Is it better to set a speculative fiction story in an actual, historical setting with an alternate history or to create a fictional setting inspired by actual places and time periods?
I’m really into Russian history and would like to set my story at the beginning of what is essentially the Bolshevik Revolution. However, I don’t want readers to be distracted tracking which details are actually, factually correct as opposed to liberties I’ve taken with events and location names. However, most of my characters are inspired by real people from Moscow during those historical events. In that case, would you advise I actually set the story in Russia and make it as accurate as possible or embrace an alternate timeline and not be so concerned about historicity? Or should I set it in a slightly fantastical, Russian-inspired, fictional setting?
Thanks for your guidance on this, and for all of your writing advice!Alina
Hey Alina, thanks for writing in!
In a vacuum, there is no better option between using alternate history or creating a separate world that’s inspired by real events. It all depends on what you want to do and what your priorities are.
Creating a new world gives you much more freedom. You can still be inspired by real history, but you’re much less limited by it. Your world still needs to make sense, but you can get away with a lot, so long as you aren’t doing something blatantly silly. Readers will notice if your Macedonia analogue is still using phalanx tactics with WWII technology, but they’re less likely to notice a missing spice trade route.
On the other hand, using alternate history is best for stories where you want to draw attention to what’s different. A world where colonialism never happened is much more interesting if it’s our world, since you’re playing against the knowledge your readers will (hopefully) already have. The Germans winning World War One is much more novel than a fantasy world where a German-coded nation wins a highly industrialized war.
In your case, it sounds like you want to set events really close to what happened in real life, so an alternate history will probably work better. It does mean you’ll have to pay more attention to the details, but it’s better than the alternative. If the world has recognizable analogues for Lenin, Kerensky, Trotsky, Kornilov, etc., readers will wonder why it’s not set in the real world, and then the whole thing risks turning contrived.
If your characters are based on lesser known historical figures, that might change things, but it’s a gamble. The average American reader probably doesn’t know who Stepan Petrichenko or Maria Bochkareva are, so they might not notice anything is amiss. But Russian history buffs, who are probably your main audience, are much more likely to recognize such characters. If that happens, you’d be back to the same problem.
Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your story!
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