Can You Write An Historical Story Ignoring War?

Alternate Peace

It’s not exactly insightful to say that historical fiction, alternate history included, is obsessed with war, and there are good reasons for that. War is both common, being able to live through a lifetime without ever directly experiencing combat is a privilege that most of humanity didn’t have, and incredibly dramatic, nations and ideals can fall and rise based on a single gunshot.

But every genre needs variety. If all alternate-history stories are war stories, then the genre can appear, as Arturo Serrano put it, as of only interest to war gamers. All about tanks and bullets with little interest in the cultures and societies that wars defended, formed and destroyed.

This article, while originally written before our panel discussion on “Guns or Butter,” will go out sandwiched on either side by that discussion which was about the question, “What has alternate history lost by focusing on military fiction instead?”

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The Fall of Rorke’s Drift

The Fall of Rorke's Drift

Ideas are cheap. Most people can come up with a thousand concepts for books. The skill is in the execution. In bringing that vision into life, putting the idea into words. And yet there is still a value in a good concept. There are hundreds of well-written, well-executed books that hold no interest to me because the concept is one I don’t care for. The world’s best-written story about the innate eroticism of painting walls is still unlikely to become a bestseller.

Alternate history is no different in this than other genres. For alternate-history books, often the selling point is the concept rather than the writer. Thus a question to be asked when considering writing alternate-history fiction is often less, “Is this a plausible alternate world?” and more, “Is this an interesting alternate world? Can I say something interesting about our society with this setting?” An eye-popping setting or point of departure can immediately attract the eye.

A useful weapon for that, of course, is novelty. There are a lot of alternate-history books working with World War II or the American Civil war, but other areas are less explored. There have not been many alternate-history stories written about the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and so, as someone who has written an article about that war, the concept of this book immediately appealed.

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