All Fiction is Alternate History

One my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation is called “Parallels“. In it, one of the characters is accidentally thrown into a series of alternate realities. Each universe differs from his own due to past events having turned out differently. So the entire trajectory of history in that universe ends up altered.

One of the interesting things about the episode is that at the beginning, the character doesn’t know he is moving through alternate universes. That’s because initially he is transported to realities that are “next door” to his own, so to speak. In other words, entire universes wherein only one small recent detail is different. (In an early example, the flavor of the cake at a birthday party changes before the party is over, indicating that in all likelihood just about everything in the history of that universe was exactly the same as the character’s true universe…except that tiny detail. The character could have probably lived the rest of his life in that universe, and never known the difference.

I was thinking about this concept after the most recent meeting of the writers group I’m in. One of our newer members is writing a novel of historical fiction, part of which takes place during the American Civil War. She feared she wasn’t qualified to write the story she wanted to write. She was nervous about the historical sticklers who stand ready to point out the slightest inaccuracy in a novel. Despite her diligent research, she was concerned she couldn’t get everything right.

I told her not to worry too much about it…that especially when it comes to the Civil War there are people out there who will find fault with every little thing. The tiniest mention in passing of the wrong kind of belt buckle for a Confederate soldier, and they go nuts.

I essentially told her to not worry about those people. They are more worried about being detailed historians than novelists. Not that there is anything wrong with being a historian, but fear of their expertise shouldn’t keep anyone from writing historical fiction. What matters most is the story. She seemed to agree with that, as did several others.

What I wish I’d said is what came to me a few days later. I’ll share it with you today, though.

When we write fiction we are in essence bringing to life something that did not happen in our world, but did happen in one of the infinite possible universes of the imagination. Fiction therefore is, for all intents and purposes, an alternate universe. We don’t travel there physically, but in good fiction, don’t the created worlds seem real to us? Alternate realities. This holds true even if you aren’t writing science fiction, by the way.

Now, as much as some would like to believe otherwise, this applies to historical fiction as well. Fiction as a whole doesn’t proceed exactly as real life does, or else it wouldn’t be fiction. In most cases, our characters do not actually exist in this world. Also people speak a bit more efficiently in good fiction. (Imagine reading through all of the “umms” and stutters real people go through when they converse.)  There’s no pizza place around the corner from that specific park in Chicago where your short story takes place. Yet in your realistic but nonetheless alternate Chicago, you put one there.

A reader familiar with Chicago, (or at least Google Street View) will indeed point out to you that there has never been a pizza parlor a block from where your story takes place, yes. But you know what you can tell them? Tell them is it’s an alternate Chicago in a nearby universe.

With any luck it will weird them out, and they will then leave you the hell alone. But if they are intrigued and want to know more, tell them what I’ve told you here; all fiction is an alternate universe. Even if it’s a universe that is nearly identical to our own, the tiniest shifts are present. For example, your character, who doesn’t exist, lives in this Chicago. If you went no further than that you’d have made your point. Does anyone check census records to see if anyone by your character’s name ever lived in Chicago? Hopefully not. Again, it’s a slightly alternate Chicago, and dammit it has a pizza parlor down the street from this park.

Why? Because your story needs it, and it’s not a stretch to think a pizza parlor would exist in a Chicago neighborhood. The history and essence of Chicago is not blown up by having a pizza parlor on a given street that does not actually have one today.

Same goes with Civil War fiction, or any historical novel. Your story takes place in a universe that is almost exactly like our own was at that time. But wouldn’t you know it, in your alternate reality that type of hairpin was invented three years earlier than it was in our universe, so your character is wearing one. But you remain faithful to the essence of the time period as well as the essence of your story.

Obviously, if you wish to remain within the realm of historical fiction, you can’t wander off too far into alternate universes. You can’t have the Confederates wearing orange uniforms, or write a black Civil War general into the narrative. That’s several universes too far removed from ours to qualify for historical fiction. (Though it would make a great entry in the “alternate history” sub-genre.) But don’t sacrifice an otherwise solid narrative because you’re afraid to compress time a bit, or make a horse black instead of brown. The history buffs may not like it, but you’re a writer, and your first duty is to story.

Perhaps in an alternate universe, I decided not to post that, so as to not upset the history buffs. But knowing me, I probably did post it in most of the other universes as well.

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