I'm working on a novel which is set in the late 1920s, and the protagonist is a minor Lord in England. I wrote the first four chapters and handed it to an American friend, whose criticism largely consisted of how poorly I understood English society and that my characters behaved in utterly unbelievable ways toward each other.

I'm having a hard time with this criticism because I've seen other works (written, film, television), in which characters behaved similarly, some of which are by English writers, and some predate or are contemporary with the period of which I'm writing.

My question is: let's say that she is at least partly right, how does one strike a balance between creating believable characters and situations, and telling the story one wants to tell, when one is writing pseudo-historically in an alternate universe. I've often found that you can stretch the reality to the point of it being irritating as a reader/viewer even when it's obvious fantasy, for example, H.G. Wells in Warehouse 13. Is it a matter of setting expectations early on, about how much the story sticks to reality? Is this really just a question of personal taste? She was also confused about the time period (she thought it was Victorian, and in such case the upperclass/lowerclass distinctions were different). I wonder if perhaps I needed to make this more obvious as well.

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    Before you take a hatchet to your story, find another beta reader (preferably English). There's always the chance that your first reader is out in left field. If your Britpicking friend has the same complaints, then you know it's a story problem and not a reader problem. Commented Aug 29, 2014 at 22:32
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    I think your reference to alternate-history may be a bit confusing here, because it sounds like your novel will be deviating from historical reality in two ways: in the "alternate history" twists which are deliberate changes, and in the troped-up/media-influenced errors, where your setting is influenced by popular media portrayals which may be grossly inaccurate. Your friend's criticism seems to be over the latter, so I would focus on the historical element rather than the alternate-history element.
    – Standback
    Commented Sep 1, 2014 at 12:50
  • To clarify, this story has blatant supernatural elements that are intimately linked with historical events. IMO this makes it literally "pseudo-historical", but it is definitely not historical fiction, even though major historical events remain the same. The world should be recognizable, but people would necessarily behave differently in a world where such things exist and interact with people.
    – user10500
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 21:22

3 Answers 3


You only have to watch Downton Abbey to realize that the 1920s were a period of rapid social upheaval in the UK. Some people clung to the old ways with a death-grip; others cast aside all conventional behavior (and mostly got ostracized for it). Most people sought a middle ground, which was tricky because the ground kept shifting. So, the first thing you must do is establish which kind of person your main character is. Then, no matter your choice for him, you've got to set up conflict with people who've made other choices. This has nothing to do with your main plot. It's just the setting of the time period. There was widespread disagreement as to what ought to constitute proper social and moral behavior for the "modern" day (i.e., post-WWI) British.

I think you must maintain this, or your world won't be recognizably 1920s UK, even as an alternate reality. So, for example, if your minor lord has a valet, he might or might not treat his "inferior" with respect. But your minor lord's not going to treat his valet as an equal unless your minor lord is incredibly rebellious against the social order. In that case, the valet would probably be uncomfortable with that level of familiarity. Even if the two of them are fine with being pals, most people around them would be shocked by it and would come up with bad explanations for it. And of course that begs the question (both for the reader and in-world): why does such a lord HAVE a valet? [character development and plot development opportunity]

  • Agreed re: 1920s upheaval, and this is one reason I chose this period. There are a couple of good responses here, but this one I think provides the most clarity. I am adding elements of the supernatural on top of a historical setting, so it does need to be recognizable, as you put it. The suggestion to set up a conflict with others around varying choices is excellent.
    – user10500
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 21:05
  • Just to mention Downton Abbey != a model of verisimilitude for 1920s England. As a British person if I was writing a historical of any kind set in this period I would probably seek out some more depth to my research. However, if I were attempting to pastiche Downton Abbey directly then I would, obviously, just watch Downton Abbey.
    – One Monkey
    Commented Sep 4, 2014 at 10:23
  • @OneMonkey: Agreed. Just for starters, the characters on DA are too easily swayed to adopt 21st c. outlook/manners/morals/etc. But I think DA does capture the idea of 1920s social upheaval, in a way that speaks to 21st c. viewers. A writer who is adding "elements of the supernatural" is probably not going for strict historicity. ;-)
    – dmm
    Commented Sep 4, 2014 at 13:06

You first described it as "set in the late 1920s", and then later said you were "writing pseudo-historically in an alternate universe". I'm not bringing this up to nit-pick your question but, rather, to point out that these are two different things. There is historical fiction, where authors try to remain accurate, and there is alternate history, where authors use history as a jumping-off point but take liberties. Both are fine; both are done -- but your readers need to be able to tell which you're doing.

How do you do that? There's of course the brute-force way, saying it up front ("(Title) - An Alternate History"), but that's a little clunky. Fortunately, you have another path (one not so readily available to those writing historical fiction): introduce some element early on that is not historically accurate. I trust that if your reader was confused then you're not writing something as blatant as Victorian vampires, but there are other ways to handle this. One is to refer to a historical or contemporary event (or state) that either didn't happen or happened very differently -- a passing reference to Britain's American colonies, or the long period of peace (no WW I), or that a character is looking forward to his upcoming cruise on the Titanic -- pick anything that works, major or minor, so long as it's obvious to the reader. Another approach is to introduce a technology that didn't exist then, though you'll need to walk the fine line between justifying it (why is that man wearing a digital watch?) and over-exposition (if this change isn't central to your story).

Finally, you got feedback from one reader; as Lauren said in a comment, do seek other readers before you rewrite your work. This person might be wrong, or inattentive.

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    Since the criticism seems to be over the elements that OP considers agreed-upon in popular media, I don't think that establishing a divergence solves the problem. It'd be like describing an alien invasion right before the birth of Jesus, and assuming that justifies portraying Jesus as Caucasian.
    – Standback
    Commented Sep 1, 2014 at 12:53

As to establishing an alternative universe or setting an alt-historical theme I'm a big believer in the Nineteen Eighty Four slap-in-the-face method:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen

Monica's suggestion of making reference to some clear and obvious anachronism dropped into the narrative flow in an almost throwaway fashion is ideal.

As to establishing believable characters. There are levels. I wrote a short series of novels set in a US based cop show.

i.e. the books were intended to pastiche a cop show, not portray actual US cops as I have zero experience of the way actual US cops talk outside of my reading Homicide by David Simon.

After this I came to understand that I should really be embracing writing dialogue for characters I could really get a good rhythm going for. Think of Pegg, Wright and Frost in Hot Fuzz. They were parodying US Action Blockbusters but an essential part of their parody was to ground characters and scenarios in a very recognisable Britishness because I think that they felt pretending to be Americans would be somewhat crass.

This does not mean that you can never get the timbre right, particuarly if you have a UK-language and culture editor to point out obvious howlers but that is adding another layer of work to the already challenging process of producing a novel in the first place.

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