History That Never Was

Home of Dawn Vogel: Writer, Historian, Geek

Guest Post: History, Alternate History, and Ahistoricity

Today, I’m hosting a guest post from author Laurence Raphael Brothers, who has a few things to say about writing historical fiction, alternate history, and ahistoricity, in relation to his recently released book, Twilight Patrol!

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When you set out to write a historical novel, of course you don’t want to get anything wrong. Well. Not inadvertently, anyway. This desire is even more acute for historical fantasy novels, for which a strong sense of verisimilitude is useful to counterbalance the fantastic elements of the story.

But what does it mean to be historically accurate? After all, the primary sources are corrupted by arrogance, by greed, by politics, by prejudice, and by all manner of social blinders, while official records have this regrettable tendency to lie outright. Suetonius was an official who depended on Hadrian’s goodwill for his living, and Tacitus was a senator who had to worry about the emperor’s opinion of his writing. Procopius may or may not have written a word of truth in his entire life, but if he did, it was tinged with either vicious spite or lickspittle servility. Machiavelli knew which side his bread was buttered on, and Gibbon fell in love with his rolling sentences and his historical theories, arguably to the point of ignoring any contradictory evidence. And you believe a general’s memoirs of his campaigns at your own risk, from Caesar to Clausewitz to Guderian to MacArthur, because rarely in history has any general been willing to admit a mistake that cost them a victory, or that wasted the lives of their soldiers.

Moreover, if you look at the history of history, what’s revisionist in the current generation becomes canonical in the next, but later may be refuted and discarded entirely. Consider changing opinions of Columbus, Washington, and Jefferson, just to name a few relatively recent figures once universally revered but now viewed in a much different light.

Of course historians make good-faith efforts to combine known facts with historical opinions, to analyze period accounts for probity, and to generalize from verifiable data along with primary sources. I don’t mean to suggest that history as a practice is futile or pointless. Far from it. But I do say that in writing historical fiction, one often has a lot of viewpoints to choose from, many of them utterly contradictory despite their hundreds of pages of footnotes and vast scholarly authority.

So for example, in writing about World War One from the British perspective, one can choose freely among many encomiums and apologies for Field Marshal Douglas Haig, who I think was personally responsible for hundreds of thousands of needless casualties. Consider also Air Marshal Hugh Trenchard. There are countless adulatory accounts of his management of the Royal Flying Corps and praise for his subsequent creation of the Royal Air Force as an independent service. But Trenchard was also responsible for an apparently imbecilic insistence on single-flight patrols over enemy territory during periods of German air dominance in 1916 and 1917, resulting in myriad completely unnecessary deaths. He was painfully slow to react to German jagdgeschwader tactics, and he insisted on using inappropriate planes for the extremely dangerous practice of trench strafing, both again resulting in many needless casualties. Trenchard also insisted that pilots not carry parachutes, as he seems to have outrageously and insultingly believed this would encourage cowardice among a notoriously fearless, gallant, and self-sacrificing group of soldiers. But he came out of the war as a hero and was created a viscount for his deeds. Am I painting him too badly here? Perhaps; he was after all responsible for organizing the RFC and the RAF, and if the corps was run by regular army officers, the results might well have been even worse. But from the point of view of a pilot during the Fokker Scourge or in Bloody April who saw his entire squadron shot out of the air due to Trenchard’s general orders, I might not have gone far enough.

This all so far been about history. But what about ahistory? That is, what about the deliberate flouting of consensus history in a work of fiction? This is where the writer has a glorious freedom–what if the Khwarezmians hadn’t executed Genghis Khan’s peaceful trade delegation out of hand despite the presence of a vast army of Mongol cavalry no more than two weeks ride distant … what if the Athenians had been less arrogant and had conciliated the Spartans instead of alienating them … what if the FBI had paid more attention to flight school trainees before 2001 … and what if Hilary Clinton hadn’t somehow pissed off the Washington political editor of the New York Times prior to her presidential campaign?

As a writer, one has the choice to blend in ahistorical events as subtly as possible, so that readers only passingly familiar with the period might not notice anything out of place at all, while others might only wake up to the reality breach late or in retrospect. Or one can lampshade the change, highlighting the crucial event, the butterfly wing-flap that changes everything. The first way can result in an almost delirious effect, where the reader is no longer entirely sure what is truth and what is fiction, whether they are reading about a dream, or whether they are dreaming of reading. The second way yields a sort of decisive satisfaction for the historically knowledgeable reader, a smug pleasure in knowing just where the author changed things, and an opportunity to agree or disagree with the change.

For the first volume of my WWI-era historical fantasy duology, Twilight Patrol (available now on Amazon), set at the end of 1917, I chose total historical authenticity to the extent I was capable of, offering an accurate presentation of the war-time situation. Apparent deviations from history are simply the author’s errors. With the minor exception of an occult sisterhood providing an RFC squadron magical access to the Celtic otherworld … Well, yes, apart from that. But in the second volume, the consequences of actions in the otherworld will reverberate in Flanders, in the Somme, and in London, Paris, and Berlin. Will the results be a delirious dream of alternate history merging with our own, or a gross breach of the timeline yielding an entirely new future? You’ll have to read the book to find out …

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Laurence Raphael Brothers is a writer and technologist. Over 25 of his short stories have appeared in such magazines as Nature, PodCastle, and Galaxy’s Edge. His WWI-era fantasy novel Twilight Patrol has just been published by Alban Lake and is available for purchase on Amazon. His urban fantasy novella The Demons of Wall Street will be published in 2020 by Mirror World, and his gothic historical fantasy novella City of Magic and Desire will be published by World Castle. Follow him on twitter: @lbrothers and visit https://laurencebrothers.com for many stories that can be read or listened to for free online.


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