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Alternative History Fiction – the Roman Way

Constructing a compelling alternative history fiction manuscript requires significant evaluation.

Such writers require a critical eye of not only the past – which we’ll cover tomorrow – but also the present. As such, even the most stereotypical pantser (e.g., me) will want to do some pre-writing activities before beginning an alternative history fiction manuscript.

That’s what this week’s Writing Challenge is all about…

Make a list.

Doesn’t sound like fun? Oh, but it can be! Before you start your alternative history fiction writing, make a list of everything you tend to take for granted today. Freedom of speech. Of religion. Reliable electricity. Indoor plumbing. Cellphones. The right to have a job. To pursue happiness. To exist.

Now carefully consider what you wouldn’t have if your alternative history fiction event had actually happened. Because that’s the point of this genre: to make a modern-day world conform to some past non-event.

If that sounds like a motivational exercise, maybe it is. But it’s one that every writer needs to perform if they’re going to tackle an alternative history fiction manuscript. These things take some serious thought! Fun thought, but thought nonetheless.

To explore this Writing Challenge further, let’s go way back to the Roman Empire, though that does bring up an important side-note…

Normally, it’s easier to work in this genre using more recent conflicts. The more recent the conflict, the less history needs to be altered and the less complicated the writer’s job becomes.

Except maybe with the Roman Empire, which might be custom-made to fit an alternative history fiction manuscript. Those people were so advanced in so many ways that it’s easy to imagine they’d have similar or better technology than ours if they’d just focused a little less on base pleasures and a little more on building up a society of worthwhile human beings.

And if they would have invented stirrups before the Huns attacked.

So let’s say the Romans did curb their passions enough to keep flourishing and fend off invaders. What would the world look like all these millennia later? Here’s some thoughts:

  • At the rate they were going at their peak, they could have established a one-world rule.

  • Considering their awe-inspiring engineering feats, some of which we still can’t fathom today, every land they touched would feature sophisticated buildings and interstates.

  • The arts, education and a knowledge of other cultures (or at least their histories) would be highly promoted.

But before you start writing about Utopia, don’t forget the list we were supposed to make before writing word 1 of our alternative history fiction manuscript, including freedom of speech and religion. Reliable electricity. Indoor plumbing. Cellphones. The right to have a job. To pursue happiness. To exist.

I’m sure we’d have reliable electricity and indoor plumbing. The Roman Empire may have already featured a crude form of the former, and their city sewer system was striking. So you know they would have taken those inventions to the next level and then some had they made it to today.

But for all their unity and abilities and knowledge, they were still a pretty disgusting society that turned death into entertainment, demanded the worship of one “god” over all – otherwise punishable by those "entertaining" forms of death, as early Christians experienced – and slavery.

Really consider all that, going as deeply into those details as possible to form fitting political and societal setting parameters. Then add in some characters and a plot.

With that accomplished, you’ve conquered Step #1 of writing an alternative historical fiction manuscript… all because of a list.

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