Writing History, Writing Fantasy

Growing up, my favorite reading was historical fiction. I adored losing myself in stories of other times and places—stories that transported me, through the author’s imagination and my own, from my mundane everyday context into new worlds of excitement, danger, mystery, and beauty—so strange and exotic, sometimes, that it was hard to believe they’d once been real.

Then, when I was in my teens, I fell in love with fantasy. It, too, swept me up in epic tales and fascinating new worlds. Unlike the real worlds of historical fiction, these fantasy worlds were completely imaginary. But the best writers were able to make them so vivid that, while I was reading, I felt as if they’d actually existed—in an alternate universe, perhaps, very close to our own.

But it wasn’t until I started getting serious about writing that I realized how similar fantasy and historical novels truly are—from a writer’s perspective, at least. Fantasy writers create worlds that never were. Historical writers re-create worlds that no longer exist. Both are acts of imagination, fueled by research.

I write history, fantasy, and combinations of the two (my 2012 young adult novel, Passion Blue, is a historical with fantasy elements). My fantasy settings are always based on real-world templates and incorporate real-world details, and I do as much research for them as I do for my historical settings. If you want your fantasy society to be reminiscent of ancient Japan, for instance, researching that complex culture will give your made-up world far more depth. If you’re going to write about a blacksmith, it doesn’t matter whether he’s smithing in medieval Europe or in your own invented version of a pre-industrial society—you’d better know how a forge works. If you’re writing about steam engines, your steampunk epic should make them as plausible as they’d need to be in a historical novel about the industrial revolution.

Research can’t tell you everything, however, and the past is a place you can never visit. In re-creating historical settings, you’ll nearly always encounter information gaps–dark areas where what people really did, or what life was really like, is just not known. Writing historical fiction is a constant process of extrapolating from what you know so that you can convincingly—and authentically—portray what you can’t know.

As with fantasy, in other words, you must make things up.

Much of Passion Blue takes place in a painter’s workshop inside a Renaissance-era convent. This is not exactly a common setting. I did have a real-world model to work with—a studio of nun-artists in 16th century Florence that was quite famous in its time—but the information I could find on this studio was extremely limited.

So to create the workshop where Giulia, Passion Blue’s heroine, discovers her passion to paint, I combined what I’d learned about the Florence studio with details gleaned from research on other Renaissance painters’ workshops, as well as my readings on 15th century Italian convents. The look, feel, smells, and routines of Giulia’s workshop are firmly sourced in historical fact–yet the workshop itself is a product of my imagination, not just because it never existed, but because so much of how a convent painters’ workshop would actually have functioned is simply impossible to know.

Historical novels do pose a challenge that fantasy novels don’t. Yes, there is invention, but historical writing is based on established facts that can’t be pushed around, and which authors must be careful not to get wrong. Sloppy research drives me crazy, as do books where the writer hasn’t bothered to internalize an authentic period mindset. Characters in a historical novel have to be accessible to a contemporary audience, but that doesn’t mean they should just be modern teens in fancy dress. Nor does using a historical setting to frame your fantasy premise give you a pass on the details. Teenagers in Victorian England did not say “Whatever.”

On the other hand, even though fantasy lets you make up the rules, once you do, you’re stuck with them. Good world building creates a structure to which the fantasy author must adhere as rigorously as a historical novelist must adhere to real-world places and events.

Despite the differences, writing fantasy and writing history call on very similar skill-sets. I think that’s why I’ve always felt so comfortable moving back and forth between the two.

First published at Books Complete Me, 2012.


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