Alternate history at the Historical Novel Society Conference 2012

That the HNS included a workshop on alternate/alternative history at the 2012 was a factor in my signing up to go. Christopher Cevasco (editor/publisher of the award-winning, but now sadly defunct, Paradox: The Magazine of Historical and Speculative Fiction), led it with verve and patience.

My earlier post on this blog on alternate history gives some background, but at the conference Christopher led us into a lively interactive discussion. Alternate history could, he said, be regarded as overlapping two spheres: history and science fiction, something to be borne in mind when preparing work for publication.

What it was not was secret or hidden history, i.e. a fictional or real history which is supposed to have been deliberately suppressed, forgotten, or ignored by established scholars. The classic was the famous (and unflattering) Historia Arcana (Secret History) by the Byzantine scholar Procopius, discovered centuries later in the Vatican Library, and which paralleled his official, sycophantic history of Justinian and Theodora. Modern fictional examples include e.g. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth, The Eagle Has Landed by Len Deighton.

Neither was it micro alternate history where nothing changed the world globally; examples include the film Sliding Doors and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Parallel worlds and dimensions and second worlds such as seen in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire  series also fell outside the definition.

So what counts as alternate history?
Firstly, although the time when the story in the book (or film) takes place can be in the past, present or future, the Point of Divergence (POD) from the standard timeline must be in the past.
Secondly, there is no going back; the trigger for the POD must alter history and once the timeline has changed, it can’t be changed back by some clever plot development, time machine or technical gizmo.
And lastly, the narrative should show at least some of the ramifications of that change.

The POD can be a famous event, e.g. the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the Armada succeeding and Spain successfully invading England in the sixteenth century (Keith Roberts’ Pavane) or that firm favourite, Hitler winning the Second World War (Robert Harris’ Fatherland). Or it can be something a little more obscure but which has a significant impact, e.g. the final suppression of paganism by Roman Emperor Theodosius in the fourth century, or the thought not occurring to Tim Berners-Lee to link up hypertext, the Internet and multifont text objects.

And what about known historical characters in the standard timeline? Could writers bring them in? If very soon after the POD, then probably, but the further away in time and distance, then the bigger the likelihood the characters might not even be born.

As with any story, the writing must create a plausible world, backed by meticulous research, but the writer is, of course, the master of their universe.


Christopher M. Cevasco ( is an author whose historically themed fiction has appeared in Black Static, The Leading Edge, and A Field Guide to Surreal Botany, among many other magazines and anthologies. He is a 2006 Clarion workshop graduate and a 2007 Taos Toolbox graduate. He was also the editor/publisher of the award-winning Paradox: The Magazine of Historical and Speculative Fiction, which garnered two nominations for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History during its thirteen-issue run. Chris writes in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where he lives with his wife and their two young children. He is seeking representation for two recently completed novels, an alternative history of 1066 and an historical thriller about Lady Godiva. 

4 comments to Alternate history at the Historical Novel Society Conference 2012