History as Fiction (More or Less): The Saga Begins — Alma Boykin

*Yes, I’m taking another day off.  Look, I’m finishing up a line edit and rewrite and for reasons known only to its designer, my brain shuts off non fiction when this happens.  NOT fiction.  Non fiction.  Though Alma’s title made me think of a political post I want to do, called “Fictionalizing history.”  Not about writing, curiously.  Anyway — what is fascinating to me is that Alma — our very own TXRed is describing a lot of what I am in the middle of with the French revolution and Through Fire.  More importantly, she’s reassured me I’m not the only woman who falls in love with guys centuries dead.  (It’s okay.  Dan has given me permission.  I can fall in love with all the past guys I want, though not Kit Marlowe because that would be weird.) As long as they don’t come back as UNdead I’m in the clear.  So, read Alma.  She makes sense. (Which is more than I do this morning.)*

 History as Fiction (More or Less): The Saga Begins

Alma Boykin

Let’s say you are enamored of a historical character you’ve read about. Or an event in the past seems like it would be just the thing to hang a story on, but, well, you don’t do historical fiction. What’s a writer to do? Sci-fi or fantasize it, of course, after some serial-number filing.

I’ve been interested in a certain European historical personage for many years. He had one of those “you couldn’t make this up” sorts of lives, lived to a ripe old age, died rich and respected, and left almost no personal documents or relatives. In short, he’s perfect fodder for all sorts of speculation. As I said, I’ve been intrigued by this individual for a decade at least. Finally, this winter, I got a wild hair to use his life as the basis for a one-off novella, just to get the idea out of my system. I finished the draft of the fourth novel about him on August first. Oops.

So, how did I go about turning a real person and real events into science fiction? First I had to know the basic facts of the original story. Next came the decisions about what to do with the setting and what changes to make, assuming that I would build detail into the world once I got started. And then I had to decide what to keep or change about the historical figure, based on what is known about him.

It began with research, because I needed details, not just about his life, but his times (roughly 1670-1750) and surroundings as well. Since I intended to focus on one particular moment in his long career, I found accounts of that battle and books describing the organization of the armies involved, what life was like in and around armies at that time, and other related things. That led to my reading back in time, into the Thirty Years War, and into Ottoman history, which caused (among other things) major revisions to the first and second books once I realized just how flaming long it took to get anywhere in the 1600s, even if the roads were in good condition.

Research well in hand, I needed to decide on the world. Would I try and replicate the original figure’s time in some way, or would I pull a David Weber and shift everything well into a high-tech future, or a la John Ringo bump it into the near future? I ended up replicating the technology level of his time. Why? Because I don’t think well in three dimensions. If I stayed low tech, I could avoid accounting for the effects of airpower. And I wanted a different world to play with, so creating a different, Earth-like planet gave me flexibility to rearrange geography and create hybrid cultures, and to address some questions (under-population, political organization, men’s and women’s roles in society, et cetera).

The next decision was the voice. Would I try and use the language of the historical person’s time? No. He spoke French, German, Latin, probably Italian, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he understood and spoke a little battlefield Turkish and Hungarian. He wrote in French, German, and Latin. If he had been a more recent German or English-speaking person I might have tried to use the language style of his time, but I just couldn’t do it in this case. To learn the languages’ “flavors” I would have had to find diaries from the time, and (alas) I couldn’t justify an archive run to France, England, and Austria in order to read the originals, the very few that still exist and that were not written for public consumption. What I did do was keep the formality he would have used, and the religious language. This was a very religious period, he fought religious wars, and he would likely have used invocations in his daily speech, especially around his employers, who saw themselves as protectors of Christians.

So, I have background material, I have language and voice, now all I needed to do was write. Except . . . how did he get from one end of Europe to the other? He rode. (A mule becomes a major character in my version of the story.) How did he advance so quickly once he got to his destination? He had letters of introduction and the Emperor was desperate. And then what? He worked very hard. Well, shucks, now I was most definitely staring at a novel! So I wrote the novel while doing more research and discovered that my memory had been wrong. He had not been in command at the big battle I’d planned on him winning. He’d been there as a junior commander. Oh bother. Right, the novel just became a trilogy and I made a massive deviation from the history of the event (but he’s still not in command).

And that meant digging into politics. Here things got a little tricky for me, because we’re not dealing with the modern ideas of nation-states. The historical figure swore allegiance to a dynasty and their empire, not to a country. And the empire was a loose amalgamation that assembled over several hundred years, not a centralized creation. As it turned out, I managed to escape dealing with politics until the third and fourth books. Other cultural things were more important.

Religion became a big deal, just as it was in the historical period I based things on. In the beginning I had minimized the religious aspects, but the more I wrote, the less happy I became with the results. By the time I was 20,000 words into the story, I decided to chuck the plan. Religion returned as a factor and a huge number of plot problems vanished. I did change the religions, for example keeping some features of traditional Roman Catholicism and eliminating others.

What else did I change? Not the technology, with a few special exceptions, mostly dealing with knowledge of technology rather than actually having the machines themselves. The story is now set on a colony planet that was abandoned by its sponsor (it had been losing money anyway) after a series of Carrington-type events led to the loss of ninety-nine percent of their electricity-based technology over the course of ten or fifteen years. Those events became the key point of the main character’s religion, taking the place of Noah’s Flood. Oh, and the main character was now a woman, with all the additional problems that entails for a world with no modern medical technology and only the most basic forms of birth control.

The other major difference was the main character’s sexuality. The historical personage, according to popular English-language sources, was a sodomite. The German and French-language sources are more ambiguous. He left no personal records and was notoriously discrete. I’m inclined to think that he was celibate or very, very careful, in part because his mother was a stellar example of how not to behave, even by the rather loose standards of the court of Louis XIII. My character started off celibate, which worked well in the religious milieu and eliminated the complications of marriage and pregnancy.

By the time I’d written half of what became the first novel, I knew I’d have to expand the story into three books, requiring more research and delving into the politics and personalities of the historical figure’s time. Which led to more decisions and complications, and eventually a fourth book. I’ve probably done a dozen things wrong in the process of developing these stories, but the characters seem satisfied. The author is, too, for the moment.


The series title is currently “The Colplatshki Chronicles,” a name taken from how the characters pronounce what they think is the name of their world. (It was designated “ColPlat XI” but called “Solana” in the advertising.) I will be submitting Book One to Naked Reader Press in the near future.

51 thoughts on “History as Fiction (More or Less): The Saga Begins — Alma Boykin

  1. It can be so, so, so much fun filing off the historical serial numbers and engraving one’s own.

    I note that it can take a good feel for history and society, to ensure that you realize which serial numbers are feasible in different situations and which are not. Such as — an aristocracy, however permeable, will show disdain for a social climber. You have to keep the disdain or scratch the aristocracy. (This is why I recommend massive reading of primary source to all aspiring writers: get a feel for society.)

    1. To get a sense of the disdain the “born aristocrat” feels towards those who have “risen above their station”, read any given David Brooks column in the NYT.

    1. Chuck, I have no idea when it will be published, assuming Naked Reader accepts it. Yes, it will be available on Kindle and in other formats.

        1. Same here. Halfway through I was in full “Shut up and take my money” mode. The last sentence made me want to beat someone about the head and shoulders.

          1. I’m sorry, Jeff. There’s a limit to what I can do out of my own pocket right now, since I’ve got a long story collection being released in October, a Cat-Among-Dragons novel coming out (I hope) in February or March, and another story collection in May or June.

            And the Powerball folks are just not working with me, I’m sorry to say. 😉

            1. “And the Powerball folks are just not working with me, I’m sorry to say. 😉 ”

              You to? I’m thinking we should start a class action lawsuit against them.

                1. *sigh – No one likes to give me anything. I did win a plant once except I have one of those black thumbs. I had to give it away so that it would have GOOD life.

                2. I have maintained for some years now that the requirement a person buy a ticket to qualify for the Powerball jackpot is unreasonable. The government routinely provides income tax refunds to people who don’t pay income taxes, right? The same principle should apply to the Powerball. This is invidious discrimination against people who are competent at math and should be stopped!

                  When a Powerball jackpot is awarded, all people who would have bought a ticket if they had known what the winning one would be ought receive a share of the jackpot, say … an equal portion of two-thirds of the money, with people who actually did buy the ticket sharing the remaining third — I’m not being unreasonable here!

                  After all, there is room for compromise.

            2. Don’t be sorry, just be better. 😉

              I suppose I can control my inner 3-year old, but it’ll be rough. Working swing shift means I have plenty of time to read, but it also means I’ll run out of material sooner.

  2. I think I’ve pinpointed the original historical figure. It was Colonel Platshki, wasn’t it?

    Kidding aside, using a historical figure as a model is a terrific idea. Another useful trick I’ve found is mentally “casting” characters as actors, celebrities, etc. It especially helps in the early days of fleshing them out, though in the long run they can turn out vastly different from the real people.

    1. Nice try, Guy. 🙂 He’s not well known among English speakers, in part because there’s not that many English-language books about him. That and the English government had an awkward relationship with his employer.

  3. I’ve considered running a Lovecraftian horror RPG with a recurring character based on Constantine Samuel Raffinesque-Schmaltz. Besides the epic name, his background, real accomplishments and hoaxes makes it possible to tie him into all manner of Hidden History and Secret Knowledge.

  4. It’s good to use history to inform your writing. It gives it a sense of reality, like it could actually happen. It also allows you to see matters from perspectives other than “21st-century Westerner” (whatever the political affiliation.)

    1. Being historically based permits the use of utterly unbelievable coincidences and flukes, the sort of thing which would pop a reader out of almost any story, and which can now be excused as “but this really happened!”

  5. One of the great joys of filing off the serial numbers is that you don’t have to worry about the historical controversies. Like, say, the role of Hirohito in World War II — whether he was complicit, or was trapped by the constitutional nature of his role until he finally put down his foot and insisted on surrender. If you run across a lovely portrait of the latter, you can use it freely.

  6. Writing alternate history tends to push you even further along this line.

    What would Msr. Gaston (Louis XIII’s creepy regicidal brother) do when he encounters up-time politics? How would the real Charles d’Artagnan relate to the real Richaleau? Can Richaleau avoid his real-world ignominious death? (He died of a case of infected hemorrhoids that went septic.)

    I never expected to have a shelf of reference material on recusant Catholics during the reign of Charles I, or on the life and work of Reginald Fessendon and Ernst Alexanderson, or spend “rather a lot” on books on Anne of Austria. (Wife of Louis XIII, and daughter of Philip of Spain, don’t ask why the French call her that, there is no explanation, they’re French.)

    1. Heh heh heh … how about the alternate history where JFK survives the assassination of Governor John Connally and goes on to use nuclear weapons in SE Asia in order to salvage his puppet installed after the American assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem?

      Or the alternate history of WWII in which soviet communist agents infiltrate the US Department of State, ceding vast swaths of Eastern Europe to Soviet oppression while also drafting the charter of the United Nations, placing the United States at a severe strategic disadvantage by allowing separate voting rights for multiple Soviet-controlled “nations”?

      1. RES | August 12, 2013 at 10:01 pm
        > Or the alternate history of WWII in which soviet communist agents infiltrate the US Department of State, ceding vast swaths of Eastern Europe to Soviet oppression while also drafting the charter of the United Nations, placing the United States at a severe strategic disadvantage by allowing separate voting rights for multiple Soviet-controlled “nations”?

        I’d point out this wasn’t an alt, but the only people here who don’t know that don’t read this weblog.

      2. “…ceding vast swaths of Eastern Europe to Soviet oppression while also drafting the charter of the United Nations, placing the United States at a severe strategic disadvantage by allowing separate voting rights for multiple Soviet-controlled “nations”?

        Wait a minute that is an “alternate history” it sounds too close to reality (Ukraine, Beyorussia).

          1. If that was a joke, how come nobody’s laughing?

            Hey – I’ve got another idea for an alternate history: write the history since 20 January, 2009 with the media maintaining the same level of scrutiny of and skepticism about and hostility toward the newly elected president as it displayed for the prior president (I know — a consistent media is probably too much for readers to swallow.)

            Maybe if we go back to the 1912 election and instead of the guy we actually elected we write it as if the country elected a Klansman and intellectual, an academic with little (say, two years) actual elected experience. Maybe he could dismiss the Constitution as an obsolete document, criticize the principle of separation of powers and say stuff like “No doubt a lot of nonsense has been talked about the inalienable rights of the individual, and a great deal that was mere sentiment and pleasing speculation has been put forward as fundamental principle” and “The competent leader of men cares little for the internal niceties of other people’s characters: he cares much–everything–for the external uses to which they may be put…. He supplies the power; others supply only the materials upon which that power operates…. It is the power which dictates, dominates; the materials yield. Men are as clay in the hands of the consummate leader.”

            Nyah – who’d believe we’d elect such a jackass?

    2. because she was princess of Austria, which was at the time, a dependency of Spain. (Has books in FRENCH.) And there was no “real” Charles D’Artagnan. Monsieur de Batz lent his name and vague references to the queen’s diamond’s to the writer — that’s it. you might as well talk about the real Honor Harrington, who probably has more from her historical counterpart.
      D’Artagnan has a good thing going with tourists, but there’s no there there.

  7. Well, if you can sell those, more power to you. On the other hand, we have a solid market for the 17th century in the 1632 series, which is easily the longest series in Alt-Hist and on the top ten list for longest SF series.

      1. The Democrat Party and its pet historians already sold the second one. It’s called The Last Seventy Years..

    1. I’m curious to see if they sell, truth be told. The reason I’m a little worried is I’m not sure how to market them. They are not alternate history, they aren’t space opera, I’m calling them sci-fi even though the setting is closer to High Fantasy, without any fantasy elements. They are very much human wave, though.

      1. How overt are the scifi elements? I’m thinking of David Drake’s General series, where it’s made explicit early on that the setting is far future, galactic dark age. Also, they ride dogs, which I enjoyed.

        1. Well, the people know that their ancestors came from other worlds to settle, and some of the people, like the protagonist, have read some of the few surviving documents from that long-lost time. There is evidence of the Landers all over the place, including roads and a few shells of buildings, plus bits of technology. The protagonist is when she first enters the palace of the Eastern Emperors in Vindobona and see two dozen electric light bulbs glowing in a courtyard. Imagine the wealth and power required to have preserved two-dozen light bulbs (LED) and the water-powered generator to run them!

            1. Market it as scifi, then. Mostly cover art/blurb content, I figure. “On a lost colony, etc, etc.” MC on Muley the Wonder Mule, in battle before an obviously futuristic ruin.

              1. Don’t give the mule ideas! He almost took over as it is. I should have known better than to let a mule into a book.

      2. Going strictly off your description, I would call them science fiction, I have read quite a bit of SF over the years that is basically action/adventure or western stories that happen on another planet somewhere. If it happens in the future (particularly on a different planet) and doesn’t have out and out magic (alien planet and lifeforms means you can make things plausible that would require magic in a different setting) it qualifies as sci-fi in my book.

  8. I keep having to stifle a desire to write this one:

    1984: _Top Secret_, a Zucker Brothers comedy, is released — the plot features a Western rock star traveling behind the Iron Curtain for a concert, and finding himself mixed up in international intrigues.

    1986: The rock band Queen travels behind the Iron Curtain for part of the “A Kind of Magic” Tour….


    (The fight scene between four KGB agents, and Freddie Mercury wielding his amateur-boxing skills and sawed-off mike-stand….)

Comments are closed.