Friday 29 July 2011

History in Fantasy by Juliet McKenna

Today we have a guest post from a successfully published writer of Fantasy. History was one of her favourite subjects at school and she read Classics at St. Hilda's, Oxford. It was there that she joined the Oxford University Speculative Fiction Group, which led for her as for so many others into writing her own fiction. While working as a Bookseller at the now defunct Ottakar's Juliet found recognition, through their rep, with the publisher Orbit and they offered her a two-book deal, bringing out her début, The Thief's Gamble in 1999.

“But don’t you just make it all up?” That’s a frequent comment when I mention my research for the book I’m working on. I’m an epic fantasy novelist, writing swords’n’sorcery and wizards’n’dragons. It’s not as if I’m writing a historical novel.

Let me explain. First, there’s the world building. If a fantasy writer just sketches the background, drawing on Tolkien and other genre writers, all they’ll have is a flat backdrop, as convincing as painted scenery in a school play. Do some research and the fantasy writer can create a fully realised world for the reader, a far more immersive experience than anything offered by film, TV or even the best live theatre.

These days, there’s a wealth of social and thematic history published exploring the everyday lives of real people; what they ate, what they wore, what they did for fun and entertainment.
The reader can experience the true discomforts and delays of travel by horse or carriage. They will realise how different life was when privacy was the exception and shared living, even shared beds were the norm. They see the practical implications, when the fastest means of communication is a man on a horse. Well, apart from a carrier pigeon, but don’t forget, those only go one way. And horses or pigeons, they need feeding and care, not just plugging in to recharge.

This research isn’t solitary toiling in a library. Visit galleries and stately homes to look at paintings and furniture and the fantasy writer can decorate their imagined world. Clothes and jewellery will be far more than some generic ‘gown’. Living history displays and battle re-enactors prompt vivid and realistic descriptions of sword fights. TV series like “Tales from the Green Valley” and “The Victorian Farm” give still more breadth and depth to the writer’s imagined world.

As long as the writer remembers that fantasy fans with an interest in history will most likely have watched the same programmes. Lifting material wholesale is a bad idea. Such an informed reader will also spot vague hand-waving to cover up a lack of knowledge. All the more reason to do the research.

If a fantasy world rests on shaky foundations, the reader soon realises they can’t really trust the writer. Then why should they keep on reading? Whereas, when an imagined world is fully detailed and fully convincing, that bond of trust is strong enough for the reader to follow the writer into the truly fantastic; to believe in the magic and dragons.

As long as their place in this world is thought through with the same care and attention.  Which is why I’ve read countless books on medieval universities, on the history of science when alchemy and astrology ruled, to create the city of Hadrumal where my wizards live and study. Which is why I’ve read medieval bestiaries and myths from around the world, to find out what people really believed about dragons, in those past centuries when they really believed in monsters. Don’t worry though. You won’t see more than a tenth of this in my books and you won’t notice it when you do. The most important thing about using history in fantasy is to use it with a light touch.

Historical research gives writers far more than a convincing world. Any story is about people as much as it’s about place. They influence each other. We’re all products of our time and upbringing, our paths through life influenced by our social status and the opportunities that result or which are closed to us. In turn our individual temperaments and our actions influence the world around us. This has been true for as long as mankind has existed.

Once again, we have superb resources these days. History is no longer about extolling the great deeds of great men. The lives and livelihoods of ordinary folk, the middle classes, even the criminal classes have been uncovered. In particular, the history of women has been brought into the light.

This is important for an epic fantasy writer moving on from the Tolkien template, where the affairs of kings and wizards dominate and the few visible women are defined by their relationships with the men who drive the plot. Don’t misunderstand me; I don’t think Tolkien was a woman hater. But he was a writer of the Great War generation and of his social class and we live in very different times. These days a modern reader is really going to struggle to empathise or engage with any character whose attitudes to gender, race and religion are historically authentic.

Thankfully these days a fantasy writer can read about astonishing women who defied the pressures and expectations of their times. Like Lady Jane Digby who left her husband for an Austrian prince in the 1820s and after two more husbands and numerous lovers, married an Arab sheik twenty years her junior. Once we understand what sort of woman would be so daring, and yes, the price which she would pay, then we can create convincing women to play an equal part in our epics alongside the men.

Crucially we can do that without jarring the reader out of our imagined world, without threatening that bond of trust, with implausible attitudes and reactions. Because it would be the most idiotic fantasy to write about a feisty servant girl who wakes up one morning and discards a lifetime’s upbringing to decide she really must invent feminism.

Speaking of servant girls, we now see that remarkable women don’t have to be noble. Indeed, lower class women often had far more freedom than privileged daughters whose marriages transferred their father’s wealth to some husband. These days we know that women sailed with Nelson’s navy and worked in the dockyards building his ships. We know how women contributed to the rise of science in the Enlightenment, even if their brothers and husbands got all the credit. True, these were exceptional women but stories are generally about exceptional people. Now there’s no excuse to only to write about exceptional men.

Not that everyone has to be exceptional. There will be the ordinary people, the ‘extras’. These people still need to be convincing, however limited their lives and opportunities. Hopefully those characters will also give readers pause for thought, if they think that the freedoms which men and women alike have won in the last century or so no longer need defending.

So historical research gives us convincing worlds and believable people. It also gives us ideas for plots. Not in the obvious way. Readers will soon spot someone rewriting the American Revolution and hoping that no one will notice if they change the hats and the hemlines.

It can happen with little things. When I realised the implications of carrier pigeons only going one way, I couldn’t use magic to solve that problem in that particular book. Then I saw this was an opportunity to invent people who carried pigeons from place to place. Those bird-brokers added a whole new dimension to the unfolding plot of The Aldabreshin Compass.

It can happen on a much bigger scale. In “The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution”, I wanted to write a story about a divided society, where hatred and grudges persist through generation. About the people involved making their own situation worse without even realising. About the people looking on from outside with no good reason to intervene or even be benefitting from those quarrels.

So I read up on the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, a thousand years of Irish history, a century of division over Israel and Palestine and these past few decades of upheaval in the Balkans. I would never have dared write a novel about any of those times or places though. Just getting the detail right would be nigh on impossible. Inconvenient facts would wreck the drama I was trying to shape. Whatever side I was on, or if I refused to take a side, people would read whatever I said in the light of their own pre-conceptions.

But writing about the Lescari Civil Wars meant I could tell exactly the story I wanted to, with men and women from different classes and rival dukedoms coming together to fight against the intractable suffering their families endured. All that research made the story, the people, the places, the twists and surprises, all the more convincing. Here the use of history in writing fantasy goes beyond offering mere entertainment. The more convincing such a story is, the greater the chances that the readers will think a little more deeply about the next news report on some real-world strife. 

Now I’m writing a new trilogy. Those wizards in their scholarly city are facing the greatest challenge of their generation. It’s always been agreed that magic has no place in warfare. How long can that principle hold when corsairs are raiding the Caladhrian coast, stealing and burning? If the Archmage’s Edict is defied, what then?

Here I’m drawing on the decade and more of research which I’ve done since writing my first book. Because history is full of tipping points prompted by the use or abuse of power, whether that’s political or technological or both. Whether it’s wielded by those in authority or by some uprising to challenge the establishment. So that’s why this new series really had to be called ‘The Hadrumal Crisis’.



Katherine Roberts said...

Hello Juliet!

I have written historical books with magic in them and fantasy books with history in them... and as a writer I see very little difference. Only the setting changes - there's a bit more freedom in a fantasy book.

But where is the line, I wonder? At what point does a fantasy based on history become historical? Or a historical novel with magic in it become fantasy? Perhaps it is all down to marketing - fantasy sells into the US, but historical does not?

Anonymous said...

Great post! And so true, too. As a fantasy-writing friend said to me, "Even my dragons have to be believable!"

Anonymous said...

Great post! And so true, too. As a fantasy-writing friend said to me, "Even my dragons have to be believable!"

JEMcKenna said...

Hi Katherine! And Emma :-)

Sorry to be so late in replying but we were on holiday - in Northumberland which is wonderfully supplied with castles filled with interesting things for an author...

On the question of where fantasy and history novels divide - the key elements do seem to be magic and/or a secondary imagined world.

I've written one series with very little magic indeed - The Lescari Chronicles - which did cause some comment and indeed debate. How much magic does epic fantasy need? I reckon it depends on what the author is aiming to say.

Of course that line is very hazy, especially when considering more remote history where facts are thinner on the ground for eg, Manda Scott's Boudica novels - history or fantasy or somewhere in between?