How ‘alternate’ should alternate history be?

I ask, of course, because that’s what I’m writing at the moment. But perhaps you’ve addressed the issue in your own writing, or have an opinion you want to chime in with. Feel free!

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I’m currently working on the third instalment in my ‘Wolf Wars‘ quintet – the first of which, Wolf Slave, I’ve been posting in regular instalments right here on WordPress, as well as it already being posted in full on Wattpad, and available for free download here. And given that the series is set in an alternate version of Britain in the twentieth century, the issue arises from time to time.

(You can tell that it’s an alternate version, what with all of the werewolves littering the place up and acting as the ruling class. It’s a dead giveaway.)

But, in a world with an aristocracy – even a paranormal one – and a servant class, although actually mostly slaves – the social structure is at least apparently set in stone, from the first instalment. In Wolf Slave, Penn is a human slave bought by a new master. A master who turns out to be, surprisingly, his former childhood friend. (Who just happened to be the werewolf son of the house, to the pack who were Penn’s mother’s owners.)

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The power structure’s set out right there, but in the second book – Wolf Runaway – things start to fracture and complicate themselves a little. In contact with the liberation network, and on the road to freedom – after a fashion – Penn isn’t exactly a slave anymore. Not unless he gets caught, at least. So what is he, within the existing power structure? Missing property, a free man, a rebel, a terrorist? What would he be in the same decade in our world – an escaped political prisoner?

In the existing class structure – in our twentieth century, and the alternative century of the book – if his consent to subjection can’t be enforced, then what is he? Who defines it, and more importantly how far can I stray from the facts of our own mundane class-bound history? (And yet have it remain, recognisably, an alternate version of our world.)

And in the third book, it’s only getting more tangled. I haven’t come up with a title yet, although ‘Wolf Liberty’ is currently calling to me. (Liberty Wolf?)

But at the end of ‘Wolf Runaway’, Penn has been bitten.

And at the beginning of Wolf Liberty, from being a low and oppressed slave, he opens the book as a wolf. Effectively one of the ruling class, and accepted as such into the Hotstaat pack to whom he was once no more than a bit of property.

Except, this wouldn’t have happened in our world, right? I can’t see it. The book is set in the 1920s/30s. Penn, as a human slave, has lower status than the lowliest servant would have had in our own equivalent era. But getting bitten, and becoming a werewolf in this world, means that he can’t be legally kept as a slave anymore.

From there, to being accepted into the pack as a member of the ruling class, that’s a bit of a leap, though. What would be the equivalent in the same time in our own world, our own history? A stable-boy marrying a countess, perhaps. Which might be a stock trope in regency romances, until the stable-boy is unmasked as a duplicitous Duke. But in reality? Not so much.

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It’s working in my manuscript – or at least in my plot outline, not having got that far with the actual words bit. But the devil’s in the details, and I’m wondering with what precision I need to stick to Real!20th Century manners and mores… given that I’m already taking such a huge liberty with all likelihood and custom as far as zooming up and down the elevator of social class and mobility is concerned. Can I have Roaring Twenties werewolf jazz-babies doing the Twist? Universal suffrage delayed till the fifties? Is there a point remaining to sticking steadfastly to punctilious detail most places, while heading off in a radically different direction for a given parameter?

I mean, I could always appeal to the authority of Henry James. I’m not sure what critic described him as viewing vertiginous rises and descents in social class as being largely related to luck and chance. But I’m pretty sure that someone did. Elizabeth Wurtzel, maybe? One of those supermeta people, anyhow. Whoever, he’s with me, right? I mean I detest Portrait Of A Lady, but a little lent literary authority don’t hurt.

How about you dear reader (and writer)? If you’re writing alternate history, how far do you feel obliged/entitled to stick closely to the facts here, and veer off widely there? How much fun are you having in your own personal Timeless!machine, re-writing history to your own satisfaction?

Image – J.G. Keulemans, no known copyright restrictions.

Image – Alberto Cruz, public domain.

Image – Culture Vannyn, public domain.

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5 thoughts on “How ‘alternate’ should alternate history be?

  1. Sounds very interesting. What I love when I encounter alternate history is when it’s just accurate enough to create a sense of…I don’t know deja vu? Familiarity? Then any twists are just really twisty because for the most part it was accurate. Maybe this is easiest and best to do with an event – Like man in the high castle and WWII. My husband has been watching the show and loving it so much because, besides from the obvious, it is so accurate. But, also, I’d say, have fun!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep, it’s probably easier to stick to an accurate period feel given a specific event or narrowly circumscribed time period, not a timeline that winds on and on, introducing more and more divergence from our history.

      I’m a little apprehensive of watching The Man In The High Castle. Too close to the bone, lately!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Me too, I haven’t even read the book. I feel a little guilty about it, but I know I’d be uselessly traumatised by it, stupidly over-emotional. Some people can read something like that and engage in useful productive debate. And some are left wordless, curled up in a ball and whimpering. I guess I know which I am!

        Liked by 1 person

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