Thursday, June 13, 2013

Historical Fiction / Alternate History

Historical fiction is a great combination of history and fiction. The author uses history as inspiration, and fills in the gaps and details with fiction (aka made-up stuff).

Historical fiction must follow three basic rules, and authors of historical fiction are expected to do thorough research in order to follow them:

Plausibility. While you're reading the story, you should believe that it could have actually happened that way. Historical fiction is not the place for King James to traverse the Atlantic on the back of a Kraken to feed the starving colonists because he psychically connected with one of them during a dream.

Authentic setting & characters. This ties closely to plausibility. If you're inventing characters and dropping them into history, they need to fit in, to a certain degree. You don't put Cleopatra in a discotheque, or Disco Stu in 14th century Parliament, if you're writing historical fiction.

Accurate timeline. Historical fiction authors aren't The Doctor. They have to follow events as they happened in history (with a little wiggle room for artistic license). Historical fiction doesn't allow the Titanic to sink in the 1930s or for the Conestoga wagon to be invented fifty years early.

So, what if you want to break the rules (like this bad-ass bird)? Then you can write alternate history. That's historical fiction that breaks the above rules. You want Hitler to have a pet dilophosaurus that ultimately turns on him and eats his face? Alternate history. Your pierced, tattooed, punk-rock chick pops up in antebellum Georgia to kick slaveowner butt? Alternate history. John Lennon becomes president of the USA (somehow)? Alternate history.


The existence of time travel as a plot device makes alternate history easier for some authors. If you have a time machine, you can go back and change something that we know to have happened, thus allowing you to change whatever stemmed from that now-changed event. Sometimes, alternate history uses the "many-worlds" theory to explain its existence. Sure, in your world, Atlantis disappeared, but in this world, it never disappeared. But it isn't necessary to embrace the many-worlds theory or the existence of time travel or any other devices. Lots of alternate history authors just make their audience suck it up and deal with the fact that this history is different from the one you know.

To recap: Historical fiction is more history, while alternate history is more fiction.


Historical Fiction: could be true, like The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, and I, Claudius by Robert Graves.


Alternate History: all the artistic license you want, like the Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld (where "Darwinist" beasties and "Clanker" mecha assist the two sides of WWI), The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (where Germany and Japan won WWII), or Making History by Stephen Fry (where a time machine exists and Hitler was never born).

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for clearing this up. In this case, Atonement and The Girl With the Pearl Earing are my favorite non Gregory historical fiction, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is one of my favorite alternate history books.