There is historical fiction, and then there is alternative historical (or “alt-history”) fiction. I would like to think that most adults understand that writing historical fiction requires a knowledge of history, although experiences on the Internet continuing threaten to jade such optimistic outlooks. In writing alt-history, however, requirements seem more blurry, although they really aren’t.
Stories have a variety of elements to them. Setting is one of them, and setting involves both time and place. If you’re writing modern fiction, you’re not as conscious of the time aspect because you’re simply wring about now, but when you’re writing historical fiction you have to understand the time period in which the story is set. Your medieval heroine should not be wearing a hoop-skirted ballgown, for example, and if she meets the king of England you’d better well know which one, not simply make up a name. Marvin, King of England is not an acceptable character in historical fiction.
Alternative history, however, is set in a time period that never existed. In some ways, that gives one more flexibility. You can, in fact, have Marvin, King of England, although it needs some explanation. You still, however, should probably not have your heroine running around the middle ages in a hoop-skirted ballgown.
Alternative history is not a license to simply make things up and stuff it violently history. Alternative history is “what-if” history: how might the world look if X happened instead of Y? If you don’t know the historical starting points, then you can’t give an alternative to it, at which point you’ve gone past any type of historical genre and have moved on to “making things up.”
Why Not Just Make Things Up?
Fiction is not, in fact, just making things up. There are constants that we stick to. Fiction about American teens should have a setting that feels like America, and the teens should resemble actual teens, for example.
Even when writing fantasy, there are rules that writers determine for their world and then apply consistently throughout the story. The writer may invent a race of sea-people who can only live underwater, but then seeing one flop down the street would be as absurd as seeing a fish do so.
Alt-history sits somewhere between these two. It is an invented setting, although the level of invention varies considerably from story to story, but it still has some foundation in our understanding of the past.
Cause and Effect
Events in history do not materialize out of nowhere. They have causes, often multiple ones. Those effects then cause yet more effects. Changing elements within that chain of causes and effects can have very complex ramifications. You probably cannot stop World War II simply by killing baby Hitler. You may change its nature, but wars are not determined by single individuals. A lot of things led to World War II and the Holocaust. Hitler didn’t simply invent these things and convince an entire country it was a good idea.
Likewise, while the United States not entering World War II may well have allowed Germany to take all of Europe (Britain was the last sizable opponent, and it knew it was losing without US help), that in no way leads to modern day Americans speaking German and saluting the Fuhrer.
How exactly would German forces have take over the United States? The US managed a long period of isolation because it geographically is isolated. Germany would have to fight across an ocean. And they thought keeping up supply lines through the western Soviet Union was tough! (Which is why you don’t start a land war in Asia. Seriously.) And when they get there, they would have to take control of a territory larger than all of the European territory already conquered.
And then he would have to run it. There’s a reason the Roman Empire isn’t still around. The larger an empire gets, the harder it is to administer. And you know what breaks away first? The parts farthest from the capital. In this case, that would be the Americas.
It’s preposterous enough that Hitler wouldn’t have even attempted it: not because he was a sane and rational man but because the cons waaay outweigh the pros.
The Ugly Parts of History
When I teach history, I get a lot of questions about why we could be so horrible as to do things like enslave other people. From a modern Western perspective, slavery is foreign, barbaric and utterly horrible.
Slavery is also the status quo for the history of civilization. We are the exception, not the rule. Want to remove slavery from history? Go for it, but don’t expect civilization to look anywhere close to what we have. The populations of ancient Rome and Athens, the pinnacles of “civilization” from a Western perspective, were about 35% slave. Know how they were able to come up with all those great ideas? Because other people were doing the drudgery work. Slavery is a backbone of civilization. If you want to remove slavery from your alt-history, prepare to significantly rewrite the world.
Writing alt-history requires a knowledge of history. Not only does it reveal the true complexity of the setting, but it also gives suggestions as to how things might progress (such as my comparison of a theoretical Nazi America to an indefinitely expanding Roman Empire). Choosing to write alt-history is not a cheat for writers who simply do not want to learn actual history.