Alternate History Inspiration

by | Mar 30, 2020 | General, Uncategorized

Literary inspiration for a work of alternate historical fiction can come from many sources: from within, from without, or from a confluence.

For example, Philip K. Dick wrote this regarding his inspiration for the Hugo Award-winning The Man in the High Castle:

I had actually decided to give up writing, and was helping my wife in her jewelry business. And I wasn’t happy. She was giving me all the shit part to do, and I decided to pretend I was writing a book. And I said, Well, I’m writing a very important book.

And without any notes, I simply sat down to write, simply to get out of the jewelry business. That’s why [Frank Frink’s] jewelry business plays such a large role in the novel. I had no preconception of how the book would develop, and I used the I Ching to plot the book.

I’m quite sure that readers and viewers are pleased that Dick would never become known as a brilliant and prolific jeweler. And regarding his subject matter, he claimed that he conceived The Man in the High Castle after reading Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee (1953), set mainly in an alternate 20th-century in which the Confederate States of America won the Civil War.

Dick’s inspiration sprang from another novelist. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, in which the isolationist white supremacist Charles Lindbergh ascends to the United States presidency in the era of militant Nazi expansionism, has as its seed an actual historical near-miss.

While reading an early draft of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s autobiography, Roth was intrigued to learn that several Republican senators had urged Lindbergh to run against Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Extrapolating from that “what if” scenario, and his memories of being a child in the 1940s, led to one of his most celebrated works.

My own inspirations were in part cinematic, as I mention in my previous post and in greater detail in the free essay you’ll receive when you join my mailing list community.

One thing Dick, Roth, and I (if I may place myself in their company) share is a fascination with charting the untrodden paths of history, especially as a kind of literary cartography with which we might map out our own exploration of what it means to be human.

And yet, when it came to writing A Fly on the Wall, the first volume of Heinz Linge’s fictional journal, I did my best to allow myself no set path at all.

More on that in the next post!