Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Writing Alternate History


By Jill Williamson

Since today is John F. Kennedy’s birthday, in which he would have turned ninety-five years old, and since Stephen King recently released 11/22/63, a novel about a man who travels back in time to prevent the JFK assassination, it got me thinking about alternate history as a genre.

Alternate history is defined as a genre of fiction in which the author speculates on how the course of history might have been altered if a particular historical event had had a different outcome or purpose than it really had.

Take Doc Brown’s explanation from Back to the Future II. When they were in the future, old Biff had stolen the Sports Almanac, taken the time machine back to 1955, given it to his teenage self, the act which created an alternate reality in where Bill used the Almanac to become a billionaire, kill Marty’s father, and marry Marty’s mother. Eww.


Have you ever read an alternate history novels? Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld is a great one the uses an alternate World War I story. I highly recommend it and its sequels. It’s also steampunk, which is so cool, but that’s beside the point.

Probably the most famous alternate history story—in my opinion—is It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey gets to see, for a short time, a world without himself in it, to see what a difference one life can have on the world.

Groundhog’s Day, starring Bill Murray, is a comedy about a man who wakes up again and again on the same day and lives it differently each time.

Sliding Doors, a movie starring Gweneth Paltrow, tells how a young woman's love life and career both hinge—unknown to her—on whether or not she catches a morning train.

And many movies and books have used history as a plot device, to infer than things that happened throughout history happened in a different way that meets the need of the story. The Percy Jackson books are a great example of this.

In movies, X-men: First Class presented the Cuban Missile Crisis as being part of a top secret feud between mutant factions.

In Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the only reason America sought to land on the moon was not to be the first, but to investigate the crash landing of spaceship, which held Transformers.

And the BBC show Doctor Who does a ton of alternate history as the Doctor and his companions come into contact with various historical figures. There were writers like Charles Dickens, Agatha Christie, and William Shakespeare, political leaders like Queen Victoria, Adolf Hitler, Madame De Pompadour, Richard Nixon, and the Doctor’s pals Winston Churchill, the former prime minister of Britain during World War two. Also, the doctor and Amy did all they could to keep Vincent Van Gogh from committing suicide.


So, just for fun today, if you had an assignment to write an alternate history story, which era would you choose and how would you alter history to create your new, alternate world?

43 comments:

  1. Oh, mine would totally be about someone time traveling to the American Civil War, and doing something awesome.

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    1. Civil War... That would be fun, Maddie!

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  2. Doctor Who looks awesome!

    Anyway, maybe something to do with the Great Depression. Like, what if the economy didn't get better? How would people survive? Would someone come in and save them?

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    1. Doctor Who is awesome. I'm so glad I decided to watch the show...

      Cool idea about the Great Depression, Allison! That sounds clever. Maybe even a powerful foreign nation would have been able to sweep in, thought much of the world was poor after Word War I. You'd have to do some research to see if any countries were wealthy then, maybe one that didn't participate in WWI. Hmmm.

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    2. Good thoughts, Jill! Maybe one could even come up with a dystopia based off this idea. Hmm.

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  3. Sorry...very good article...but as a HUGE fan of Doctor Who, I have to point out it was Amy who helped Vincent Van Gogh.

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    1. Thank you! You are right! :-)

      I have corrected my post. It felt like I watched that one a long time ago, but it must not have been as long as I thought.

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  4. I would have to say either the Civil War Era or the 1940s or 1950s. Those are my two favorite time periods. I have no idea how I would change history to fit into my book; I would need to start writing and doing more brainstorming first!!

    Thanks for the post!

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    1. Those are both neat eras, 4reading. Very different eras, too.

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  5. I think I'd go back to save people. Like Dr. Curie, I'd make sure he never slipped, and then he would've never gotten ran over. Or, maybe I'd just go back and have Lunch with Agatha Christie. ^.^

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    1. LOL! Lunch with Agatha. Sounds like fun, Ashley. :-)

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    2. Out of curiosity, are you talking about Marie Curie?

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  6. I LOVED this post! Go Doctor Who! And I love the Groundhog day movie ;)

    I would choose the medieval ages and I've have the MC save Joan of Arc from being burned at stake, and then they would runaway and continue to fight in the war. I've always been fascinated by Joan of Arc.
    I'd probably also go and delay murderers to try and stop people from being killed.

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    1. A time traveling knight in shining armor. Cool. I like the idea of saving Joan of Arc. Sounds like a fun story.

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  7. I actually had an idea for an alternate history short story for a while. It's based off my least favorite history story ever, probably my least favorite story of ANY kind (because what else would I like to write about? XP), the Donner party. It's about this girl... well, I thought in would be a girl, but that really makes no sense whatsoever. So it's about a woman who is shown talking with her best friend, who we'll call... Jess. The MC enters a time machine and tries to persuade the Donner party to take a different route. She fails, but gives them some extra food that she brought in case she failed. Then she returns to the present, where she asked her best friend *Shelly* if she succeeded after all. Shelly says that she still remembers the story of the MC not succeeding. Then something like this happens... "Crestfallen, MC's heart dropped. Ever since Shelly told her the story of her ancestors, the Donner party, and how they nearly starved and had to kill their beloved animals for food, MC had been determined to use the time machine to go back in time and save the animals lives. But... She had failed."

    Does that make sense?

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    1. So she didn't fail. She only thinks she did. But they ended up eating the animals she brought them instead. Interesting! And clever how you deal with time travel having the people only remember one version, too.

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    2. Wow, that is legendary. I had to read through it twice, but the second time it totally clicked. Amazing!

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  8. I'd love to write an alternate history! I hadn't really considered it as a genre option until I read Leviathan, actually (it just hadn't occurred to me); but then I started Scott Westerfeld's trilogy and thought it was such an ingenious idea! To take history and warp it so you have this book that's almost (but not quite) historical fiction and almost (but not quite) some other genre (steampunk, fantasy, science-fiction, whatever)...I love it. :D I think I'd like to try it sometime, too; I just haven't got any fully-formed ideas yet. ;) However, I love the early 1900s, so I think if I were to write about any time period it would be that one - the Edwardian era, or the Roaring Twenties, or even WWII-era.

    And speaking of the Leviathan trilogy, I'm super excited - I just got Goliath from the library recently, and can't WAIT to see how it all ends! I plan to read it soon, and I'm very much looking forward to it. :)

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    1. Cool, Taylor! I haven't read Goliath yet. Only the first two.

      I think the roaring 20s would be a really fun era, too.

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    2. Well, I hope you get the chance to read Goliath soon! I have a feeling it's going to be really good, haha. :D

      And I know, the Roaring Twenties were such a crazy, interesting era! I'd love to set a novel in that time period sometime. :)

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    3. "Goliath" IS good. But it is kind of sad at the end. Probably because it IS the end of that amazing series...

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  9. I would write an alternate history book during World War 1. My favorite time period!!

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    1. Fun, Princess. Have you read Leviathan?

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  10. (*tries to shut her Doctor Who fan mouth*) Amy Pond and the Doctor tried to save Vincent van Gogh. Rose was the companion before Amy. (*clamps mouth shut*)

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    1. Yes. My bad! I have since fixed my humongous Doctor Who blunder. O-o

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  11. Great post! It was really interesting. I actually haven't heard much about alternative history before.
    I would write something set before the Civil War. Something would happen (I'm not sure what. Maybe a compromise or something.) so either the Civil War didn't happen or it was a lot different. I read that there were a lot of compromises by Henry Clay before the Civil War that delayed it. The other day I was thinking about what would've happened if he hadn't made those compromises or if they had been different.
    Just an idea I had.

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    1. Great idea, Gretchen! That sounds like a neat take on it too.

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  12. Lydia Grace HartMay 29, 2012 at 5:23 PM

    I watched this Star Trek (the original)episode, in which they go back in time. Anyhoo, Captain Kirk falls in love, but the woman he fell for has to die, because she was the linchpin that led to WWII being won. So he had to choose between the girl and the world as we know it. I'm a huge fan of happy endings, so that episode and It's a Wonderful Life, have kind of warded me off from messing with alternate history. 'Cause any changing I'd be doing would be saving lives, and if I had to choose between two unhappy endings - lives lost because of the change, or having to deal with the failure and possibly even witness the death.... happy endings are my thing, I guess.

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    1. I hear you, Lydia. I like happy endings too. But you could have a happy ending in an alternate history. There are all kinds of ways to write this genre. You can try and do it in a very literal way, or you could make it more fantasy like, the way Scott Westerfeld did in Leviathan, or, if you really want to get creative, the way Seth Smith did with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Anyone read that? I haven't yet. I'm curious, though. Very curious...

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  13. Whoa, just yesterday I started playing around with the idea of time travel for a new story, with a group of characters who have the power to travel through time. How serendipitous! My brother and I often have discussions about time travel and are usually stumped by the grandfather paradox. Where if you go back in time and kill your grandfather it would lead to you never being born and therefore you couldn't have killed him, so you would be born and go back in time and so on... (Excluding the existence of parallel universes). I was thinking of limiting my characters powers so that they can only travel a few minutes back or forward at a time, and seeing how much can be changed in only a few seconds.

    I love X-Men: First Class' take on the Cuban Missile crisis and how that connected to Charles Xavier's backstory. And I can't wait to read Leviathan, it's sitting on my bookshelf at the moment until I finish my school texts.

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    1. Make it a point to have peaceful time travelers, then, Elizabeth! No killing, just in case! :-)

      Hope you like Leviathan!

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    2. But what if you accidentally prevent your grandfather from meeting your grandfather? Will your appearance, quirks, maybe even home state instantly change? I love these discussions ... couldn't help but jump in. :D

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    3. Grandfather from meeting your grandMOTHER, sorry. Epic typo.

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  14. This is so cool, Jill. I receive GTW posts via email and usually save them to read when I have a spare moment. Well, this one I could not stop reading.

    I think this is one of the reasons that I loved the River of Time Series so much. Each time Gabi and her sister come back, there's that little bit of "will-things-be-the-same"? And one time, they're not.

    Hmmm, I would definitely pick Medieval times because that's my favorite era. Maybe I would explore what might have happened if William had NOT conquered in 1066 or if the Armada had actually reached England (Elizabethan rocks). :)

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  15. Sonething I've thought about doing is writing about what would have happened to one of the old colonies of Europe if they had never been colonized. America would be difficult, because most of us probably wouldn't be here! But in some of the countries the people living there, didn't change much, just the culture and technology. A lot was lost because of Imperialism, and I thought it would be interesting to see what would have happened if those countries had never been colonized.

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  16. It would be interesting to see how the world would be if Egypt never fell at the hands of the Romans... *reaches for notebook*

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    1. I meant to make my own comment instead of just replying to other people's, but Annika, you have just named the very thing I would choose. I am fascinated by both Egypt and the whole Mark Antony/Cleopatra/Octavian drama ... that would be the *perfect* alternate history book.

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  17. I never knew there was a name for it, but I reckon alternate history is pretty cool! And I do like Back to the Future.

    Hmm, I'd go to... how about the day Princess Diana died? I don't really know the story, but it would be interesting...

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  18. Ah, marvellous post! It's such an interesting genre.
    YOU MENTIONED DOCTOR WHO. Oh, I love DW historicals. They're so great. Personal fave is "The Empty Child", probably, when they're in the London Blitz - wait, no, Vincent and the Doctor rules supreme. Oh, it's a toughie.
    Thanks!

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    1. I think my favorite episodes were "Don't Blink" and "The Empty Child" and "The Maze of the Dead". Oh, also the one when *SPOILERS* we found out that River Song was Melody Pond *END SPOILER*

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    2. "Blink" is fantastic, but I do have to say, "Flesh and Stone/Time of Angels" is my personal preference. Yes! I just watched that one - "A Good Man Goes to War" - it's SO fantastic.

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  19. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Doctor Who!!! Great post, btw!

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    1. Also, I've watched all of DW five times in less than one year! :D

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Disagreement is welcome. Rudeness is not. Please be considerate of each other!