By Alexander Wallace
I will admit that I write this article with some reticence; it feels downright pompous to say I have the gall to address such a common literary form. I fight my modesty and my sense of propriety by telling you that I have won five Sea Lion Press vignette competitions in the past year. As such, I feel like I may have some advice for the alternate history writer looking to improve their craft.
First things first: I refer specifically to the traditional short story format, rather than the timeline format that has become a mainstay of the genre on the internet. Likewise I must admit to the reader my debt to David Flin’s excellent article on the craft of writing vignettes; however, this article will focus on stories longer than the vignettes Flin discusses.
The short stories of the alternate history genre reveal how it is ultimately an offshoot of science fiction and fantasy. In all three, there are two major components that drive a writer to work in these genres: narrative and setting. In all three, the two can either grind against each other uneasily or can complement each other very well.
The very name ‘alternate history’ implies a concern for setting beyond your standard ‘serious’ literature (indeed, one of the ‘serious’ literary critic’s complaints against ‘genre’ literature is a perceived overemphasis on setting). The great tapestry of history which we inhabit has been changed for some purpose; that exact purpose changes from story to story, but we would all agree that we change history for some reason, if none other than that we find it interesting to do so.
When handled poorly, this can lead to a conflict between the imperative of worldbuilding and the imperative of storytelling. Interest in the world without knowledge of how to balance this with the story can lead to a top-heavy jalopy of a narrative that becomes a slog to read. At its worst, it leads to endless stretches of infodumping that makes you wonder why there even is a story in the first place (some books of the 1632 series I have found to be hit by this affliction rather harshly).
But it is a simplification to view character and world as being diametrically opposed; indeed, they can complement each other quite well (as this essay by K. S. Villoso shows). People and situations do not come out of nowhere; rather, they are products of the historical circumstances in which they came about. For example: I am half white and half Filipino living in Northern Virginia writing about alternate history on the internet. Without the Spanish-American War, the Philippines would never have been brought into the American orbit and as such fewer Filipinos would move to the United States. Without the Cold War, the military research that led to the internet would not have flourished, leaving me unable to write about this in the way that I do.
In order to show off your world in a way that is compelling to the reader, you must choose characters that occupy an interesting station in life in regards to this world. The traditional allohistorical technique is to choose political leaders, for they directly make the decisions that shape events on a grand scale. They are, however, oftentimes insulated from the effects of their actions (as I argue in this essay). This is why I like to write about ‘peasants, not kings’ (to quote Liam Connell); people in the lower rungs of society oftentimes see the consequences of policy in ways that those insulated by wealth and power cannot.
Going from this, I find that some of the most interesting people to write about are people who occupy liminal spaces in society. These are people that in some way straddle the edge between two states of being. As history changes, the states of being that exist change, and these people are often forced to make decisions that change their lives drastically. A pauper may become wealthy or a rich man may become destitute; however, this is best accomplished with people with some connection to social change. In my own vignette Iron-Shod or Golden-Sandaled, chosen to be put on the Sea Lion Press blog, I chose a protagonist of an oppressed minority who has not been radicalized thus far in a time of sectarian violence. The tension between her desire to remain in a ‘normal’ life and her desire to do something about the hideous injustice she sees drives much of the story.
Once you have found that character or characters, you need to focus on them at the expense of anything irrelevant to the story you are trying to tell. You must become very good at writing economically and by expositing on the world by indirect, subtle means, avoiding the temptation to inelegantly expound, grinding the story to a halt. This is how the characters and the world both retain their potency to the reader.
Related to the above are the themes of the story. Newer writers disparage themes, as they often call to mind the turgid drudgery of high school English classes and the effete snobbery of self-important media critics. To those who believe they simply want fun and adventure and action, they seem unnecessary. I disagree; themes, when integrated well, serve as the interior scaffolding to the building that is your story. They can help you figure out what to write when you are at a stumbling block, for the relationships between the different elements of your story and your world are now in some sort of organization. For example, Iron-Shod or Golden-Sandaled was written as a thought experiment regarding the nature of sectarian conflict and how that would play out in the United States, as well as more general themes about being an ethnic minority.
Determining these things is not a short process; for a story that is longer than just a few scenes, you will need to invest time. When I work on my vignettes for the Sea Lion Press competitions, I spend at least a week figuring out the allohistorical premise, as alternate history writers are wont to do, but also the characters, the themes, and the narrative structure. Perhaps most importantly, I think about how all of those fit together. By the time you begin to write, you should have a cogent idea of what the story is about, who is experiencing it, and what it all ultimately means. In order to do this well, one must have a wide variety of examples of how to handle all of these in different ways; you must read a good deal to be able to know what works best for the idea you have.
To demonstrate this process, consider my vignette recently posted on the Sea Lion Press blog entitled Vultures. It was submitted for the July 2021 competition, themed ‘Gerry Anderson’ in honor of the pioneering British television producer. My story is a fan interpretation-cum-deconstruction of his most famous work, Thunderbirds, a series about an organization, International Rescue, dedicated to saving people in natural and manmade disasters.
I tackled this prompt by finding a historical period where a pastiche of the subject could work well. Eventually, I chose World War II, that venerably well-trod setting of alternate history writers. International Rescue in Thunderbirds is a heroic organization, and as such I aligned my pastiche of them with the Allies, held by reasonable people to be the side that was morally right.
I then searched for cases where that assumption of a moral protagonist can be challenged. The Allies of World War II did plenty of questionable things, like firebombings and atomic bombings and Japanese Internment. I settled on the Bengal Famine, caused by British attempts to deny the resources of Bengal to the invading Japanese by destroying food stocks and equipment related to food (such as fishing boats), interfering with price controls, and otherwise making it hard for Bengalis to eat. It ultimately led to the deaths of about three million people (exact numbers vary), certainly something that makes you question how heroic the British were in this war.
In Thunderbirds, International Rescue saves people from mining accidents or vehicular crashes or other relatively small-scale threats. I challenged that assumption in two ways: giving them a large-scale disaster, and making them beholden to the people who caused the disaster. An organization funded by powerful interests will inherently serve those powerful interests; this International Rescue only saves those who Allied governments want saved. It is therefore utterly incapable of dealing with the Bengal Famine.
I then shifted to finding a main character who is affected by this altered history in an interesting way; thus was born Mounish. He is serving the British Army in eastern India, which means he has access to both Indian and British social circles. He has a wife in Bengal, which means he is affected by the famine but not enough to actually kill him (for otherwise we wouldn’t have a story!). He is in the Army so he can have access to long-range communication equipment and exposure to International Rescue. He is in Eastern India so that he can be confronted with a choice: serve his imperial masters who caused the famine, or take a risk and defect to people who might be able to do something about it. That is the dilemma he is put in; he is on the edge between loyalty to empire and resistance to empire. That is the driving conflict at the heart of Vultures.
Hopefully this advice has proved of use to the aspiring alternate history writer. As someone with experience (and it is strange to think of myself as such) in writing these stories, I figured that an overview of my process might be helpful to somebody. If it’s just one person, it would be worth it.