World building as world adapting

Nowhere is the line between representing the real world and inventing new ones more grey than when writing alternate history. On the one hand you have to craft a setting that is new and coherent, that presents enough novelty to interest readers. On the other hand you have to get a lot of real details right or those knowledgeable about the period will criticise.

Damn that’s some tasty cover art

Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt shows one response to this challenge, deviating from reality far enough back that the fictional world swiftly becomes very different from what we’re familiar with. Differences from reality don’t undermine plausibility. This approach also suggests that history could have been very different based on a single change.

Harry Turtledove’s Great War series takes a different approach, using so many historical details that you can’t help but be convinced, if occasionally overwhelmed. This is alternate history that suggests a certain level of inevitability, that other historical outcomes would have been similar to our own.

For ‘Odin’s Mirror’ in From a Foreign Shore I took yet another approach. This is a story about someone who doesn’t understand what is happening around him, and so the reader doesn’t need to know the details. I avoided key points like ‘how did this happen?’ because they weren’t what the story was about, and because hopefully readers will be focussed on the character’s perspective and not mind that I’ve fudged the issue. Only time and reviews will tell.

What other ways can you approach world building for alternate history? And what alternate histories have you found convincing or unconvincing? Share your thoughts below.

From a Foreign Shore – out now

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?


My new short story collection, From a Foreign Shore, is out today. Containing five short stories set in the past, or an alternate past, or something vaguely related to the past, it includes Arthurian knights, Vikings, surly peasants and a statue found guilty of homicide – man, those medieval folks sure knew how to do law.

This collection dips into my fascination with history and with twisting that history around. It features real historic incidents as well as stuff I’ve just made up, and the characters range from the historical to the mythological to the clearly invented.

From a Foreign Shore is available on Kindle through Amazon and in all other formats via Smashwords, all for less than a pound/dollar/euro/other currency without too many zeroes, so please go check it out.


The free copy of From a Foreign Shore that I offered for reviewing my previous books goes to Dylan Hearn, who not only left me an Amazon review but wrote a whole blog post about how much he enjoyed my book – thanks Dylan, your book will be in the email shortly.


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On a completely unrelated note, I attended Fantasy Con in York over the weekend. I had a great time and have a lot of notes from panels and other events, which I’ll write up and post here over the next month. So stay tuned for authorial insights on sword fighting, publicising your work, politics in sf+f and how to sound like a radio using only a pint glass.