Friday, May 23, 2014

Writing Historical Fantasy: Blending historical fiction with fantasy elements

It has been far too long since I posted an update to my blog. A few months ago I spoke at a writers conference at JFK University and spoke on the challenges of writing historical fiction and fantasy.

The attendees were an enthusiastic group of writers who asked some insightful questions. My presentation was largely built on the handout I gave. I thought perhaps it might be helpful to other writers, so I am posting it here. If other bloggers would like to re-post, please do so. I only ask that you link to this as your source 

Writing Historical Fantasy: Blending historical fiction with fantasy elements

Differences between the genres of historic fiction, historic fantasy and fantasy novels:

Historic fiction is a story written about a real time and place in our history, with or without real historic figures and events. E.g. Philippa Gregory's novels about Tudor England vs. Erika Mailman's novel The Witch'sTrinity set in a fictional German village but painstakingly describes witch trials of the 16th century.

Historic fantasy is a novel about a real time and place in our history, with or without real historic figures and events along with magic and fantastic creatures. Examples are stories using Arthurian or Carolingian legends.
If a story about King Arthur doesn't use magic, it is historic fiction and not historic fantasy. An example of that is Persia Woolley's Guinevere trilogy.

Fantasy novels without being set in a real place and time in our history are not constrained to use the correct historical elements such as period armor, specific religious practices, etc. Examples are C.S. Lewis' Narnia series, J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, and George R.R. Martin's Westeros. The challenges of writing in this genre is world building where you have to define the history, climates, locales, countries, religious rules, cultural practices, races of magical peoples, etc.

The primary goal of all writing is to create a compelling narrative. Every aspect of your writing should serve that primary goal.

Secondary goals include:

1. Historical accuracy for the time period
2. Devising a dramatic plot and memorable characters

Historical research:

1. Perform general research on the time period of your story before you start the creative writing process. (You can do outlines for your plot, but it would be better learning broad historical constructs before you write chapters worth of unusable text.)
2. Absorb the information. Go to a library and check out as many nonfiction books as you can find on your period. Browse the table of contents and read subjects that you think will be of interest/use. Follow footnotes, read bibliographies and find more titles. If your library doesn't have the new titles, request them through interlibrary loans. Books that are a treasure trove of information should be ones that you purchase for your own reference shelf at home.
3. During the writing process continually ask yourself about the various details in your story and do ad hoc research as necessary. E.g. Recently I have been reading up on Islamic burial practices including washing of the dead.
4. If possible, travel to the places you are writing about. Seek out the sites in your story and see where they are, what remains, and breathe in the locale. Become inspired.
5. Find experts on various aspects of your story who are willing to review passages for accuracy.

Including historical research in your narrative:

1. Remember the primary objective is to create a compelling narrative, and not to impress your readers with neat trivia you've discovered in your research.
2. Avoid data dumps where there are block paragraphs explaining arcane information. That is what nonfiction books are about. Instead weave the historical details into your narrative in descriptions and/or dialogue.
3. Use the details you learned about cultural practices, beliefs, gender roles, food, clothing styles and fabrics, architecture, weapons, technology, medical practices to give a richness to your narrative and to demonstrate how life during that time period is different than it is today.
4. Avoid using modern sensibilities regarding marriage, relationship, gender roles in previous centuries. Unless you are using time travel with modern people being transported back in time and this is to contrast the different mindsets.
5. Do not turn your average nobleman into a religious expert so that you can have exposition about the religious practices during the Middle Ages.
6. Describe the religious practices as how they were performed, but do not explain the theological reasoning behind them. Consider that most laypeople simply followed religious dictates without question.
7. Recognize and avoid including certain historical details from your research will be difficult for readers to follow and/or would derail your narrative. E.g. allowance for the consumption of beaver tails on fast days.
8. Be on the lookout for terms in your manuscript that would be inaccurate for the time period. Eliminate them when found. For example, clocks were not as commonplace as they are today and so you should not use the terms minutes or seconds. Instead use "a few moments later" or phrases to illustrate the amount of time passed. An example from my novel: "I have seen Rodomont use a woman in less time than it takes for a horse to pass water." It not only demonstrates a length of time, it also serves to reveal crudeness of the character who was speaking.
9. Try to create a different linguistic style for the period you are trying to evoke. Avoid slang. Consider using curses and swearing, rather than profanity as used in modern discourse.
Cursing: "May Mandricardo's manhood shrivel to match the size of his brain."
Swearing: "You must do my bidding, or I swear to make good on my promise to castrate you."
Profanity: "Are you a bastard son of a swineherd?"
10. Other details such as foods, flowers, etc. Verify that they were a) indigenous to that locale, b) in season c) have a symbolic meaning which agrees with its contextual usage (that's optional, but it adds an additional layer of meaning and depth to your writing.)

Balancing dramatic needs vs. historical accuracy

1. If there is a conflict between your dramatic needs and being historically accurate, remember your primary goal: create a compelling narrative. Boring your readers is the greatest sin of all. I choose to side with Drama and then include my dramatic choice in the author's notes to inform my readers that it was an informed decision and not one made of ignorance.
2. Bending of the historical record should be done as sparingly as possible and not for trivial items such as including foodstuffs, flora, or fauna that were from the Western hemisphere and not known to Europe in that time frame: potatoes, tomatoes, corn, sunflowers, tobacco.

Fantasy elements in historic fiction:

1. Build on existing mythology such as divination practices of scrying, runes, tea leaves, Tarot cards, etc., rather than simply creating new ones. Also knots to seal magical spells, braiding of hair, etc.
2. Symbolic usages of water, caves, labyrinths, etc., add strength to your narrative. E.g. River Lethe, Spring of Mnemosyne, Cave of Trophonius.
3. Include tension between magical and non-magical people. Are magical people thought of as trustworthy or colluding with Dark Evil Forces?
4. Invoke magic when the laws of physics or nature would otherwise be violated by your plot points, e.g. travelling on horseback a distance of four hundred miles in a single night.
5. Be creative when creating enchanted realms. For example, you can use unnatural lighting, heating, ventilation, etc., without much explanation as long as you specify it is unnatural.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Post-Wonderland Interview: Both sides of the shipping debates are winners

An open letter to the Harry Potter fandom:

The full Wonderland interview conducted by actress Emma Watson with J.K. Rowling has been published and its contents can be read on various websites including Hypable.  This was published a week after a teaser article in The Sunday Times had the eye grabbing headline of:

JK admits Harry should have wed Hermione

This set off a firestorm in the Harry Potter fandom as more and more news outlets worldwide reprinted the conclusions of that Sunday Times article.
Did J.K. Rowling actually use the term "regret" anywhere in that interview? No, she did not.
Is it a fair conclusion that her comments in that interview indicate that she now regrets pairing her characters Ron and Hermione together? Yes, it is.
During the interview, Emma asked Jo Rowling if she had a new perspective on Hermione. It was an open-ended question, one where Rowling could have gone in a myriad of directions, and she chose to bring up the romantic pairing of Hermione with Ron. She said their relationship was written as "wish fulfillment," she was "clinging to the plot as I first imagined it" and the choice was made for "very personal reasons, not for reasons of credibility."
That implies that the Ron/Hermione relationship is not credible.
Rowling went on further to say that there was too much "fundamental incompatibility" and that "in some ways Harry and Hermione are a better fit".
Those phrases are what I think led to Claudia Croft's conclusions in the Sunday Times article that Jo Rowling admitted she should have paired Hermione with Harry.
Rowling and Watson had seemed a bit nervous once the discussion dealt with incompatibility of Hermione and Ron. 
Jo then said,
"I know, I'm sorry, I can hear the rage and fury it might cause some fans, but if I'm absolutely honest, distance has given me perspective on that. It was a choice I made for very personal reasons, not for reasons of credibility. Am I breaking people's hearts by saying this? I hope not."
"I can't believe we are saying all of this – this is Potter heresy!"
Jo and Emma went on to discuss the tent scene in Deathly Hallows:

JKR: ...I'll tell you something very strange. When I wrote Hallows, I felt this quite strongly when I had Hermione and Harry together in the tent! I hadn't told [Steve] Kloves that and when he wrote the script he felt exactly the same thing at exactly the same point.Emma: That is just so interesting because when I was doing the scene I said to David [Heyman]: "This isn't in the book, she didn't write this". I'm not sure I am comfortable insinuating something however subtle it is!JKR: Yes, but David and Steve – they felt what I felt when writing it.
Emma: That is so strange.
JKR: And actually I liked that scene in the film, because it was articulating something I hadn't said but I had felt. I really liked it and I thought that it was right. I think you do feel the ghost of what could have been in that scene.

At the end of Watson's interview, Rowling attempted backtracking by saying that perhaps Ron and Hermione would "be alright with a bit of counseling."
Wow. Now that's a ringing endorsement.
They also discussed Ron's self esteem issues and Hermione's "weakness for a funny man."
This allows a shadow of a fig leaf for the Ron/Hermione shippers to cover themselves and feel confident after having the author and the actress who portrayed Hermione in the films discuss the romantic pairing in unflattering terms. Jo did not come out and say "I should have written things differently" nor did she say "I am thinking of re-writing the last book with an alternate ending." Therefore, we can assume she was just being honest in an interview, but does not currently plan on changing anything.
The websites for Mugglenet and The Leaky Cauldron were quick to provide their own interpretation of the full interview in an attempt to reassure nervous Ron/Hermione shippers that there was nothing to worry about. 
Mugglenet gave the headline "The TRUTH behind the J.K. Rowling 'Wonderland' interview."

"WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN? Well, in our view, all J.K. Rowling has admitted was to feeling that the scene in the tent was a shared vulnerable moment between two characters that revealed an intriguing degree of compatibility between each of them, emotionally. In saying that Ron needed to get over his self-doubt, Rowling is mentioning a key component that readers would agree could certainly cause some trouble in an adult relationship. However, by the article's end, Rowling and Watson have both found a value in Ron that Harry doesn't possess: Ron's humor and his ability to level Hermione's character. Thus, for all of this talk, the result is that the characters end up safely nestled where they were before, inside the canon of the Potter books."

Similarly The Leaky Cauldron's article was titled: "Full 'Wonderland' Interview Reveals Ron/Hermione Shippers Can Relax."
"The full text of the Wonderland issue that caused a Ron/Hermione vs. Harry/Hermione shipping riot this week is now out, and rumors of the death of the canon pairing have been greatly exaggerated. J.K. Rowling repeats previously made comments that there are certain characteristics between Harry and Hermione that may have them better suited, but does not indicate a wish to pair them off or any regret over how she wrote the books. Emma Watson and J.K. Rowling simply discuss the hypothetical post-Hogwarts world and what Ron and Hermione's relationship might have looked like."Rowling said that regardless of their issues, Ron and Hermione "would probably be fine."


An excerpt of the interview published in The Sunday Times on Feb. 1 caused a controversy when Rowling said she "wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment.""For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron," Rowling said.Many fans took this to mean that Rowling had changed her mind and would have preferred Harry and Hermione as a pairing. It resulted in shipping wars intense enough to give some of us flashbacks to 2005."

I have a little quibble with that analysis, and will cite in part a subsequent interview Melissa Anelli had with Jo Rowling that was published in her book Harry, a History

"I tried very hard to soften it, I suppose," Jo said. "Just because someone had a view on Harry/Hermione didn't mean they weren't genuine, or that they were necessarily misguided...Steve Kloves...after he read book seven he said to me, 'You know, I thought something was going to happen between Harry and Hermione, and I didn't know whether I wanted it to or not.'...There are two moments when [Harry and Hermione] touch, which are charged moments. One, when she touches his hair as he sits on the hilltop after reading about Dumbledore and Grindlewald, and [two] the moment when they walk out of the graveyard with their arms around each other...
"Now, the fact is that Hermione shares moments with Harry that Ron will never be able to participate in. He walked out. She shared something very intense with Harry.
"So, I think it could have gone that way."(snipped for length)

The difference is that Jo Rowling pointed out two different scenes to Melissa that she felt were charged H/Hr moments and neither were the tent scene that she discussed with Emma Watson. Jo Rowling has now admitted three separate charged moments in book 7 where Harry and Hermione were pulled to one another. That means that the Wonderland interview wasn't just repeating previous comments, but instead it represents an extension and revision to her previous remarks on the subject where she concluded "it could have gone that way."

I now want to analyze the major differences between the 2014 interview and the one in 2005 performed by those two websites Mugglenet and The Leaky Cauldron. Emma Watson's interview was civil and polite. Jo Rowling was candid and was not in an atmosphere colored by partisan fandom politics. Watson is without vested interest in making herself seem "right" and others be "wrong." Back in 2005, Emerson Spartz and Melissa Anelli were hand selected by Jo Rowling to be representatives of the Harry Potter fandom and to ask her questions after the publication of her sixth novel Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
That interview caused a lot of heartache for fans of the series. Here is a link to my analysis of that online interview and why I felt insulted by it.
While I did not appreciate being called delusional, the biggest insult for me was being told by Jo Rowling to go back and re-read the books because I must have missed clues. I hadn't missed clues, I had studied the text so well I was seeing sub-text and evaluating clues that weren't intended by the author to be clues.
That off-hand remark made me step away from the fandom that I had enjoyed for several years, and I have only read the sixth and seventh book once whereas the first five books I know forward and backward.
After reading that 2005 interview where Jo Rowling categorically stated she was going to write Harry/Ginny and Ron/Hermione as the love pairings in Book 7, I wrote my concession messages on a few boards. I also abandoned the writing project I had been working on which was detailing the arguments used in the Harry Potter Shipping Wars. I was partnered with a R/Hr and H/G friend, who had served as a beta reader for my novel length fifth year fanfic. We were putting the common arguments into a manner that was easy to navigate for newbies while trying to make it as free of invective as possible. The project was rendered moot not by the content of the sixth or seventh book, but by an interview.
The aspect that bothered me the most was the tone of that interview and how it made the author look bad. I feel J.K. Rowling was done a disservice by the fandom representatives she chose. They knew that shipping was the most controversial and divisive issue in the fandom. They could have tried to make peace in the fandom by trying to metaphorically put baking soda on a stove-top fire, instead they threw gasoline on it and watched the flames scorch the ceiling.
Four years after that interview I was a speaker at the Azkatraz convention held in San Francisco. I live in Northern California so getting to San Francisco is a day trip. I decided to dip my feet once again in fandom waters, if for no other reason than to meet up with some friends I hadn't seen in a few years. 
A few days before the symposium, I sent a message to Melissa Anelli and asked to meet with her. I wanted to give her my thoughts in person about that controversial interview.
I wasn't just a random run of the mill Harry/Hermione shipper asking the webmaster of a major Harry Potter fansite for a few minutes of her time. No, she knew who I was and we had met, albeit briefly, at the first HP symposium in Orlando in 2003. I had participated in a live ship debate and was the second chair of the Harry/Hermione side. She even mentioned me in her book.

Here I am giving a speech at the 2003 Nimbus Symposium supporting the Harry/Hermione ship.
I honestly thought I would have only about ten minutes (at most!) to tell her my thoughts on the matter, that she would nod, listen and then make me feel as if I had been heard. I was surprised when she engaged with me on the topic. We talked for about an hour and I felt at the end that nothing I said could make her recognize how her actions as a R/Hr partisan in the interview did not serve the needs of the fandom as a whole, and especially how hurtful it was reading her editorial comments inserted into the text such as: [All laugh; Melissa doubles over, hysterical, and may have died.] 
I felt that they were laughing at the expense of others. It was akin to gloating or spiking the football and doing a dance in the end zone.
She was a professional journalist and I had expected more from her. I had expected her to be an ambassador from the whole fandom and not as a partisan shipper. I compared it to reporters covering political candidates and trying to keep their personal political opinions out of their news coverage, unless they are writing editorials.
She did not like that analogy because she thought the difference was reporters inserting their opinions in electoral politics might have an impact on elections and that her interview covered fiction and what had been written. So it wasn't going to influence anything. Therefore, yes she had her opinions and to not mention them in the transcript would have been dishonest.
She considered the transcript she compiled as an accurate chronicle of the interview, and Jo Rowling approved the transcript before it went online. Therefore it was fine. She also felt that it wouldn't have mattered what was said because Harry/Hermione shippers were going to be mad because their side lost. I disagree with that opinion. I was mentally prepared prior to the 2005 interview to be told by JKR that she was planning on the R/Hr and H/G pairings, but I was not prepared to have my shipmates ridiculed in the manner that we were. 
My conversation with Melissa was cordial, and we left on good terms, but I continue to feel that Jo Rowling would have been better served if she had chosen different fandom ambassadors for such an important interview. 

Here is proof that we spoke at that conference.

Me and Melissa Anelli after we spoke at Azkatraz in San Francisco, July 2009.

Now, nine years later after the interview by The Leaky Cauldron and Mugglenet, we have the same fandom members who interviewed JKR in 2005 having found themselves in the uncomfortable and unexpected position as to worrying for a few days about what Jo Rowling said in an interview regarding shipping and whether or not she has changed her mind. After the full interview was made public, they have chosen to only focus on certain aspects of it and try to minimize or ignore others. 
It now appears JKR recognizes and acknowledges that the Harry/Hermione pairing had canon support and possibly, quite possibly, could have been a better fit for her heroine.
Yes, in the full Wonderland interview, Jo refers to Hermione as her heroine.
"I know that Hermione is incredibly recognisable to a lot of readers and yet you don't see a lot of Hermiones in film or on TV except to be laughed at. I mean that the intense, clever, in some ways not terribly self-aware, girl is rarely the heroine and I really wanted her to be the heroine."
Hermione was not referred to as a side-kick or as a best friend, but the heroine of the series. Pairing the hero and the heroine of a series is not an unusual or delusional pairing by any means.

I would like to see, nine years after the interview that caused so many hard feelings in the fandom, a joint statement of recognition written by someone on the staff of The Leaky Cauldron and/or Mugglenet. I would like it to read something like this:

"We recognize that Harry/Hermione shippers are loyal fans in the Harry Potter fandom who have provided spirited support for their ship before and after the publication of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.  Now, seven years after the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Jo Rowling admits she might have followed another direction if she followed her muse, but she stuck with her original plot line. So recognizing that we were all right in some aspects of this series, we should put aside our differences and embrace our common interests, namely our love of the Potterverse. Those who prefer H/Hr might be inspired by this latest interview to write more fanfic with their favorite ship, and we shall hopefully put this divisive topic behind us. We want to take this opportunity to apologize if our celebratory actions in 2005 made you feel alienated from the larger fandom."

Instead it seems both websites' analysis of the full Wonderland interview was designed more to maintain the position that the only thing that matters is the Ron/Hermione ship sailed and the Harry/Hermione ship sank. I do not think it would hurt their credibility in the full fandom to show a little respect for those with an alternate point of view and say, "as it turns out, your opinion had some merit."

 In the grand scheme of world and life events, betting on the wrong couple in the Hogwarts Love Sweepstakes isn't a catastrophe. It is good however, when people can be civil with one another. We should not be casting aspersions about people's intellect or morality because they came up with a different interpretation while reading literature. Especially when those romantic pairings are validated by the author. Ron/Hermione and Harry/Ginny were what J.K. Rowling planned and wrote. Now that J.K. Rowling has had time to reflect on her series, it appears that Harry/Hermione might be what she wishes she had written. That means both sides of the most divisive topic in the fandom can claim to have merit to their position.
My last point, in 2012, J.K. Rowling was quoted as saying that she would like to go back and re-write two of her books.  Imagine if she were to really regret pairing Ron and Hermione, she might decide to change more than just syntax and sentence structure to please her inner critic. I'm sure Bloomsbury and Scholastic would be willing to have new releases in the HP franchise and bookstores would love to have the Harry Potter money pipeline turned back on as well. Should she choose to change her romantic pairings then the H/Hr shippers wouldn't just have to settle for alternate universe fanfics, it could actually be "new canon."
I asked my teenaged son if he would be interested in reading a new Harry Potter book if it was re-written by J.K. Rowling. Without hesitation he replied, "Hells yeah!" I imagine that there would be many fans of the series who would also be interested in buying any new canon if it were written and published.
So please R/Hr shippers, take this opportunity to make peace with us, since we all profess to love the series and we can all claim to have support by the author. In other words: both sides won.

After the Nimbus live ship debate, the two ships were smiling for the camera. 
Proof that we can all get along.


Linda C. McCabe AKA Pallas Athena (or just Athena)
Second chair for the Harry/Hermione ship debate in Nimbus 2003.
Yeah, eleven years ago I debated this subject in person in front of a ballroom full of people!
Author of the First Readers' Choice Award on for the novel length fifth year fic, Secrets, Lies and the Daily Prophet as well as a few H/Hr themed short stories.
Author of an epic historic fantasy set in the time of Charlemagne, Quest of the Warrior Maiden, including flying hippogriffs. Yes, it was inspired during my ship debating research days.