I’ve been writing Historical Fantasy for a few years now. I’ve had novellas set in 1905 Saratoga Springs, short fiction set in 1200 Northern China, and just turned in the last of three novels set in 1902-3 Portugal. Those publications have taken up the bulk of the last five years (so it was jarring when I started working on a new series in May that’s a second-world fantasy.)
I do love my Historical Fantasy, and I’ve found some real advantages to writing it.
The main thing that separates Historical Fantasy from other types of Fantasy is that the backbone of your setting is based in an actual historical period. You’re working in a real place that has real history and a very real setting, and in that setting, you’re writing fantasy.
So your setting already comes half made for you. Culture, events, religion…they’re mostly laid out. You don’t have to do that part of the worldbuilding. Maps? They already exist. You just have to do two things: 1) Find that information, and 2)Decide what parts you’re going to keep, and what you’re going to replace.
I’ll talk about finding that information more next week, but for now I’m focusing on what you’re going to change.
Because the moment you add Fantasy to the world, things change. Your fiction becomes Alternate History. Some writers swing way off the path of history, while others try to hold the line as closely as they can.
Here’s an example. When Washington Irving wrote his short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, it was historical fantasy. He tried to make the story close to the real setting (including the bridge), purportedly based his Ichabod Crane on a nearby school master, but incorporated a fantastical element of a huntsman that might have come from German mythology. That was his primary deviation from reality.
But last year a TV series debuted, also based upon that story—Sleepy Hollow. As soon as the first episode rolled, people were eager to comment on places in which the producers had simply deviated too far from history. An example of this is the use of the word ‘triage’, a word that didn’t come into use until decades later. I certainly noticed the anachronism when watching. But the producers went all out in the next several episodes, winking at history and basically diverging from reality and good sense wherever they pleased. The wilder their fantastical elements, the crazier the series became…
…and yet, I’m a huge fan. I’m a Sleepyhead. I loved the characters and the zaniness enough to overcome my cringing over ‘triage’. They’ve kept me watching. And I wasn’t alone. The TV series was renewed after only 3 episodes.
My point here is two-fold. First, the author chooses how far off the path of history they’re going to go. The reader (or viewer) decides whether they’re willing to extend their suspension of disbelief that far.
Secondly, the author needs to try to hold together all the bits of historical changes they’re creating. If you make a change to history or your setting, it creates ripples throughout the fabric of the story that the author must manage. If the author isn’t consistent, tears begin to show in the fabric of their reality that will distract readers out of the book (this is true of ALL fantasy, though.)
And if your characters are compelling enough, if your story is good enough, people just won’t care. If you can hold it together and keep your crazy under control, you might just get renewed for a second season…I mean, a second book.
J. Kathleen Cheney is a former teacher and has taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, with a brief stint as a Gifted and Talented Specialist. Her short fiction has been published in Jim Baen’s Universe, Writers of the Future, and Fantasy Magazine, among others, and her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist. Her novel, “The Golden City” is a Finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards (Best First Novel).
The sequel, “The Seat of Magic” will be out July 1, 2014.
The Seat of Magic (buy links)
BLURB for The Seat of Magic
Magical beings have been banned from the Golden City for decades, though many live there in secret. Now humans and nonhumans alike are in danger as evil stalks the streets, growing more powerful with every kill….
It’s been two weeks since Oriana Paredes was banished from the Golden City. Police consultant Duilio Ferreira, who himself has a talent he must keep secret, can’t escape the feeling that, though she’s supposedly returned home to her people, Oriana is in danger.
Adding to Duilio’s concerns is a string of recent murders in the city. Three victims have already been found, each without a mark upon her body. When a selkie under his brother’s protection goes missing, Duilio fears the killer is also targeting nonhuman prey.
To protect Oriana and uncover the truth, Duilio will have to risk revealing his own identity, put his trust in some unlikely allies, and consult a rare and malevolent text known as The Seat of Magic….