Lately I’ve been drawn back to thinking of my long-hiatused alternative history about the rule of Tsar Aleksey II, so much so I’ve significantly bumped it up in my large queue. If a project stays in your heart, mind, and soul years after you last worked on it, you know it was meant to be. Perhaps it just wasn’t the right time yet to write it the right way.
Here are some suggestions for creating a good, original alternative history:
1. Original subject matter and setting! Some topics, like a different outcome of WWII and the American Civil War, have been done so much as to have become cliché. I’m so relieved my own alternative history isn’t some stale subject that’s been done a thousand times before. Why not try something like India still being under British rule, the Protestant Reformation never having happened, the Black Plague bypassing Eurasia and hitting the Americas, or the Shah never having been overthrown?
2. Minor alterations of history typically don’t merit an entirely changed historical trajectory. For example, say the Titanic never sunk, or there were enough lifeboats. So? How does that change the course of history beyond saving so many people’s lives? You’d have to make it so one of the newly-rescued becomes the President or discovers the cure for cancer.
3. Make sure there’s a plausible base and that it’s firmly established in history up till that altered point. While the sky’s the limit after you get going, you don’t want to completely contradict established history. You’d have to give the reader an extremely compelling reason to believe something like Stalin or Hitler being a nice guy, or why a certain battle had a much different outcome.
4. Outside events don’t all have to change too. In my hiatused alternative history, which begins in July 1918, WWII still happens. It unfolds a bit differently, but it still happens. My major difference is that the Shoah (Holocaust) happens on a much smaller scale, since Tsar Aleksey II rescues millions of people and gives them safe haven in the Russian Empire.
5. Changing who’s in office or on the throne creates endless possibilities. For example, the original heir survives an accident or disease and power doesn’t go to the ill-prepared spare; an elected official isn’t assassinated; a monarch lives 20-30 extra years; someone else is elected to office.
6. Make sure there’s an actual plot, or at least some kind of story arc and trajectory. Merely changing history isn’t compelling enough of a storyline unless something worthwhile goes along with it. Focus on big things, not the lives of ordinary people under this new reality.
7. Choose the right POV and focus. The reason I need to significantly rework what exists of my own alternative history is because the original structure was all wrong. I had about 90 years of alternative Russian history told through the journals of five young women living in different eras, including one Hungarian Jewish girl whose family were saved by the Tsar and invited to live in one of the palaces.
The intent was to show how supposedly ordinary people reacted to the rule of this strange new breed of Tsar, but it led to a lot of really telly, detached, awkward entries, supplemented with newspaper clippings. Why are we supposed to believe each of these five families would’ve known the Royal Family, or any of the nobility in St. Petersburg, and had the chance to interact with them so much, to the point where they know personal business? Epistolary books are tricky enough already, but this went one step further and just made it seem like an awkward gimmick, rather detached from the true main characters.
8. Could this really have happened, or are you just indulging a fantasy about how a tragic event could’ve been prevented? As aforementioned, give the reader a reason to go along with something much different from established history. If you’re going to write a book where WWII, the American Civil War, or the conquest of the Americas never happened, show how that was possible and what happened in its place.
9. Starting with a young historical figure is a perfect blank slate. Just as when I began this project at sixteen, I’m haunted by what might’ve been, and by that beautiful, innocent young man who’s forever thirteen. I really want to believe he would’ve become the modern, enlightened, humane, democratic, belovèd Tsar he never got a chance to be, based on his experiences with suffering (both physically and during his family’s imprisonment).
The beauty of alternative history is that you get to make your own version of history. Perhaps in some alternate universe out there, Tsar Aleksey II really did have a wonderful, long reign and lived happily ever after with his unlikely Tsaritsa, Varvara.