Writing Excuses 7.7: Historical Fantasy


Editor’s Note: This post has been written by Linda K. Strahl, an editor at the Jet Fuel Review. Her full bio can be found at the end of this post.

To start off the podcast, the group decides to define the best version of, “what we know as Historical Fantasy,” and this podcast is about almost everything they could come up with. In comparison with a more known genre, Alternative History, it’s a science fiction based version of what the group is presenting. In Alternative History, “you are changing one little thing in history, and trying to extrapolate,” explains Brandon. In understandable terms, it’s the alternate version to the story we know.

Historical Fantasy, in comparison, has more to do with the whimsical. I paraphrase the definition the group gives by saying, “think of a historical period with an additive of magic. It doesn’t matter if the world you create is hidden or set in the time period that you found it in, the magic is what makes the topic a Historical Fantasy.”

What the group mentions that I thought was interesting was that, “You can pick the period you love,” and just want to add some fun sparkly fireworks show of magical elements. “But the fact is that this is entirely based on what never happened,” they say. The fact that it’s fantasy — the key term here — tells the readers that though there is that element of historical familiarity, the fact is that we would not be here today if magic existed. Kick-in-the-gut-fact with no magic lands us in a present day world, which is why writers are so necessary to spin the tales of the “what if” side of life.

The landmarks of the conversation that give us the chance to grapple with the topics particularities are given and I will list a few here. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, shows the influence of magic on a regency society. Mary states the question Clarke is trying to answer by saying, “If magic existed in this society, how would that affect this society?” And it is a good, basic term that leads the process in creating the basic plot to her story. This is a genre based question that can be altered for each element an author has to implement into their story. “If I add this… what will that affect?” is a common and essential question that facilitates any greater and lesser plots in the story’s progression. The Prestige, another example, casts an underlying element of magic in historical events. Mark Chadborne’s Silver Skull, is the Renaissance England James Bond. Jasper Kent’s vampire series in the Russian Civil War called, Twelve, is another excellent example.

The enticement of Historical Fantasy novels is found in the familiar, with an added pinch of genre fiction. The familiar and the strange are interlocked and give the, “what if, escapist factor,” that many want these days. In a way, there is less to do with creating something from scratch, a new world, and more to do with research in this genre. The dangerous part about the topic is the amount of research that becomes necessary if you as an author decide to take on an historical setting. Because there are history buffs that will nitpick an author to death if they don’t do what history says happened. Mary’s solution in her book, Shades of Milk and Honey, is burning down the building that everyone expects Roosevelt to be in on this time of this day in this particular year of her book.

Here is the “how-to” of it all. Just in case you are wondering, here is the process that some of these mentioned authors and genre buffs might approach their work. Look at the culture and society (i.e.RESEARCH). Mary looks at the fiction of the period she is studying. Experts are good tools to help with the details of all the things you need to know, and whether or not you can get away with some of the more detailed aspects of the time. Mary tells one of her more insane processes of accurate “words of the period,” which you should check out in the group’s podcast on iTunes for free.

Quote of the Week: It’s really fun to screw with history.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: His Majesty’s Dragon: Temeraire, Book 1, by Naomi Novik, narrated by Simon Vance.

Writing Prompt: Identify a historical period that you like, and write a story in that setting. Don’t bother researching anything until you’re done.

Editor’s Note: Linda K Strahl is a transfer student from University of Wisconsin- La Crosse, where she was studying Archaeology and minoring in Creative Writing. She came to Lewis University in Fall of 2010 to major in Creative Writing. After participating in the production of two plays at Phillip Lynch Theater she has become an enthusiastic dramaturg, and is contemplating a career as a researcher and playwriter.

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