I just finished writing a rather good alternate history short story ("Kritarchy"), so I'm in the mood to discuss the genre and why I like it. Also, how you and I can prepare ourselves to write it better. Part I!
There's nothing more embarrassing than bad alternate history. "What's bad Alternate History?" you may ask.
Mixing hard and soft alternate history.
Alternate History (AH) asks the question "What if X Happened?" & "What Happens Next?"
Hard AH focuses on the question "How could X have happened?"
Soft AH focuses on the question "Wouldn't it be cool if X happened?"
Both are fine, it's a range. But! if you posit a world where zeppelins rule the skies and sea and construct an alternate history out of the sequence of events and historical divergences it would have taken to make that happen, you've done Hard AH. If you posit the same world with the statement that "Religion banned mankind from going over [Zeppelin Top Speed] mph!" you've done Soft AH. If you don't bother to give a reason at all, you've written Steampunk. I suppose we could call that "History Opera".
Basing the whole plot on a single point of divergence.
Using the above example, even if the Hindenburg hadn't exploded, zeppelins wouldn't have been the primary means of air (and/or sea) power and transportation. It's not a binary conclusion.
(Rahul Kanakia continues along those lines over at Blotter Paper.)
Too much history, not enough people.
or Too many people know too much about history.
"It's a good thing we Spanish beat the English with our Armada in [year X], or the world would be a Different Place (Author nudge nudge Reader wink wink)! For instance, we might not be Space Papists in [year X+500]!"
Well, it's not always that egregious, but just because it's about history doesn't mean you should break Rule One: character is key. Think about the people you know (who aren't researching an Alternate History piece). Have they ever mentioned a historical date when talking about their day to day life or technology?
If it's Soft AH, feel free to include a "alternate history textbook" or an "alternate historian", though. That's traditional.
I'm going to cut it in half here. This post will be The Bad, tomorrow will be The Good.
This is the very first Alternate History to which I was ever exposed, and it simultaneously manages to achieve all the Bad features above and Be Awesome. Those of you who had a similarly squandered youth will feel my nostalgia, the rest of you will suffer and love it.
"I wonder if it will be raining"
One of my favorite video game openings.
That and "Guns of the South" (Harry Turtledove) were my gateway drug to Alternate History.
In my alternate history, court women dress in funny clothes and wave fans coquettishly in front of their bad teeth.
Wait, that's just history.
250 words? Yes
Short Story "Cosmast Rhyt"
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Reading - "Guns of the South" (Harry Turtledove)