Friday, February 3, 2017

Chris Eboch on Fantastic History: Bringing Legends to Life with Historical Fantasy

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.

Historical fantasy can be a way to introduce history to young people who would not normally read historical fiction. Clare B. Dunkle says of her historical fantasy novels, “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.”

The historical accuracy varies. 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. Still, they could be enough to interest a young reader in a past time period. They could also be paired with more realistic historical fiction or nonfiction for an interesting discussion of what is real and what is imagined.

Other books are set in a clear historical time and place. Donna Jo Napoli’s Beast puts Beauty and the Beast in ancient Persia. Walter Mosley’s 47 is set on an American slave plantation, with a character from a distant world.

A Favorite: Britain

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. Of her novel, Janet Lee Carey says, “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.” Her story is solidly grounded in English history.

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. 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.

In contrast, fantasy elements are an accepted part of everyday life in the Sorcery & Cecilia series by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. Reka Simonsen, then Senior Editor at Henry Holt and Company, once said, “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.”

Farther Afield

Other books push the boundaries into more unusual times and places. Tracy Barrett’s novel King of Ithaka is based on Odysseus’ son Telemachus. She once said, “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.”

My novel The Genie’s Gift is set during the Ottoman Empire and draws on the mythology of One Thousand and One Nights (The Arabian Nights). While the magic and monsters are fantasy, the clothing, food, and other details help capture a setting that is not well-known to most US students.

American history has its fans as well. 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.”

For young readers who are baffled by the concept of cassette tapes or a phone with a cord, all history seems fantastical. Barrett notes, “To most people the Bronze Age is as fantastical a setting as Venus!”

Authentic History, Fresh Fantasy

Though some writers use history only as inspiration, many are committed to historical accuracy. Jablonski says, “The research helped inspire events that took place in the book 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,” Trent says, “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.”

Dunkle comments, “For By These Ten Bones, 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 Highland township but their superstitions, pagan practices, and religious beliefs as well.”


Historical fantasy can be a way to introduce the legends and beliefs of a specific time period. That can make for some fascinating classroom discussions. 

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The Genie’s Gift is a lighthearted action novel set in the fifteenth-century Middle East, drawing on the mythology of The Arabian Nights. Shy and timid Anise determines to find the Genie Shakayak and claim the Gift of Sweet Speech. But the way is barred by a series of challenges, both ordinary and magical. How will Anise get past a vicious she-ghoul, a sorceress who turns people to stone, and mysterious sea monsters, when she can’t even speak in front of strangers?

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; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; 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 www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

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