6

I have a problem writing my alt-history story. It's a story about basically World War I. Yet, I wish not to convey ideas of the time, like how which country was bad, which country was good. Indeed, my main characters are fighting in opposing sides, and they are not particularly patriotic themselves.

As I wanted to create some distance from our world, I had the idea to change some names like country names. However I wanted historical realism, and did a lot of research to make my story as close as possible to what it was at the time.

However, my proofreader felt disturbed by this point. Like how I used idiomatic expressions using some real world country name inside the narration, while this country probably shouldn't exist in this universe. Or how the names of equipment is based on real world gear that was used during the war.

What do you do when writing this kind of alternate history scenario? Do you change everything, even if that means losing historical accuracy along with some pretty nice idiomatic expressions? Or do you modify these expressions, hoping your reader will understand?

  • 5
    A clarification, if you will: You say you "wanted to create some distance from our world," e.g. by changing country names. Do you mean your story takes place in an imaginary world, with history that might be similar to ours, but it stands on its own -- e.g. a story about this world's first world war? Or, is this still an alternate history of our world, and one of the changes is that country names are different? To summarize: do you want readers to recognize our own world and history, or not? – Standback Oct 29 '18 at 13:08
  • 1
    Sounds like you are not just doing alt-history, you are building a whole world which has some parallels with 1900s Earth. – Alexander Oct 29 '18 at 18:19
  • @Standback I want my reader to recognize our own world and history.... but not to start thinking "Duuuuuuh these are the germans, they are the bad guys. And these are muricans they saved everyone yeah !" That would be absolutely counter productive. – Kaël Nov 1 '18 at 21:36
  • I don't think you can rely on real-world history, without also bringing in real-world associations and prejudices. OTOH, I also don't think readers are as simplistic as that (or as easily fooled by a simple name-change). Every book recreates the world; offers its own viewpoint. Portray the participants faithfully, richly, with detail and nuance, and the readers will come right along with you, and love you for it. – Standback Nov 2 '18 at 6:03
10

Your proofreader felt disturbed because there may be some inconsistencies in your story.

I'll point my finger against the fact that you changed some country names. This - per se - is not a problem, but it does depend on a lot of different factors. Let's review.

In an alternate-history story, it's totally legitimate changing some details in a way that suit us. The readers will accepts this changes if they recognize they are needed for an interesting narrative. For example, if the russian revolution never occurred - or occurred later - the outline of the war would be already pretty much different.

So, the question is: are you changing names because your countries are different?

Changing names

Let's say that in this alternate setup Germany is, instead, called Svervegia. That's alright, since this is alternative history; but by changing the name, we are signaling the reader that this country is not an exact copy of '900 Germany.

So, what is different? What is the root cause of this change in the country's own name? Are the borders the same? Is the culture the same? In what aspects this country mimics the one we historically know, and in what it differs?

The readers will be asking those questions, and expect suitable answers in your novel (at least, they will expect you to hint at answers). Alternate history gives you the power to make all the changes you want - but remember that only a part of those changes will be excused by suspension of disbelief.

If your main objective is "I want to write an alt-history WWI novel were dragons exists" the readers will accept the quirk, but they will expect to see how this impacts the whole enviroment.

In pretty much the same way, if your objective is "I want to write an alt-history WWI novel were the main countries are different" is totally fine to change names: but you will need to explain what those differences are.

Alternative History vs Historical Accuracy

I'm afraid you have stumbled upon two pretty incompatible concept. The more your history is alternative, the less it will be accurate. There is no way around it.

Of course, once you decide the main "quirk" of you alternative history, you can decide how it changes every event in a cause-effect chain in the most "likely" way. The resulting history won't be 100% accurate anymore, but it will make a realistic, "likely", hopefully interesting) alternative.

Some things of course won't be affected by your changes and you can still be "accurate" on them. Yet, I suspect that the point is not about being accurate, is about being credible.

Then again, why

I'm adding this paragraph since I'm a little uncertain on the whole premise of your question. You stated:

Yet, I wish not to convey ideas of the time, like how which country was bad, which country was good. [...] As I wanted to take some distance from our world, I had the idea to change some names like country names.

There is no unbiased opinion about "which country was bad". Any historian would tell you that there were good and bad aspects in each and every country. Being a century later, we can examine things more objectively and decide which country was probably better for our modern world standards, but people at the time had different thoughs.

Your mentioned that your characters aren't patriots, so you're free to give them complex opinions on the respective countries. They will have insights on the good points and on the bad points. And being characters, they're free to be wrong: their opinion is not - and should not - be your opinion as a narrator/writer.

You don't need to change country names without a good reason to do so. If you want to give insights about the involved countries, you already have ways to do that from each character PoV: all the better since they are from opposing factions. Maybe you can use this to show how each one will have different opinions on the other. Some of those will be wrong. Some of those will be correct. Some will be propaganda.

So, being coherent and gaining the reader trust

In the end, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, as Shakespear said, but if we're talking about a rose, the most straightforward way is calling it a rose.

Changed names will mean substantial changes in everything else too. Your audience will expect this statement to be correct. If it isn't, or it feels like you're using nonces without a reason backing it up, your readers will feel cheated or upset.

If there are no changes, you're better off using real names and adding "distance" through other means; after all, it's better to focus the readers attention on the true elements in your novel that are "alternate history".

  • 4
    Where dragons exist is the basis for Naomi Novik's novels (for those unaware), but I'll point out that she never addresses the question of, "But how did the existence of dragons not affect the timeline until 1790 (or so)?" Its perfectly fine not to answer that question, because it's the story the author wishes to tell (as attempting to its going to result in a large amount of hand waving and "look, a dragon!" *runs away*), but readers will still wonder. I suppose it depends on what kind of change you make in terms of what you can get away with. Eg Bitter Seeds is WW1 with demons... – Draco18s Oct 29 '18 at 18:35
  • 1
    ...which got away with its changes by explicitly calling it out as "the government only just learned about their existence" and things go horribly wrong as a result. Spoilers as to how it ends, resolving the timeline discontinuity entirely. – Draco18s Oct 29 '18 at 18:37
  • @Draco18s Naomi Novik wrote a crime against alternate hstories. The Spaniards didn't conquer most of America because there were dragons, but the history of Europe hasn't changed a bit. It's so stupid it hurts. – Alberto Yagos Oct 29 '18 at 21:46
  • 1
    Funnily enough, I was one of those unaware. @Draco18s – Reinstate Monica. Oct 29 '18 at 21:56
  • 2
    @AlbertoYagos You're not wrong. The other part that hurts is that the Australia book can be almost completely skipped. Read the first chapter and the last chapter in the bookstore and you'll get 90% of it. All you miss is "some stuff happens while they're in the desert. Its kind of pretty/momentarily terrifying (but ultimately not dangerous)/mysterious (and unexplained)." The entire plot is resolved off-screen without Lawrence's party being even remotely involved. "Wild Goose Chase: The Book" – Draco18s Oct 29 '18 at 22:29
6

With Alternative History everything is assumed to be the same unless the author specifically says otherwise, that being the case you need to be consistent when saying that you've made a particular change. If you change the name Switzerland to the "Helvetian League" then you can't turn around and talk about "the Swiss"; they don't exist anymore. Changing something as big as the name of a country changes a lot more than one initially realises it does though; you have to find and change the underlying reason(s) that a country has the name we're used to seeing and then create reasons to use the new name you want it to have. That fundamentally changes the nature of the nation, its policies and attitudes, and its people and their responses to internal and international politics. The Helvetian League is, in the end, only similar to Switzerland geographically rather than geopolitically.

Generally speaking if you want to do alternative history in which the world takes a path we are familiar with but point out that there are departures from our real history keep changes small and considered. Avoid changing history more than you have to, the people involved can be different but the broad strokes of world events shouldn't be disrupted if you can avoid it. For example maybe a certain Archduke was named Fritz and his assassin was a 30 year old Gustov but the killing still happened in Sarajevo and still resulted in a declaration of war and the whole mess that followed. This is clearly a different world but the events are the same.

As a note if you want to avoid expressing moral judgements one way or another about a particular nation involved it's worth noting and pointing out where each side was guilty of questionable behaviour. Everyone involved in both the world wars did things that were justified as necessities of the time but were immoral and/or even actively illegal.

6

Let me challenge your premise. You say you're writing alternative history. Usually, alternative history has one point of divergence from real history, and the effects of this divergence are explored. The divergence can be a fantastical element, or it can just be that history took a different course. Some examples: Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel is about the Napoleon wars, only with magic. Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle explores a world in which the Axis, rather than the Alliance, won WW2.

In both cases, and in all other similar stories I can think of, countries' names are changed only if, and inasmuch as, it is made necessary by the point of divergence. For example, in The Man in the High Castle, we have the "Rocky Mountain States". The change, in such a case, helps us focus on the effects of the divergence from real history, understand its implications. Everything that has no reason to be directly affected by the divergence, remains the same. This is necessary: if you make unrelated changes, the focus is lost, the story becomes confusing. The familiar elements of the setting help the reader remain grounded.

You, on the other hand, have changed names "to create distance from our world". If you are writing alternative history, the divergence from real history has introduced enough of a distance already, you don't need more. In fact, keeping the names the same would give you more freedom, since you'd be able to use idioms etc. that belong to the countries you're writing about.

I might be misinterpreting your intention, but the impression I get from the first paragraph of your question is that you changed the countries' names solely to avoid one country or another being read as "bad" from the start. You don't need to worry about this. Consider Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. Nobody thinks of the characters of that book as "bad Germans". It's not about sides - it's about people. Much like your work wants to be, it seems. Similarly, consider how nobody inherently assumes that Napoleon is good and the Russians are bad, or the other way round, when one reads stories about 1812 - we are willing to take whatever side any particular writer wishes to follow. This is not WW2 you're writing about. (And even with WW2 you have some leeway: Grave of the Fireflies is a heart-rending Studio Ghibli film about two children in Japan during that war.)

Which is all to say, you really don't need to change the countries' names. (Unless you have a reason to do this, which you haven't stated.) This will solve your problem of idioms etc.

4

Alternative history can allude to history and make the reader think ‘this sounds a bit like the Great War’ but the names of the countries have been changed. That is fine, but you need not do that.

It can also not change the names and that can be better. Whatever works for your story, works.

In a couple of movies, history was altered significantly and the rest remained the same so that we could appreciate the changes. Inglorious Basterds changed the way Hitler died and how WWII ended. You either went along for the ride and enjoyed it or not, but it was Tarantino’s movie and no one thought that he believed it historically correct.

The film Fatherland had the world wars not happen, Kennedy was not assassinated and had Germany be a superpower based on its economic and political strength, never having gone down the path of war.

These are intellectual exercises, what ifs. What if JFK had lived and the wars never been fought? What might that world seem like? These worked because they were intriguing and consistent.

You say that you mention nations after changing everything else. That can certainly be jarring as one expects the paradigm to hold. If I am writing about characters on another planet and have one of them say, ‘When in Rome’ I have broken my paradigm and need to change that name.

You say that your characters are not patriots, that gives you freedom to use them to comment, as Liquid mentioned, on the issues of their day. You might have to explain why these non patriots are fighting for their country. Do they come from families with military traditions?

During time of war, the bad country is always the other country. The citizens of the other country are often dehumanized to render it more virtuous to enlist in the army and go kill them. That is the purpose of propaganda in such times.

The assassination of the Arch Duke Ferdinand was certainly a catalyst and could be something your characters think about. ‘Why am I here in a damn trench fighting strangers because a guy got killed?’

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.