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Alternate History: P,Q,R

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.

I promise you that this picture, created by me on photofunny with the use of a photo of a ship taken by Allan C. Green in 1924 and restored by Adam Cuerden and a Coronation portrait by George Hayter, will make sense by the end of this article.

P - Plausibility

Few questions plague the AH community as much as the one of Plausibility. Is this scenario plausible? Could this happen? We had a whole panel discuss the question recently.

I’d say that a plausible scenario is one that passes the sniff test, essentially. A one where you go ‘yeah, I believe that this might have happened’. Or as Alex Wallace put it "does the divergence from actual history feel believable, given known facts thereof."

The goal, as with all fiction, is immersion i.e. producing a story which readers can enjoy without getting caught up with 'wait, that makes no sense' because it feels plausible.

One of the criticism often made of the amateur AH community is we are perhaps overly concerned with plausibility. Not that it is unimportant, but that it sometimes seems to take precedent over questions of whether the scenario is interesting, whether the writing is engaging, the characters layered and the plot well paced.

To a large extent this is because the amateur AH community often view themselves as much more versed in historical details than storytelling skill. Thus you are much more likely to be criticised on your historical plausibility than your writing, because that's what the audience knows most. And if that is what your feedback is telling you, that's what you, as a writer, will focus on when trying to improve.

But it's also because historical diligence is an area where professional writers are often lacking and so someone with a keen interest in history will try, in their own writing, to do better.

Q - Queens and Kings

Royalty is an appealing thing for an AH fan, because a Kingdom is much more easily changeable than a Republic. This is not to say that Royalty had complete freedom, obviously they all had to appease interests within the country and many who did think they had complete freedom to remake the country in their image, found themselves, briefly, surprised when they were deposed or died suddenly.

But a Monarch has less need to appeal to the Public than an elected leader and often, especially in terms of foreign policy, wars and alliances were decided based purely on the whims of the one, not always stable, person in charge. So much of the post Napoleonic status quo of Europe was based on the whims of Alexander I of Russia and which ever love interest happened to have his ear at the time. It's an appealing way of shaking up the status quo when replacing one Monarch with another can be done with a single bullet and have massive consequences.

Female writers of AH history are often drawn in particular to different royal marriages. With their AH often being historical matchmaking, such as Olivia Longueville's 'Between Two Kings' series where Anne Boleyn marries Francis II rather than Henry Viii.

This is again an obvious source of drama that could realistically be changed by a single incident and yet would have massive consequences on not only the lives of the people in question but also the broader state of the area.

And for female writers, there is obviously something deeply relatable with the way a Queen found herself essentially at the mercy of the men in her life, with little knowledge about whether their betrothed would be a good man or a Henry VIII like murderous tyrant.

R - Rivet Counting

If the stereotype of a female AH writer is that of an historical matchmaker. The stereotype of a male AH writer is very different. He is instead seen as a Tom Clancy style obsessive about military hardware above all else.

The kind of guy who would count the rivets of the shell he wrote in his story to make sure it was accurate but wouldn't care whether the person it hit had a name or personality.

Rivet counting is a nickname for that obsessive focus on military equipment. It's a military thriller which spends 60 pages talking about the types of hardware you use.

Tom Clancy gets lots of praise for his diligent research into military hardware and how you they could realistically evolve and be used. But then he puts those weapons in a world where the geo-political realities are just nonsense. India tries to invade Australia, China invades Siberia, two majority Castilian areas of Spain break out into ethnic strife against each others.

The politics and even the wars are unimportant, they're things that happens as a collection of names and events so that the bit Clancy does care about, the cool weapons going boom can have a background to go boom in.

And in AH you often see the same trend; unrealistic political happenings so that the rivets can get their work out. So the Trent Affair scandal between the UK and USA becomes a war so that we can test two militaries against each other in a wargame style and never mind that neither side had any actual motive to go to war and lots of reasons to back down.

The battles becomes hollow because there's no attempt to actually work out what they mean. There's no attempt to explore the social effects or politics, its just people shooting at each other. It's US Civil War stories which obsessively detail battles without looking at the Black American social changes. Or War Stories that don't deal with PTSD or morale and view their soldiers entirely as pieces to be moved.

This is not entirely fair as analysis, there is nothing wrong with accuracy and if you are going to write battles, you should try and get the details right, especially since so many writers get it wrong.

But an obsessive focus on details of hardware is not the best way of making combat immersive and so is not that helpful in terms of making the story interesting and readable.

The combination of the two stereotypes, that female writers love marrying off various royals to each other and male writers love big ships that go boom, has led some people in the AH community to joke that the most popular AH story ever written would be about a marriage between Queen Victoria and the HMS Hood.

To this day, if someone suggests an overly schlocky low brow AH, you sometimes hear the put down 'but who would the HMS Hood marry?' in reply.


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


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