Questions from Gary Oswald
Counter factual and Alternate History discussion and fiction is a large and healthy online community. Sea Lion Press has always had the aim of providing a platform for Alternate History Fiction, discussion and essays but it can't fill every niche and there are other platforms doing slightly different things. As a result there are a lot of people involved in other forms of Fiction and historical discussion with a counter factual focus. So over the next few Months I'll be interviewing various members of this online community about their non Sea Lion Press projects to shine a bit of a light on what else is out there.
Hello Alexander. First of all, thank you very much for speaking to us. For any readers not familiar with you, you've written three books for Sea Lion Press and many more self published books. Let's start with the obvious question, how did you get into the genre and what do you think appeals to you about it?
I had always written fiction as a child. However, my great love from the age of 3, when I saw the Bayeux Tapestry, was History, so often that would inform my stories for school. A lot of non-fiction History books include counter-factual discussions anyway. I also did some wargaming in the days of plastic Airfix figures and then the ‘board’ wargames from companies like Avalon Hill which were big in the 1980s, so, from the start, with that you see outcomes that vary from what happened in any given battle. Some of the board wargames had alternatives included, I remember the invasion of Malta in the Second World War being one we played.
I was a very slow reader, but my father was a voracious reader, consuming three Agatha Christie novels in a single day. He was into both the writing of Classical historians but also science fiction, especially in the 1970s when there was that period of so many short SF novels. He gave me both ‘Pavane’ by Keith Roberts and ‘Bring the Jubilee’ by Ward Moore, but at the time there was not much else available in alternate history. Even knowing about books in a genre was hard if they were not in your local library or bookshop.
Around the age of 12, I discovered Michael Moorcock’s work, especially the Oswald Bastable trilogy, so saw how science fiction and alternate history could merge. We lived under a regular flight path of the Goodyear Airship and my school, for some reason, had a translation of a Zeppelin crew manual, so anything with airships in seemed great to me. I also enjoyed H.G. Wells’s ‘The War in the Air’ but never completed it until much later.
The college I went to at 16, had a complete set of Moorcock’s work at the time – I think some of the teachers were old hippies – but also Kingsley Amis’s ‘The Alteration’ and ‘Russian Hide and Seek’. I am not a fan of Amis, but these books did show alternate history could be ‘legitimate’ literary fiction and not just ‘alternative’ the way Moorcock was perceived. A friend also lent me ‘King and Joker’ and later ‘Skeleton-in-Waiting’ by Peter Dickinson which showed me low-key alternate history in contrast to Moorcock’s epics.
A big change came in 1987 when I got my first wordprocessor (an Amstrad PCW512). Up until they I had been writing by hand in old exercise books or lined paper pads. Now I felt much more in control of what I could write. At university, I did not have a television so my evenings were filled with reading and writing (or drinking or movies) sometimes all four. Before the internet, research was time consuming so I stuck to fantasy and cyberpunk. No-one is going to pick you up about an ‘error’ if you are inventing the whole world. Fantasy was huge then due to the Role-Playing Games we played in the 1980s and then there was the cyberpunk explosion of William Gibson and especially for me, Bruce Sterling, George Alec Effinger and John Shirley.
I completed my first full length novel in 1988. I finished my first alternate history novel, ‘His Majesty’s Dictator’ in 1993. It was heavily influenced by Moorcock’s Bastable series. In those days submitting books to agents and publishers was time consuming and expensive, posting manuscripts to them and typically never getting a response. At this stage, I was briefly a school teacher, naturally teaching History, so I had access to a lot of non-fiction books for research. I was not a success as a school teacher - I am very bad at remembering students’ names - so instead became a History lecturer with much smaller classes.
I taught a lot of modern European history, especially on Germany. I had studied in West Germany at the height of the Historikerstreit, so a fascinating time for modern German history. My teaching led me to start writing the Otto Braucher detective story books set in 1920s Munich, but this was straight historical crime. I did however, get to attend a lecture by Eric Hobsbawm in the late 1990s in which he outlined what he saw as the parameters of counter-factual analysis in historical scholarship and I remember that as giving a kind of stamp of approval for this methodology. ‘Unmaking the West’ by Tetlock, Lebow and Parker which followed a few years later, similarly greatly influenced my thinking on alternate history on an academic basis.
The big jump to producing alternate history books came in the late 2000s. After various redundancies, I had ended up as an administrator and it was getting me down, so I was advised to start a blog, which I did in 2007; it is still running. I posted regularly on anything that interested me. Now in the age of the internet, reading up on historical details was much easier so I started doing blog postings discussing various counter-factual scenarios. I found these very fulfilling. In 2012, I had had two bouts of workplace bullying which had had impacted on my health and I had been made redundant again, so we were struggling to pay our mortgage.
My wife, who is a published historical fiction author, encouraged me to start self-publishing. She suggested I collate my blog postings into analysis books, which I did as the ‘Other …’ series. They proved quite successful, though not enough to keep our house and we ended up homeless. However, having to move around the country to find work, often living away from my wife and son I would fill my evenings in rented rooms or B&Bs, writing. My greatest success with these were the two ‘In Other Trenches’ books that I released for the centenary of the First World War in 2014.
I then moved whole-heartedly into focusing on alternate history, though I did still produce some books in other genres. There were chronological phases: first the analysis books; second the short-story anthologies often based on scenarios in the analysis books, and then third, where we are now, full-length novels, themselves often going further into the scenarios seen in one of the short stories.
Like a lot of AH writers, you've come from a very academic background, you've studied and taught German history. How important do you think a high level of historical knowledge is for AH Fiction or indeed historical fiction generally?
Working in a historical context you often stumble across things that make you think ‘what if?’. Students are good at challenging things that established teachers and academics take for granted. As a result, you increasingly find that the true outcome was often the least likely one. I always think of things like the survival of Prussia in the 1760s or Washington’s army intact and him alive after Valley Forge; the unification of Italy or the British and French forces escaping from Dunkirk; De Gaulle not being successfully assassinated. The alternatives were far more probable than what we actually saw in history. Thus, I think being in that context is a wonderful inspiration for writing the alternates.
The challenge comes when you are writing fiction for a general audience. I have a good friend who reads a lot of science fiction and likes alternate history novels, but only when he knows what the actual history was. Thus, some of my books featuring, for example, the Mongol invasion of Europe or the survival of the Byzantine Empire, do not appeal to him as he has only minimal idea of what actually happened in those situations, so cannot easily tell where the counter-factual diverges from the factual. I think this is why, certainly these days, so many novels focus on the Second World War or the American Civil War as the bulk of English-speaking readers know how these turned out. Saying that, the confused reception to the ‘Fatherland’ movie in the USA in 1994 and the portrayal in the media of Robert Harris’s 2017 novel, ‘Munich’ as if it was alternate history, rather than straight historical fiction, shows that even these assumptions may now be out-of-date.
There is a further challenge and this is one which I have discussed with my wife who is a straight historical novelist. Much of the reading public has very strong views on what the ‘real’ history was. However, this popular view is often very different from what you would see in history books. A classic example, which caused much debate with my wife, is the presence of women on 18th Century sailing ships. The popular view is that, apart from the occasional prostitute in port, women were kept off ships, unless passengers; they were seen as unlucky and women who wanted to go aboard had to disguise themselves as men or boys. However, a historian will show you Horatio Nelson protesting that all the women on board his naval ships are drinking all the fresh water.
You recognise then that there would be the officers’ wives, often the cooks and blacksmiths’ wives as well – and yes wooden ships did have forges on them. Women often had an important role in repairing sails and aiding the surgeon – not least his wife. Thus, when you see ‘Master and Commander’ and there are no women on board, this is actually the inaccurate portrayal, but it is the one much of the audience feels is correct. You have to be ready to fight back against those saying your book is ‘wrong’. However, it can be a real challenge. It has taken decades of popular history programmes to push back against the view that Vikings wore winged helmets!
All historical authors, then, have to walk a fine line between the ‘popular’ view of history and the real history. I often refer to Hilary Mantel railing against fellow historical fiction authors for feeling obliged to put reference lists at the end of their novels to ‘prove’ that their take on the history is at least feasible, let alone accurate. She feels they lack courage. However, I think she misses the fact that any author in the 21st Century is open to ‘attack’ – and I use that word intentionally – from readers, and even just commentators. The ability to freely write online reviews or critiques and have them stay associated with a book forever more, is very powerful and can be very damaging. I have encountered commentators online bragging about how many authors, especially self-published ones, they have got to take down their books from sale, as a result of facing a barrage of criticism.
There is a lot behind it. Sometimes it is plain misogyny against any female author ‘daring’ to produce a book, especially in a field like history which is too often seen as a preserve of men. Interestingly, I have received messages from women who have spotted an error in one of my books and correct me, very politely. It is very quick and easy to amend an e-book so I do that and I thank them openly in that book. Men, however, bellow at me in public spaces and seem to relish the fact they can call me out and seem to be better than me in some way.
This bring me on to the numerous, what I term ‘nitpickers’ who feel proud if they can bring down an author by pointing out what they see as an error in the book, even if they are actually wrong from an academic historical perspective, themselves. These are people who often would like to write a book but lack the patience to do so. They get off on bringing down the work of others and in fact somehow see themselves self-righteously as ‘defenders’ of the reading community from phoney authors. I could write an entire article on the segregation between what are seen as ‘proper’ authors and the ‘joggers’, to use a term someone levelled at me. I stopped reading ‘reviews’ of my books a few years ago now, because my wife felt it was too damaging to my mental health, which ironically had been the reason for me starting my blog, a source of many of my books, in the first place.
Now, all of this is just about straight historical fiction. It is twice as hard with alternate history. Not only do you have the challenges of the historical details but also the perceived feasibility of the alternatives you introduce. In terms of things like guns or aeroplanes or clothing, readers seem to expect all of these to be identical even if you are featuring a very different path of history.
I remember critiques of Ryan McCall’s 2013 novel, ‘The Nanking War’ which features a US-Japan War in 1937. The mild American reaction to the sinking of US ships by the Japanese is one of those surprising events in history and it is an interesting scenario to follow. However, I remember an early critique complaining that the US rifle featured was not available as widely in 1937 as McCall showed it, so the book was deemed useless. I thought instead: but surely if the USA was going to war in 1937, unlike in our world, then they would have rushed the guns out quickly. That kind of thing is used to really go against alternate history authors and somehow ‘prove’ their incompetence as writers. Alternate history authors are operating in a much more hostile environment than Moore, Roberts or even Harris back in 1992, faced.
Another challenge I have noted is nationalism. I have run into difficulty especially with Americans who believe in the Manifest Destiny, but also people like Belgians and Finns, who feel that the history of their country as it is told, is so important, that no-one can really be permitted to play around with it, even in fiction. That, is of course, with fiction about the USA, unless it delivers a much more atavistic America than is currently in place. With China, we have seen this go as so far as for the government to bar time travel stories and any that show alterations to Chinese history.
Individual commentators will often rail against a book as ‘impossible’ if it suggests there could have been any alternative to what they feel the world witnessed. This sometimes stems from religious people who see it as blasphemous to suggest that something could have been different to God’s plan, though ironically, often academics would challenge their views of what actually happened in history anyway.
A rather lengthy answer, but in conclusion, I would say a good level of historical knowledge is fertile ground for writing (alternate) historical fiction. However, sound accurate knowledge is not always going to be popular with readers, let alone the vigorous commentators. Authors then have to walk the line between being true to what they know and including what readers will accept. With alternate history, this is doubly hard and you have to avoid writing ‘defensively’, filling the book with exposition in an attempt to head off the complaints you will get about the scenarios you develop and the version of the world you portray stemming from them.
As well as Fiction you also publish essays and analyses about counterfactuals. In terms of the two formats which do you find most challenging or rewarding?
The move from one to the other has been chronological rather than a conscious choice. They reflect how my views and what I get pleasure from have shifted over the past 13 years. They also tend to feed into each other, so, I write analysis of something, then it makes me think of a short story, which then I use as the basis for a novel. While the phases are not clearly delineated from each other, that has been the broad phases over that period. The only real time I have gone back on that was with ‘Mark in the Sea’ about islands that were the remnants of Doggerland persisting in the North Sea. I read about this in about 2014 and while I did not write an analysis on this, a few years later it fed into an anthology of short stories, whereas the previous anthologies had been based on analysis I had done many years before and only wrote up on my blog in the late 2000s.
I guess all of my work starts from the same place. I imagine this goes back to being a history academic. I still do lots of research when something catches my interest, though sometimes this is sparked by another novel or drama rather than non-fiction. My current book in progress, ‘The Blood and The Ghost’ was triggered by watching ‘The Last Kingdom’ series. The drama itself, though historical fiction, actually alters a lot of characters, for example, their ages and who kills whom. I was so riled – this often happens – by some of the characters, that I wanted to ‘put them in their place’ in my novel, which sees King Alfred and his wife being executed in 878 after the Battle of Chippenham.
Alfred’s escape after that defeat, is one of those cases when the less probable outcome was the actual one. So, I spent a lot of time researching what was going on in Britain at the time. I got drawn off into the Welsh kingdoms which retained Roman culture and language long after the Romans had left and so on. Now, if this was 2010, I would have written an analysis of that. If it was 2015, I would have done a short story. As it is 2020, I am writing a novel. The source for all three would be the same. Whether I will go back round again and do analysis essays in the future, I cannot tell. Next time they may be podcasts rather than books. At present, I have four novels worked out and probably as many again ideas which I can work up, so it looks like the 2020s will be novels for me, we will see.
Thus, I do not separate out the processes that go into creating the different books. I am generally satisfied with what I produce and its nature depends on where I have been in my life and what is shaping up to be a kind of journey with my writing.
And what's the reception of the two been like? Do you find that you have a different audience for one rather than the other?
It is difficult to tell. I hear so rarely from readers that I cannot get a feel for who is reading my work. As has probably become apparent, most of the feedback I get is very negative. It is often clear, though, that the commentators have not read beyond the first chapter, sometimes even less. Sometimes I get very sweeping condemnations of what I am doing whether it is the analysis or the fiction; that I know nothing; that I am mistaken in my views or even that I cannot write in English. I always put my email and my Twitter details in my books, but in the course of the last 8 years, I could count those who have contacted me, on the fingers of just both hands. One man obsessed with collective nouns taking plural verbs would contact me after every book to lecture me about how mistaken I was, but even he has given up.
My most successful books were the two ‘In Other Trenches’ analysis books so I guess they have been more successful than the fiction. Even then, my analyses were condemned as not being ‘genuine’ alternate history, because I did not insist on one outcome as being the most likely for each scenario. I was actually compelled to shift the books from ‘Alternate History’ to ‘History’ on Amazon due to so much criticism on that basis. There are a lot of people out there who want to impose rules on authors. Ironically once relocated in ‘History’ my alternate history analysis books got far less flak.
I guess my unwillingness to come down simply on one potential outcome rather than highlight a range of them stems from being an academic historian in the past and particularly a teacher. You want students to make up their own minds, even if they come to opinions different to your own. A lot of the public do not seem to understand how so much of history is constantly contested; how explanations go in and out of fashion and how the popular view of the ‘truth’ of the past at any one time will differ between countries.
This became a little clearer in popular history writing at the time of the First World War centenary and the flurry of books about the conflict. I had thought the ‘war by accident’ explanation was dead. Then I spoke with some Germans who believed the Fritz Fischer line had been disproven, whereas I know many British academics see this as the true explanation for the war. Many readers seem oblivious to how diverse opinions on the past are, even among experts and so seem intolerant of authors picking approaches they feel are wrong.
Another thing with ebooks is you never know how many books people have stored on their e-reader that they will never open. Even a decade ago, when these e-readers were first catching on, I had colleagues who had already downloaded 200 books even back then. Now, I read 50-60 books per year so that number would have lasted me four years and I know a lot of people read far fewer. Thus, I quite suspect that many of my books are lurking on people’s e-readers unopened. I would love to know who is buying, but particularly reading my books, even if they dip in and out of one of the anthologies or essay collections. However, I just have to put up with largely being in ignorance, beyond sales figures.
As well as AH fiction, you also write straight historical crime novels. It's been noted that a lot of mainstream AH novels are detective/mystery stories, as someone who writes both do you think they come from a similar mindset in terms of revealing a mystery or is it just that it's a useful vehicle for exposition to have a main character always asking questions?
Certainly, when younger I thought it was important to try out a range of different genres. I still write crime and have produced a fantasy novel this year for the first time in ages. A lot of it stems from where the inspiration bubbles up. I do think it is important to at least read, in various genres even if you do not write in them. It is important for developing the skills of being an author. I have been very critical of some authors of war stories who seem never to have read, let alone written, outside that genre. I think their work is poorer for it and sometimes, for example, you can find no female characters in their novels at all.
I was into writing steampunk, which is a form of alternate history. I am often interested by technological alternatives as well as political or military ones. My steampunk novels did also have political alternate history elements such as a longer American Civil War, the persistence of the United Netherlands and three states of Italy. However, I became conscious in the 2000s/2010s of the critiques of steampunk as perpetuating – even apparently celebrating - 19th Century attitudes in terms industrialism, hierarchy, patriarchy, colonialism, misogynism and ableism. I also found in the 2010s that the key writers were from different groups to myself and as a white, middle aged, Western man, those attitudes which actually I oppose myself, were deemed to be unavoidably inherent in my very being. Consequently, I felt I would not be seen to be legitimately writing with the perspective steampunk readers now seek. Thus, I left that genre behind.
In ‘Thinking of Writing Alternate History?’ I make the point at length that alternate history is not really a genre of itself, instead it is a frame in which other genres can be set. With little effort, in alternate history books published in the last seventy years, you can find thrillers, adventure stories, spy stories, romance, science fiction, fantasy and even just simple slice-of-life stories, in a ‘what if?’ history context. Thus, I feel that it is ‘genre’ in which we can see any other genre represented.
The advantage of a crime novel for exploring an alternate history context is that immediately you get a view of how the society works. In particular, are certain people always blamed for crimes; are some exempt from punishment no matter what they do? Is murder exceptional or quite common place? Then, often in the form of the police or their equivalent, you see what authority there is. You see what level of evidence they might need, whether they are corrupt or simply arrest one of the ‘usual suspects’? Are they able to challenge other forms of authority in the upper classes, the military, the church, the party or do they have to yield to them? Detectives mix with people at all levels of society and often straight crime writers use this to show their protagonist mixing with royalty or nobility and yet also outsiders, workers, the servants, religious people, beggars and criminals, the whole spectrum of society.
I have not actually written a crime novel in an alternate history setting, though there is one crime short story in ‘Mark in the Sea’. I had planned to write ‘A Lycian Murder’ set in the Italian region of Turkey in a world where the Treaty of Sèvres was never overturned, but ‘The Blood and The Ghost’ burst into my head instead, but I expect to work on that in 2021. For ‘A Lycian Murder’, I certainly feel the investigation approach allows the story to go off into places I want it to go in the society I am showing; into corners that with another genre might not be as easy. Not to give too much away, but I am interested in exploring the interaction of different power blocs in a dictatorship, plus between branches of a colonial power and the local people.
My crime writing has always been heavily influenced by Leonardo Sciascia and Josef Škvorecký who both wrote crime novels in a context of different powers in society and how these could frustrate investigations. Michael Dibdin and Philip Kerr are two others to note in this regard. Dibdin also did some excellent work with unreliable narrators, that admire, but I know to stay away from them, given the current negative feeling of readers towards the ‘correct’ approach to writing novels with just linear narratives and every loose end tied off.
I do know that beyond crime writing, other genres, for example a romance or a slice of life story, can also have drivers that allow the reader to see different facets of the alternate world. They can, not just show the tangible differences, but also the different attitudes to the ones we know those societies had in our history. Even if we just look at novels set in Britain occupied by Nazi Germany, looking across ‘Resistance’ by Owen Sheers, ‘Dominion’ by C.J. Sansom, ‘SS-GB’ by Len Deighton, Jo Walton’s Small Change series, Geoff Howe’s Sowerbutt series, Michael Cronin’s Against the Day series – children’s stories - a genre I have not mentioned, just for a start, you can see how with basically the same alternative in place, you can use a range of genres to explore it.
I have yet to write a romance, though, unexpectedly, ‘Eve of the Globe’s War’ ended up with some of that at the end. However, each time I start thinking of an alternate history story I look to see what genre will work best for what I want to tell. My wife is very insistent that I have at least some romance and sex in my novels, though I have had to push back hard against her wishes in some cases, as with the friar and the nun with a 20-year age difference, who are two of the three protagonists in ‘Against the Devil’s Men’.
Your blog is much less commonly updated than it was twelve and thirteen years ago and I know you're thinking starting up a youtube channel, like a lot of other historians have done. Do you think visual media is always going to have an innate advantage over written essays in terms of accessibility?
I do think these different media do have their time. Added to that my blog reflects the different phases of my life over the past 15 years or so, much as the type of writing I produced at each phase, has too. The blog started out very much as an exercise in improving my mental health when I was facing so many difficulties with bullying and finding places to live. I removed all the alternate history content from it when it went into books so it was pared down a lot. I then moved into a phase of reviewing biscuits and now simply review books, something I always did, but has become more regular on there.
A blog needs a lot of commitment and I was finding it more productive instead to put that into writing books. Also, I had got out a lot of things that had been on my mind for many years, early on and there is no need to repeat that stuff. The blog, as the name suggests, ‘Rooksmoor’s Tablets of Lead’ was very about me writing things down and casting them into a void, as the Romans did with prayers and curses written on pieces of lead and thrown into pools of water.
I have always found the visual element important for my writing anyway. I build up files of images of faces for characters and their outfits. Maps also have a massive impact, especially for alternate history writing. So many AH maps seem to turn up on Pinterest these days and they can spark thoughts, even if you do not base a story on that particular map. In terms of visual presentation, my son claims that people his age do not read anyway and certainly I think people under 40 probably look first for visual media. I find reading in whatever format a relaxation but maybe younger people see if as something school-like, but saying that, the explosion of YA literature suggests there is still a high demand. I think that is quite gender specific, with girls/women of all ages reading more than boys/men. Maybe ultimately it will be the way Queen sung about radio: ‘Like all good things, on you we depend/So stick around 'cause we might miss you/When we grow tired of all this visual’.
The thing that has turned me towards thinking about YouTube has been the Covid situation. Back when I was teaching, I used to create numerous 5-10 minute history podcasts for the students. Then that seemed to go out of fashion. In 2020, I have had to make audio-video recordings for work. The software is now much more readily available and storage is a lot easier than in the past. I think I stumble too much when I do recordings, but they have been well received in the workplace. As a consequence, I have come to feel, when seeing more alternate history webcasts: ‘I could give that a shot’.
I am conscious though, that my wife complains of me lecturing her on topics and maybe my style is too ‘old school’ for audiences of the 2020s. Basically it comes back to the usual thing: me wanting to get my point of view on a topic out, there especially when I disagree with what is already in the space. This year I have learnt how much easier it is to do than previously. I do notice, however, that so many of the alternate history recordings are from white men and possibly we need a greater diversity in presenters, not just a slightly older white man like me, adding to the pile.
You've written a 'how to' book about writing Alternate History. To kind of summarise that in a single answer, what advice would you give to new writers?
Yes, it was going to be ‘How to Write Alternate History’ but with Grey Wolf’s 2013 book and the Sea Lion Press 2019 book using that title, I pulled back at the last moment and reassessed it, especially against the Sea Lion book which had just come out, so there was a shift both in title and some perspective.
Not giving a firm definitive single answer has been something I have been challenged on with my writing. However, I think I would say without, hopefully, sounding pretentious is ‘fan that ember’. You will have doubt and especially with alternate history, you will have people lambasting you for even starting what you are writing. Yet, if the spark has caught your interest, work on it, shape it, develop it and try to forget everyone else. Good beta readers are hard to find and a lot of critiquing out there is simply attacks, not anything beneficial. So, I think it is really about listening to what people say, but not taking it all in and instead having faith in what first got you to start.
It is also important to remember that writing is not an easy hobby or job. I sometimes get writers who are starting out, saying to me: ‘I never thought it would be this hard’. This is not helped by too many people online equating writing to typing, forgetting the element of inspiration which can be hard to foster, let alone the amount of editing needed. They are also dismissive of the ‘jogger’ writers, as opposed to who they see as the ‘professional athletes’ of writing. They somehow seem to think J.K. Rowling or Lee Child had ‘published author’ on their birth certificates. Writing anything needs the same kind of commitment that you would put into training for a marathon, nothing less. Length is also deceptive, a short story can be like a 100m sprint, so it still needs substantial work to reach the finish line.
Your novel 'Against the Devil's Men' is an excellent take on the classic 'what if' question of a Mongol conquest of Europe. Obviously the exact reasons for the Mongols withdrawal and how much further they could have gone is a much debated question in academia, with multiple papers written on it coming to entirely different conclusions. How much of the choices did you make about which interpretations you agreed with based on your historian side, as in what is most likely, versus your writers side, as in what makes the best story?
This probably brings us back to the difference between the analysis essays and the fiction that we touched on earlier. I think it was when I read ‘The Man in the High Castle’ in the 1990s that I realised that the most successful alternate history novels were often those which had the least feasible chain of events. Indeed, the two most popular alternative history scenarios: Nazi Germany winning the Second World War and the Confederacy winning the American Civil War are probably two of the most unlikely-to-occur scenarios you could think up.
This is one reason why I baulk against the ‘rule’ of only a single point of divergence. That is fine for discussion and analysis, but it really hampers writing alternate history fiction which excites readers. Thus, for me, when writing alternate history fiction, I start at the end: what is the alternative situation I want to explore and what do I want to look at in that context? I then work back from there to see what changes I would have to make to allow it to occur. Where there are options to be chosen between, I sometimes outline the choices I have made in the book’s historical notes. I like to try a dialogue with the reader and also, given what I have said above, pre-empt the potential for attacks that I was ignorant of other historical views of the period.
With ‘Byzantium Express’ I wanted the Byzantine Empire to still exist in 1914 and be involved in the First World War. I wanted a context for a spy novel, a genre I had not done in novel form before, and wanted to see how an Orthodox Christian state in the Balkans, Anatolia and the Levant, would react differently to the war compared to how the Muslim Ottoman Empire had. I also wanted to explore how Byzantine culture would have evolved if it had persisted for a few more centuries.
With this goal in mind, I had to go back and make alterations from the 11th Century through to the 19th Century. As it is, you find the Seljuk/Ottoman supremacy was not guaranteed and the damage done by the Crusades was important for snuffing out Byzantium. However, you do need to make some bridging elements which people might challenge. For example, crusader leaders willing to adhere to their oath to the Byzantine Empire and their successors happy to fight for land in Anatolia, plus no strong Seljuk leader emerging to unite the various peoples. Someone will always say my approach was ‘impossible’ or that things ‘had to be’ the way it was. However, that charge can be levelled at all kinds of fiction whether historical fiction, crime, science fiction or romance.
What I do aim to do, once I have decided on my divergences, is then use as much historical fact as possible to give flesh to the story. I do know many people rail against parallelism and feel it is not an appropriate approach for alternate history fiction. However, I think first, often they accept parallelism, for example in culture, clothing, food, etc. without even thinking about it. Second, I see parallelism as a useful way to bring in readers who might find themselves lost in an alternate history portrayal. These are familiar ‘landmarks’ for readers. In addition, they help people see the changes reflected in contrast to the history they do know.
I did this most with ‘In the Absence of Powder’: almost all the characters featured were at the Battle of Waterloo in our history. There was also parallelism in ‘Eve of the Globe’s War’ with Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Neville Chamberlain, Adolf Hitler and other well-known people from our history turning up. Importantly in that case it showed how in a monarchical, aristocratic pre-industrial society, a lot of people, even those we see as privileged, could not have advanced as they did in our history. I feel that keeping as much to the history as we know it, throws the differences into sharp contrast, rather than the story appearing to become a full-on fantasy.
While producing an engaging, interesting, exciting story is my main driver in terms of what history I play with and what I keep to the facts, though I do have limits. Maybe I could not articulate them, but I do have a personal sense of what is feasible or at least is tolerable. I leave fantasy to my fantasy novels. Whereas, as I have already noted, readers can say my ideas would be impossible, conversely I have had complaints that they are not alternative enough. This was particularly the case with ‘Scavenged Days’. Having read ‘Target De Gaulle’ by Plume and Demaret which details the 31 attempts on Charles De Gaulle’s life, I felt one succeeding - I chose the 1961 Pont-sur-Seine attempt - was feasible. I also think I am not alone in wondering what would have happened (spoiler) if the Jackal had been successful at the end of ‘The Day of the Jackal’ novel and movie.
I then considered what would happen when the French President was killed and a terrorist organisation, with ample support among the authorities, again sought to seize power. The book has viewpoints across France and has a thriller at its heart. There is a coup d’état; an even greater massacre of Algerians in Paris than in our history; an invasion by NATO forces and the hunting down of OAS terrorists across France. To me that seemed sufficient, feasible change to what happened in early 1960s of our history. Though in reality the period saw unrest, it had nothing to the scale shown in my book; events that left enduring scars not seen in our world. Yet, readers were disappointed that more extreme occurrences were not featured. I do not know what they expected: that somehow France would have an enduring civil war and that NATO would have permitted that to continue at a time of heightened Cold War tensions? That France would start invading Belgium, Switzerland, Italy and Catalonia in some repeat of the Revolutionary/Napoleonic era?
A good story, within a reasonable alternate historical context is my objective. I aim to bend rather than snap history. Often you can legitimately simply opt for the academic line which works best for you and need do not more. In ‘The Blood and The Ghost’ I wanted more of King Edward the Elder’s children fleeing the Danes, so I favoured those historians who say he was Eadgyth’s father, rather than those who say some other man was. Both are legitimate in historical debate, at least for the moment, but one works better for my novel than the other.
Your first AH book was published 8 years ago, how much do you think your style and focus has changed during those eight years? What's the one thing you know now that you wished you knew then?
In fact, the story goes back a lot longer than then. I completed my first alternate history novel, ‘His Majesty’s Dictator’ in 1993, so when I first turned to self-publishing in 2012, I had a large back catalogue which explains why I could put out so many books in the mid-2010s. Consequently, while I have noted above the three stages of my writing - at least with the alternate history books - since then, the lessons learnt have been far less about my writing and more about the context into which I was now putting my books.
What I was not ready for was how exposed you are as a self-publishing author. While, down the years, I had had next to no response from agents and publishers, let alone positive ones, I had assumed that one day I would be taken up and published traditionally. I did notice, especially in the early 2010s, that more authors, being signed on by companies, had already had had some success through the self-publishing route, so I did not see taking this step as a contradiction.
Despite reading lots of guidance on self-publishing before trying and getting advice from my wife already established in it, nothing had prepared me for the incessant hostility. I had failed to realise that when you are your own publisher, you pick up all the flak that normally would be filtered out for an author by the publishing company or the agent. I had been aware of attacks on social media, though I did not use it myself at time. What I had not realised was that there would be people so angry with what I had written, that they would go on at length, most often in reviews attached to the books, and condemn me on a whole host of grounds, for being incompetent, arrogant, idiotic, not speaking English, evil and so on.
I had been totally unaware that hounding authors had become a hobby for some. Instead, I had looked forward to using email, my blog and social media to connect with my readers in a way that would not have been possible in the past. Instead, I was faced by effectively being howled at. I have had two nice emails in the past eight years about my books, that is it. In 2013, I took all my books off-sale and tried to get Amazon to ‘unhitch’ as they described it, comments which portrayed my books utterly inaccurately. However, I returned to selling the books as I still needed the money but tried to stay away from any comments, no matter how easy it became for those to appear across international borders and Author Central to update me on the latest bile chucked at me.
Alternate history writing seems to be an area in which there is much more of this behaviour than with other genres. My crime novels have never picked up even a fraction as much hostility. My wife, despite being a female author, a category which often suffers attacks simply for writing, has had nothing like what I have had. I guess there is an explosive mix of nitpickers, nationalists, religious people and simply men, especially from the political right, who want to show off. For them, alternate history is a genre where they feel they know far better than any author and relish the chance to show off their self-assumed expertise. This is what I have learnt and what I warn new authors in the genre to be ready for as best they can.
Alexander Rooksmore is a prolific author with many AH books to his name