Alex Scarrow: Tips on Writing an Alternate History

Alex Scarrow’s TimeRiders series follows the time-traveling adventures of Liam, Maddy, and Sal. The three teenagers were saved from near-death experiences and recruited to work for The Agency, a secret organization who’s sole purpose is to prevent time travel from destroying history as they know it. 

The third book in the series, The Doomsday Code, takes the threesome back to 12th century Sherwood Forest—the age of Robin Hood, King Richard the Lionheart, and the Crusades. There, they try to solve the mystery of how the name of a 20th century hacker has appeared in a 1,000-year-old manuscript.

Alex Scarrow naturally has a lot of experience writing alternate histories. He’s stopped by Figment with a few smart tips on how make these stories believable. There’s some good inspiration here if you’re thinking of entering the short-story contest (and even if you’re not!).

Imagining a world that could have been if some key moment in history had gone another way is what historians do for fun. And, good grief, it is fun. It’s a bit like the building of a fantasy or science fiction world in which to set a story. Like running a gigantic simulation in your mind and picturing the results.

For the purposes of creating a great setting for a story, I think you don’t have to beat yourself up too much in aiming for the MOST plausible alternate world. Quite often the most plausible alternate world ends up drifting toward the world that we know. It’s as if history really does have a “preferred” course it wants to take.

For example, if the Roman Empire had not fallen when it did, it might have collapsed just as easily half a century or a century later as migratory pressures from the east pushed ever-increasing swarms of barbarians up against the weakening thin red line of the Roman Empire’s far-flung borders. It was gonna happen sooner or later.

Or if Germany had won the war in 1945, surely the Russians would have become an ungovernable part of the Third Reich eventually, a Vietnam-like drain on resources and men that would ultimately weaken them dangerously, perhaps leading to a later war in which Russian tanks would inevitably have rolled into Berlin.

For a great story you want a hugely different world, a world that offers you as much of a chance as possible to imagine wonderful new creations, new inventions, architectural marvels; something to truly astound your reader—you have to stretch plausibility sometimes, just a little.

For example, in the fourth TimeRiders book, I imagine a world in which the American Civil War never ended. It just rumbles on and on into the present day, and the ruins of New York look like Stalingrad! A landscape of foxholes and trenches, bunkers and craters, and the skies overhead filled with enormous zeppelin-like aircraft carriers! And all this simply because a certain unemployed young riverboat worker named Abraham Lincoln stepped in the path of a lumbering runaway brewery cart! I make a superficially plausible case that only Lincoln’s strength of character, the determination to hold the northern union together, was what ultimately led the North to victory.

In truth, though, a proper historian would argue that the industrial might of the North, the sheer economic muscle of the northern states versus the weaker agrarian economy of the Confederate States, made the outcome an inevitable victory for the North. A proper historian would also argue that Abraham Lincoln’s boots would probably have been filled with another equally strong-willed Republican president, determined to fight the South and reunite America . . . and we would still have a Civil War that ended around 1865.

But come on, where’s the fun in that?

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