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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Writing Alternate History



I've been doing a lot of research on 19th century American history. Did you know that James Monroe died on July 4th? Everyone knows that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on the 4th, the same July 4th in 1826. Five years later, in 1831, James Monroe died on that day. He was the last president to serve who actually fought in the Revolutionary War. He was injured at Trenton, and is depicted holding the American flag in the famous painting Washington Crossing the Delaware. I find the fact that they all died on the 4th kind of eerie and yet fitting. Call me a sentimental American.

But James Monroe isn't the point of this blog. That was one of those, "But I digress," moments, when we run across some new little tidbit of historical trivia that captures our imagination. We all have them. I love American history. I have a graduate degree in it and taught it for ten years. So when I do research in American history I tend to have a lot of those moments; more so than when I research my Regency novels. And my love of American history is the problem.

I'm writing an alternate history science fiction book. That means that I have to pick and choose what historical facts I'm going to keep, and which I'm going to toss out in favor of the new history I'm creating. This is very, very hard for me. I'm trying to stay true to the heart and spirit of American history and not change the character of America while creating a wildly different historical path, one that impacts not just The United States, but most of the world.

First, I'm trying to make my alternate history logical. It started with a simple what if question. What if one event changes the course of world history? The event is the survival of one fictional man. A genius. And his inventions will change the map of the world. It's all very plausible. There are no aliens or paranormals running around. One man changes the course of history, and our book, (I'm co-writing with a partner), explores the implications of that on a small scale. By that I mean the book focuses on one group of people and one event, yet another event brought about by this one man that could again change the course of history. Our characters are trying to prevent it.

Another problem with writing the alternate history is that the historical events we use have to be recognizable. I'm not focusing on obscure events in history. I want our readers to know what's going on without having to do outside research of their own. So historical figures and places have to remain recognizable. That's part of the fun. When you're reading and go, "Wait! That's not what happened! Oh my gosh, how cool!" At least, that's what I want readers to say.

So how we filter actual historical figures and events through the lens of our alternate history is the key to plotting and writing this book. It's much harder than writing a straight historical. We don't want info dump, we want a logical progression of events, we want it to be believable, and we want the average reader to understand it. We're having to do a great deal more layering while writing this book than I've ever had to do with previous books.

Have you ever written, or read, an alternate history novel? What did you like about it? What drove you batty? I'd love to hear about your experiences with this genre.

7 comments:

Sally said...

I can't say I've ever read an alternate history but it really sounds interesting, and complex. I'll watch for the release. Good Luck!

Samantha Kane said...

Thanks, Sally! I hope you'll give ours a try. It's far more complex than I thought it would be when I started writing it. But then, they all are, aren't they? :-)

Kathrin said...

WOW Sam, that sounds intriguing. I know I've never read one before, and I don't know if I would recognize easily which events you changed since I know pretty much only the basics-plus-some of American history, but I'd probably read up on it to understand the full scope. I wish you all the best with your endeavor :-)

Blythe Gifford said...

I'll admit, I'm not a fan of alternate history. (I'm too passionate about the real stuff! As Kathrin says, many may not know the difference.) But in the strictest sense, I guess any of us who write historical fiction are creating an "alternate" version of the facts.

Amy DeTrempe said...

I've never read an alternate history novel but I think the whole idea sounds intriguing.

Samantha Kane said...

Kathrin ~ That's why we're trying to stick to the basics, so you don't have to do extra research! lol But it is hard to determine what the basics are. Your basics might be different than mine. :-)

Blythe ~ In the strictest sense, yes, I guess all historical fiction is alternate to some extent. Every time we place a fictional character in a factual historical scene we create an alternate version of real events, even if the outcome remains the same. Interesting thought.

Samantha Kane said...

Wait, isn't that the time travel theory from Star Trek?