Writing Excuses 7.53: Secret History

Hey, guess what 2012 has fifty-three of? Mondays! So you’re getting a fifty-third episode of “Writing Excuses” this season. (You’re also going to be getting a fifty-fourth, because we stuck an extra in there a few weeks back.)

Hopefully this excuses (no pun intended) the fact that this episode is a full three days late. Merry Christmas!

Let’s talk about secret histories. A secret history is a subset of alternate history, in which historical events are given new explanations, typically fantastical ones, but in which the reader is invited to believe that this is the world we all currently live in.

We mention Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Tim Powers’ Last Call, and Jo Walton’s Among Others, and why secret history has the appeal it does, especially when it’s done well. And because you want to know how to do it well, we spend some time on that, as well as discussing some of the ethics of creating secret histories in the first place.


Take a popular piece of entertainment, grab a side-character, and give us their secret story.

A Short Stay in Hell, by Stephen L. Peck, narrated by Sergei Burbank

21 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 7.53: Secret History”

  1. Would a secret history have to have fantasy/sf elements in it? While listening to the episode, I was thinking of the National Treasure movies as secret histories.

  2. One secret history on the Roswell thing that was done great was the episode “Little green men” from Star Trek DS9 where the aliens at Roswell are Quark, his brother Rom and nephew Nog.

    There’s also a lot of Dr Who episodes that does the secret history thing great.

  3. Christopher Moore did this with a couple of his books. The first is Lamb, where he takes a look at the life of Jesus through the eyes of his best friend Biff, and the second is Sacre Bleu, which is about several 19th century French Artists. Lamb is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, but at the same time it does a good job of providing plausible explanations for what happened in the stories from the bible, as well as what Jesus was doing from his childhood until he shows up in the bible again as an adult. Sacre Bleu is definitely more serious, and it gives a secret explanation behind several things, including Van Gogh’s suicide. I’d highly suggest both books.

  4. I’d just like to point out that the book Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter is actually much more successful as a secret history than the film. In fact, apart from the name and the writer, the two have almost nothing in common.

  5. One of my biggest pet peeves, are beta readers that treat secret history the same way as info dump backstory.

    Even if “backstory” is where the story actually starts, and I say main characters exist there, or if I say ahead of time its an unstable government dystopia, not a capitalist or big brother dystopia, which means transition from one government to the next.

    What about unstable government implies one government that exists throughout the narrative?

  6. Also, calling something backstory is not really relevant in the book was always intended as a family saga.

  7. Brandon hasn’t read Jonathan Strange? For shame!

    Actually, just the other day I was thinking about Sanderson’s Laws of Magic and how you’d apply that to the JS&MN world. It appears that Susanna Clarke has her cake and eats it too by showing the concept of magic very far on the wondrous side and the study of magic on the opposite end of the scale. My interpretation is that she has an extremely soft magic system wearing the guise of a very hard one, and somehow it all works. It would have been interesting to see the group dissect that.

  8. I loved this episode. It’s got me all excited about secret history – both as a reader and a writer.

    I remember there was a series of Star Trek novels which attempted to explain how Khan Noonien Singh fought the eugenics wars during the 1990s. This was all done using secret history. Good fun.

  9. The file delivered by iTunes is broken. The intro is repeated a couple of times. The file linked on the page seems to be OK

  10. A wealth of (usually) well-done secret history stories can be found in almost every episode of Doctor Who that takes place in the past. Series Four’s “The Fires of Pompeii” is one of my favorites.

  11. This was a great episode in a sea of great episodes. I had never heard of secret histories and I now think that is what I am writing. I thought I was writing alternate history, but it feels more like secret history. I’d like to learn more about the differences. Can anyone recommend a website or book that deals with the subject? Movie ideas are good, but I get so caught up in the movie magic that I tend not to analyze what I am seeing. Thank you.

  12. So that’s what that’s called. I thought that I’d be hand-waving to explain what I was doing, considering that mine is not an alternate history, but an alternate explanation with only minor changes to enhance the flow of it.

    I’m not even adding fantasy elements – just bumping up the combination of existing technologies by about 10 years and making one guy more of a badass than he already was.

    I do like the caricature concept, since I took one real guy and made him Robert Baratheon, and another became Captain Fendis of the Royal Guard (as I imagine him based on the little we have heard).

  13. I had never heard of this actual term before, so thank you! Very interesting.

    It makes me think that the Company books by Kage Baker could be a secret history.

  14. The gang sounds just thrilled to do this episode. Yawning and sleepy tones throughout. I would daresay that what made Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter a bad film was not its failing in the secret history department but that it’s a terrible movie born from a terrible flavor of the week style revision that’s oh so popular amongst the teenyboppers. These ______ the zombie hunter or _______ the dragon slayer are just bad by definition. Don’t blame the obfuscation of morality about slavery being transferred to vampires as the reason for it being a bad film, blame the movie for being bad. Think of it this way, if they kept the same director, actors, screenwriter etc. etc. and instead went alternate history do you think you would have liked the movie any better now that the evil of slavery was placed squarely on men’s shoulders? No, it would still be a terrible movie. Would Fast and the Furious Part XIII be a good movie if it touched on deeper subjects other than the most vapid things out there? No, it would still be a terrible movie just like its previous dozen cookie cutter waste of time predecessors.

    end rant.

    Flame on.

  15. I really appreciated this episode. The Secret History hits close to home, though I never knew it even existed (the secret was kept very well). I can’t help but wonder if the story I’ve been slowly working on for years is in some way a secret history.

    My story, while set in another world which is ultimately a medieval world, exists because of a link to our own world which dates back to the Fall of Man. If anyone here is interested, a short prologue is here: http://www.wattpad.com/9679626-merlin%27s-end

    Whether it is a true secret history or not, I find comfort and a challenge in this episode. Thank you as always. I seriously wonder if I ever get published, will I have to give a portion of my proceeds back to the WE team?

  16. I think suspense novelists are pretty good at secret history development — though it is less about those big “what if” moments in time as it is finding a moment of tension between nations and then providing a secret military/diplomatic/spy adventure that took place when the curtain was pulled. Of course, those outcomes fall much more in the plausible range than this podcast is usually concerned with.

    Your mention of Star Trek reminded of the “secret history” within a “secret history.” the Eugenics War history about the rise of Khan, a fictional character in the ST universe.

  17. My favourite secret history is the Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor, starting with the novel Roman Blood. They are murder mysteries set in ancient rome and the author has said that he has written them as a secret history of Rome.

  18. Only just listened to the podcast and had to pause at the book of the week… because how has no one in the comments mentioned Borges?

    Dan, the book you recommend, just going off your description, was heavily influenced by Jorge Luis Borges’ The Library of Babel, a mind-blowing short story of similar scope. If you haven’t read Borges, you really should. His specialty was short and knife-sharp mind-bending fiction.

    The Library of Babel, The Circular Ruins, The Aleph, The Lottery in Babylon, Three Versions of Judas, Pierre Menard author of the Quixote, and others that I don’t remember off the top of my head.

    Highly recommended for everyone!

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