Guest Post: Sarah Cawkwell asks So What’s the Alternative?

sarahcawkwell-uprisingAlternative history is a form of historical fiction that has fascinated me since forever, but it is also a form of historical and speculative fiction I’ve not explored that much as I was often worried I wouldn’t pick up on all the nuances that had been changed. I’ve grown out of that worry, but the opportunity to read alternative history hasn’t really presented it that much. Cue Abaddon’s new shared world setting Heirs of the Demon King and the first novel set in that world, Uprising by Sarah Cawkwell. An alternate history set in an England where Richard III won the day at Bosworth Field and kept his crown. I’m really looking forward to reading the book, but I also really wanted to ask Sarah about the intricacies of writing alternate history as a part of my historical fiction month. In response Sarah wrote the following: 

So What’s the Alternative?

Imagine an England where King Richard the Third succeeded in defeating the forces of Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth field. Imagine how the country would be different if an unbroken line of Plantagenet kings sit on the country’s throne. Then imagine how it would be if an extra dimension of magic was sprinkled into the mix. What you get is the basic premise for Heirs of the Demon King: Uprising, to be published by Abaddon Books in the next few weeks.

I’ve had a number of heated discussions with people over what they call the ‘point’ of historical fiction. Why spend time wondering, they ask, what might have been when we know quite clearly what was? I respond by patiently explaining that Heirs is not historical fiction in that sense. It is an alternative history. There’s a real difference.

I am a writer. Specifically, I write fiction. Whilst knowing what actually happened is vitally important, there’s something delightful about taking a pivotal point in history and ushering well-known people and events down a completely new path. Sometimes, they complain about this treatment, but as the author, you become the deity to your characters. They do what you tell them to do, or so help them.

Alternative history is fun. That’s the simple truth. It’s supposed to be an imagining of what could have been given a big, or sometimes subtle change in the unending march of time. There is no point in banging your fist assertively on the table and arguing that ‘xxx didn’t happen’ when you read an alternative history book. The clue’s in the name. Alternative.

If you are reading historical fiction, you can afford to be a little more picky. That’s an entirely different kettle of fish. (Or, if whoever had made up that phrase under different circumstances, that’s an entirely different hive of angry wasps. On balance, I prefer the fish).

Heirs takes a massively important event in England’s history and plays around shamelessly with the result. In fact, it goes back further than the events of Bosworth Field. It harkens back to King Richard the Lionheart’s Crusades and the gift he brings back to his people from the mystical ‘wise men’ of the East. Magic.

Yet amongst all the creativity of a ‘new England’, there needs to be a thread of things going on that ground the setting in the right historical period. It can be too easy to have the development of the internal combustion engine brought forward by centuries and have the people of seventeenth century England whizzing about in sports cars. But that would just be wrong. And silly to boot. So whilst there are certain engineering developments in Heirs that might not fit with what we know, they owe more to the designs of Leonardo da Vinci than they do to the designs of Henry Ford.

It’s important when writing an alternative history to keep some believability in there. Yes, things are different – and when you add fantasy elements like magic and demons, even more so – but to the people in this story, this is their reality. A harsh existence under a ruthless king who executes anybody who does not conform to his ideals. Working people of England who toil at the land and live or die at the whims of their overseers. Disease cannot be easily cured and people use old remedies and poultices. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Things may be alternative in one sense, but in another, they are the same as ever they were. In this world, another four hundred years down the line, someone might say ‘hey! What would England have been like with no magic and if Henry Tudor had taken the throne’?

At that point it all gets a bit meta and gives me a headache.

If you want to show off your knowledge of a time period, then either read historical accounts or historical fiction. If you are prepared to put aside preconceived notions of How Things Are, then alternative historical fiction is a joy to read – and even more of a joy to write.

So, to coin a phrase, there is always an alternative. You just have to accept it.


sarah-cawkwellBio: An NHS worker by day and a writer under the cover of night, Sarah’s first novel ‘The Gildar Rift’ was published by the Black Library in 2011. Since then, she has written several other novels and short stories set in the grim-dark worlds of Warhammer. ‘Heirs of the Demon King: Uprising’ is her first full-length original work and is due for release in May 2014. Other works include tie-in fiction for World of Warcraft and several original tales for an assortment of publishers. Sarah lists her hobbies as reading, writing, reading about writing, writing about reading, online gaming and writing about online gaming. She needs to get out more.

You can find Sarah online at her blog, on Twitter and on Facebook.