Rules for alternative history

Good counterfactuals cannot make good reading. Consider the best qualities of a good counterfactual:

* A smaller number of changes to the historical record is better than a larger number: the best (most believable) change would be a single alteration. For readers, this suggests a long recap of facts already known (yawn).

* The more believable alteration is the simplest one. For readers, this limits the dramatic possibilities.

* Changing a fact or event requires a convincing argument, as well as description of a chain of events justified by analysis. Civil War writers tend to be storytellers who are very weak in areas of argument and analysis. Readers will be unconvinced without sufficient analysis, and many will actually have no stomach for analysis in the course of what is supoposed to be an entertainment.

* For a proposed change to be believable, it has to be "seeded" or prefigured in actual events. For instance, for a hypothetical outcome to change the real outcome in our minds, the author has to bring to our attention certain signs and precedents that weaken our commitment to the historically "determined" result. For the reader, this promises digressions from a storyline; the more digressions, the stronger the counterhistorical case, and the harder the reading.

* The counterfactual event, to be convincing, should not trigger a long chain of additional counterfactuals, but rather constitute a single change to a recognized pattern of history that can be successfully defended. For readers, this recipe for sameness lowers the entertainment value.

* There should be no tampering with facts that are not critical to arguing the core, central alteration. By the same token, there should be no unnecessary detail to detract from the believablity of the central counterfactual event. For readers, this again reduces the possibility of amusement.

In short, a good counterfactual will be fairly dull reading by ACW standards and the writer of alternative history has to perform a balancing act that will either do violence to entertainment or to plausibility.

More on this and how it applies to Dixie Victorious coming up.