The Right Way to Do Alternative History Fiction Writing


The best kind of alternative history fiction writing requires some pre-writing prep.

As we already mentioned on Tuesday, these books are typically found in the science-fiction and fantasy section. But really, they’re no less far-fetched than many thrillers out there, and those are easily classified as mainstream fiction in most bookstores.

Quite simply, it doesn’t make much sense to put alternative history fiction reading on sci-fi/fantasy shelves. And it becomes even less logical to think of alternative history fiction writing as a sci-fi/fantasy project.

None of this is to deride those two genres, which have their own rich list of considerations and requirements. It’s simply to say that alternative history fiction writing, in many ways, needs to be treated more like historical fiction writing. Particularly in the pre-writing stages.

That’s why our Writing Rule this week is so quick to stress the following point:

Know what you’re talking about.

Just because you’re drastically messing with the past to make a majorly different present doesn’t mean you can disrespect reality – particularly the events, technologies and politics that came before whatever aspect you’re altering.

In addition, and just as importantly, delve into the mindsets that prevailed back then. Prejudices, hopes, fears... Let those guide your efforts to build a whole new world with a whole new mission to accomplish.

Yes, you read that right. The Writing Rule is telling you to do research. If you don’t like doing research, you should sincerely consider making up a whole new world altogether where you can incorporate what you know and think you know into a fantasy manuscript instead.

Alternative historical fiction writing is supposed to stem from facts.

As such, if your manuscript is about an alternate ending to the Revolutionary War, go out and learn something about the actual Revolutionary War first.

If you’re focusing your creative efforts on a setting where Hitler’s regime never fell, then learn something about actual Nazi Germany.

And if your exploring what life would look like had the South been able to successfully secede from the North, then learn something about the actual tensions and issues leading up to the actual Civil War.

Did you notice that repetitive word choice in the three paragraphs above? "Actual." That matters.

At the risk of bashing history textbooks, many of them are written with agendas. All of them are written with perspectives, and none of them can cover everything. As such, just because you got through social studies in grade school doesn’t mean you have the full picture. Or the actual one.

So you’re going to want to read a more diverse collection of resources than what your fourth-period social studies offered.

Even if you were exposed to the holy grail of history textbooks with the best teacher back in the day, chances are your brain still didn’t retain all the necessary information to solidly start out your alternative history fiction writing. Not when you were simultaneously exposed to science, literature, mathematics and dozens of other in-school and extracurricular stimuli every single day.

So you’re going to want to refresh your memory.

Basically, just own up to the fact that you’re bound to be a bit shaky about the details your story stems from. Then go the professional – and sometimes mind-blowing – route by hitting the research books.

As you do, you’ll probably find unexpected inspiration and ideas to spur on your plot and motivate your characters. How much more riveting can your alternative history fiction writing be? That’s for you and your pre-writing prep to find out.

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