Is It History, Near History, or Alternate History?


It used to be so simple to figure out “historical fiction”: the date of the setting began with an 18 or less.

But now, in 2016, how do we consider the century-old 1916? Things made then pass through customs now as genuine antiques. How about the approaching century mark for the 1920s, even WW2? And how in the world do we consider a steampunk secret history?

Let’s try to make the easiest cut first, which happens to be the biggest one: real history from alternative history.

It’s only sporting to let your readers know you’re doing alternative history somewhere in the cover blurb, an afterword, or a 50-word intro. Otherwise, there are enough junky writers out there that the reader may think you don’t know that Queen Victoria never remarried or that Napoleon was sent to exile in Elba first. With you sending him to St. Helena’s right away, why, the Hundred Days and Waterloo won’t happen! (And that was your point: France without the great Romantic binge of the Hundred Days.)

Also, there are enough people with poor history retention that they may believe your rendition is fact, and your story, so much more vivid than their high school history class, is going to stay in their head as the real deal. I’m thinking here of a reviewer of the film, The Silent Village, who thought it was a vital documentary, and we should never forget how horrible the Nazis were after they occupied Wales, and why that made our part in WW2 so necessary …

You do know they didn’t invade the British Isles, don’t you? Whew! You had me worried for a moment there. I had a neighbor, in the 1980s, who thought WW2 happened “way back in the Sixties.” After that, I never over-estimate the historical knowledge gained in public schools.

If a writer didn’t change history to purpose, if they just changed it by accident — they didn’t do their 50 Books. They will never know without a good beta reader. Ignorance rarely knows that it isn’t correct or they’d do it differently.

Of course, people are also terribly mis-educated by films. As Thucydides said back in 400 BC, most people gain their knowledge of history from oratorios and dramas, and that’s still true today. I wonder how many think the end of Inglorious Basterds is factual. It’s satisfying but, of course, a crazy inversion. Part of the reason so many of us applaud is that we’re tired of Hitler always having to escape the plots against him.

Equally, most people watch The Untouchables and think that’s how it was, from the number of Feds to the lives and personalities. It’s not like the life of Elliot Ness was ever covered in school, and obviously many slept through the lecture on the end of the Third Reich.

Then there’s the sheer controversy in history. Which view of Billy the Kid is right, or more right — the 1954 film, The Law vs. Billy the Kid, or Young Guns in 1988? Have you ever compared the same Earp brothers in the 1994 Wyatt Earp or the 1993 Tombstone? Let’s not even get into older events. All this can result in varied interpretations of history, but they really aren’t alternative histories. The writer is trying to show what they think is the real history, not change to something fictional.

Once we move off of known historical figures, the divide gets a little foggier. After all, anything with fictional characters is a kind of althist: they never existed, and you know it, same as characters in contemporary mainstream fiction. But if you did your work right, someone like them could have existed.

If you bring in something you know did not happen, or likely couldn’t happen, you’re off toward althist. These are often Secret Histories and whether or not the events are speculative — science fiction or fantasy — or perfectly mundane thriller plots to take over a major country in the 1890s (that like the plots to kill Hitler, must fail), they slide toward althist.

But let’s say you’re using your novel to promote your theory that, say, a razor-backed submarine really sank the Titanic, and the lights of the Mystery Ship were actually the sub’s lights after it surfaced. The average person may consider this steampunk sci-fi, but you can trot out the engineering reports on the ship’s damage, the sinking of some other ships nowhere near ice bergs that year, the activity of several major navies, and all the rest that make you think it’s not unlikely at all. It’s a Secret History of someone who tried to blackmail the shipping lines of the world, except you think it may have happened and really was kept secret.

I’d have to say your novel lies where your publisher decides to put it. This is genre-chopping, and that’s a sales tool. Put it where it will sell best, if you can.

Now, the sticky part — where do we divide History from Near History? (Note that this is all just educated opinion. The line varies between publishing houses, and editors set it where they think their readers want it. It’s just a sales tool.)

If the usual line is that historical fiction happened before most of the populace was alive, the Baby Boomers are still keeping the Sixties in Vintage Fiction, shall we say. They remember it too vividly. Not always accurately, but vividly.

I tend to start Near History fiction on the technological divide of audio radio programming, cheap automobiles, and easily available birth control. Those three things transformed the world, especially the Western world. It’s the reason the Twenties were considered so wild, so divorced from the world before. Radios brought music and dramas from the big cities to isolated farms, the music of the South to the North, and thereby greatly expanded the reach of popular culture, whatever that was each year. It permitted the rise of hot jazz as a national phenomenon, no longer a regional one. The Model T, everyone knew, made people terribly mobile, let kids wander all over the county meeting people their parents didn’t know, besides providing a kind of portable bedroom for sexual experimentation.

Just as the line for historical fiction mainly lingered at 1870 from, say, 1930 to after 1950, I think it will remain around the end of WW1, like a rubber band stretching more and more, until there’s enough of a technological shakeup to let it pop forward to the 1990s and the rise of the (by then old-fashioned) Internet and cell phones.

I don’t think this little genre divide can really be settled on the basis of did a particular writer have to research it just like it were 1890 or not, because it is a sales tool, not a writing tool. The publisher/reader isn’t going to differentiate between the 50-year-old author who can write the 1980s out of their experience (with a little brushing up the memory) and the 20-year-old to whom it’s alien territory that has to be researched by weekend after weekend in old newspapers and magazines and films.

Opinions? Observations of publisher behavior?

(It happens Harlequin Historical Romances is putting the divide at about 70 years and letting it slide forward, so last I checked they were taking mid-century settings — though, still, half or more of every month’s output of books is late-1800s Westerns. Also, awards for histfi like the Walter Scott seem to be settling at 60 years or more in the past for the setting.)

One response »

  1. This is a very blurry territory, I think. Personally, I do remember the 1980s (I was a teenager, I do remember them very well), but in many respects, I wouldn’t be opposed to consider that historical fiction, because the world has changed so much in only a few years.

    And I think the matter of the story is also important. If you as author are addressing issues which are peculiar to the time, and these issues are instrumental to the plot and the characters’ development, I would indeed consider this histfic. If you, as author, are only using the 1980s as an exocit place, but the story really concerns (say) a ‘boy meets girl’ plot that could be replicated in many different settings, then I’d be more hesitant to consider this histfic.

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