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Writing Excuses 7.53: Secret History

Writing Excuses 7.53: Secret History


Key Points: Secret history is a subset of alternate history, explaining events from real history through other means, such as supernatural, Fae, aliens, etc. A good secret history does not change the events, just the explanations or off-stage actions. Be careful of cheapening hard questions, and the ethical issues! Secret history is sometimes used to ground a story, to tie it to reality. The best mark of a secret history is if the reader says, "This could be true..." Try to make your characters who are real people caricatures, not perversions. Make sure the history is accurate! Avoid overdone events -- Roswell, JFK assassination, Hitler.

[Howard] Season Seven, Episode 53.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. Secret History.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.

[Brandon] All right. Let's define secret history. Dan, give it to us.
[Dan] Secret history is kind of a subset of alternate history, where you are explaining something that actually happened in our world through other means. Usually through supernatural means. Like the movie that just came out, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, is a good example of this. The Civil War was actually caused by vampires, rather than...
[Brandon] Right.
[Mary] Although they changed historical events significantly, and in a real... A really good secret history...
[Dan] Yeah. A really good secret history won't do that. You'll be able to slip it by, and be able to look back at our real history and say, "Everything stayed the same, but now I know that Marie Antoinette was actually an alien."

[Brandon] Right. This actually came as a concept for me as a podcast because Howard said, "I went to Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, expecting a cool alternate history, and I got secret history instead. It like didn't ruin the movie for me, but it...
[Howard] No. It actually did ruin the movie for me.
[Brandon] It ruined the movie. Okay.
[Howard] Yeah. Because three quarters of the way through the movie, I realized we have taken the question of human slavery, which is a critical one for all of us to address and to think about, and instead of it being humans being horrible to humans, it was vampires making humans be horrible to humans, which cheapens, for me, the whole discussion.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Howard] And it... The movie made me uncomfortable. It was... I mean, the fun, action, violence, Abraham Lincoln murders vampires with an ax, but the theme of the movie fell flat for me. It was because I didn't like the secret history explanation. If it had been an alternate history, where there was steam punk stuff and vampires and werewolves and Fae and whatever all over...
[Mary] Well, another thing is that the secret history is very badly done.
[Howard] That's another problem.
[Dan] In this case.
[Howard] In that case, yeah. It was...
[Mary] Because it does not... Like, it does not hold together. It doesn't make any sense at all. The economic realities of that are just...
[Howard] Yeah, it's pretty broken.
[Mary] I mean, putting everything else aside, which we shouldn't, but putting everything else aside, it's just not intelligently done.
[Brandon] Right.

[Dan] So let's talk about some secret histories that are well done.
[Brandon] All right. Give us some, Dan.
[Dan] I was hoping that they would jump in, since they were complaining about...
[Brandon] I believe that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell...
[Howard] I can't remember the Tim Powers...
[Brandon] Is a secret history. Is it not?
[Mary] No.
[Brandon] Oh. Is it alternate history? I haven't read it.
[Mary] It's alternate history.
[Brandon] Okay. Everyone told me that there were secret wizards behind the scenes, but...
[Mary] No. The magic is...
[Brandon] Is well-known?
[Mary] Blatantly part of the world. So that's one of the keys to the secret history, is that it has to be something that... One of the things about it is that the secret events explain why things in real history went down the way they did.
[Brandon] Right.
[Dan] Yeah. From a certain point of view, Harry Potter is a secret history.
[Brandon] Yes. Harry Potter is a secret history.
[Dan] Even though it takes place today. It allegedly takes place in the real world, and they are very concerned about hiding their weird magical elements. What we're missing in Harry Potter is what you're talking about, this idea that they'll explain something that happened in the real world via supernatural means.

[Brandon] Right. Yup. The Night of Blacker Darkness by Dan Wells is a secret history.
[Dan] It is indeed.
[Brandon] Before you knew that secret histories existed.
[Dan] Before I knew what a secret history was [chuckle]. That book, again, doesn't really explain anything really awesome, though. There's actually... When I was writing that book, I purposefully set it during an assassination attempt on the Prince Regent in 1817. By the end of several drafts, I realized I just did not have a good way of making the story interesting and including that assassination attempt, so it's gone.
[Brandon] It's gone? The eyeball through his window?
[Dan] It gets mentioned once...
[Brandon] Oh, okay.
[Dan] In passing. If you are like a hard-core history buff, you're like, "Oh, those vampires were just at the assassination." But other than that, it... That's all been removed. So it is still a secret history...
[Brandon] It is marginally a secret history...
[Dan] It has like... It does explain several things about John Keats and Mary Shelley and why they wrote what they wrote.
[Brandon] Right.
[Dan] So I guess that's kind of a small scale secret history, rather than a big political event.
[Brandon] Howard, you were going to mention?

[Howard] I was going to mention Tim Powers Last Call which is a very subtle sort of secret history. But I think more important than citing examples is talk about why we would want to do this.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Howard] I, for one, love an urban fantasy... I love me a good urban fantasy which incorporates enough secret history elements to convince me that, "Oh, the Fae are real. Oh, this totally explains Dick Cheney accidentally shooting his hunting partner." Or... Some little thing and you call it up and you explain it with Fae interference or an alien abduction or whatever, and now I'm on board because you've touched stuff...
[Brandon] Right. It's exactly because you feel invested in it. It's the... Alternate world or alternate history, it's like, "Okay, this is another timestream that I'm not part of." Secret history, it's like, "Oo, this could be our world. Oo..." It's like... I think it plays to the conspiracy theorist in all of us, and makes us excited by it.
[Mary] Yeah. Jo Walton's Among Others is an actually interesting example of it because it is... It's a kind of a private secret history, where the magic system that she has come up with is one that there is plausible deniability for, and you read it, and you're like, "This could totally happen in my world, and I want it to."
[Brandon] Right. Right.
[Mary] That's one of the things that I think is fun about the secret history is that it takes your knowledge of the real world and the tension between that knowledge and the actions that are happening in the book is part of what makes it interesting.
[Brandon] Right. I think that's part of the whole appeal of urban fantasy. A lot of urban fantasy kind of touches on secret history. There's a line melded there. Jordo pointed out The Dresden Files which take place in our world. Harry's openly a wizard, but no one just believes... From the mundane world believes he really is and things like that. And so there's an excitement there. I also think that secret history is actually probably more accessible, if done the right way, than alternate history. Which would probably be why the Vampire Hunter... I mean, why they tried...
[Howard] Oh, I'm sure that's why they went the secret history...
[Dan] Why they went that route. Now we've been talking a lot about fantasy, but there's also a lot of science fictional secret history. The two that jump out at me right now are Stargate and Battle Star Galactica.
[Brandon] Oh, yeah. Stargate is huge secret history.
[Dan] Stargate is... That was... The whole movie was about how the pyramids and things were left behind by aliens. I think Fifth Element does something very similar. That aliens have come in the past and left, and that explains that portion of our background.
[Howard] Men in Black!
[Brandon] Right.
[Mary] Men in Black.
[Howard] Men in Black has lots of fun with secret history.
[Mary] Oh, yeah.
[Howard] To the point that it's a running gag. "Oh, yeah, Elvis. He's not dead, he just went home."
[Dan] Yeah.

[Brandon] All right. We're going to stop for our book of the week, and then we'll come back and talk about how to do a good secret history. We're going to do A Short Stay in Hell. Dan, was that your book?
[Dan] Yeah. A Short Stay in Hell. That's a novella. It's actually the only book that I've ever cover quoted. It's really cool. It starts off as kind of a thought experiment. A guy has died, and he goes to the other side, and he gets to hell. He realizes that hell is actually a giant library that contains every book ever written or that could conceivably be written. Every possible permutation of 144 pages. So he... The way you get out of hell is by finding the one book that has your exact life story in it. By the end of this novella, it has turned from that interesting thought experiment tracking his stages of his personality as he goes through this, and by the end of it, it's just this absolutely mind blowing, horrifying look at eternity and the concept of how big something can actually be and how long it can actually take to do. It affected me emotionally more than most books ever have. It's just a stunning, stunning book.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Howard] Start yourself a 30 day free trial membership and pick up A Short Stay in Hell... It feels fun to say that...
[Dan] A Short Stay in Hell by Stephen Peck.
[Howard] Get yourself... Have yourself A Short Stay in Hell absolutely free, and pick something else up for 30% off.

[Brandon] All right. So. Secret history. How are we writing these well?
[Dan] Well, one thing that I remember, we got as a listener mail question a few weeks ago, was the question about ethics in alternate history and secret history. So I want to bring that up before the podcasters.
[Brandon] Let's talk about it.
[Dan] The question was, is it okay to attribute alternate motivations to a real historical person? Or to, say, I put John Keats and Mary Shelley in my book Blacker Darkness. Is that okay? I have been doing things and saying things that they didn't actually do. What makes that okay, if it is okay?
[Brandon] Right. That's a good question, because, building on this, the whole Vampire Hunter thing, in Howard's opinion, diminishing the evil of man and attributing it to monsters, ethically, kind of broke the movie for you.
[Howard] Yeah. It broke it for me. I can see... I can see it being done well. As Mary pointed out, if it had been done convincingly, I might have liked it. They made a nod in the movie towards "Oh, humans are horrible anyway. We're just taking advantage of that." But...
[Brandon] Right.
[Howard] One of the things that breaks a secret history for me is if it is blatantly sort of polemic, where you're saying, "Oh, yes, there's this conspiracy, and this is why this happened, and this is why this happened, and this is why this happened" and you're making everything be about whatever your favorite bad guy is.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Howard] That bores me.
[Brandon] But let's go back to the ethics question.
[Mary] Yeah. I think that... I mean, this is a really tricky line. I think that if the person has passed away within your lifetime, that you should... Out of respect... Be very, very careful about attributing anything to them that they did not actually say. Just because they... There are people who knew them.
[Brandon] Right.
[Mary] And there are enough readers who will pick this up and not understand that it's a secret history, that it becomes tricky.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] That's my own personal take on it. That the way I would handle that is by using... Repurposing things that they actually said. Unless I had a really solid reason, within the story, for them to have had different... If the story was about a secret life that they had behind, and that the politic... The public front was just that, a public front. There I would feel a little more freedom. But to do it just for a plot element? Just because, "Oh, it would be funny if... If he was secretly a cross-dresser?" Nnn...
[Brandon] Right. Okay.
[Dan] Yeah. Then... One of the things that I... The rules, I guess, that I set for myself with Blacker Darkness using real characters was to just do a lot of research and then make them exaggerated caricatures of who they already were. I didn't make John Keats into something he wasn't. I made him an exaggerated version of himself.
[Brandon] So you're doing a political cartoon, more like.
[Dan] Yeah.
[Brandon] It's like the character's ears are this big... But in your case, it's his wackiness is exaggerated.
[Howard] It's caricature.
[Brandon] Okay. Do you think making that obvious, and making a comedy, helps you with that kind of ethical line?
[Dan] Making a comedy definitely does, because then it becomes a parody, and I feel very safe behind that parody firewall. You can do almost anything you want.
[Howard] Because nobody gets mad at you when you're just trying to tell a joke.
[Dan] [giggle] Well, people get mad at you... You know, had I gone the other direction and actually made John Keats into like some kind of a vile, horrible person...
[Howard] Well, he was actually Jack the Ripper.
[Dan] See, Jack the Ripper is a case where I think you can get away with almost anything you want.
[Mary] Yeah.
[Dan] Because...
[Mary] The thing is that once something, and this is where it gets really tricky... The longer someone has been dead, the more likely it is that multiple stories about them have proliferated. None of which are true reflections of them. So adding yours to the mix doesn't really alter the balance that much.

[Brandon] All right. Let's get back to, just for our last few minutes, suggestions on doing this well. I would say the most obvious one, the elephant in the room, is you've got to be... You've gotta know your history.
[Mary] Yes.
[Brandon] A good secret history really should be like an alternate history in that you know what happened really well, and then you tweak a few small things to make it seem... To tell the story you want to tell.
[Howard] I would say you want to pick events... There are going to be events that you reinterpret. Pick events that are popular, that lots of people have heard of, and I have lots of different explanations about them already, so that... Yeah. So that when you do this, you're not trying to tell people, "Oh, that one thing you heard is totally wrong." You're telling people, "Oh, that one thing that you know about that has a dozen different explanations? Here's an explanation you haven't heard, and it's the underpainting of my whole story." That's a little more...
[Mary] I would say that one of the keys to secret history is actually to not tweak anything.
[Brandon] Okay. Right.
[Mary] Alternate history, you tweak things. Secret history...
[Brandon] Well, I meant by tweaking, meaning the reasons that it happened and stuff like that.
[Mary] You tweak all of the things that we can't see, all of the offstage things you can play with.
[Brandon] And you leave as much on stage real as possible... You try to leave it all real and make it... Now I would say something to avoid is, try and avoid the obvious ones. Roswell's been done so much. The JFK assassination...
[Dan] I was going to say that, too.
[Brandon] Has been done.
[Dan] The JFK assassination. Anything to do with Hitler. The web comic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal actually did a really awesome Hitler's secret history a couple months ago.
[Brandon] Right.
[Dan] But that's the first good one that's been done in decades, because it's so overdone.

[Mary] Now... Something that occurs to me, as a really excellent model to look at is, although it's not technically a secret history, is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
[Brandon] Right. Yeah. That's perfect.
[Mary] Because, you know exactly the plot from Hamlet, and when they are in the scenes from the play, their lines are exactly the same, but because of all the things that happen in between those scenes, it changes the meaning of what they are doing in those scenes. That's what I was talking about when we started this, about the tension between the real history and the secret history, that playing with that...
[Brandon] Okay, and that's what makes people want to read them.
[Mary] Yes.

[Brandon] That's what makes it exciting. Yeah, go read Hamlet, go watch Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and then pick a piece of history and do the same thing with your characters. All right. Oh...
[Howard] I think that's our...
[Mary] That's our writing prompt.
[Brandon] That's a great writing prompt.
[Howard] I think that's our writing prompt. Well, no, not Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
[Mary] No, but...
[Howard] But take a popular piece of entertainment, grab a side character, and write that side character's secret history as if you're doing...
[Brandon] The Tribble episode redone into Deep Space Nine. That's another fake secret history. All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
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