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.