Notes from The Buffer Zone: History and Its Alternates

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My mind has always worked in "what-ifs." Sometimes that makes me a science fiction writer. Often, it makes me an alternate history writer. Once in a while, it makes me a pure historical writer.

I tend to view current events through two prisms: the prism of my real life, with all its needs, opinions, and limitations, and the prism of my imaginary life, which knows no real bounds. Sometimes, when current events overwhelm my real life, I take solace in my imaginary life. I have lists of what-ifs, some of which I wrote after a big event, like 9/11, and some of which I wrote after a big personal event of the kind I will not go into here.

When I write historical fiction—alternate or not—I do my best to be as accurate as possible. I research everything. I read newspapers from the day. I read letters and diaries. I watch videos of the time period. I study photographs. If the time I'm writing about was before the advent of photography, I study art of all kinds.

When I can, I try to visit historical sites to get a feel for them. Sometimes the feel is gone. American cities, in particular, tend to tear down their history. European cities have lost some of their historical districts to war or time. Some cities in the Middle East are experiencing the same loss right now.

I do my best, as a writer, to recreate the feel of the past. Sometimes that's easy. With the right research, I can figure out what a place smelled like or exactly what it looked like. For the most part, I can figure out how my characters will react to that place.

But I know, as a historian, that what I'm doing is guessing. In fact, when I taught a class in writing historicals (including alternate history and time travel) this past fall, I kept reminding the professional writers who attended that no one knows what really happened in the time period they're writing in—not even someone who lived through it.

I mean, do you know what's going on right now across whatever nation you live in? Do you know how your leaders feel? Do you know who is sleeping with whom? Or who is scheming with whom? Some of that only comes to light decades later—and that's for the public figures. Private citizens share their lives in pieces—on social media, yes, but also in video or in email or in a casual conversation. But even now, in this age of great sharing, private citizens keep some part of their lives—and themselves—private.

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