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?