On another site, I wrote a critical review of a book that featured a "King Frederic II" of France who reigned between 1777-1819. I pointed out that this was a particularly unfortunate time to confuse the facts because the actual events of the time were so dramatic and well-known (the overthrow of Louis XVI and the rise of Napoleon.

I was taught (30 years ago), that in a historical novel, you should not "rewrite history." That is, your historical facts should be reasonably accurate (not necessarily letter-perfect), and the only thing that should be "fictitious" is the fact that your characters should be doing the heavy lifting.

Was I right, or at least with my rights to find this "disconcerting?" Under what circumstances is this kind of alternate history desirable, or at least acceptable?


If the List of alternate history fiction on Wikipedia is any indication, alternate history fiction has never been more popular than it has been in the past thirty years. The Man in the High Castle was the most popular show on Amazon Prime in 2015 and has recieved high praise.

Clearly alternate history is "acceptable" in writing nowadays.

But under what circumstances is it acceptable? If it is well researched and gets its historical facts right.

Alternate history fiction begins at a point in time until which the world in the story has had the same history as ours, and then in deviates in some respects. For this deviation to be meaningful, the situation until the deviation happens must be historically accurate. Inglorious Basterds, a current alternate history box office hit, was funny and satisfying because its story took place before the well-known and accurately portrayed background of the Nazi occupation of France. Had it had a dictator named Müller, instead of Hitler, the same movie would probably have been much less successful.

Your example shows not alternate history, I suppose, but a lack of research.

  • I'm glad someone thinks like I do. I took the liberty of bolding the passage that brought about my acceptance. Good answers to some of my other questions, too.
    – Tom Au
    Apr 27 '18 at 22:06

I started with this as a comment but it's not really a comment. It's also not much of an answer.

Historical fiction and alternative history are separate genres in my understanding. I would expect historical fiction to be accurate and minor characters can be fictitious. A commoner living through the Black Plague should experience it correctly but need not have actually ever been a real person... But documented facts must be accurate.

I would also expect in historical fiction that the parts of history that are in focus (documented history) will remain so. The parts we don't know ( greater than 99.9% of actual history) have a lot of wiggle room.

My answer: Don't confuse Historical Fiction with Alternate History.

In alternate history, be clear up front that it is alternate.

(Even the alternate universes in Star Trek take heat from time to time for not following the 'real' history - a spore drive in Kirk's time? I don't think so!)


Alternate history has become a scifi-fantasy subgenre (and likely can exist or co-exist with any other genre within that domain. Here are some reads: Cowboys & Aliens, Boneshaker, The Mechanical, and Ghost Talkers). It's entirely acceptable, but usually based around a large what if. If that what if doesn't reasonably change an element of the times, people expect a faithful historical rendering. So it's about as hard to write as historical fiction, but more fun, imo.

An expansion so that you can see a range of alternate histories that have been published and have become popular. Note, this is by no means a complete collection, a definition of the scope of a genre or even necessarily the best the subgenre has to offer (but the the actual books here are quite good).

  • Boneshaker: What if zombie making gas spilled out of a hole under Seattle during the civil war?
  • The Mechanical: What if The Dutch mastered clock-work technology such that all of colonial history and the war between the Protestants & Catholics was extended to the new world in a way that altered everything?
  • Ghost Talkers: What if mediums were used to to spy during WWI on the Germans by taking reports from ghosts?
  • Cowboys & Aliens: Actually a watch. "What if aliens attacked a western settlement after crashing on earth?"

Alternate History is a real (and popular) genre.

Alternate History fiction asks "what if something different happened" and then extrapolates how the world would be different. Generally, the 'this' is a very big deal and obvious to the reader that it is a departure from actual history.


  • What if Nazis won Worl War II? (The Man in the High Castle, Fatherland)
  • What if a man from the future gave the Confederacy a futuristic weapon(The Guns of the South)
  • What if there were dragons during the Napoleonic War?(His Majesty's Dragon)

As you can see they can often(but not necessarily) have a fantastic element to explain why fictional history departed from actual history.

Not An Excuse for Mistakes

Alternate history should not be mistaken for historical fiction that contains a mistake. The point of departure should be clear and obvious from the start - probably featured on the cover or back of the book summary. Alternate History should not be used by a person who wants to write a historical novel without doing his\her homework and tell people all errors are because "Alternate History".

To answer your question of acceptability, here's my answer:

  1. The point of departure from actual history vs alternate history should be obvious and have significant consequences. (For instance, changing the birthdate or name of a historical figure would not be alternate history, and more interpreted as a mistake)
  2. All departures from actual history should be obvious or easily inferable from the departure of actual history.(e.g. If WWII never happens, then it might be acceptable that Churchill never became Prime Minister. It is not acceptable to say that if there was no Spanish Inquisition, then Pope John Paul II would instead have been Pope John XVI) If they aren't obvious or easily inferable, then the novel should explain it.

This Particular Case

If the point of the novel you're talking about was something like "what if the French Revolution never happened", then I would say this was an obvious Alternate History. If the book was a Romance novel that took place in Paris in 1815 with a brief visit to "King Frederich II" who had rules for 30+ years... then I would say that was a historical novel with a bad mistake. If it was something between those two examples, you'll have to use your own judgment.

Hope that helps!


Under what circumstances is this kind of alternate history desirable, or at least acceptable?

I think in large part this depends on how well known the true history is. In this case, I think your concerns are misplaced, I think nearly all adults would not know who was the King of France of between 1777 and 1819, and would not know what the implications might be in the book's scenario with regard to Napoleon.

If the point of the novel was to capture the period involved in some way, then the audience that does not know their French history might very well enjoy it thoroughly.

To me, that is the point of fiction, entertainment, so if it succeeds for nearly everybody reading it, then it does not have to be literally true. That is the situation of "at least acceptable."

The circumstances in which it is less acceptable is when the history is well known to a large segment of the audience, and when that happens their suspension of disbelief may overwhelm them. Thus they would not be entertained, and that is unacceptable. If a large segment recognized immediately (without research) that a "King Frederic II" would dramatically change world history and make the current world effectively impossible, then they may not find the fiction plausible enough to keep reading.

For the most part, screwing up the facts (intentionally or not) of history is perfectly acceptable if the audience does not know it. I could add another Founding Father of the USA and tell his story, give him wonderful speeches given (IRL) by other Founding Fathers, the same with battles, and even most Americans would not know the difference. Or I could make up a story of an adventure by an existing founding father.

IMO the purpose of fiction is entertainment, it only fails when it does something that alienates a big chunk of the audience. If I were an editor (or reviewer), I would question whether the counter-factual elements are necessary for the story or not. If they are not necessary, then the truth should be told. But if the story is about King Frederic II, obviously that story cannot be told without being counter-factual, so then the calculus must turn to how many people would have their reading reverie broken by this counter-factual claim, and how entertaining the story is for those that can get over it.

  • 1
    Apparently you are much younger than I am. I was born in 1957 and "everyone" my age knew about "Napoleon," many about Louis XVI (through Marie Antoinette). If you are telling me that most people (your age) don't know this "true history," that's news to me.
    – Tom Au
    Apr 27 '18 at 11:06
  • 2
    I am not saying I didn't know about Napoleon; I am saying thoughts of Napoleon or French history did not enter my mind given the dates "1777 - 1819", the American revolution did, and I wouldn't care about France. In America, that is what I think most readers would be focused on, and I'd wager if you did a survey (in America or in general excluding French citizens) that is what you would find; almost zero awareness of French history by dates. Heck, in America most people have zero awareness of our own history by date! Much less another country's.
    – Amadeus
    Apr 27 '18 at 12:17

You were right about your own taste. You may have been right about the taste of many other people as well. But as a general principle, you were wrong.

Fiction is fiction. Fiction is all the stuff that didn't happen but should have. There is no part of life, experience, or history that is not ripe for fictionalizing.

This notion of stuff that didn't happen but should have is important. Stories are part of how we make sense of the world and of our lives. (I think you could make a good argument that stories are all of how we make sense of the world and of our lives.) And because they are about making sense of lives that may not actually make any sense, or that may only make sense in the next life (if there is one), they are often neater and simple than reality. But they can also be wilder and weirder than reality, because it is often in the wild and weird that we find, or at least highlight, the things that make life make sense to us.

Alternate history is a way of making sense of the world by examining consequences. What if X had happened instead of Y? If we can project the consequences of that, we understand something about the way human affairs develop.

But if stories are about what didn't happen but should have, some people will have different tastes in stories because some people will have different views about what should have happened. (This is not simply a moral question. It can be about what would be cool. It can be about what would make human life make more sense.)

To some, feeling comfortable in their skin involves pinning down as many facts and their causes a possible. Supposition contrary to fact is anathema to them. They may enjoy historical fiction because it feels comfortably close to fact. They will be proportionally uncomfortable if they suspect that anything that happens in the story is contrary to established fact. (They often have a naive and trusting view of just how established established facts really are.)

Those people are never going to like alternate history. They are never going to like four buttons on a lady's glove in an age where there should be five.

Given that they take comfort in surrounding themselves with a buffer of established facts, they are quite likely to assert that their own taste is a matter of established fact as well, that a style they don't like is simply a violation of the natural order of things.

But they are not the whole of the audience. For many of us, the things that didn't happen but should have are wildly contrary to established fact, and may call established fact into question. Some of us like nothing better than to trample an established fact underfoot, spit in its eye, and call it's mother a whore.

Fiction is fiction and may do as it pleases. Who it pleases, is, of course a different matter. We should not ask what it is right or wrong to fictionalize, but as professionals we do have to ask what will sell. And today, at least, fiction that cleaves to fact like ivy to an oak seems to be more to the popular taste.


Alternate History is the same as alternate facts and also theoretical science. The short answer, is that academic teachings and 'common knowledge', CERTAINLY with regard to history, is MOSTLY, incorrect/wrong/lies. EXAMPLE: Hitler was killed in the bunker in 1945. Now, anyone with real knowledge kows that this is far from the truth, to the extent it is now confirmed, but only if asking and looking in right place. The list is endless. And no, it is not acceptable. BUT, if google or your teachers tell you so, you generally are all happy to accept that. Crazy

  • Another great example which entails science and history/history of, is Nikola Tesla. The radio, tv, etc etc. His ww2 effect, his links regarding darwin and adventures of huck finn blah blah. As we see in the world this very day... lies only lead to more lies. And they are not great at covering tracks or convincing the folk of society. Apr 27 '18 at 22:05

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