Every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. Ridiculously easy, no? The blueprint I use for my fiction breaks those parts down a bit more. In the beginning, there’s a person in a place with a problem. In the middle, good and bad stuff happens. In the end, the biggest and baddest thing happens, and we find out who survives.
Historical fiction isn’t any different, except that the story occurs in a documented time and place other than here and now. As the creator of this fiction, you get to choose who your characters are and what they do. If you stick with the documented version of history, you’re likely writing historical fiction. Any changes you make to what actually happened will push your book into the alternate history pile. That’s not a bad thing; it’s merely a distinction that will save readers time when they’re looking for something new to read. Those who thrive on reliving past events generally avoid reading alternate versions.
Writing alternate history can definitely have a positive effect. Some people like to speculate about what might have happened if only… Use your imagination to see how this plays out. What might have happened if:
- Lincoln hadn’t been assassinated
- Henry VIII remained happily married the first time around
- Jesus had been female
- England won the American Revolution
- Julius Caesar and the Romans were conquered by the Celts
- Italy used atomic weapons in WWII
Conjuring up scenarios like these is exquisitely easy. One simply needs to look at the historical record, and alter something significant. What if the defenders at the Alamo had been able to hold out until reinforcements arrived? What if Spain had won the Spanish American war? What if… Well, hopefully, you get the picture.
The need to study the period you’re writing about doesn’t change. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing historical fiction or an alternate version; the starting point is the same, and you must get those details right.
Imagine opening your story in San Francisco. It’s a lovely spring afternoon in mid-April, 1906, the day before the great earthquake which all but leveled the city.
Your characters must deal with all the subsequent emergencies using only those tools available at the time. Will this require some significant study of the period? It certainly should, unless you’re already an expert. The more accurately you portray the era, the more real the story will feel, and the more likely your readers will be to finish it.
Very basic questions come into play. What did people wear? What did they eat? Where did they live? What were the schools like? What sort of politics existed then? The possibilities for questions are endless.
What if you’re writing a book aimed at middle-schoolers and you decide to plunk your hero or heroine in a public school somewhere in the South — Alabama maybe, or Georgia — smack in the middle of The Great Depression? It’s not enough to know there wasn’t much that was “great” about it, except for the almost universal misery. But you’ll need to become ultra-familiar with that, because even though you’re writing for 11 to 13-year-olds, your book will inevitably land in the hands of someone old enough to remember those days. And if you get the details wrong, they’ll be only too happy to point out the errors. Publicly. In a review. That the entire world can see at their leisure.
The sound you’ll hear next is your credibility swirling down the old flusheroo.
So, where do you go for those details? Can you just Google it? Who can you trust?
Stay tuned. We’ll deal with some of that in a later installment.