Writing

11 Classic Alternate History Books and How to Write Your Own Alternate History Novel

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Sep 27, 2019 • 4 min read

Alternate history fiction is a popular and exciting subgenre of speculative fiction. Alternate history novels craft a fictional narrative with a mixture of both true and imagined historical context to create a world that’s both familiar and enjoyably different to readers.

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What Is Alternate History Fiction?

Alternate history fiction is a style of fictional narrative where the author changes one key element or elements about established history and then concocts a story that results from this change. The genre (which is sometimes referred to as “alternative history fiction”) is popular among contemporary readers, with many alternate history novels charting on The New York Times Best Seller list.

What Is the History of Alternate History Fiction?

Alternate history fiction took off in the twentieth century, but literary scholars often cite 1490’s Tirant lo Blanch by Joanot Martorell as the first published work of alternate history fiction. It imagines a world where the Turks were prevented from seizing Constantinople. Works of alternate history fiction trickled in during the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, but a true bloom of the genre sparked during the Cold War era. Alternate history fiction continues to thrive in the twenty-first century, particularly as film and television adaptations are created from alternate history books.

Famous works of alternate fiction include:

  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962)
  • The Alteration by Kingsley Amis (1972)
  • The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (1990)
  • Fatherland by Robert Harris (1992)
  • Making History by Stephen Fry (1997)
  • 1632 by Eric Flint (2000)
  • The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson (2002)
  • The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (2004)
  • His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Navik (2006)
  • Farthing by Jo Walton (2006)
  • The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon (2007)
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What Are Common Themes in Alternate History Fiction?

In alternate history fiction, authors isolate one element of history that, if changed, would alter all events that follow. The resulting setting is termed an “alternate universe.” Some common questions and themes in alternate history novels include:

  • What if the Confederate South won the American Civil War?
  • What if Nazi Germany had prevailed in World War II?
  • What if North America had been industrialized by its indigenous people?
  • What if Einstein’s observations on relativity immediately led to human space travel at the speed of light?
  • What if Leonardo da Vinci had invented time travel?
  • What if the United States had aligned with the Russian government to embrace communism?
  • What if flying, fire-breathing dragons were among Earth’s living reptiles?
  • What if Victorian British industrial design sustained all the way into the contemporary era of fashion and technology? (This particular alternate universe is known as the steampunk subgenre.)

How Does Alternate History Differ From Other Speculative Fiction?

Alternate history fiction is part of the broader genre of speculative fiction, which includes science fiction. However alternate history has defining elements that differentiate it from science fiction and other speculative subgenres. Whereas sci-fi often concerns itself with future developments, alternative fiction is rooted in a change in historical events. This point of divergence from actual history creates alternate timelines that affect all subsequent events. Therefore, alternate history novels can span into the future, but that future is altered by some change in the established historical record.

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3 Essential Tips for Writing Alternate History Fiction

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Learn how the author of The Handmaid’s Tale crafts vivid prose and hooks readers with her timeless approach to storytelling.

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Many of today’s writers are interested in dipping their toes into the fertile world of alternate history fiction. To achieve the most effective alternative worldbuilding, there are a few key guidelines to follow.

  1. Focus on one specific change to historical events. Make that single change the impetus for all the action that takes place in your novel. If you change too many elements, it may cause your story to veer too far from reality, which can drain your reader’s interest. Even the biggest fans of speculative fiction want some degree of groundedness in a storyline.
  2. Do a ton of research that goes beyond the single event you are altering. The best alternate history novelists know voluminous details about the era they are altering. If, for instance, your novel alters the outcome of the Civil War, it is not enough to merely know the history of particular battles like Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Antietam. You must know the surrounding context of Union and Confederate life away from the battlefield. You must know the political events that preceded and followed the war.
  3. Remember the same rules of standard fiction writing apply. You can have a brilliant idea for an alteration in the historical record, but it won’t matter if you don’t have textured characters and a compelling storyline. In the hierarchy of story, character, and world building, story and character still come first. If those two elements aren’t stellar, readers will check out.

Want to Become a Better Writer?

Whether you’re creating a story as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, mastering the art of fiction writing takes time and patience. No one knows this better than Margaret Atwood, who is one of the most influential literary voices of our generation. In Margaret Atwood’s MasterClass on the art of writing, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale provides insight into how she crafts compelling stories, from historical to speculative fiction.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Judy Blume, David Baldacci, and more.

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