History That Never Was

Home of Dawn Vogel: Writer, Historian, Geek

Research for Alternate History Stories

The electrical building from the Chicago World Columbian Exposition in 1893, which is related to one of my works in progress.

Because my background is in history, I wind up writing a lot more alternate history stories than anything else. I collected five of these to make Unfixed Timelines recently. But writing alternate history means doing some research, and it’s a different sort of research than authors do if they’re writing other types of stories.

If I’m writing a modern day story with speculative elements, I might look up things like the structure of police precincts in a given city, or I might be able to draw from my own experiences as someone who lives in the real world (arguably, at least). If I’m writing sci-fi, I’m usually looking up how things work, to at least get enough of a grasp on that to make the details seem realistic. But when I’m writing alternate history, I sometimes find that the details I need aren’t just a click away on the internet. At that point, I’ve got two choices. 1) Make it up, or 2) hit the books.

The shelves in our apartment still contain a number of the books I used while I was pursuing my degrees, so if the topic I’ve hit upon is covered there, I don’t have to go far at all for my research. But I’m also fortunate to live in a big city with many good libraries, so I can spend a day trekking to the Seattle Public Library Central branch (which was one of the places I visited as a tourist to Seattle before moving here, because that’s the kind of nerd I am) or the University of Washington libraries.

Does this mean that I never fudge the history and make up my own stuff? No way! Part of the fun of alternate history is taking the facts and saying “what if?” What if aliens really did build structures beneath the sands of Turkey? What if zombies got loose at Vicksburg? In fact, I’d argue that the whole point of alternate history is to diverge from the facts–otherwise, you’d be writing history, not alternate history. But at the same time, it’s important to keep the stories grounded in reality–sure, there could be zombies at Vicksburg, but let’s not have the protagonist mow them down with an AK-47. That would seem (and would be) way off. But by doing the research in advance, I can grab details that ground my stories in reality, and then tweak little things here and there to fill in the gaps and bring wonder and speculation to the past.

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