Wednesday, February 18, 2015

History, Alternate History and "Hitler's Time Machine"

Guest post by Robert F. Dorr.

The terms "history" and "alternate history" are opposite faces of the same coin. After many years of publishing military history books and articles inspired by writers like Cornelius Ryan and Stephen Ambrose, it was a complete flip-over for me to write an alternate history.

Hitler's Time Machine was published two months ago in December of last year. The book is an experienced non-fiction author's fledgling attempt at alternate history.

My most recent book before Hitler's Time Machine was a straightforward, historical account of a race on both sides to develop jet aircraft during World War II. From that departure point, it was easy to take the leap into something new and different for me — a fictional account of the race on both sides to develop time machines. The key to the alternate history Hitler's Time Machine for me was the experience of having already written character-driven narrative accounts of historical events.

All history is to some extent the recounting of, "What if?" What if a very brave soldier named George Washington had been killed in one of his early battles? What if some way had been found to supply Robert E. Lee's army with AK-47 automatic rifles? What if the American aircraft carriers had been in port when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor? Those kinds of speculations could easily find their way into a true history book and have already served as grist for alternate histories.

The line between history and alternate history isn't always sharply defined. In the nineteen century, a Swedish immigrant to the United States, for reasons unclear, changed his family name from Mansson to Lindbergh. At the end of that century, the father of the future leader of the Third Reich changed his family name to Hitler. It's difficult for us to imagine the first pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean being named Charles Manson (the American spelling) or throngs at a Nazi rally clicking heels, saluting and crying, "Heil, Shicklgruber!" but the name changes really happened. Does speculating about them constitute history or alternate history or a little of both?

In Hitler's Time Machine, I chose to use a mix of real and fictitious characters — the real ones as disparate as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lou Gehrig and Hans Kammler. I mixed them up with imagined characters, threw them into the urgency of war, gave them new science both real and imagined, and had them fight their way to the finish of the story. My work on the book was inspired by a Virginia authors' group known as Write By The Rails and by a nationwide phenomenon called National Novel Writing Month.

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Robert F. Dorr is an Air Force veteran (1957-60), a retired American diplomat (1964-89) and an author (since 1955) of thousands of magazine articles and about 75 books, all of them non-fiction except Hitler's Time Machine. Contact him at (703) 264-8950 or robert.f.dorr at cox dot net.

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