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Big Historian, Little Historian.

By David Flin



Writing an Alternate History story involves picking a viewpoint. You can use different viewpoints, but generally, they are either looking at things from the grand perspective, being involved in the big, strategic decisions; or they are looking at things from the viewpoint of ordinary people, caught up in events.

The difficulty the author faces is that most readers are better able to identify with the ordinary person. However, ordinary people are rarely involved in major decisions, and the world-changing decisions are rarely the subject of casual conversation.

It’s at this point that I have to declare an interest. I am unashamedly a writer who looks at things from the viewpoint of the ordinary person. I find it easier to write about what I know, and I certainly don’t have a great deal of personal knowledge about high-level decision making.

It’s possible to switch between formats, interspersing high-level viewpoints with the viewpoint of ordinary people, but this needs careful handling. You can lose track of the low-level story, or you can start to neglect the details of the higher-level. You can also find that even if you keep track of them both, linking them together is something of a problem. There is little reason for people at the low-level end to pay a great deal of attention to high-level decisions, other than in terms of how it affects them. For example, they might not talk about tanker losses in the Atlantic, but they may very well be talking about how hard it was to get petrol, and that the petrol ration had been cut again.

However, if you reference things indirectly in this way, you’ll find that a good proportion of the readership will miss them. You’re the only person who will know how much of a problem you find that to be.

The problems of the low-level view

People at the low-level don’t have a view of the high-level decisions. A soldier on the front-line has a clear view of what they can see, but hasn’t got a clue what’s going on beyond that. You may be advancing to take an enemy position just ahead of you, and you might guess that something similar was happening on the next hill, but you didn’t know.

To take an example I’m familiar with, you might know that the attack plan had been for one Company to make a lot of noise to the west of the target hill, to draw the attention of the defenders, while the other two Companies made the real attack from the south-east. We had a vague idea that other hills were being attacked that same night, but that wasn’t anything we could do anything about, so we put that out of our mind.

When things started to move, I can tell you what happened in the bit of ground I could see. Anywhere else might just as well have been on the moon. Details can be found in my little tale Down South.

I could explain that we advanced, we then sat around waiting, and then patrolled a bit, then went somewhere else and I didn’t really have a clue where that was, then came back again for some reason or other, advanced again, got shot at, and afterwards everyone said it was a textbook operation. I guess that’s why I never did very well at school, because I couldn’t make head nor tail of this textbook.

From the low-level, you get a clear picture of how things happen, but no indication as to why things happened.

The view from above

Uffington Horse Hill from the air; image by Cloudbase Microlighting

You don’t get to see the detail of what happens from the high-level view. You can explain the decisions that put the ordinary people into the positions they find themselves, but the people who make the big decisions rarely get to see the consequences of those decisions.

That’s not a problem if you’re giving an overview of a situation, and are not especially interested in looking into the fine detail. If the Alternate History story you’re writing is primarily looking at the alternate history, and less focused on a story, then the top-view works very well. In the end, you can say: “There was a battle; some people died and some people got wounded. In the end, one side won and the other side lost.” After a while, the details of how people died or got wounded or survived blur into a sameness. If the focus of the story is on the individuals, then you need those details. If it isn’t, then maybe you don’t.

How to mix. There are little techniques you can use to incorporate high-level discussions into a low-level point of view. Repetition of these becomes predictable, but they can help if used judiciously.

There is the reading a newspaper trick, or listening to a radio or TV broadcast. These are means of conveying the words of a higher-level decision-maker without them being there. You can’t use this too often, unless you make it a feature: you could, for example, have a family tradition of them listening to the news on the radio after dinner; or of a family head who insists on reading news from the paper to his wife over breakfast; or simply letters being written between people.

It’s harder to go the other way, and have a low-level view incorporated into a higher-level setting. Generals rarely get involved in the activities of the people at the sharp end. Indeed, I’ve known one general (now fortunately retired) who made a point of informing people that he never spoke with Service personnel below the rank of Major. How one would get a lower-level viewpoint in with that attitude, I really have no idea.

However, if you’re going to mix lower- and higher-level viewpoints, you’ll need a structure to do this. One technique is that of switching between personal viewpoint and higher-level reporting. Drake’s Drum is a good example of how to do this.

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow