Thursday, November 12, 2015

Chris Eboch on Fantastic History: Bringing Legends to Life

This post, which will be split between today and tomorrow, is adapted from an article originally published in Children’s Writer newsletter. Some of the books mentioned are middle grade and some are targeted at young adult.

At a glance, historical fiction and fantasy appear to be opposites. Historical fiction requires intensive research to accurately portray a specific past time. In fantasy, the author may create the setting from pure imagination. Yet some writers combine the two genres into historical fantasy. This can be a bridge to get children who like fantasy, but don’t think they like historical fiction, interested in learning about the past.

The historical accuracy varies, however. How to Train Your Dragon, by Cressida Cowell, claims an old Norse setting but is only loosely based on historical Vikings. Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia series reminds the reader of ancient Greece, but includes anachronisms such as guns. Catherine Fisher’s Oracle Prophecies trilogy combines ancient Greece and ancient Egypt. These books are more “inspired by history” than based in historical fact. They could still be used as part of a unit on fact versus fiction, history versus author imagination.

Medieval Inspiration

Of course, many traditional fantasy books draw upon medieval England for setting and mythology. This era remains popular, but some authors take extra care to portray an accurate past. Janet Lee Carey’s Dragon’s Keep is solidly grounded in English history. Carey says of her novel, “Dragon’s Keep started out as a novelized fairytale about a princess with a dragon’s claw. The story begins in A.D. 1145 and takes place on a fictitious island that was once an English prison colony.”

Clare B. Dunkle set By These Ten Bones in about 1550 in the Scottish Highlands and used fantasy elements from the beliefs of the medieval Highlanders. She says, “Folklore-based fantasy has always been a favorite of mine. I made a study of the folklore of Britain when I was in school, so it was a natural choice when I decided to write.”

More recent historical England is another popular fantasy setting. Dunkle’s Hollow Kingdom trilogy, set in England from 1815 to 1854, uses the magical beings of British folklore. Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty and its sequels, set in Victorian England, use an accurate setting where only a few people access the fantasy world.

Reka Simonsen, now executive Editor at Atheneum, says “I’m not sure if the [English] setting fascinates so much because YA readers today have grown up with Harry Potter, or because Victorian London is the birthplace of the most famous classic horror and ghost stories, of if there’s some other reason entirely.” For whatever reason, you’ll find a lot of books with English historical setting.

A Broader World

Other books push the boundaries into more unusual times and places. Tracy Barrett’s novel King of Ithaka is based on Odysseus’ son Telemachos. “I’m trying to keep all the day-to-day details of late Bronze-Age Greece accurate and the centaurs, nymphs, sea-creatures, and other creatures that are in the story are interwoven with these realistic details,” she says. Barrett also has a YA novel about Ariadne and Theseus, called Dark of the Moon.

My own novel The Genie’s Gift is a lighthearted action novel set in the fifteenth-century Middle East. I drew heavily on One Thousand and One Nights, often known as The Arabian Nights, for the mythology in The Genie’s Gift. The stories in One Thousand and One Nights came from Indian, Persian, Arabic, and other sources. They were collected over hundreds of years, beginning in the eighth century.

As in The Arabian Nights, The Genie’s Gift is a series of interlocking stories that make up a whole. I started with many traditional stories and adapted them to suit my needs. Legends refer to a sorceress who changed a man into marble from waist down. Gnomes were said to dwell in the mountains and play tricks on people. A mechanical/magical horse of ivory and ebony could fly, controlled by pegs under its mane. Simurgh, a magic bird, offered advice and healed people by rubbing her feathers over wounds.

Coming to America

Teachers of American history will also find many books that support real history with fantasy stories. Walter Mosley’s 47 is set on an American slave plantation, with a character from a distant world. Eden Unger Bowditch’s The Atomic Weight of Secrets or The Arrival of the Mysterious Men in Black is set in 1903.

Carla Jablonski’s Silent Echoes involves characters in New York City in 1882 and the present. Jablonski was inspired by research about a historical figure. “If she claimed these things today, they’d assume she was crazy. That got me thinking about context; about how values, attitudes, even sanity and reality are determined by the historical time period. The fantasy element allowed me to contrast how the same behavior would be perceived and experienced differently in different times.”

Tiffany Trent’s In the Serpent’s Coils involves a magic school in post-Civil War Virginia. “Often, fantasy books feature some sort of conflict that culminates in an epic battle,” Trent says. “But what if the epic battle has already happened? I wanted to give the sense that my character Corrine, at 15, had lived through a tremendous amount, before she even got involved with dark and mysterious Fey.”

The Painful Truth

Many of these fantasy authors appreciate the gritty realistic details that come from history. Carey says, “The fantastical elements require solid ground. The reader needs to feel as if she’s in a real place. The filth and stench of the middle ages helped me ground the story in reality. Medieval times offered so many strange and often gory details simply as it was. I found the time fascinating from fleas and famine to bizarre medicinal cures – did you know that goose droppings liberally applied can cure baldness?”

Dunkle comments, “Anchoring By These Ten Bones within a historical setting gave the book its strength. The Highlanders had a fascinating superstitious lore. They wouldn’t have been surprised to find a werewolf in their midst, and they would have known exactly which brutal course of action to employ.”

Then there’s the fact that to modern readers, history may seem fantastical. As Tracy Barrett says, “To most people the Bronze Age is as fantastical a setting as Venus!”

Dunkle says, “I think the fantasy elements were what sold the books. They certainly were the elements that made me want to write them.” However, “A number of reviewers also mentioned the setting favorably. But I was surprised when an amateur reviewer on the Web called the book historical fiction rather than fantasy. Her review stated, ‘This is how it would have been if the legends of werewolves were actually true.’”

Stop by tomorrow for part two on Fantastic History.

Chris Eboch’s novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting.

Learn more at or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the mention in this article, Chris. I've read some of the books above, but some are new to me. I'm adding The Genie's Gift and others to my To Read list.