On the first day of the Brighton World Fantasy Convention I was lucky enough to get into a 20-person workshop with Tim Powers, author of (amongst many others) The Anubis Gates – my first introduction to historical fantasy literature. He is an extremely friendly and enthusiastic man who likes to pace round the room whilst talking, and smiles a lot. The workshop mainly consisted of people asking him questions, so what follows is less a discussion and more a list of points that came up.
- Why are clowns scary?
- It’s very useful to have your primary character as bewildered as the audience so they can both be educated naturally
- Particularly in terms of time travel, it’s more fun to have your character be very busy running around trying to achieve things turning out just the way history tells us they happened. That leads to conjecture in the reader’s mind about what would have happened if the character hadn’t done anything.
- Use opposites to work out cool mechanics, particularly around magic. e.g. In the 1800s, it was believed that being ‘grounded’ (having a piece of metal attached to you and touching the ground) meant magic would be earthed and not affect you, so Powers made his magicians in The Anubis Gates have to practice magic off the earth and live on stilts.
- Realistic isn’t as important as plausible. You don’t want to jolt your reader out of immersion. (This point actually came up in yesterday’s writing class as well, where the teacher disagreed with Mr. Powers and said you should stick to your historically realistic guns. The message here is – there is no right/wrong way. But I personally agree with Mr. Powers on this one.)
- To see time travel done really well, read Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man
- Sticking to real historical events is like playing tennis with the net – you need that restriction to give focus and power to the game. Yeats called it ‘the fascination of what is difficult’. Working within parameters is fun.
- Making your story fit with extant material is great fun and delights the reader e.g. In The Anubis Gates the poet Coleridge is a character. Coleridge’s actual poetry refers to things which Powers ties into the story.
- If a character is speaking English as a second language, work out what the sentence structure would be like in his first language and construct his dialogue the same way. It gives a unique feel.