors that were important at the time, even if they aren't important to your story.
A big part of writing alternate history, is making judgments about which historical points to pursue, and which to "let fall by the wayside," says Boneshaker author Cherie Priest. But watch out — if you ignore something that was important to the people at the time, then you risk throwing some people out of the story. In Priest's second steampunk novel Dreadnought, there's "a climactic scene that basically features dueling trains shooting at one another through the Provo pass in Utah." Priest decided not to delve into issues of land acquisition, or explain how the rail lines got the rights to use the Provo pass in her timeline. This caused an uproar among some online reviewers, who felt that was an important detail at the time. Priest says she still believes in picking and choosing which details to focus on, but has also tried to "take a more holistic approach to my alternate timeline building - giving at least a nod to the things that were contemporarily important, even if they aren't immediately critical to my fiction."
7. Not accounting for even the most obvious ripples from one big change
You can't account for all of the ripples from one point of departure (POD), because those ripples will have ripples, and so on, says Stirling, whose books include the Draka trilogy and the Emberverse books. But you can, and should, pay attention to things that almost happened in real history — because they might well have happened, if things were different.
For example, say that Columbus never sailed to the New World, says Stirling. Sure, someone else would have, pretty soon afterwards. But that change might have meant that someone else, instead of Cortés, conquered Mexico. The Spanish were always terrified that some conquistador would set himself up as a local king, something Cortés apparently had no interest in. But if someone else had replaced Cortés, could that person have become Emperor of Mexico? Thus, one change — Columbus not sailing — has a strong likelihood of an obvious ripple effect, down the line. This is the sort of thing you should at least be aware of, based on being steeped in the real-life history.
Update: We just heard back from The Yiddish Policemen's Union author Michael Chabon, who had a similar point to offer: "I am much less interested in a fiction that explores the jonbar hinge, the point of divergence itself, as opposed to fiction that explores the imagined aftermath."
6. Concentrating too much on the one changed event, instead of all the events that led up to it.
Just as authors sometimes fail to consider the obvious "ripple effects" that might result from one major change, they often act as though a major change comes out of nowhere, says Jon Courtenay Grimwood. Every historical event has a bunch of causes that lead up to it, so if you want to make a major alteration seem plausible, you have to tweak the factors, so that the changed event appears inevitable in retrospect. The real reasons for the change might be ten years earlier, or even a hundred years.
When I did the set up for Pashazade, the first of the Arabesk mysteries, I read the newspapers from the end of the First World War and the fall of all the dozens of little German kingdoms with their kings packing up their luggage and heading for the border seemed shocking. In retrospect it seems obvious that would happen. My world had World War I end in 1915 so that never happened. The kingdoms remained and World War II never happened.
5. Mixing up urban legends with actual history
Rule of thumb: If you have to look up on Wikipedia to figure out when the Hundred Years War happened, you probably shouldn't write about early modern Europe, says The Big Switch author Harry Turtledove. A lot of us think that we know the history, more than we actually do — and relying on your pop-history understanding of the past is the surest way to doom an alt-history.
There's an old saying I'm fond of: "It ain't what you don't know that'll kill you; it's what you think you know that just ain't so." People tend to assume that they know things about the past that are in fact folk-history and quite wrong. Because they think they already know, they don't bother to look. This is a trap always waiting before our feet and nobody's totally immune to it.
For example, people quote that line from Romeo and Juliet about young mothers, and think the average age of marriage in Elizabethan England was the early teens — but in fact, people mostly married in their mid-twenties, and this was a dig at those weird Italians. Similarly, we "know" that the Victorians were prudes, without recognizing the Victorian era lasted decades, and was a reaction to the libertine age that came before.
4. Assuming that nothing will change besides your one big alteration — or that everything will
Unless your change is so major that the world is unrecognizeable afterwards, some stuff will still stay the same, says Grimwood. "Some brands will still exist, others won't. Some attitudes will still exist, others won't." Both sins are equally bad: Pretending that absolutely nothing will change apart from one historical event is just as unrealistic as assuming that the world will be totally different in every detail.
3. Making the story go where you want it to go, instead of where your altered history will support
This is one that bothers Turtledove — when you write allohistory, he says, you're trying to tell a story, "trying to entertain and, with luck, to provoke some thought." And when it comes down to it, you can break almost any rule in the service of a good story. Except that it does have to make sense, and Turtledove says one common sin is "making the story go where you want it to go, regardless of whether they change you've made can plausibly take you there."
2. Explaining too much
Says Steven Barnes, author of Zulu Heart and other alt-history novels:
I suspect that the biggest problem is an author showing off their research — they did it, and therefore figure the reader will be as fascinated with the minutiae as they themselves were. Determining the pertinent details of the time-shift, and then integrating them organically is a serious challenge.
Adds Turtledove, "One of the real problems with alternate history is explaining too bloody much — the 'As you know, Bob' syndrome is strong in this subgenre."
1. Forgetting to tell a good story
This is the biggest sin of alternate history, says Anno Dracula author Kim Newman — if you're not creating interesting characters and a story worth telling, then you're just "doodling in the margins of history." There has to be a point to all this stuff, beyond just the fascinating "what if" question. Turtledove agrees, saying that "cardboard characters" and dull writing are the biggest problem with bad alternate history.
I'll let Paleofuture writer Matt Novak have the last word:
Fundamentally, all stories are about the relationships between characters and when we try to paint an alternate universe with an intricate counterfactual history, too often we get swept up in the details.
The reason Pixar films are timeless and most Dreamworks animation movies will wind up in the dustbin of history is that Pixar focuses on characters while Dreamworks makes pop culture references. Like I said, this seems counter-intuitive when talking about alternate histories, but every once in a while you need to step back and remind yourself that as an author you're creating a world with characters that have motivations not unlike those that you're familiar with today. Great alternate histories are timeless.
All images except top image by Alternate Histories/Matthew Buchholz on Etsy.