This is an opinion column, originally written for the Science-Fantasy Society, and first published on their blog here.
It collects my thoughts on writing historical fantasy, at least in relation to the blending of science fiction & fantasy.
Science Fantasy and Historical Fantasy
Historical Fantasy is “a category of fantasy and genre of historical fiction that incorporates fantastic elements (such as magic) into the narrative. There is much crossover with other sub-genres of fantasy; those classes as Arthurian, Celtic, or Dark Ages could just as easily be placed in Historical Fantasy. Stories fitting this classification generally take place prior to the 20th century.” (Wikipedia)
Essentially, it’s on the range from an historical setting mixing in fantasy elements, to more traditional fantasy but with a setting that is closely based on a particular era in real-Earth’s history.
Even though History is part of the humanities rather than sciences, there is a close correlation to Science Fantasy for authors, in the amount of research needed for a well-crafted story. This often involves reading volumes of information covering the particular era: from general events such as wars, through profiles of important personages, to aspects of daily life such as available technology and food production. The information can be in any form – from condensed books, to research articles in respectable periodicals, to looser online articles. There are even groups practicing “experimental archaeology” and recreating anything from sword fighting techniques (from fighting manuals) to cuisine (from surviving original cookbooks and literary descriptions) to hairstyles (based on statues). A lot of this information is available in video format over the Internet.
However the information is gathered, it is the level detail and authenticity in the novel that separates Historical Fantasy from “just” fantasy. The author has to do the same amount (or almost the same) amount of research as good historical fiction authors – and then add the layer of “what if” that drives speculative fiction.
The research work for the author is significant. First, we must understand that there are many gaps in what we actually know, sometimes more gaps than direct evidence. Second, is that a lot of the evidence we do have is suspect – be it the interpretation of archaeological data, or the bias of contemporary written sources. It is the role of historians to piece together a continually changing image of what life was back then, and of the author to continually educate themselves. Then come the world-building aspect that characterizes Sci-Fi and Fantasy. More questions are raised, around the effects that the fantastical elements (be it magic or advanced technology) have on human society, the culture, the individual, plot elements from medical to security, etc. One must do so not arbitrarily, but in the historical contest of the chosen period, to preserve the delicate plausible historical “feel” of the setting.
When done well, the results can be extremely satisfying. Some very famous authors have made this sub-genre popular in recent years – Guy Gavriel Kay and Diana Gabaldon come to mind. The real world aspects usually result in a world that is far more convoluted than a single mind can imagine. Describing the Roman emperor eating an (historically accurate) jellyfish and brains custard, is at once more familiar and therefore more shocking, then describing an alien ‘Gagh’ or ‘Spoo’. When care is taken to research not just grand events but daily life, the level of realism that draws the reader in and immerses them can grow exponentially. On the other end of the spectrum, the fantasy aspects of the story add a little pizzazz to the story, something that has been captivating audiences throughout the ages. The result is a setting that is rich, immersive, and exciting.
I write historical fantasy too and I cagree: research is hell, espeically on daily details, but it can really made the setting and the characters come to life.
There are readers, and eve authors, that think that because there is a fantasy element, then we historical fantasy writers can actually write what we want (that’s a general assumption of fantasy, actually). My experience is that, the more faithful you are to the historical setting, the more vivid and original your story is. Trying to be as accurate as possible on the detail has sprouted ideas for my stories that I would have never come up with on my own.
Historical research has thrown a handful of monkey wrenches in one of my current WIPs (sequel to a historical fantasy in my short story collection). Not so much because of the facts themselves, but because many of my sources are old texts published at or shortly after the period (1899-1905) and contain perspectives and info difficult (or nearly impossible!) to find in contemporary texts due to revisionist and popular biases.
It’s no big deal to mention that bleachers existed at the time of the story even though tweaked with a fantasy element that predates how they were built. What gives me pause are ethical questions that arise if I include other potentially offensive or inflammatory albeit historically accurate things. (LOL Providing anyone actually reads the novel when it’s done).
There’s that risk, of course, no matter what genre an author writes. Authorial responsibility is something many writers struggle with at some point. But as I look at the research I’ve assembled and consider implications, I weigh whether to run with the story as first created (before research) or rebuild it from the ground up. My gentle side says ‘Just make it fun–don’t stir up trouble.’ The fiercer side says ‘Damn the torpedoes–full speed ahead!’
Coin flips: heads for gentle, tails for fierce.
Dice roll: odds for fierce, evens for gentle.
It’s never easy. 🙂