Recently I attended the Historical Novelists Association annual conference, this year held in London. It was a great weekend with plenty of lively and informative sessions, though slightly more aimed at the aspiring writer than I’d expected. Highlights for me were a workshop on Battle Tactics and a panel entitled Confronting Historical Fact with the Unexplained: from myths & the occult to fairytales & the Gothic, chaired by Kate Forsyth.
Initially I felt a little out of place at this conference, since I write historical fantasy rather than straight historical fiction. However, anyone who writes in my genre can tell you that the historical research still needs to be done, and done thoroughly. A novel containing fantasy elements should be consistent to its time and culture, whether that time and culture are historical, imaginary or some blend of the two. (Many fantasy stories have a setting closely resembling medieval Europe. Also popular are settings suggesting the Victorian era.) The story may be brimful with fey beings, weird magic and humans with unusual powers, but woe betide the author who includes New World vegetables in quasi-medieval England, or gives an army the wrong weapons or a village band the wrong instruments. Readers are quick to point these errors out.
The conference sessions on research were as useful to me as they were to the writers of straight historical novels. A historical fantasy should be built on a strong foundation of known fact. The writer should become as familiar as she can with the time and culture that provides the basis for the story’s world. And, of course, the writer must also know her magical or uncanny framework, the ‘Otherworld’ side of the history. In my books, that Otherworld springs from the probable beliefs of the people who would have lived in that time and culture, whether it is the north of Britain in the Pictish era, Anglo-Norman Ireland or Norway at the time of the Vikings. I haven’t always got it right; I’ve learned from my errors.
At the HNS conference there was some discussion about which periods are currently most popular in historical fiction. What would your guess be?