Historical Fiction vs Alternate History

Last week, someone on a Facebook writing group asked about a story he is writing. He wants to fictionalize the sinking of the Lusitania. The name of the ship will be changed as will the names of everyone on board. The date the ship sinks will be changed. His question was…

Is this alternate history? In short, no. But understanding why requires a full understanding of historic fiction.

Let’s say that you want to write a story about a disaster involving a passenger ship. You don’t want to be constrained by the facts surrounding specific disasters that occurred in the past. So you create a fictional ship. And then (blurb, blurb, slurp), you sink it. That’s historical fiction.

Or you have a character you’ve created that you insert into an existing disaster. This character interacts with people who literally walked the decks of the actual ship. That’s also historical fiction.

Or you decide to fictionalize a real person. You can make some assumptions about what this survivor was thinking as the disaster unfolded but you don’t know what this person said to this other person or that other person. So the dialogue you write as well as specific motivations are fictional. I’m sure you see this last line coming – this is also historical fiction.

What then is alternate history? In an alternate history your story is still set in a clearly recognizable past but you alter this past in some big way. The Lusitania does not sink.

Doesn’t sound big enough? That’s okay because that is not where you stop. The Lusitania does not sink and someone who was on the ship goes on to make big changes in the world. Perhaps this person invents something monumental. Or they could break or destroy something that has cataclysmic repercussions. Or they are sick at the time the ship goes down and they are infected with the plague that then spreads to. . .

Alternate histories can be science fiction or they can contain magic. But the vital element is that the author speculates. “This is what would have happened if…”

Sometimes the results are chilling. What is the Nazi’s and Japan hadn’t lost World War II? See The Man in the High Castle.

What if the South had firearms that allowed them to win the Civil War? See Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove.

Like historical fiction, alternate histories start with historic fact. The author then adds a big change. Then the speculation begins.

Both are fiction steeped in fact. But one takes that fact and weaves a reality that is recognizable but in some telling way deeply different. It is up to the author to create that reality and to explain and justify the reasons behind it.