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I love history and I love alternative history. But when I want to write alternative history myself, I quickly feel restricted. Now, I like mythologies and fantasy too. Now I came across an old map. Now I'm thinking about creating a fictional setting and living out my "alternative histories" here. I would have more freedom and and there's no danger of alien space bats. Plus some stuff from the mythologies. Would that be bad worldbuilding and I should stick with real history & world?

Here is a link to the map.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by rek, SRM - Reinstate Monica, clem steredenn, SPavel, CaM Jan 23 '18 at 19:57

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • $\begingroup$ This is not a worldbuilding question, so much as a question about the process of worldbuilding. I added the worldbuilding-process tag. Welcome to the site! I hope you enjoy the content here. Please use the search bar to find answers to more questions you might have about the world you are starting! $\endgroup$ – kingledion Jan 21 '18 at 21:28
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    $\begingroup$ What else would you use a touchstone? We don't have another planet with intelligent life on it to use. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 21 '18 at 23:50
  • $\begingroup$ Not to mention Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Bastards $\endgroup$ – polfosol Jan 22 '18 at 7:53
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    $\begingroup$ Just look at the ever-popular game of thrones. It very loosely mirrors UK history... but just distant enough that its hard to notice (poor, cold north; rich south with capital deep south; A wall was built to keep the "savages" to the far north out... thats predominantly ginger nothern "savages".. that hate anyone south of them; a small isle to the west full of sea-faring peoples. Not to mention the war of the 5 kings was apparently based on the war of the roses. Does this not sound like England, Scotland and Ireland?) $\endgroup$ – Trotski94 Jan 22 '18 at 10:49
  • $\begingroup$ No one can tell you what you should do really. And to some extend all worldbuildings are inspired from the real world/history. As such, I don't think that your question is really answerable. If you like it, do it. If you don't, don't. It is just up to you. $\endgroup$ – clem steredenn Jan 22 '18 at 12:13
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Alternate history is a well-established genre. Full disclosure: I'm a fan. You can base your alternate history:

  • On a point of divergence from real history. For example, S. M. Stirling's Draka, which diverges from real history at the conclusion of the American rebellion against the United Kingdom, when a large number of royalists, instead of submitting to the victorious rebels, emigrate to South Africa.

  • On a point of divergence from almost-real history; for example, S. M. Stirling's Nantucket has a point of divergence at a poorly defined time before the Trojan war. (By the way, this would be an excellent example of an alternate history work set in a made-up world; real knowledge of what the world was actually like at the presumed point of divergence is scarce, and moreover the books contradict it in many more-or-less important points. But it's a great alternate history series nevertheless.)

  • On an entirely fictitious world, sort of like ours but subtly different. For example, Ken Liu's The Grace of Kings is placed in something very much like the Chinese empire at an unspecified time, but not quite like it -- the world in the novel is more generic extreme Oriental than specifically Chinese. Works of this kind are usually not called alternate history, but they are written and enjoyed as if they were.

It is not at all unusual to base the plot of science fiction and fantasy novels on real-world events, from S. M. Stirling Raj Whitehall series, based on Belisarius's efforts to reunite the Roman Empire at the behest on emperor Justinian, to David Weber's Honorverse series, based on the expansion of the British empire. (Note that in both cases the relationship of the plot to the cited real-world history will be noticed only by people who actually know history -- all the names are changed, events are out of sequence, etc.)

It is also not unusual to base the plot of literarry works on previous works of fiction; and classical mythology is definitely a rich source of characters and plot devices. A famous example of mythology-based alternate history / fan fiction / universe expansion avant la lettre is Fénelon's Adventures of Telemachus (1717), a prose epic which expands the Odyssey. (In the original work, Telemachus, the son of Ulysses, is a supporting character; The Adventures centers on him.)

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  • $\begingroup$ I think your last para would be more accurate as: "It is also not unusual to base the plot of literary works on previous works of fiction..." (Shakespeare stole most of his plots). $\endgroup$ – Martin Bonner supports Monica Jan 22 '18 at 15:49
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    $\begingroup$ @MartinBonner: Yes, true, he did. And Ovid too, 16 centuries earlier. And Sophocles, six centuries before Ovid... Changed. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 22 '18 at 16:14
  • $\begingroup$ It's a long standing tradition among Authors to take someone else's work, file off the serial numbers, give it a paint job, and pass it off as their own. $\endgroup$ – Sherwood Botsford Jan 23 '18 at 20:08
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What is the difference between alternate history and straight fiction? For example, did Captain America really fight in WWII? Did Kinsey Millhone ("A" is for Alibi) really solve crimes? And since we have passed Judgement Day (in 1997), are the events of Terminator 2 science fiction or alternate history?

An advantage of writing based on history is that it is easier to create a consistent universe. IMO, the worst crime a writer can commit is being self-contradictory.

Write what interests you, and I hope you get published. Don't worry about truth -- well, as long as it's clear this is supposed to be fiction.

How do you know there aren't space bats?

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    $\begingroup$ There are no space bats because the pink elephants got them first..... $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Jan 22 '18 at 5:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Thucydides No, there are no space bats because space bats turned out to be allergic to the blue cheese that the Moon is made of... $\endgroup$ – a CVn Jan 22 '18 at 18:32
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    $\begingroup$ And since we have passed Judgement Day (in 1997), are the events of Terminator 2 science fiction or alternate history? Well, no, that's actual history. Our AI overlords just chose to use an alternate history in the Matrix. :p $\endgroup$ – HopelessN00b Jan 22 '18 at 19:55
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A lot will depend on what you mean by "template". If you mean the usual ups and downs of history and the rises and falls of empires, then sure, using the primary world's history as a guide is okay. If you mean copying Roman history but changing the names, then no, that's pretty bad worldbuilding.

If you also like fantasy and mythology and are considering the combination of myth, fantasy and history in a semi-legendary landscape as envisaged by early cartographers, then I'd say go for that! (Disclaimer: my own world happens to enjoy this admixture to some degree and in certain locations as well.) I think that would actually be better geopoesy.

Though I would caution writing strict A-H in such a rich world. That would be a waste of effort. If you want to write A-H, just set it in some semi-fictionalised Earth locale. If you want to write mytho-historical fantasy, then set it in your own otherworld!

Also, plus 1 for the ancient SHWI reference!

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Like most things processes are rarely inherently good or bad. They always a matter of how well or not they are accomplished. If someone is a good worldbuilder, then no matter what type of world they build, hopefully, it will be good. This can vary according to their knowledge and understanding and skill in constructing that type of world.

One person might be good at creating star-spanning future histories, but a dunce at medieval alternative histories.

Essentially simply do what feels right for you and the type of world you feel comfortable building. No-one can know inherently what sort of world you are best at building. This can only be in the making.

Good luck and have fun creating your fictional world. You have a map to start with, now fill it with interesting stuff. Just say no to alien space bats.

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Real world content has one huge advantage: it is the most believable content you can bring to the table. In many cases, it is also rich and vast. Never be afraid to use what is at your fingertips. However, if I were to advise an alternate-history writer about world-building in this way, I would steal from real world history: a quote from Bruce Lee:

Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own. - Bruce Lee

People who explore fictional worlds aren't paying you to show them real history. Your real history can indeed form a framework for your world, but what the readers are paying you for is what you bring that is your own.

For some writers, that framework is exactly what they need to make their imagination soar. For others, the framework is a hindrance. The same goes for mythologies. Some writers flourish in the world of Orcs and Elves. Others find those tired tropes simply get in their way.

This is why I like to recommend Bruce Lee's quote. It encourages you not to take what is useful wholesale, but to adapt it. Nothing frustrates me worse than an alternate-fiction story where the author changes one cusp event, and creates a huge discontinuity full of contradictory details as they try desperately to weave it into the part of the word that they copied wholesale from the real world. Far better to reject what isn't helping your story, and fill it in with your own.

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While most answers so far have chosen to say "yes" (to some degree or another), I'll try to present a case for "no" (with a caveat).

Real world history is inherently complicated. It isn't even fully known. We can only attempt to make a best reconstruction, with a lot of effort.

The concept of "History" in most people's mind is not such a best reconstruction, but a biased and simplified view of the world: this includes "most authors". Such a biased and simplified view can often come with misconceptions taken as "foregone conclusions". Thus, there is a real risk of making the author lazy in the worldbuilding process, wherein they simply transfer their biases and simplifications of history onto the fictional/alternate world, and miss out on the opportunity to imagine details within the interactions of the world that could have lead to unique story opportunities.

In my opinion, the the sort of detail that is examined when building a new good fictional world is similar to the sort of detail real life archaelogists and historians have to deal with when interpreting extant records. Nothing is "black or white", nothing is a simple stereotype. A good example of a series that makes this mistake is the The Shadow Campaign series. It is not alternate reality, but it is heavily based on real world "history", with a good dose of the author's unintentional biases. Poor world building.

So, unless you are willing to put in historian level effort into first studying history until the point where your alternate reality diverges, you may be unintentionally hobbling yourself by inherent/assumed biases.

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