History in Fiction 2.0: Alt-History, Secret-History, Historical Fantasy

Alma T. C. Boykin

So, you found a cool place in history and want to play with it. What if . . . Roland had not been killed in battle? What if . . . Charlemagne’s grandsons had not divided up the empire? What if . . . the internal combustion engine had not been invented [ignores yells of “Steampunk!!!!” from the back of the room]? What if dragons had existed and were part of society, secretly steering the development of western culture? Welcome to all the variations on historical fiction.

What do the genres have in common? Research and world-building. You gotta do your digging. When I wrote the Powers alt-history trilogy, I started with general histories of WWI on the Eastern Front, then memoirs, some academic monographs, and histories of the inter-war period. I needed enough details to make the story work, and enough about what a mid-ranked Hungarian noble would do and think to build a convincing world. I had the advantage of visiting in person some of the area, and that let me correct a few misconceptions I’d gathered from the maps.

Alternate history takes a point in the known past and splits away with a “what if this had happened? Or had never happened?” In my case, I said, “OK, what if 1) dragons and telepathy and stuff really existed and 2) what if the following three things had not happened in our reality?” From that I built the world of the Powers, with the Habsburg Empire in a much, much stronger position going into WWI, but at the same technology level and general political scene. I kept the terrible military leadership and planning at the start of the war, but had the emperor intervene sooner. My goal was to have things diverge, but not enough to completely change “today.” I had built the world already, so I knew what the limits were. You don’t have to be limited in that way. You can have, oh, Charles V von Habsburg prevent slavery developing in the Spanish New World*, or keep the Chinese feudal system past the end of the Tang Dynasty, or something. Whatever is different is in the open and known. That is one of the things that differentiates it from secret history as a sub-genre.

Secret history supposes that “a small, secret group to which I do not belong [alas]” really exists and runs things, or influences things. Katherine Kurtz’s Two Crowns for America is based on this idea. In her case, the Templars/Masonic Order are trying to steer the American Revolution to the best possible outcome, using a bit of diplomacy, a touch of magic, and Masonic connections. She builds a world that is possible, if you accept church magic and look sideways at the actual American Revolution and Stuart family. Secret History is not a genre as clearly defined as alt-history, although everyone knows it when they read it. Dan Brown has an element of that, although his is more historical conspiracy.

Often this group falls between genres, and is more thriller, or spy novel. Most novels of this type have the protagonist begin as innocent and unaware of things, but then he or she gets pulled in by accident, or because one of the conspirators needs his special skills. As the MC learns about the conspiracy, so too does the reader. You can play with the basic ideas if you want to have a secret group of magic workers, or were-creatures, who have survived for years and have infiltrated this organization or that government, or who steered the genre of fantasy so that no one in their right mind really believes in vampires, werewolves, or dragons. Then, one day, an accountant and gun buff realizes that his boss isn’t quite what he seems, and . . . Oh, sorry, that’s Larry Correia’s biography, not a book plot. Never mind. Where were we?

Historical fantasy is a broader umbrella in some ways, and allows lots of playing in the past, so long as you keep the basic fantasy genre requirements. Margaret Ball’s upcoming release is one easy example. Katherine Kurtz Dyreni series is another. She takes Medieval Wales and England and builds a world with magic and a two-tiered society of magic workers and normal people. The setting draws heavily on actual history and what life was like in medieval society. This is a genre where you use research to build the world and to create characters that fit into the rough time and place you created. A middle aged merchant in the Hanseatic League of Central Europe in the 1100s is historical fiction. Add the ability to work magic – which he doesn’t have – and keep the guild and trade systems, the political rivalries, and the rather loose actual grip of the Holy Roman Empire. The fictional world, with all the details, the geography, and political system is mine, but builds on the scaffolding of actual history, with a lot of variations. That recipe seems to work pretty well, at least for me, although it means I have a lot of books on economics, trade, politics and so on in two languages stacked up in my office. And now about medieval herbs, medicine, and how health care worked (or didn’t) between AD 500 CE and 1300. I’m lazy. I steal from other people, name them in the footnotes/works cited, and call it research and fiction.

As I said last week, these are genres where readers are probably somewhat familiar with what you are writing about, or are interested enough to do more digging on their own. At least mine are. And I get polite e-mails asking about reference books, mild corrections, adding detail to something I elided over, or going into some personal observations from that individual’s experiences in that part of the world. And I enjoy research. I’m Odd that way.

Illustration: Author owned. Click the smaller image for a link to the e-book.

*Charles was opposed to slavery for personal moral reasons. He did not succeed in eliminating the practice, because it was too ingrained in warfare and “But they did it to us first!” Trying to argue that “just because the Bible says it happens, and just because the Ottomans do it, doesn’t make it OK” . . . Did not succeed. Perhaps you could find a way.

44 thoughts on “History in Fiction 2.0: Alt-History, Secret-History, Historical Fantasy

  1. I like alternate history best when it doesn’t stick near the point of divergence– either directly or by having history stop.

    (Bring the Jubilee having a century in which nothing much happened in the North post Civil War.)

    Exploring the ramifications of a change gets too complex too quickly, and many readers don’t get it.

  2. Most of the books by Tim Powers are somewhere between secret history and historical fantasy, in that he’s trying to extrapolate woo-woo things happening behind the scenes of the official history, but there isn’t necessarily a single secret cabal running everything.

    He’s said in interviews that he uses very large agenda/calendar thingies to track the movements of the historical figures and events, and then fits the speculative stuff into the gaps. (I assume this is the kind of calendar that just lists the days of the week for 52 weeks and you write in the year/month/date stuff yourself. Could maybe do something similar in Excel.)

    Supposedly, at one point in researching Stress of Her Regard, he was documenting one historical figure’s movements on an hour-by-hour basis; might have been Byron, I don’t recall now.

    1. Mr. Powers’ books are probably the best example on how to do secret history correctly. After reading his djinni-and-the-Cold-War novel Declare, I found the plot he gave more plausible than some of the real-world events they were based on.

  3. I look at my series-in-progress a little differently. It is definitely “Fantasy” and has explicit magic elements, but it’s also very much a Science-of-Magic work and an exploration of the “what-if” sort of thing that’s common to SciFi — (what if magic existed and could be exploited by physical (bio-lab) processes which result in an Industrial Revolution of Magic?).

    Now, this has to take place in a specific world & culture, and the “Industrial Revolution” aspect of it grounds reasonably well in a Georgian/Regency British context — not in the real historical period/place (alt-history) but in a custom-built version. So the serial numbers are polished off the physical setting (continents, trade, high-level political structures), but as much as possible of the daily-life is recognizable as pseudo-Regency — manners, modes of politeness, ordinary shop goods, servants, intra-cultural relationships, travel practices, meals, education, etc. The point is not the accuracy of all of that to its real-world originals, but the familiar background of it for the reader, who can more easily accept the differences since he understands how that background generally works.

    Part of this is the flavor I wanted to convey for “Industrial Revolution”, but really it’s more fundamental than that. It’s the ordinary mechanics of world-building.

    What is one advantage of contemporary novels? You don’t have to waste time telling readers how the world works. If you do, it’s only for specialized knowledge (secret weapons, special skills, political conspiracies, unique cultures). Think of how much you can count on the reader already knowing.

    Now, you have to spell out a lot of things in your world if it’s not set in a familiar present and place. For a contemporary story in a distant place, you have work to do to ground the reader. For Alt-History, this includes the “what is different” information. For SciFi, this may include both background culture/world info as well as the science-of-interest in the plot.

    For Fantasy, depending, this can include vast amounts of description. Who wants to choke over vast amounts of description that’s just for the background, not the plot [looking at you, Robert Jordan]? One shortcut is to base it on something people are already (sort of) familiar with. It’s a cliche that no Fantasy really needs to explain horses, or beer, or wagons, or knives, or vests… (and thank goodness) — unless that’s part of the point of the story.

    So, I’m using echoes of London in the Georgian/Regency periods as a subliminal backdrop, so that I can simply say things like “flags and cobblestones” for sidewalks and city streets, show older city fortifications absorbed into modern outgrowth, rejoice over recently available reasonable plumbing, explore competition between light sources (nascent electricity, gas) vs magical equivalents (magically-enabled firefly-like wall lighting)… and be easily understood by my readers who will have some knowledge of how the real Industrial Revolution worked and how London in that period felt. That way I don’t have to bore my readers by building everything from scratch, and can still modify the details of the look and feel.

    We all do this when telling a story, else the story would have no points of contact between the reader and the imagined world. The difference is in the details — how much work the reader has to do in learning about the differences without taking him out of the story proper unnecessarily.

  4. One man surviving can make a huge difference: Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, died at 18 so his feckless younger brother became Charles I, an incompetent ruler who lost his head. What would have happened if he’d lived? There’d be changes both great and small.

    This reminds me of a series I like very much but at the same time, I can’t accept the underlying world building. That is, I have to shut of the critical thinking and just go along for the ride.

    If a magic potion developed around 1876 gave magic to certain people and not others and it was inheritable, would we in 2022 still be driving around in Cadillac Escalades and getting coffee at Starbucks? Especially when the world was shaken to its foundations by mage wars. And those mages agree to let normal people exist and live without interference?

    It seems doubtful, but I guess it was easier for the writer.

  5. Another classic example is the Lord Darcy series, set in a timeline contemporary to when the stories were written but in an AU world wherein Richard the Lionheart did not die in battle and the Plantagenet line continued, and in which magic takes the place of science. Wonderful fun to read.

    1. Lord Darcy is a beautiful example of one single premise, plus magic, and spinning a believable world that works at many levels. (Although the Oxford-educated Aztec [or Maya? Don’t remember] had me blinking a lot. Believable in world, but still a bit “wow, OK, yeah, I can see how that might work. Wow.”)

      1. The creative spelling of whiskey (I think maybe an attempt to extrapolate an Anglo-Norman spelling?) and the story where they invent magic refrigerators leap out at me as a couple of fun world-building details from there.

    2. I wish Randall Garret had written more of them. I think I’ve collected all of the Lord Darcy stories (1 novel + the short stories), and enjoyed them a lot.

      1. There are two collections, with the same title, that were the complete Lord Darcy stories. There’s an SFBC collection, titled “Lord Darcy”, which was complete — as of when it came out. And then Garrett wrote another one. And there’s a Baen collection, of the same title, which does include the extra story (“The Spell of War” — a sort-of prequel to the others).

        If you get the Baen edition, I’d skip reading the prolog. It gives too many clues to the meta-challenge in Too Many Magicians — identifying all of the references to characters (real or not) in SF, mysteries, popular culture, etc. I think I’ve got most of them — but, with Garrett, you never can tell.

    3. One notes a certain want of historical events — wars, epidemics, famines, overthrow of dynasties — in that series.

      It’s all being backdrop to the mysteries helped, of course.

      1. Garrett was probably somewhat trolling the “Anglo Saxon Protestants created everything good in the world” types (who still existed at the the time he was writing) by positing a Norman, Catholic British Empire with a relatively sedate history. We are talking about the man who wrote Plunderers of the Golden Empire, after all.

  6. Has anyone here ever seen stories where a major change is put into real-world history, and it changes almost nothing?

    The best bad example I can think of is almost certainly unknown to everyone here, a 20+ year old one shot fanzine called Historimorphs that went with ‘what if anthropomorphic animals evolved and lived alongside humanity in the past?’ I thought it was a great idea when I first heard about it. Then I read it. Aside from ‘historical research’ that went about as deep as a cable TV documentary, the authors maddeningly have humanity evolve and develop alongside animal people and it changes absolutely nothing about history. Oh, save that the beast-people are all oppressed slaves because of course. You just get an outside observer who judges these ignorant, violent, God-worshiping fanatics with sneering disdain. And that was every. Single. Story. What a waste.

    Civilizations developing with multiple sapient species from the start, and all anyone can do is ‘Look how evil-dumb our ancestors were’.

    1. That’s the problem IMO with Naomi Novik’s Temeraire Series.

      Basically, the Napoleonic Wars with Dragons.

      In some ways, it’s an interesting series but the idea that we’d have the same sort of history with Dragons existing alongside humans throughout human history gave me WTH moments.

      1. In some moods, I was like “just roll with it,” with regards to Temeraire. Like Harry Potter, the contrast between the familiar and the strange was a large part of the appeal. But as the books got deeper into the Chinese part of the setting, where it seemed like the impact of having dragons around had been more systematically thought out, the harder it became to take the Napoleonic Wars With Dragons part of the setting seriously.

        1. Nod.

          The China in that series was much different than our world’s China.

          I dropped out of the series before they visited Africa so I don’t know how that world’s Africa differed from “our” Africa.

          So the question of “why Europe with Dragons” is the same as our Europe becomes stronger.

          And yes, a good enough author can “pull the reader” past such problems.

          1. Well, since the original point was “let’s do Pern in Regency UK,” you start out with England having worldbuilding that changed too much, plus history that didn’t change enough.

            The other countries are different, because the setup was more original to the world.

            1. Very true, and possibly the inconsistency is down to some pretentious hipster at the publishing house breathing down her neck when it came time to expand the world. But there is no particular reason she couldn’t have been doing “Let’s do Pern all around late 18th c./early 19th c. Earth, allowing for regional cultural differences,” which would allow the worldbuilding/history disconnect to be at least consistently implausible in the way that, say, Harry Potter relatively is.

    2. If you read through the Powers books I did, you’ll find that the 1920s-30s are still terrible for many, and WWII still breaks out. But hope remains, and yes, things *will* turn out different after that conflict. The Cold War still happens, ditto the world post 9/11. Some trends were just too big to change, alas.

      1. True, and thanks for the reminder. I probably should have emphasized major and obvious, unable to be hidden changes. Depending on the story you can hide magic being used to worsen the winters of WW2, aiding in the defeat of Nazi Germany in Russia. It’s hard to do the same with nonhuman races possessing magic powers living openly beside humanity.

    3. Superheroes.

      There are superheroes romping about WWII and it produces no effect. . . .

      At least most superhero stories set near the modern era make them something that emerged recently. Were they around for much longer, history would unrecognizable.

      (I like Wearing the Cape for honestly grappling with the alternate history.)

      1. The usual explanation given is that it would cheapen the efforts of the real-life people who fought the Axis and/or demean the horror of real-life WW2 atrocities if Superman and Captain America rescued everyone at Auschwitz and locked Hitler and Tojo up. I’ve known some people who got VERY incensed at the mere idea of doing that in a story.

        As a sort-of example of that I remember seeing a photo-manip some years ago. It inserted one of the characters from My Little Pony Friendship is Magic in a rather well-known picture of the defeat of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, showing them as being taken prisoner along with the Jews. It had people in a fury.

        1. Alternate histories regularly deal with real world events differently. Treating them as they were somehow more real within the fictional universe is an aesthetic flaw.

        2. Come to think of it, I have read people who would LOVE to see a story in which superheroes tread the Nazi regime underfoot, so there’s that, too.

            1. Fought them yes, trampled the whole regime underfoot would have required an alternate history.

              Though actually, I have seen more “Captain America and the Commandos and/or Wolverine rescue young Magneto from the Nazis” desire.

        3. The most plausible ones I’ve seen for why things like superheroes didn’t trample the other side into dust (or magic) was that the balance of magical/superhero/grand mcguffin powers remained largely the same so the details may have come out differently but over all the balance of power was the same. I wish I could remember a title off the top of my head (Not my favorite genre.) But those also tended not to get up to full comic book level powers.

          1. Marvel had the powered facing off each other. This is implausible. Even when a military advance does not really change the balance of power among nations, it changes the nation internally. If only because new people gain power.

            The cannon consolidated nations because forts required vastly greater forces. A superhero in WWII would change the war because of their vast ability to carry out targeted sabotage.

              1. It also helps to select their powers with care.

                For instance, if you rescued young Magneto from the Nazis, the most efficient use of his powers would be running guns and provisions to soldiers, and precision attacks on factories, supply depots, and railroads.

                Others would be better suited to fighting other supers.

  7. Picking up on Teresa’s comment: what if Friedrich III had not died of cancer at 56 but lived to the ripe old age of 90 like his father? His character was so different from that of his son that huge changes for the better in World history could have followed. As an alternate history plot though it’s maybe not so good. Where is the drama if you eliminate two world wars and several revolutions? A nicer world may be a lot less exciting to read about unless the writer has a good catastrophe up their sleeve.

    1. Europe was still headed for a reckoning, I think; no matter how good Friedrich might have been, that wouldn’t have changed the fact that there were a lot of countries with grudges against Germany, and that Bismark had entangled them in mutually contradictory alliances that only his personal charisma could keep from falling apart. But with Victoria’s daughter as German Empress, and without the rancor towards England caused by those who blamed Princess Vicky and her English doctor for Friedrich’s death, odds are much better that the British/German alliance Victoria had hoped for would come to pass. And when that “damn thing in the Balkans” happens with Britain and Germany closely allied, things could get interesting…

      1. The problem is that such an alliance runs up against the basic objective of British foreign policy ever since they got kicked out of France, which has been “prevent a united Europe, because that’s the only thing that can threaten us.” Germany being the most powerful country in Europe at the time meant that it is highly unlikely that a London-Berlin alliance would have been feasible. Wilhelm II’s decision to build a fleet only moved the chances of such from “almost nil” to “snowball’s chance in hell.”

        1. One of the problems with alternate history is that people can legimately have widely different views of the impact of the selected change.

          Without the German decision to build up its navy there would have been one less arms race in Europe – so reducing the general tension and also the number of countries pissed off with Germany – and on my estimation there would not have been a “snowball’s chance in hell” of the UK ending up in even an unwritten alliance with Russia (who had just fought a war with our ally Japan, was thought to threaten India and who thought that London was far too accomodating to Russian “terrorists”). My best guess is that Britain and Germany would have remained close friends without any kind of formal alliance.

          Plus Germany+Austo-Hungary versus France+Russia was pretty much the kind of state of Europe that the UK approved of. There are potentially other interesting knock on changes, most obviously in the Balkans if the “revised” Germany does not to give Austria a blank cheque, but also in Ireland where home rule would probably have gone through without partition and with a constitution which did not result in the creation of a Catholic theocracy. As for the USA, if and when does in cease to be isolationist and does Congress ever overcome its aversion to authorising military spending?

          1. And that’s not unfair–an England unthreatened by a German naval buildup might have been friendly enough that Germany might not have felt as threatened by Russian modernization, and wouldn’t have come to the conclusion in 1914 that if they were going to have a war they needed to have it now.

            Of course, in that case we might have gotten a war in the 1920s, when France decided they wanted Alsace-Lorraine back.

            1. Very good point. French revanchism wasn’t going to go away. Still, it might have been a limited conflict, like the Franco-Prussian war before it, rather than a “World” war, especially if Germany limited itself to a defensive strategy (in which case I suspect that the French would have been slaughtered in another “battle of the frontiers” as their belief in the offensive clashed with Germany’s greater population size, superior industry and machine guns). No one would have invaded Belgium and the UK would definitely not have got involved.

              But I could be totally wrong, maybe Russia would join in, maybe serious trouble would arise elsewhere (somebody would probably be trying to dismember the Ottoman Empire, either en-masse or bit by bit, and at some point Japan v China would come to the boil).

              Still, even if we only got the continuation of the post Congress of Vienna kind of “peaceful” world it would be a lot better than the mass slaughter that actually resulted.

              1. In the “France tries to take Alsace-Lorraine” scenario, Russia would probably have joined in in order to snag the rest of Poland and extend its influence into the Balkans.

                As to the Ottomans, that’s one that could cause England to go several different ways, and would be very heavily dependent on who was offering what–London saw the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway as a threat to British interests in the Middle East (though in a TL where Germany doesn’t try a naval arms race that fear would be less than in ours), but was also very nervous about the bear getting access to the Mediterranean or Iran.

  8. I’m struggling with this now in my current WIP. Just having the Texas Navy (spoiler alert) doing the job the French Navy should have been doing is creating the potential for all sorts of changes that I need to sort out without turning this into ‘Texas saves the world’.

Comments are closed.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: