Every fiction writer creates an 'alternative universe' but how do you set about creating an 'alternative history' where everything in your story must be plausible and consistent - yet dramatically different from the reality we know? In this guest post, acclaimed novelist Alison Morton outlines eight key steps to building an alternative world that engages the reader - and that works.
Armed with a history masters’ degree, and a life-long devotion to and fascination with all things Roman, I yearned to write about Romans: a story with a true-hearted heroine imbued with Roman virtue but a tendency to go off-piste.
But I wanted to bring in an added complication; women were going to run this New Rome. So I brought it up to the 21st century.
When I started, I didn’t know I was writing in a genre called alternative history (“althist” for short). I was inspired by Robert Harris’s Fatherland, a tense, shocking and beautifully written thriller with a heart-wrenching ‘secret’. To twist history was allowed!
Then I smartened up and found out that ‘althist’ straddled science fiction and history and ranged from serious counter-factual to completely bonkers. I opted for the historical end of the scale.
This is how I worked out how to do it…
Basically, althist stories have a ‘point of divergence’ in the past, i.e. an instant where history as we know it veers off onto an alternative path. Whenever your story takes place, it has to be grounded in that point and show how the alternative timeline has developed since.
And readers need to know what that alternative world feels and looks like.
As writers, our job is to make things up, but readers need to know the author has done it properly. Alternative history is imaginary history, but it should follow “da rulz”.
Plausibility and consistence are the twin keys, but how do you do it?
1. Identify the point of divergence and make it logical.
It doesn’t have to be a grand event or have a grand cause. In history, there are many cusp events caused by trivial things, like weather, e.g. Washington’s crossing the Delaware River in December 1776. If the blizzard had intensified, throwing all those boats and troops to their death in the freezing river, would the American revolution have collapsed?
Another example: my books are set in Roma Nova in the 21st century, but the country’s origin stretches back to AD 395 when the Christian Roman emperor Theodosius finally banned all pagan religions. That was a cusp event.
Religious persecution often changes history. Protestant Huguenots were thrown out of France in the 17th century. That caused the collapse of the French silk and weaving industries and the destruction of the mercantile and professional class. The French economy took decades to recover.
A gentle warning: whatever point of divergence you choose it has to be logical and plausible - you can't just make Cromwell or Churchill have an off day!
2. Research the divergence point thoroughly.
You have to know your own timeline history well - or know how to research it methodically and extensively - before attempting to “alternate” it.
Find sources, buy books, visit places, go to museums and conferences. Ask questions. Check you have the correct clothing, food, armour, currency etc. for the time.
For example, Roman civilisation lasted over 1,200 years; things were significantly different in AD 395 from how they had been in 200BC. Serstertii, the archetypal silver Roman coin, had disappeared by AD 395 and the gold solidus served as the standard unit.
So my 21st century Roma Novans use solidi.
3. Reinforce the divergence point story.
People often refer back to a significant event, e.g. “the War”, in their country’s history. Roma Novans are no different and often quote the courage of their ancestors - hundreds of Romans loyal to the old gods - who trekked north out of Italy sixteen centuries ago, found refuge and a new home. That was the divergence point.
4. Use elements from the historic record carefully, but not fearfully.
In my books, the chief secondary character is a spy/special forces operative, so I reached back into history and plucked the Praetorian Guard forward more than thousand years into the 21st century.
Not only does this build on the thoughts of toughness, a dash of ruthlessness and a sense of duty and glamour that we may already have about them, it also uses their historic name to anchor them as archetype Romans guarding the ruler and the state.
I’m aware they became corrupt in real history but in alternative history you can bend the rules a little.
5. Think through the setting that has formed your characters.
No country can survive without a functioning government, an economic, social and political system, food, law and order and income. You don’t need to mention these as such, unless it impacts on the plot, but you do need to have it all worked out in your head.
How do people make their living? How are they educated? What kind of industry is there? Is the government representative? Are laws authoritarian, permissive or strict? What’s the food like? Are there markets, little shops, big chains? What does the money look like?
And the big question - who holds the power?
Readers will wish to know what your alternative world looks like. If it’s an existing country, has transport developed beyond the horse and cart to steam engines or electric trains? Is it safe to travel from one town/village to another?
If it’s an imaginary country, are there mountains, seas and rivers? What’s growing in the fields, does the countryside consist of plains, valleys or mountains? And don’t forget the weather…
6. Many of the basic skills of historical fiction are needed.
That means research, respect for known facts (up to the point of divergence) and absolutely no info dump anywhere. Speech, clothes and manners must be consistent with - and within - the world they are describing.
7. Ensure your story is essentially gripping and page-turning whatever its setting.
Creating an exotic world will not save a weak story, however original and detailed you make it. Could you grab the bones out of your story – conspiracy, trap, romance, on the run, bad guy comes good, etc – and make it work in another genre? If so, you have the bones of a good story.
8. Make sure your characters live naturally within their world.
Remember: plausible characters don’t explain chunks of backstory to each other when they meet.
Instead, imagine explaining a third person’s entire life story to your best friend when you’re relaxing over a drink. All your friend/colleague wants are the bare facts of what that person has been doing to cause you to mention them.
You can use letters, messages, instructions, photos, general dialogue, phone calls, TV, radio, internet, old friends as ways to bring the information in. This is what we do in our everyday real lives.
Your characters naturally accept where they live; this is their normality, so try to put yourself in their minds.
Of course, the writer has to be careful not to describe a world too obscure or alienating - they should leave some hooks and connections to our world or the reader will shut the book and toss it in the charity box.
As with any story, the writing must deliver an emotional punch and make the world believable, the plot cracking and the characters engaging. But in alternate history, the writer is - within “da rulz” - the master of their universe.
Thirsty for more? Read or download my factsheet on writing alternative history on my blog: alison-morton.com.
What 'alternative histories' have you enjoyed yourself? What techniques did the authors use to immerse you in their stories? Please share your thoughts below. All comments are guaranteed a fast helpful response!
Alison Morton writes Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with strong heroines: INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO. The mosaics at Ampurias, Spain started her wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by women… SUCCESSIO was selected as the Historical Novel Society’s indie Editor’s Choice for Autumn 2014, bagged a B.R.A.G. Medallion and was also selected as Editor’s choice in The Bookseller’s inaugural Indie Preview, December 2014.
Posted by Alison Morton. Posted In : Guest Posts