Yesterday I began this post on Fantastic History. See part one here.
For authors who write historical fantasy, how much historical detail is enough? It varies by author and book, but quite often authors want their historical details to be accurate.
Authentic History, Fresh Fantasy
Though some writers use history only as inspiration, many are committed to historical accuracy. Carla Jablonski says, “The research helped inspire events that took place in [Silent Echoes] and I think the more realistic the setting, the more absolutely rooted in the truth, the more your reader will go with you in the fantasy.”
“I also write nonfiction,” says Tiffany Trent, author of In the Serpent’s Coils, “so I’m a stickler for being as accurate as I can, no matter what I’m writing. In the Hallowmere books, I used as much factual detail as I could, even down to finding out the days of the week corresponding to the 1865 calendar so I knew whether I was scheduling events at the proper time. I do admit to a few liberties when absolutely necessary, but on the whole, I don’t feel excused from historical fact just because I’m writing fantasy.”
Clare B. Dunkle says, “Because the
place mostly within the confines of the fantasy part of that world, I didn’t
have to do too much research. For By These Ten Bones, however, I
probably did more research than I would have done for straight historical
fiction because I needed to know not just the historical details of life in a Hollow
Kingdom Highland township but their superstitions, pagan
practices, and religious beliefs as well.”
The Messy Details
For Dunkle, “The historical setting of By These Ten Bones began to feel constricting after a time because I couldn’t just go with any flight of fancy my mind might dream up. I felt compelled to ‘get it right.’ This led me to obsess over crazy details, such as how the medieval Scottish chickens looked. I also had to piece together the mental and spiritual perspective of the medieval Highlander, which meant that I was working with characters who didn’t think the way I do. This can be uncomfortable for an author, but I dislike books that dress modern characters up in medieval costumes and call them ‘historical.’”
Of Dragon’s Keep, Janet Lee Carey says, “It’s all made up of course but tying into the Arthurian legend in the prologue and setting the story a little more than six hundred years later had its responsibilities.” She cites “the frustration of making the dates in the story fit snugly into English history. I had to do extensive research into England’s civil war between Empress Matilda and King Stephen, but it was worth it.”
Jablonski found challenging, “Making sure the fantasy element is believable, making the transitions between worlds seamless and grounded in credible reasoning – I paid a lot of attention to that.”
A Fictional History
Historical fantasy has a sister genre in speculative fiction that uses an alternate history. The Amethyst Road has a setting much like the
Pacific Northwest, but in a world
where gypsies are common and persecuted. Author Louise Spiegler says, “This
is an archetypical story – the story of the heroine’s journey through trials.
One reason I didn’t tell this as a straight contemporary story was to tap into
these archetypes, and to create a world that is rich with allusion and poetry.”
Once you accept the basic premise of that world, it follows all the rules of ours. No one uses magic; there are no dragons or fairies. Spiegler says, “The research made my created group feel much more real to me, and certainly made the experience of racism come across more powerfully, and yet the speculative fiction form allowed me to integrate these invented people into this more archetypal story I was telling.”
Traveling Back in Time
Time travel books have long been popular in children’s literature. Often, the time-travel itself is the only fantasy element, while both the present world and the past are strictly realistic. In
Susan Cooper’s King of
Shadows, a young actor winds up in Shakespeare’s time. In Kimberly
Little’s The Last Snake Runner, a Native
American boy travels back to the Acoma Pueblo of 1598. These books take place
mainly in the past, as seen through the eyes of a contemporary character.
A few books weave contemporary and past stories together with multiple trips through time. In On Etruscan Time, by
a boy on an archaeology dig visits an Etruscan village 2000 years ago. He and
his friend from the past move between each other’s world several times.
In Louise Spiegler’s novel, The Jewel and the Key, the main character travels back and forth between the early days of the American invasion of
and World War I. Spiegler says, “My subject demanded time travel. I felt a
strong resonance between the two time periods, between the two wars – the
questionable reasons for our involvement, the strong voices raised against it,
the antagonism towards dissent, the curtailment of civil liberties.
“In this case, the advantage over straight historical fiction is the introduction of a perspective that characters who are embedded in their own time period can’t have. My World War I characters can’t know – as my 21st century characters do, for example – that World War I won’t be the war to end all wars.”
Bringing History to Life
Editor Reka Simonsen says, “I think history is fascinating to most people, really; it’s just the dry textbook approach that turns so many of us away from it. But when a talented author revisits a long-ago time or place and brings the people there to life, the results can be captivating.”
A realistic setting grounds the fantasy, while fantasy elements breathe fresh life into old times. For young readers, historical fantasy could be the entryway into a love of 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.