Writing Historical Fantasy

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When writing historical fantasy, how important is it to stick to the facts, or is the past fair game for authors of fantastic fiction to manipulate how they wish?
PANELLISTS: Aidan Harte, Helen Marshall, Sophia McDougall, Mark Charan Newton, Tim Powers, Kari Sperring, World Fantasy Convention, Brighton 2013

This is obviously a subject of considerable interest to me, as both a writer and Classicist. I draw a lot of cultural inspiration from history, although I don’t use actual historical events and figures in my writing, as Tim Powers does (for example). I’d always taken the view that artistic license is absolutely fine in fantasy – you take the parts that inspire you and build on those – but there were a number of points made during the panel which put a different light on it.

To start with, it was observed that history is a story that shapes the imagination. I think it was Kari Sperring that likened history to a horror novel – everyone dies at the end. The aesthetics of the past are attractive, relatable and also exotic –  a perfect feeding ground for fantasy writers. The past can also give our imaginations a break: there are only so many reasons behind what people do, and we only have to look at history to see how they play out. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel – it’s already been done by someone, somewhere, in a stranger and more complex way than we would make up on our own.

Drawing directly from history, however, means you risk not writing fantasy at all. The trick is to find the balance between the big and small pictures – to find the individual narratives amongst big world events (if you’re drawing directly from real-world events). Some of the best stories are those which take a well-known piece of history and explore an unknown aspect of it. Keeping a balance on the minutiae of details and setting is also important. You don’t want to overwhelm your reader – use just enough to give them a taste of that exotic past, and focus on human reasons and actions which the audience can relate to. Too much detail can risk losing the thread or vividness of the story – stick to what the audience needs to know.

The discussion then moved on to the writer’s agenda and what happens if you’re trying to make a point through your story, such as a statement on the evils of the industrial revolution. The general feeling was that a reader will be quick to pick up on any agenda you set out to deliver, and usually react with hostility. They’re there to read a fantasy story and escape from the world for a bit, not to be preached at. The panel said it’s best to either put both sides of the argument forward and let the reader decide, or to leave out any personal agenda as much as possible and let your subconscious do the work in a more subtle fashion. I’m not sure I wholly agree with this, to be honest. I agree that I don’t want to be preached at but fantasy is a fantastic medium for throwing light on issues of reality. There’s a long list of distinguished authors who have used it as such, and relegating the role of fantasy to ‘just escapism’ seems somewhat demeaning.

Finally, the panel turned to what the writer needs to know in order to write historical fantasy. Do you need to be an expert on an event, or era, in order to use it? Well, no, but you certainly need to do your research. Primary texts are particularly important, not only for the facts but also because people thought and expressed themselves very differently. It isn’t the modern day in fancy dress – culture is embedded in language, and getting the right expressions is one of the best ways to convey a feeling of the age. But, and this is an important ‘but’, being accurate isn’t necessarily always the answer. People tend to care quite strongly about their interpretation of history, and they will defend that. If you include something that doesn’t feel accurate to them, even if it is, they’ll be jarred out of the immersion. You’re writing for the reader, not for an academic journal, so you have to cater to their tastes. A great example of this, looted from Georgette Heyer, is the name ‘Tiffany’ which was in fact very popular in the Regency era. Most people, however, would see that as a much more contemporary name and that disconnect breaks their suspension of disbelief.

As a parting thought, someone (I think Tim Powers?) said that history happened because people made choices. Inevitability is very rare. Many stories come from the simple premise of ‘what if they had chosen something different?’

Breakfast at Tiffany's

Regency pin-up

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