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Alternate History: M,N,O

By Gary Oswald

This series will cover 26 topics related to Alternate History, as a beginners guide to the genre, through the format of the A-Z.

M - Maps

A Map by Alex Richards

Alternate History by its very nature means that things are different. Borders are different, cities are in different places and countries have different names.

Much like Fantasy, you are presenting the reader with a different world which they can sometimes struggle to picture and much like Fantasy, one tool to help the reader keep track of the story is to include a map, which details what is going on.

AH fans therefore have a love of Maps and Maps, and for that matter Flags, have become not only a major part of a lot of stories, graphics which aid with understanding, but stand alone things outside of that.

A Map as created by someone like Bruce Munro or Alex Richards can not only be included in a story but can also be its own micro fiction. A glimpse into a world that can express its own clear idea without needing a story.

N - Nuclear weapons

Nuclear Weapons are something of a bind for a writer of military Alternate History Fiction. If they want to explore the results of a UK vs USA war in the late 19th century they can do so with various different political and military results, in the late 20th century such a conflict has only one result, nukes fall, everyone dies.

You can certainly write a story about the aftermath of a nuclear war from the perspective of a country hit by weapons, but it's only really one story, how that war started and who is on which side is pretty much irrelevant once nuclear weapons start flying.

There are a few stories which go for conventional World War IIIs where neither side uses their nukes but it's tough to sell. You need to keep the stakes low enough that nukes won't be used while still having all the men and material used in an actual war needed, which is a difficult needle to thread. In reality you had wars like Korea and Angola where huge amounts of men fought but because it was peripheral it never became a matter of life or death where nukes had to be used so Truman could say no to MacArthur. Once you reach a point where it's comparable in number to WWI or WWII though, that no is a lot harder.

Once you have tanks marching through Ukraine and Germany, the stakes are so high the losing side is driven to the wall to the point they have to use nukes.

A compromise is wars with limited Nuclear engagement such as our reality's WWII. Which come within a conventional war and so are less utterly paradigm shifting than 400 missiles wiping out Europe. Many books such as Presidential, have wars like that, where in there is a nuclear war between India and Pakistan which leaves the west intact.


Traditionally a lot of early amateur Alternate History was written in a timeline format.

1266 - Scotland invade China.

1267 - King Kenneth is proclaimed Chinese Emperor.

And so on. This format has become increasingly elaborate and detailed, with a lot of timelines increasing using a bricolage technique of stitching together numerous faux reference books and small narrative scenes to form a greater whole.

But the timeline: this thing happened and then this thing happened, is still the base AH format within those amateur communities even though more traditional narratives are the dominant form of published fiction.

Thus when describing the differences between the alternate reality and real history, the vocabulary used is TTL vs OTL, this time line vs our time line.

OTL is therefore shorthand, for how things really happened.

As timelines go, OTL is often viewed with scorn, considered poorly written, arbitrary, implausible and with limited focus or foreshadowing.

The founder of Sea Lion Press, Tom Black, wrote a parodic piece in which the writer of OTL was a newbie to AH forums called 'OrwellTheLegend' whose attempts were broadly mocked by the commentators.

It is a regular comment in AH forums when ever a news story comes up to go 'This is the kind of thing that if you wrote in a TL, you'd be laughed and accused of making up lame shit.' But that's just OTL.

In all honestly, I find this bit about how badly received reality would be as fiction somewhat overdone. A lot of the aim of AH is try and mimic reality and so readers of AH like a bit of chaos and twists to predictable events. Something like the 2020 news story of Indian and Chinese solders, who had been told not to use guns for fear of starting a nuclear war, beating each other to death with clubs instead is the sort of dark farce that gets accused of being too unrealistic for fiction but I could imagine being well received if it was in an AH story.

I suspect most AH readers would happily applaud most of OTL and consider it a gold standard in ambitious world building. Though possibly the recent chapter on the Russian invasion of the Ukraine would be seen as overly biased.


Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' and 'Emerald Isles' Anthologies.


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