As a reader of fiction, I appreciate historical accuracy. A novel with a historical setting, whether that be Tsarist Russia or Feudal Japan or the South America of the Inca, can spring to life for the reader when the author has a genuine passion for the period and culture. To my mind, the same thing applies with a work of historical fantasy, the genre I write in.
Historical fantasy could be loosely grouped into two categories (with many interesting sub-divisions, as in most genres.) There are stories set in real world history and geography, but with some elements of the uncanny or supernatural that set them apart from straight historical novels. Those elements may be based on the folklore and mythology of the time and place, as is the case in most of my own work, or the work might be alternative history – that is, the world as we know it changed by past events taking a slightly different course. Then there are stories set in imagined or secondary worlds, but loosely based on historical periods and cultures in the real world. In the first kind of story, good research is necessary, not only to get the historical overview right, but also for the accuracy of the everyday: What would they be eating? What would they be wearing? What animals would they keep? How would they get around? Then there’s culture: hierarchies in church, state and family, gender roles, attitudes to difference, norms of communication and behaviour. Ideally, this kind of historical fantasy would be as well-researched as a good historical novel. The author might also need to delve into folk beliefs, myths and legends.
If a story is set in an imagined world, the author has more flexibility. Some might say, ‘It’s a fantasy world – you can write whatever you like!’ By all means try this, fledgling writers. You will soon discover two basic rules. Firstly, there’s one thing the world of your book absolutely must have: internal consistency. Everything about your story must make logical sense within your created world, and that includes supernatural events and characters. Secondly, a writer will almost always draw upon the real world to some extent when creating a fantasy world. The secondary world will generally have some elements in common with the world the readers know, contemporary or historical, but will possess intriguing differences because fantasy deals in the uncanny, the magical, the supernatural. A good writer puts all this together seamlessly, so the reader believes in the world from the first page.
Some writers think outside the box when undertaking this challenge. I’ve written before about some intriguing novels in which the authors use characters from classic fiction as their protagonists. This approach requires not only meticulous historical research and internal consistency, but also a very deep knowledge of the original literary material. Try Theodora Goss’s series, The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, of which two novels have been published and a third comes out this year. These are stylish, accurate and highly original, with the added bonus of wry humour. Another excellent example of this approach is John Kessel’s Pride and Prometheus, in which the unlikely combination of Victor Frankenstein and Mary Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) features.
Now, anyone who is familiar with my own work might point out that I’ve made my share of historical errors. Who am I to talk about getting it right? As creative artists, why shouldn’t we break the rules when we like?
The writing journey is lifelong and we learn from our errors. When I wrote my first novel, I didn’t understand that a story with magical elements, based on a fairy tale, should have correct history. Hence those sloppy errors, some of which were picked up by editors but most of which were drawn to my attention by readers after publication! Do not make this beginner’s mistake, folks, it will return to embarrass you in years to come. A historical fantasy requires just as much research, and just as much attention to accuracy, as a historical novel. In fact it’s harder, because you need to mesh your supernatural elements seamlessly with the historical parts, so the uncanny version of our world is completely convincing to your reader. How do you do that? Put yourself into the minds of your characters, because that is the world they live in. Know them from the inside out, whether they are human or something else. Understand what makes them tick, know what they believe in, and learn their understanding of their own world. Learn how the uncanny and the mundane exist together. The story flows from that.
Of course you can break the rules. But do so knowingly, effectively, and in the interests of better storytelling. Don’t break them before you know how to use them. In those earlier books I made errors because I knew no better. After that, I wrote some novels based on solid historical research. These days, I often deviate from the strictly historical in the interests of better storytelling. I don’t mean blatant anachronisms. It’s more to do with voice and character. Especially in the more domestic scenes, my main characters speak and narrate in relatively informal voices – I don’t try to make them sound medieval. I like to capture meaning and feeling in a way that resonates more immediately for today’s reader.
I’ve also had to be flexible with timelines. I’m glad I made the choice early on to include very few real historical characters in my books, since their inclusion would pin the narrative down to exact dates. Three of my series, including the work in progress, are set in the same geographical part of Ireland and in overlapping periods of time, and they share some of the same characters and settings. Over the course of the Sevenwaters, Blackthorn & Grim and now the Warrior Bards series we’ve seen five or six generations go past. We’re getting ever closer to a period that is simply wrong for the story. Just as well it’s fantasy. I may not have free rein, but I do have some leeway. For instance, time can move differently in the Otherworld. Isn’t folklore useful?
Another point about research: don’t over-egg the pudding. Remember that iceberg theory. The complete iceberg represents your research. The part above the water’s surface, maybe 20%, is what actually appears in your book. It’s great if you love your historical period and read extensively about it. It’s not so good if you get obsessive about it, so your novel ends up crammed with every single interesting fact you’ve discovered about grandfather clocks or Roman textiles or the history of dental hygiene. Do that and you sacrifice pace and tension in your story. I have seen novels so weighed down by historical detail that they’re more or less unreadable. Remember that you’re writing a story, not a textbook! Judicious use of small and telling details works very effectively to provide a picture of your novel’s time and place.
As a writer, how do you balance good research with effective storytelling? As a reader, do you care about historical accuracy and if so, why?