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History’s Re-Run: Historical Fiction vs. Alternative Historical Fiction

September 6, 2023

If you enjoy reading and writing historical fiction, you may have come across something called alternative historical fiction. This is different from classic historical fiction due to its speculative nature. What does that mean? Let’s dive in!

Definitions

Historical fiction is a genre of literature that is set in the past. This can mean anything. Historical fiction novels have a vast range of topics, from religious events to political scenarios, wars, and even romance. A story in this genre can take place at any time and place in the past, from before recorded history to 50 years before the current date. 

Alternative historical fiction is more specific. It is a genre of literature that takes place during a pivotal historical event. Not only that, but it changes something that happens during that time and thus changes the timeline following it. The purpose of these stories is to speculate on and explore what would happen to the world if events had played out differently. Because of its nature, alternative historical fiction usually intertwines with science fiction, and can often be placed under “-punk” subgenres, like steampunk.

Characteristics

Historical fiction stories can be re-tellings of events, half-biographical accounts, or fictional stories intertwined with real events. Authors in this genre tend to conduct extensive research on the events surrounding their stories. They may write about real people in a fictional way or create new characters and place them in a real event. 

Historical fantasy is a subgenre of historical fiction, which introduces elements of magic and supernatural creatures into a historical setting. For example, “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” tells the story of Napoleon’s loss at Waterloo – an event that happened – but attributes the loss to Strange’s magic.

Books in this genre usually include:

  • Unrecorded details, such as characters who worked in the background of events and wouldn’t be featured in the history books.
  • Worldbuilding details that set the reader in the chosen time period (ex: styles of dress, architecture, vocabulary, social structures, occupations).
  • Themes that correspond to the time frame of the story. Different periods and locations can create new meanings for common themes.
  • Accurate facts. You risk losing your reader if you string them along on guesses and false information. Readers of historical fiction want to be transported to a different era and want to learn something along the way.
  • The details and outcomes of major historical events remain unchanged.

Alternative historical fiction stories give the author and reader a chance to explore the potential consequences of different actions and outcomes of events. It is often extensively researched, similar to classic historical fiction, but some authors create alternative stories just for the fun of it. Those stories may lack accurate details but will still entertain the right reader with the possibilities.

While often paired with science fiction, it is different because the possibilities are set in the past but can span across the future. Science fiction focuses on future developments only.

Books in this genre usually include:

  • A “what if” scenario around a pivotal event or person that would have changed history. This is the premise of the story. It can be a small or big change.
    • What if Leonardo da Vinci invented time travel?
    • What if Nazi Germany won World War II?
    • What if dinosaurs still roamed the Earth?
  • The new timeline cannot eventually merge back with the actual timeline. History changes forever based on the “what if” scenario.
  • The stories show how the world has changed and what that means for everyone.
  • Research surrounding the time period in question, not only about the chosen time period. This helps the reader create a well-rounded and realistic world for the reader.

Examples

Popular historical fiction books:

  • A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes: Powerfully told from an all-female perspective, in A Thousand Ships, broadcaster and classicist Natalie Haynes retells the story of the Trojan War – putting the women, girls and goddesses at the center of the story.
  • The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett: A spellbinding epic tale of ambition, anarchy, and absolute power set against the sprawling medieval canvas of twelfth-century England, The Pillars of the Earth is Ken Follett’s classic historical masterpiece.
  • Homecoming by Kate Morton: A breathtaking mystery of love, lies and a cold case come back to life set between Australia and London. Kate Morton’s novel follows Jess as she takes care of her 89-year-old grandmother, only to discover she is hiding a family secret.

Popular alternative historical fiction books:

  • The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson: It is the fourteenth century and one of the most apocalyptic events in human history is set to occur—the coming of the Black Death. History teaches us that a third of Europe’s population was destroyed.  But what if the plague had killed 99 percent of the population instead? How would the world have changed? This is a look at the history that could have been—one that stretches across centuries, sees dynasties and nations rise and crumble, and spans horrible famine and magnificent innovation.  
  • His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Navik: Aerial combat brings a thrilling new dimension to the Napoleonic Wars as valiant warriors rise to Britain’s defense by taking to the skies . . . not aboard aircraft but atop the mighty backs of fighting dragons.
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick: It’s America in 1962. Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. In this world, we meet characters like Frank Frink, a dealer of counterfeit Americana who is himself hiding his Jewish ancestry; Nobusuke Tagomi, the Japanese trade minister in San Francisco, unsure of his standing within the bureaucracy and Japan’s with Germany; and Juliana Frink, Frank’s ex-wife, who may be more important than she realizes.

Creating windows to the past

While historical fiction transports readers to the past, preserving known events, alternative historical fiction seizes the imagination with “what ifs,” challenging our understanding of history. Both genres create unique windows into our past, present, and sometimes even our future, making them an ever-fascinating read.

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