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Writing Excuses 7.7: Historical Fantasy

Writing Excuses 7.7: Historical Fantasy


Key Points: alternate history changes a historical fact and extrapolates, while historical fantasy adds a magical element to history and goes on from there. Think through how it affects society, but don't push too hard. Mary said, "Jane Austen needs more rotary cannons." Historical fantasy mixes the familiar with the strange. Do your research! Historical fantasy and urban fantasy are the same thing, just in different times. Get familiar with the culture and society. Talk with experts. Beware language, for it doth shift, but you are writing for modern readers.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Seven, Episode Seven, Historical Fantasy.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.

[Brandon] All right-y. Historical fantasy. I want to begin this off by a definition. We have talked about alternate history before. I view historical fantasy as a very different side of the same coin. Where alternate history is more science fiction-based. You are changing one little thing in history and trying to extrapolate. Historical fantasy is more, let's say, whimsical. This is where we are going back and we are adding a magical element, whether it's hidden world or unhidden world, to our own world, that is not explained through science, but really through fantastical reasoning.
[Mary] I think one of the reasons to draw that distinction is that when you're doing alternate history, you... With both of them, you do have to think through how it affects society. But there is a point with historical fantasy where if you look at it too closely, it will often fall apart, because really the point is we like this period in history, we want to have magic in it. But if magic had actually existed through these thousands of years leading up to this point...
[Howard] There would have been no Napoleon.
[Mary] Things would look very different.
[Brandon] Well, this is a baseline of fantasy. If we go and we look at Tolkien realistically... I mean, come on, there can be no dragons. Dragons are physiologically impossible, unless you add magic, which is breaking the laws of conservation of energy. Fantasy, we do come up with rationale, we do try to add some science to it, and get some rules and things like this. But at the end of the day, if you look at it too closely, it breaks down. That is a very big difference between alternate history and historical fantasy. Let's give some examples of historical fantasy for our listeners who... Just in case they're not familiar with it.

[Mary] One example is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.
[Brandon] Yes. A very good example.
[Mary] This is basically what would the Regency look like with magic. It's actually really well thought out. But again, if magic had been around, it wouldn't look exactly the way it does. But what she does is, she says, "Okay. So this is Regency society. These are the customs. If magic existed in this society, how would that affect this society?"
[Brandon] Right. A lot of the Steampunk movement fits into this pretty well. You could even take a step towards something like The Prestige, which is adding a little bit of an actual magical element to historical events. Your own book, Shades of Milk and Honey, quite a good book...
[Mary] Thank you.
[Brandon] Things like this. It's actually a pretty hip genre right now.
[Howard] The distinction's not perfect, but I think that the original Alexander Dumas Three Musketeers is sort of alternate history, or historical fiction. The later retellings of that are little more alternate history. This most recent abomination of a film, which I loved, is historical fantasy because the technologies and everything that's being introduced into the story are absolutely impossible, but they're being introduced in that period of sensibilities, and telling a story with airships and rotary cannons.
[Brandon] Right. Adding airships and rotary cannons to... Yeah, would definitely be...
[Mary] That's what I'm missing!
[Brandon] Yes. Where are your rotary cannons?
[Howard] You don't have any airships in Shades of Milk and Honey?
[Dan] No airships?
[Mary] No. Airships are fine. It's the rotary cannons. Jane Austen needs more rotary cannons.
[Dan] We're putting that on the cover of the DVD. Some of... There's some more examples I want to mention. Mark Chadbourn, who wrote Silver Skull, which is basically a kind of renaissance England James Bond story with the Fae court invading, and this guy has to fight them off. Jasper Kent has a fantastic kind of historical horror fantasy series about vampires fighting in Russian Civil War that's wonderful. The first book is called Twelve.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Dan] There's a lot of it out there right now.

[Brandon] Okay. Let's asked this question before we dig into how to write it. Why is this so popular? Because this seems like a really, like I said, hip genre in a really interesting way. It's a movement. It's not really gone super huge yet, but I think we see a consistent appreciation for it in the genre right now.
[Howard] You know what, it's the same reason why a remix of an 80s song with 2010 sensibilities will appeal to many of us. It's because you're taking something from our childhood, in this case history class, and you are now infusing it with something that we love, genre fiction.
[Mary] Yeah. The familiar and strange.
[Howard] It's the familiar and the strange. In this case, well, the past is a foreign country, but because we took history classes, we... Falsely, doesn't matter... Believe that it is familiar to us. Oh, yeah, I know Napoleon. Oh, yeah, I know the Revolutionary war. Now we're seeing these characters in a new light with magical muskets or whatever, and it's fun.
[Brandon] It's the whole Pride and Prejudice with Zombies thing, except done in a non-...
[Dan] Done seriously. Done straight.
[Brandon] Done seriously. Yeah. Done straight.
[Dan] One thing that I think you can see a lot of. Fantasy as a genre is really relatively young. This is kind of its adolescence, I think, what we're seeing right now. There's a lot of ways... People are just kind of stretching the boundaries of what fantasy is. We have urban fantasy, we have Steampunk, that are all kinds of different ways in which you can take fantasy and make it more familiar. Whether you're adding technology to it or a familiar setting or just setting it actually in Earth. So I think it's a big part of it is just that. It's another way in which people are playing with fantasy.
[Mary] Yeah. I think one of the other things that draws people to it is that for a long time, fantasy was defined by being medieval Europe. This is a way to explore different social customs, different clothes, and all of these aspects. In a lot of ways, it's a way to do it without having to create the secondary world. It's difficult... There are aspects of historical fantasy that are easier than secondary world fantasy, and there are aspects that are harder. There is less world building that you have to do, however, the research that you have to do...
[Howard] More research.
[Mary] Is phenomenal, because people know the history, and anything that you don't explain as this is why this is different, they will call you on it. I have a book that we're shopping where I had to burn a building down, in the book, because President Roosevelt visited it. For plot reasons, I couldn't have the action taking place in that building. The walls of the dressing rooms were cloth. So... The only... But if I just moved Roosevelt to a different building, the Roosevelt fans would just be like, "No, you... No, no! In 1907, he went to the Ryman." So, I'm like, "All right..."
[Howard] I'm burning the Ryman down.
[Mary] I'm burning the Ryman down.
[Brandon] That's a great solution.
[Dan] Which you can do, because you've done the research.
[Howard] I can't believe we forgot this title in our roll call. Larry Correia's Grimnoir Chronicles are historical fantasy, sort of pushing into the edge of urban fantasy, because it's set in the 20s, and it's urban, but he's digging into history in order to get all these pieces right.

[Mary] That's actually something to take a look at. I'm glad you said that, because the difference between historical fantasy and urban fantasy, in terms of the world building and the way you have to look at the way it affects society... There is no difference. These are basically the same thing, it's just that with...
[Brandon] Time period.
[Mary] It's time period. That's the biggest difference.
[Dan] Well, I'm glad you mentioned Larry's stuff, because that's one of the other reasons I wanted to point out that why is historical fantasy is becoming so popular, because a lot of it's just really fun to screw with history. One of the things that he'll do is he'll find old quotes... There's one quote, for example, and I can't remember exactly which historical figure it was, but it's just wildly racist, and he...
[Mary] It could have been any of them.
[Dan] He'll take some and he'll change them slightly, so that you read the quote and you're like, "Oh, that's Theodore Roosevelt" or whoever, but slightly different because this is a magic world. Then there's other quotes like that, that you can plug in and people will think they've been changed, because here's this old famous role model, and no, he was just a racist.
[Brandon] It actually is... This... Doing this is a lot of fun. I wrote a gearpunk story, I've talked about it before on the podcast. I haven't released it yet because I haven't found the right place. But it's alternate our world historical fantasy. It's just a blast to play with some of these things. To... What if magic were real? And you combined it with the Anglican church and some of these things, and it becomes just a really fun mashup that you can do, taking from here and from there.
[Dan] Well, and doing goofy things, like the Titanic didn't sink, and now it's on its sixth voyage or whatever. Whether that's a throwaway gag or whether that's a great big element of your story, it's fun.

[Brandon] Let's stop for the book of the week. Mary?
[Mary] Yeah. I was going to take Temeraire by Naomi Novik. Book one is called His Majesty's Dragon. This is basically what would the Napoleonic wars have looked like if they had dragons? This is one of those books that I was talking about, that if you look at it too closely, society would probably not have developed exactly this way, but she again has started out very well. The dragons are integrated into society. One of the things that's exciting, if you read or listen to the other books in the series, is that she goes other places and looks at the way dragons have integrated with different societies. So it's very nicely done.
[Brandon] Naomi Novik...
[Howard] Do we get Napoleon's giant semaphore robots in that book?
[Mary] No, because you don't need those, if you've got dragons because they can carry men [garbled]
[Dan] Little messenger dragons.
[Mary] That's actually one of the things that she does, nicely, is play with the mail system.
[Brandon] That name sounds familiar. Oh, yeah, she's one of the people that beat me for the Campbell award.
[Mary] Sorry about that.
[Dan] We were all... In the beginning, when Brandon said what are some examples of historical fantasy, we were all trying very hard to bite our tongues and not say His Majesty's Dragon because this series really is a wonderful example of it. It kind of reads like Master and Commander, that kind of thing.
[Brandon] Howard! How can they download this wonderful book?
[Howard] Head on out to You can kick off a 14 day free trial membership, and download His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik for free, and help support the podcast while you're doing so.

[Brandon] Okay. Let's talk about actually, for the rest of the podcast, how to do this. How do you write historical fantasy? Mary, your the best of us at it. Give us some hints.
[Mary] Well, you start... Once you decide your period... If you're doing magic, then you have to start working on your magic system. Part of that is looking at the culture and society that you're in. Which involves a lot of research. But the way I start off is... I start off researching in two different modes. One is fact, the other is fiction. I start out reading historical fiction from the period.
[Brandon] Okay. That's a good way.
[Mary] To get a feel for what people... This is not fiction that people are writing now about the period, that people in the period were writing...

[Brandon] Wrote. Do you go to primary sources?
[Mary] As much as I possibly can. So primary sources are first-hand accounts, newspaper things, things from the actual period. The other thing that I do is that I try to read kind of overviews to kind of get a... This is what I call my broad general research. Then I go back and I do spot research on specific areas. Like, as I'm writing, if I'm suddenly like, "Oh, when they do calling cards, do they turned the corner down when they make the actual call or..." I don't research that in the moment.

[Brandon] So, after the fact. Do you have any historical experts that you...
[Mary] I do. I joined... Because I write in the Regency, so I joined the Oregon Regency Society. I hit up some experts. Generally speaking, when I've talked to an expert, I offer them an honorarium. Which is very important because they're putting in an investment of time. And usually a significant investment of time. Because I frequently need to go back to them and ask them additional questions, or ask them to read to spot for things I didn't think to ask about.
[Brandon] So you'll pay them an honorarium maybe to read the whole book and give you... Yeah. Okay. What are some other tips?

[Mary] One of the other things is to look at your language. You have to walk a fine line between using language that feels accurate for the period and that is also understandable, remembering that you are writing for modern readers. So an example of something that we cut from Shades of Milk and Honey was I talked about crossed letters. This is this very cool thing, where you turned the letter sideways and continued writing across it. But I had to cut it because no one knew what I was talking about. When I was working on Glamour in Glass, I went just a tiny bit insane.
[Dan] Just a tiny bit?
[Mary] Just a tiny bit insane. I took the complete works of Jane Austen including her letters, converted them into a word list, and I made that my spell check dictionary. That flagged every word in my manuscript that Jane Austen did not use. Which allowed me to...
[Brandon] Wow
[Mary] I told you I went a little insane.
[Brandon] Wow. That's awesome.
[Mary] It doesn't actually take as long as it sounds like it's going to.
[Brandon] No, that's really smart.
[Mary] You can do this with any time period. It doesn't have to be a single author. I could... If I were writing something that was Victorian, I would grab three Victorian sources, maybe...
[Brandon] I think Google has done this. Has compiled lists of how frequently words were used...
[Howard] They've compeered... They've compiled word list frequency things, but the dictionary that Mary's got is something you'd have to build on your own.
[Brandon] Right.
[Mary] So then I turned that into my spell check dictionary, flagged everything, and then I used the Oxford historical thesaurus. Now, most libraries, not all of them, but most libraries in the US will allow you to access... Use your library card to access the OED. The online OED has this thesaurus that shows you synonyms in the order in which they appeared in the language. Which allows you to check to see whether or not a word has shifted. For instance, the word check has shifted. It used to just mean stop.
[Brandon] That seems like it would be one of the toughest parts of getting this all right. Which is one of the reasons that it... It's one of the things that scared me off, honestly, of doing a lot of historical fiction.
[Mary] Well, words that shift... Depending on what you're writing, words that shift are actually often less of a problem. But then you also have words that are totally appropriate for the period, that just don't sound right. Jo Walton calls this the Tiffany problem. Tiffany is actually a name from the 1400s. You can't use it.
[Brandon] You can't call...
[Dan] Yeah, because it feels wrong.
[Mary] I was writing a book in 1907. I had rinky-dink. I went to look it up, I kept seeing all of these resources that said, "Oh, boy, she really rinky-dinked him." I'm like, "Okay, the word has obviously shifted." It meant conned at the time. So I looked up the correct word for the period, and it was honky-tonk. Which I can't use.
[Brandon] Oh, wow.
[Dan] See, this is... I've encountered this same problem. I did a historical fiction, the Mormons and Monsters thing that I did. The writing group... A lot of it is my own writing the dialogue wrong, and a lot of it was the dialogue just felt wrong, even when it was right. So the readers would go through it and say, "No, that can't possibly be how they actually talked." Sometimes it was my own fault. Other times it was accurate, and still felt off, because we just don't think about it.
[Mary] Yup. One thing when you are looking at the way people talked, be cautious of the fiction. Well, I said that I do go and I read the historic fiction. If you can find court transcripts... Anything where people are recording dialogue. It doesn't... They are hard to find, but if you can track them down, you frequently get a better sense of speech patterns. Like... People in Shakespeare's day did not speak in iambic...
[Brandon] Did not speak like Shakespeare. Yup. In fact, they thought... The other writers were like, "This guy is a loon. Where does he come up with this?"
[Mary] He just made those words up!
[Brandon] All right. We are actually way out of time.
[Mary] Sorry.
[Howard] I want to interject something real quick. We didn't touch on this, but based on the amount of work that Mary has described putting into this, I think your actual starting point is pick a period in history, a place in history, about which you're already passionately interested in. Because if you don't have that, you gotta find something else equally powerful to drag you through this enormous amount of leg work that needs to be done.

[Brandon] You know, let's make that our writing prompt. Just to say, think about a story from the past, or a historical period that you have been particularly interested in at one point in time. Go ahead and try and write a story set in that time. Do a little bit of research. Don't go crazy overboard. Do a little bit. Write a story. Then start to fact check yourself. See if this is a process you enjoy.
[Howard] Figure out if you love it.
[Brandon] Yup. All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: alternate history, culture, experts, historical fantasy, language, magic, research, rotary cannons, society, urban fantasy
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