I plan to write an alternate history story that eventually leads to Texas taking up most of the area that otherwise would have been the USA. It starts with the European side of things, in particular the French and the Russians.

I have thought through what I want to happen in my alternate timeline but because I have only heard of alternate history through the videos on Alternate History Hub including his collaboration with EmperorTigerstar on if the South had won the Civil War, I don't know how to write a good alternate history book. This collaboration assumes Texan history stays the same when they ask "What if the South had won the Civil War?". Obviously in my timeline, it doesn't and that would drastically change the outcome of the Civil War.

I have written science fiction before but never alternate history, though I have thought about it lots of times. So would I do something like this:

March 20 1811

Napoleon went to Russia alone. It took a long time to get there.

April 18 1811

Napoleon said "Tsar Alexander I, I want to get to North America but I can't go alone because of the Royal Navy. Now I know you don't have a big navy and never have but could you send about 100,000 troops to France? That should be enough for the British to only see Russians because my army and I will be in the center and sending way fewer troops than 100,000"

and continue the story like that or what because I have never written alternate history before.

3 Answers 3


Writing Alternate History is no different to writing a sci-fi story, it's just the setting that changes.

Alternate History is just picking a point in time and saying, "What would happen if X occurred instead of Y?".

Science Fiction, in a similar vein, is picking a point and saying "What would happen if we had X technology?".

The rest, really, is all just background setting.

You still need to develop your plot, your character and your setting. You will still need a story to tell. And you will still need to research the time period your story starts in.


@Thomo makes a good point about how similar it is to sci-fi.

Some things, I would say, does make it slightly different though:


  1. With an alternate history you can include sci-fi elements naturally, since you can decide any outcome that could spark a technological need/developement of some kind, that we do not have today. In some cases, this would be more believable than some sci-fi settings, but that leads me to the next point.

  2. A main difference between sci-fi and alternate history is the kind of "experts" you'll meet criticism from;

    • With sci-fi, some people will quickly be sceptical if they feel something doesn't make sense. A lot of 'common' people have substantial knowledge about technology in general on an enthusiast-level.
    • With alternate history, your potential critics are a different group of people. Most people have basic knowledge about the history of our species, but of course, some are experts and others have hobby-knowledge.

I'm not sure which is easier to pull off, but I'm tempted to believe that these two groups (generalizing here) have slightly different approaches to the fictional "this is how the world is" -story. I do not know many history-enthusiasts, and therefore I appologize if I'm too influenced by a societal generalization of "such a group of people".

The generalization:

In my mind, history-enthusiasts are "always" looking backwards; Discussing, analizing, researching, theorizing, what-have-you, in general approaching their topics with a "This is how the world was/is, because..." and perhaps - "That's why this happens again here..." and such. These enthusiasst would most likely also have a basic understanding of how people act in/develop/manage/destroy societies. I believe people in this category are generally well read.

In my mind, Tech-enthusiasts, however, are "always" lookign forward, trying to figure out what the next big gadget/tech breakthough is/could be. In the world of tech, "everyone" wants to dream, always wishing for something world-changing to suddenly appear, always expecting some "completely new". You don't hear the phrase "History repeats itself" a lot in the tech-enthusiast-society. Everyone can essentially be "an expert", simply from having a gadget or having held it/tried it.

I'm not saying that history-enthusiasts never look forward. I'm not saying they never dream or think "what if". Nor am I saying that tech-enhtusiasts never look backwards. My point is that the audience will have different ways of looking at the fictive world.

General tips:

Wether you're writing alternate history or sci-fi, it's a good idea to have a thourougly researched knowledge of:

  • "How this could or could work if it existed." (for sci-fi)
  • "How have similar events affected societies, and how did they occur" (for alternate history).

Both are of course good to consider, in any of the cases.

However, in general, info-dumps should be avoided. You don't nessecarily need to explain everything to the reader; Knowing it, as the writer, may simply make it easier for you to create an overall authentic world.

Unless you seek a super-critical audience, leave your explantations as simple as possible:

  • "6 years into WWII, Hitler finally conquerred the US."

  • "The Carbo-Tear-Fysionater can create small charges of electricity from the air around us."

We don't necessarily care how something workds or how something happened, unless the story gives us a reason to question it - usually with an attempted explanation.

  • 1
    As to difference 1, I'd say that the more different you need your alternate universe to be, the further back in the past your diverging event needs to happen to be believable. To use a common trope: killing a mosquito 2 days ago will prevent a mosquito bite today. Killing a mosquito 2000 years ago may cause the collapse of e.g. the Roman empire which influences Europe's cultural history. Killing a mosquito 10 million years ago may lead to crocodiles having evolved to be the dominant species on the planet instead of primates.
    – Flater
    May 17, 2018 at 13:04
  • @Flater Good point!
    – storbror
    May 17, 2018 at 14:29

Here's an important thing to remember: at the heart of your novel are the characters. Nobody is going to read something that looks and feels like a history schoolbook, only it's "alternative" history. So the first things you have to figure out are who your characters are, and what's their story. The parts that make your story "alternative history" aren't enough: they're worldbuilding. Once you've built a world, someone has to live in it.

Now, of course you want to show off your different world. So you'd want a character who is engaged with the world in a way that shows off its difference from RL. A baker's life would not be particularly different whether Napoleon's troops froze in Russia in 1812, or never went there in the first place. The life of a French diplomat, on the other hand, would be quite different.

The second important thing is, you don't want to surprise your readers with history going into an alternative route halfway through your story, where up until then they might have thought their reading some sort of straight historical fiction. This means that you should introduce straight away either the point of divergence, or something that's significantly different from our world (in which case you make the readers curious as to how the divergence happened).

For example, Susanna Clarke, in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell introduces straight away the point of divergence. Her story is about the Napoleonic wars, with magic.

Autumn 1806-January 1807
Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.

While Philip K. Dick in his The Man in the High Castle starts with something that's different from our world:

For a week Mr. R. Childan had been anxiously watching the mail. But the valuable shipment from the Rocky Mountain States had not arrived.

The point of divergence in his case is that

The Axis won WW2.

To make a long story short, the "alternative history" is the setting. In this setting, you still need to write an appealing story.

  • 1
    I'm kind of surprised that none of the answers have gone into fact that the genre carries an expectation that there's a single "point of divergence" from our real-world historical timeline. This answer didn't really get into it either, but it at least mentioned its existence.
    – T.E.D.
    May 17, 2018 at 13:47
  • 1
    @T.E.D. You're quite right: one point of divergence, and everything else logically follows from it (to potentially a very different world). I guess if there are two independent points of divergence, it becomes harder to follow the logic of how history proceeded from there. May 17, 2018 at 14:13
  • My favorite example is the Trail of Glory series, where the divergence IIRC was Sam Houston briefly stumbling while climbing over the log barricade at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend
    – T.E.D.
    May 17, 2018 at 15:54

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