Covering Alternate History

This one is difficult, because you have to convey three things: alternate time line, where it deviated from ours, and what in general the reader can expect from the book.  You know: funny, serious or adventure.

The easiest ones are the ones that are sf or Fantasy and obviously so.  For instance, my dragon-shifter-red-baron will eventually when finished and ready to go have a dragon with the paint to match Richthofen’s plane, flying over the trenches. Title and subtitle will help, and I’ll come up with something.

Alternate history that is “just” alternate history is more difficult, and you sometimes have to “represent things that aren’t in the book to represent something that is in the book.”What do I mean by that?  Well, I recently had to put a spaceship and a moon on a cover for a client so that it signaled “science fiction.”  The urban scene is in the book, but the rest is an addition (though if I remember correctly it has space travel.)

A good example of that is this cover of an anthology I am in:


Our readers, who are not in the least literal minded started protesting the battle was unequal etc.  Which is fine. The battle never appears in the book. Instead, what appears is disruptions to history that turn naval battles on their heads. The only defect the cover has is that it MIGHT signal time travel.  But that’s a minor thing, since people who read time travel also read alternate history.  And the picture above signals “history” and gets you to read the description.  Further, it signals “Naval military history” which it is.

To make it better, it is an attractive and eye-catching cover.

Then, of course, like anyone thinking “Alternate history” you think “Harry Turtledove” (Well, I do. At one time I wanted to BE Harry Turtledove (okay, in all but sex, etc. I mean as far as writing. Maybe I should go back to my roots.))


This is the cover I think of when I think alternate history, partly because if you know even a little (a very little in my case) about guns, it signals beautifully. And partly because if I were doing something like indie, it would be trivially easy to do.

This one could be an image that belongs to any WWI novel, and only the words on the page clue you in:
Well, that and knowing Sterling’s work, of course.

I have, btw, recently done this cover for Nitay, who is a friend, but also the first client for my business (Covers Girl.  The website will be up after Liberty con.  I just haven’t been home long enough to devote a weekend to setting it up.)

In this novel someone kills Hitler, and history diverges.  The problem is that it’s almost impossible to convey in a cover, at first sight. I mean, if Hitler had been stabbed that would be doable, but blown up…  well.

So, I tried to convey confusion and that the Nazis still go on.


(And yes, except for details which had to put in by hand, it is rendered.)

Some things I found while looking at the covers for this subgenre, that explain partly why I’ve not done in so long even thought I love it: It’s impossible to find AS a subgenre.  Which is annoying because it exists in the Amazon categories.  For that matter, I think I know why science fiction has taken a hit.  If you search by genre, it doesn’t list all the sub-categories, only bestsellers and big names.  Maybe I need to do more mystery…

Anyway, next week I’ll come up with two or three divergence points that aren’t necessarily easy to cover, and we’ll talk.  If you want to suggest some go for it.


  1. The White House (or any other well-known building of government) with the wrong flag flying over it is also a good instant signifier of alternate history.

      1. With the caveat that it has been done a lot. But it’s been done a lot because it works.

    1. Perhaps Mount Rushmore with some rather different, but recognizable faces? Hitler and Mao come to mind for a really dystopian alt-history book. Or, Robert E. Lee instead of Lincoln.

        1. Taking The Man in the High Castle to a new low. Doc gave me some exercises for sciatica, and it’s helping, but life is a bit painful right now. It gives me some odd ideas.

        2. Has to be someone recognizable.

          Four random faces would be probably regarded as comic alternate history.

    2. Hmm. Nobunaga Oda, Gustavus Adolphus, Oliver Cromwell, Napolean Bonaparte, Leopold of Belgium, and Adolph Hitler, or Nobunaga Oda, Gustavus Adolphus, Oliver Cromwell, George Washington, Leopold of Belgium, and Adolph Hitler. Possibly you could fit seven or eight figures.

  2. Yeah, Iconic places or vehicles . . . even if they aren’t in the book. I have to keep reminding myself that the cover signals type of book, not a scene in the book!

    1. Although I have seen fan groups making loud noises about cover scenes that never appear in the book. Not that we necessarily want to just keep the fans quiet, but… be aware that there are people who will complain because that scene doesn’t appear in the book (apparently they want their spoilers or hooks visually supplied?)

  3. Hmm.

    I’ve been plotting my current mess, and wondering how to ensure that I foreshadow early the crazy that will eventually occur. Fanfic multicross.

    Some of the other fanfic writers are doing book covers.

    This has elements of an alternate history, or a secret history. Some of the unusual historical events are important to the plot. The history is not anywhere near well thought out enough to be alternate history.

    Cyberpunk uses a lot of neon night scenes. So, my thinking is a night shot of an appropriate Tokyo location. Famous, with a Japanese flag, and a backdrop of neon. Photoshop in a ground level explosion, and behind the buildings, giant figures fighting in the sky.

    O muse. I’m going to need to find an appropriate base image, and be sure to include that in the plot, aren’t I?

  4. however, a minor consideration is that Knight’s Gambit cover cannot be used in Germany (and possibly other European countries)

    1. I couldn’t find photos of the Me 163 Komet from the Deutsches Museum, but if memory serves, it had an Iron Cross on the tail. (Wiki shows an example at the USAF Museum, I think the wing crosses were used on the tail on the one in Munich.)

      1. they dont replace swastikas on real objects, but restrict their use in media… see both of the recent Wolfenstein games

  5. Not sure if this qualifies as a not necessarily easy to cover divergence point, but if you’re in need of a cover suggestion how about an alternate 1930s in which the First World War never really ended – an Art Deco adventure with private eyes, G-men, air pirates, sinister secret agents, and arcane alien antagonists with an agenda… erhm, sorry, kind of got carried away there, but yes, something like that.

    1. > First World War never really ended

      That was the premise of Keith Laumer’s “Worlds of the Imperium”, which was the first alternate-history book I read, long ago. I found Norton’s “Quest Crosstime” shortly after, but it was decades before I found much more; for a long, long time, alternate-universe stories were rare in SF.

      > If you want to suggest some go for it.

      One of mine: the Alaska Purchase doesn’t happen. (it was a very close thing IRL) Not much changes, until we wind up in the 1950s with nuclear-armed Soviet bombers stationed in Novy Archengelsk in Russian America, and HUAC is the voice of calm and reason…

      The other is Orvan Taurus’ “Second Armistice” timeline, where WWII winds up much like WWI. It’s more likely than our own timeline, which stretches the bounds of credibility pretty hard. The critical factor in that timeline is nuclear weapons. Assuming there was no Manhattan project, or less funding for it, there would be time for everyone to develop their nuclear weapons at their leisure. Germany had two different atomic bomb projects, and while most people don’t seem to know, so did the Japanese, who were on the right track. Britain might have been able to fund Tube Alloys on its own, or might have managed to do a joint project with Canada. Depending on who got a working bomb first, thing could be very, very different… Manhattan sucked up an appreciable part of the American cost of WWII, but if you spread it out over time, you can do it cheap – South Africa, North Korea, Pakistan, and India, for example.

      (alternatively, do something about Mackenzie-King, and Canada would have been the first nuclear power. It’s unlikely it would have happened in time to use in WWII, but the balance of power in the Commonwealth would be much different, and so would the Cold War…

      1. Random thought: Including production costs, the B-36 program cost about 3/4 of what the Manhattan Project did…. and might be absent entirely from such a timeline, depending upon the exact branch point.

      2. “One of mine: the Alaska Purchase doesn’t happen. (it was a very close thing IRL) Not much changes, until we wind up in the 1950s with nuclear-armed Soviet bombers stationed in Novy Archengelsk in Russian America,”

        McKinley Kantor explored that in “If the South had Won the Civil War” in 1963. In his book, it was the catalyst for marking the Centennial of Fort Sumter by re-uniting the US, the CSA, and the Republic of Texas.

  6. Of course, one can be more original with alternative history. Instead of starting here and heading away, it start way away and converged on us. The speaker is Eclispe, who is a very bright twelve year old with photographic memory, but she is still twelve:

    The original Gibbs proof about the past and the future was two short paragraphs of which I could make neither head nor tail. The book spent 30 pages breaking the Gibbs proof up into small parts. Each part was supposed to be easy to follow. The fellow who wrote the thirty pages is said to be the greatest science writer since Amizov, Amizov being the muse of clear science writing. Except when I talked about muses with Mum, for Terpsichore Mum had an image of this statue, but for Amizov she remembered fondly this old guy with funny whiskers. I even understood two of the parts that he wrote. It’s just that after you had followed all the small parts you had come a very long way, and you wondered if you had really come all that far or if the wool had been pulled over your eyes.

    I skipped to the end. The Forward said it was OK to skip like that. There was an image, translating the forest of derivatives into a simple picture. The picture I understood. I think. The picture is a line of pawns on a huge chessboard. The pawns represent whole worlds where history starts out slightly differently. They start out next to each other, farther away sideways being more different. By the time you get well sideways across the chessboard, history is completely different. The start points are ancient time. The simple view of history is that the pawns all move forward one space at the time, always staying in their own file. Worlds that start very similar to ours end up very similar to ours. Worlds that start out very different end up being very different. The butterflies show that every so often a pawn takes off sideways, so two pawns that start next to each other do not end up that way. The pawn next to ours marches off sideways and ends up halfway across the board. That’s maiasaurs not becoming intelligent.

    You might think that would simply leave a gap in the file next to ours. No, there are as many files at the start of history as there are at the end. What Liouville and Gibbs showed, and someday I will understand that part of the book, is that every file was full at the start of time, so when we reach the present every file must still be full, one pawn per file. If the pawn next to us took off and ended up way across the board, there must be another pawn that started off someplace way across the board and ended up at our shoulders. I thought the mirror imaging looked pretty obvious. We’re not someplace special on that chessboard. If some of our nearby-at-start pawns end up someplace else, pawns from someplace else must end up nearby, because if they didn’t we would be at someplace unusual, someplace pawns from far away could not reach. Lots of people get extremely upset with the idea that world history could’ve started off completely different from ours, but when we get to the present the two worlds are almost the same. Liouville’s Butterflies, the forbidden book, is the famous proof that some histories converge.

  7. There’s publisher resistance to using any but the more familiar parts of history as settings for AH stories, by the way. They’re afraid people don’t know the original history and won’t see the point of a change in it, which is sort of an extension of the cover problem — how do you convey the information?

    The next one in the “Black Chamber” series, “Theater of Spies”, deals with a -naval- secret weapon… so it has the protagonist’s profile, her knife, battleships and a biplane. That doesn’t actually say “alternate WW1”, but it’s a hint, I think.

  8. In a related problem, publishers resist AH proposals that deal with unfamilar-to-the-general-public parts of history, because they’re afraid people won’t realize what’s changed because they don’t know the ‘original’.

    In the sequel to BLACK CHAMBER, which is THEATER OF SPIES, the plot revolves around a naval secret weapon — so there’s the profile of the protagonist, her knife, battleships and a biplane. That doesn’t directly say “alternate history” (the cover copy does) but it strongly hints at it and does pin it down to the period.

    1. Assuming an audience that knows it’s inappropriate.

      Although it’s starting to be shorthand for “somewhere else” to have a zeppelin.

  9. I prefer to go with the “Something is very wrong with this picture…” approach, with said image geared towards your target audience. See “U.S.S. Arizona at sea being attacked by Japanese aircraft with radar on her mainmast…”

  10. How close to alt history is secret history, in terms of covers? I’ve got a WWI adventure story that is thoroughly secret history, if I ever manage to finish it: Alistair Crowley and Rasputin team up to take over the world.

    1. That one’s simple as anything. Have the Mad Monk, the Wickedest Man in England/Europe, and just for fun Helena Blavatsky standing around a table with a world map on it.

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