Clare London (clarelondon) wrote,
Clare London

HISTORICAL FANTASY - why not just write Historical Fiction?

Today's guest is the author Dusk Peterson whose work has both impressed and haunted me - in the best possible way! - over several years. I love the way that the dark settings of Dusk's stories both affect and aid the main characters' personal journey. All the characters are sympathetic, though not always in familiar ways, and the settings vividly described. Sometimes the men will have a sexual relationship, sometimes not - but there is always deep passion involved. I personally love the historical fantasy style of the stories, and this is the topic of today's post.

Author's Blurb:: Dusk Peterson writes fantasy stories on friendship, gay historical fantasy tales, and contemporary gay fiction. Occasionally, a heterosexual love story will appear as well. Suspense plays an important role in many of the tales; the conflict in those tales is both external and internal. Peterson's stories are often placed in dark settings, such as prisons or wartime locations. The mood of the stories, however, is not one of unrelieved gloominess. Romance and friendship, especially male friendship, are recurring themes.

[Clare: the LJ-cuts and excerpts are my own edits, I hope they help, not hinder]


Historical Fantasy - why not just write Historical Fiction?

"It's worthwhile for a [historical fiction] writer to pick the year first and then research the society in that year rather than saying 'oh it's Georgian' and throwing in facts from the reigns of all three Georges. Not only does it narrow down your research, but it also has the benefit of making your 'Regency' (or whatever) that much more real, authentic and therefore unique.
"And you can still bring out the Saxons in helicopters for that Fantasy novel you were planning!"
—Alex Beecroft: The Past is a Blob.

One of the biggest puzzles of my life is why it took me three decades, after I became a writer, to begin writing historical fantasy. After all, my father is a literary historian, I had intended to major in history in college, I ended up attending a Great Books college (St. John's in Annapolis) that provides its students with a thorough grounding in Western intellectual history, and to top it all off, I worked for several years as an author of history articles. One would think that writing historical fantasy would be an obvious choice for me.

The answer is simple: Back in the Dark Ages (that is to say, when I was growing up), historical fantasy of the sort I write didn't exist.

Historical fiction existed, of course. So did historical fiction with fantasy elements; Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills were two books I encountered at age thirteen that helped to shape me as a budding fantasy writer. But while I'd end up writing my own Arthurian tale eventually, historical fiction that was flavored with fantasy wasn't the sort of writing I felt called to do.


The first series I ever started writing, a friendship fiction series called The Three Lands, is typical of the sort of fantasy I grew up with. I call this subgenre quasi-medieval because it has a medievalish flavor to it, but it doesn't represent any sort of Middle Ages that ever existed.

I don't know which author invented the quasi-medieval genre. Certainly not William Morris, a Victorian author/artist/printer who was one of the pioneers of fantasy writing, and who did a passing imitation of the style of medieval romances. I suspect that the greatest influence on the quasi-medieval subgenre was J. R. R. Tolkien, who was a fine scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature, yet whose writing became a canon unto itself. To this day, most fantasy authors don't set their stories in anything resembling historical periods; they set them in re-hashed Middle-Earth.

I like quasi-medieval fantasy. I continue to write the Three Lands series and other quasi-medieval stories. There's great fun in being able to create a world through what the fan fiction world calls "fanon": writing that arises, not from a direct imitation of the canon material (e.g., Earth's history), but from an imitation of the fiction created about the canon (e.g., Tolkien and other seminal fantasy writers). In my case, the fanon I'm drawing upon is mainly the Arthurian novels I've read over the years. This means my Three Lands setting has a vaguely Dark Ages feel to it, but not enough that one could really pin down the period I'm writing about.

Research has been a cinch: I don't do any. Unfortunately, the history writer in me isn't satisfied by such stories. Back in 1995, while I was happily tossing all sorts of anachronistic elements into The Three Lands (the series has everything from Roman reclining couches to eighteenth-century tuning forks), part of me felt that I should be getting the details correct. But how could I do that, since I can't easily write historical fiction?

The first time I became dimly aware that a third alternative existed was in the late 1990s, when I encountered the novels of Guy Gavriel Kay.

Mr. Kay's The Lions of Al-Rassan initially puzzled and exasperated me. The author was clearly writing about the conflicts between the Christians, Muslims, and Jews in medieval Spain, so why on earth had he been so coy as to create an imaginary world and come up with new names for these groups?

It took me a while to figure out his goal. Here is how Mr. Kay puts it:

>>My friend Dorothy Dunnett, the Scottish historical fiction writer, complains about my methods. She says, "I want to know what happened in the year 573 and know that it's true. I want to feel I'm learning something." This is, of course, fiction as pedagogy. And I argue in response that you are learning something – you're just learning it in a different way. You're not learning what happened in the year 573, but if I'm any good you're learning some of the forces and themes and elements that were significant in that time period, that moved and shaped the world. . . .

What I've been specifically interested in is how the examination of themes and trends, moments in history, can be intensified by dealing with them through fantasy. Not softened, not fudged, but sharpened. One way is kind of obvious. You can telescope events. The actual Christian reconquest of Moorish Spain took almost 400 years. In The Lions of Al-Rassan, I examine what I see as some of the underlying themes of the holy war that took place in Muslim and Christian Spain, and focus it down to two generations, while keeping (I hope) a significant perception of what was moving through that period.<<

That's what makes historical fantasy entertaining to me as a historical-minded reader. Historical fantasy can simplify history in order to get at its essence. It can strip away certain distracting elements (for example, the fact that the struggle for power in Spain took place over centuries, far too long to allow a historical fiction author to write anything but a lengthy epic) to get at the core of the matter (Christianity won, and here's what was lost).

Ironically, though, this simplification requires historical fantasy writers to be almost obsessive-compulsive about historical facts. Historical fantasy is a very different genre from quasi-medieval fantasy, which picks and chooses bits of history to suit the plot. A quasi-medieval fantasy writer can easily get away with doing research through a few secondary sources that are riddled with errors, with titles like Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Everyday Medieval Life. It doesn't really matter if a quasi-medieval writer gets historical details correct; all that matters is that their story be plausible and self-consistent.

But while a historical fantasy writer has more flexibility than a historical fiction writer in determining which historical details to adhere to, there is still a bottom line in such matters. If the novel does not, in some important way, convey the feeling of a particular historical period, then it has failed as historical fantasy. It may well be a good fantasy novel, but it won't possess the historical element that is vitally important for the genre of historical fantasy. As a result, historical fantasy writers have to be passionately interested in accurately recreating the atmosphere of particular historical periods. And that can sometimes mean having to do the same sort of nitty-gritty research on styles of furniture, train timetables, etc. that historical fiction writers have to tackle.

In a certain way, a historical fantasy writer has less wriggle room than a historical fiction writer, in the same way that a fantasy writer has less wriggle room than a contemporary fiction writer. If a contemporary fiction writer says that the subway in Washington, D.C., opened in 1967 (when it actually opened in 1976), or if a historical fiction writer says that nitrocellulose was used in gunpowder in 1660 (when it actually wasn't used till three centuries later), readers will usually demonstrate patience in terms of retaining suspension of disbelief. After all, the author is writing about a real world: either the world we know or a world that we know used to exist. Even if the author got a detail wrong, the world they're writing about is still real.

But if a fantasy writer fails to create a consistent system of magic, or if a historical fantasy writer introduces some glaring element of anachronism (without a justifiable reason for doing so, such as that the reader wouldn't understand the actual dialect used in that period), then the reader's belief in that world is likely to snap. The only thing that a reader of an invented world can depend on in maintaining a sense of belief is the plausibility of that world. The more mistakes that appear in the story, the less plausible that the world will be. At a certain point, the invented world will cease to exist in the reader's mind.

Contemporary fiction writers and historical fiction writers face their own challenges, of course. I wouldn't want to be the historical fiction author who had to explain to an angry reader why they allowed the moon in their novel to set at 12:38 a.m. when, in actual fact, the moon on that particular day in history set at 12:44 a.m. So I'm not trying to suggest that historical fiction writers have to be any less concerned with detail than historical fantasy writers; I'm just suggesting that historical fantasy writers depend on that element of historical accuracy to keep their readers from saying, "This world could never have existed."


To give a sense of the challenges facing a historical fantasy writer, here are a few excerpts from my blog. In these passages, I'm discussing my research for my Prison City series, which has (in the first volume, at least) a setting based on a British-style boarding school next to the Chesapeake Bay in the 1910s . . . or rather, my alternate universe's version of that place and time.

>>Yesterday, I did some online research about the history of the Calvert Cliffs State Park. I turned up a wonderfully valuable article in the Chesapeake Bay Journal about the history of the Cove Point region. Drawing on research done by other scholars, the article writer said that there had been several Colonial manors in the region. So I started doing Web searches on the manor names and turned up a 1913 book on them at the Internet Archive, describing what the manors looked like in that year. I also found at Google Books an 1873 novel set in Calvert County that gave a very detailed description of one of the manor houses and of many of the regional features.
None of the manors seem to have been close to the water or connected in any way with water occupations, but I think I can use artistic license here. I did go searching to see how good a harbor the cove north of Cove Point is (the one that Doug and I visited at Calvert Cliffs State Park). Not a very good one, it turns out, but it's half-heartedly recommended to sailors as a shelter from northwestern winds.

The information I cannot find, for the life of me, is how far into shore visiting boats can go. I need to know that in order to know whether a wharf there would be at all plausible. Cove Point Lighthouse marks a shoal, I know – as well as a nasty bit of water where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Patuxent River and gets all stirred up – but I can't locate any information on what the depth is of the shoreline water to the north of Cove Point. Nobody seems particularly interested in that particular cove; it doesn't have a name and barely qualifies as a cove.

*Sigh*. Writing quasi-medieval fantasy was much easier. (But less satisfying to me as a history writer.)<<

All of this research was in the interests of ensuring that I'd placed my protagonist's Federal-style manor in a plausible location along the coast of Calvert County, Maryland, as that setting existed in 1912. In a later blog entry, I described how I pored over nautical and geological maps issued by the U.S. government during that time period. (The nautical map answered my question about the depth of the shoreline water.)
"Taken together, these two maps are like a gift from the gods," I concluded. "They tell me that a house existed right about where I was planning to place my protagonist's estate, close to what is now the park beach. The two maps differ slightly on where the house was located, which gives me wiggle room to place the house where I want, but they both show that a road led up to the house."

I added, "Understand, I could have placed an imaginary house there regardless, but the actual existence of a house there tells me that the terrain was suitable for such a house location. That's what I was trying to determine."

As of now, January 2010, I've spent roughly ten times as many hours on researching the first novel in Prison City as I am likely to spend on writing it. And my research hasn't finished.


Being a historical fantasy writer rather than a historical fiction writer does make a difference to me when I'm researching. Take, for example, this passage from Dorothy Richardson's memoir, The Long Day: The Story of a New York Working Girl (1905), which I read when I was researching another of my historical fantasy series, Michael's House.

>>On the stairs I was brought face to face again with my sinister-looking young man. I looked straight ahead, so as to avoid his eyes. But I found the way blocked, as he stretched his arms from banister to wall.
"What 's the matter with you?" he began coaxingly. "Say, I 'll take you to the theater, if you want to go. What do you say to 'The Jolly Grass Widows' to-morrow night?"

Thoroughly frightened, I responded to the unwarranted invitation by retreating two steps down the stairs, whereupon the young ruffian jumped down and grasped the arm in which I held my packages. I don't know what nerved me up to such a heroic defense, but in the twinkling of an eye he fell sprawling down the stairs, followed by the flying remnants of my landlady's milk-pitcher.<<

Did this tragicomic episode actually occur? And was it typical of the problems faced by young women at that time? If I'd been writing historical fiction, I'd have felt obliged to spend at least half my time reading secondary sources in order to determine whether such episodes had actually happened. (I'm somewhat doubtful that it did in this particular case. The novel was written for a propagandistic purpose: to turn public attention to the fact that working-class women were enduring harsh conditions.)

But I wasn't trying to write about the Edwardian Era as it actually occurred; I was writing about the Edwardian Era as it might have occurred. This meant that determining whether most virtuous working-class young people were being assaulted in dark places wasn't important to me. What was important was that this image – of working-class young people being under continual erotic assault from strong foes – was part of the mythology of the turn of the century. It appears in tale after tale written in that era. As a historical fantasy writer, I could use that mythology without having to worry about whether (as seems all too likely) the social reformers of the time exaggerated the problems faced by the majority of young people, in an attempt to provoke public indignation concerning the very real dangers faced by a select number of young people.

In all likelihood, most virgins of the time were not being assaulted in dark staircases (or, as one of my characters puts it, "Despite what the newsies say of whoremasters, men like Outram don't most times kidnap children"). But the idea that vast numbers of innocent virgins were being deflowered by unscrupulous men is so pervasive in Edwardian literature that, as a historical fantasy writer, I could legitimately center my tale on that imagery.

On the other hand, if I'd still been writing simple fantasy, I wouldn't have cared a fig what sort of mythology appeared in Edwardian literature. I would have made up from scratch all my plot elements, and the results, I think, would have been less concrete than the Michael's House series turned out to be.


So history is the foundation of historical fantasy, as the genre's name suggests. Yet I continue to encounter remarks by history-lovers who clearly believe that historical fantasy has little relation to history. A historical-minded relative said to me recently, "It doesn't matter whether you get the historical facts right in your novels, does it? You're writing fantasy." And the other day I happened across a comment posted by a historical novelist I respect, who compared historical fantasy novels to badly written Hollywood scripts that mangle history.

I think that what some historical fiction readers find confusing is that historical fantasy novelists sometimes use tactics that could result in sheer bad writing if such tactics were used in the process of writing historical fiction. For example, my decision to create a Victorian/Edwardian world in my Turn-of-the-Century Toughs cycle where bisexuality is the norm will seem like sloppy indulgence to some historical fiction writers whose own homosexual characters struggle with threats to freedom and life.

But it wasn't indulgence that made me add that element. It was a passion for history. Specifically, I'm interested in historical elements that tend to be obscured when gay historical fiction is written about the turn-of-the-century period: Social reform. How technology affected journalism. The interplay between religious beliefs and the labor movement. By removing a single element – fear of homosexuality – I can write gay historical stories that bring into higher relief these other interesting strands of history that are often obscured when the main concern of one's character is that he not be sent to prison for sodomy.

As an example, one of the primary motifs in the more realistic strand of boarding-school literature is a forbidden erotic relationship. Most modern readers, off the tops of their heads, will be able to recognize that the relationship was forbidden because it was same-sex.

But how many people have thought about how class differences played into this? In British boarding schools, such relationships were often connected with the institution of fagging. Moreover, it was quite possible for a young lord to serve as a fag to a middle-class prefect. To what extent was the fear of boarding-school eroticism fuelled by the fear that a high-class student was "lowering" himself by serving as a subordinate in an erotic relationship? In an era when a lord's obligation to clean a middle-class youth's boots was considered to be a healthy way to build character, was the image of a lord being sexually penetrated too frightening for people to countenance? Could a youth who was being trained for the highest offices of the land ever be a perceived as a sexual bottom without losing face? And what if a fag was serving a prefect who was his lord outside the school, and another prefect grew interested in him? Would political rivalries based on allegiances and class cause the situation to explode beyond its original bounds?

The boarding-school literature I've read doesn't answer these questions. By removing the element of fear of homosexuality from the historical setting of my Prison City series, I hope to offer possible answers.

This brings me to one final point that Guy Gavriel Kay makes. I've been talking in this post about the historical aspects of historical fantasy, and I've been approaching that topic from the perspective of modern readers looking back on historical events, knowing what is going to happen. But as Mr. Kay points out, there is another way of approaching history: as a person living through that time period, not knowing what is going to happen. Unless a historical fiction writer is dealing with an obscure episode of history or obscure characters, that element of the unknown is lost.

What will happen to the nation I write about in Prison City? We know what happened in the actual 1910s: the problems that my series mentions continued to grow worse and worse (for example, the pollution of the Chesapeake Bay), or else they were dealt with in a summary fashion that left the underlying issues unresolved (fagging has been abolished in most boarding schools, though the power structure that gave rise to fagging remains).

But I'm not writing about the 1910s that actually occurred; I'm writing about an alternative 1910s that might have occurred. As Mr. Kay cautions in this final passage: Reader beware.

>>Another thing [historical] fantasy lets you do is open up a useful doubt in a reader's mind about what happens next. If anyone writes a novel about Queen Elizabeth and the Spanish Armada, you know what happened. The novel can be brilliant, consuming, exquisitely crafted – one of my favorite historical so all time, Death of the Fox by American writer George Garrett, about Sir Walter Raleigh, is a dazzling book. But as a storyteller, which remains one of my principal drives, I love the idea that because I've served notice to you that my setting is not Byzantium in Sailing to Sarantium – it's a fantasy on themes of Byzantium – even though you know Justinian and Theodora and Count Belisarius, you still can't know where my story's going. I'm reserving to myself the right, the responsibility, to let the history unfold as what I see the story is demanding.<<

The quotations by Guy Gavriel Kay come from "Guy Gavriel Kay: Lord of Fantasy," Locus No. 472 (May 2000), page 7.

Having given my thoughts on historical fantasy, I'd love to hear yours. Which historical fantasy stories have you read or written? If you're a historical fantasy author, what sort of research do you do, and what sort of unique challenges do you face? If you don't write historical fantasy, do you like reading that genre? Why or why not?

I'll look forward to reading your replies. And I'd enjoy having you stop by my Website and blog whenever you have a chance, so that I can get to know you better.

~~Dusk Peterson~~



Today's Quote:
"A true friend remembers your birthday but not your age."

Today's Daft Google Searches for 'Clare London':
"The Marketplace - buy and sell used and new beauty" Hmm...sounds like a SF plot to me... :)


Follow this month with Clare (look at the goodies so far...):

Jan 22 : Author Jordan Castillo Price wonders "what if" she hadn't been a writer?
Jan 23 : Author Syd McGinley asks Is Dr. Fell a Gary Sue?‏
Jan 24 : Author Angela S. Stone tells us about her 'Bunnies' and offers Free Fiction.‏
Jan 24 : Author Lori Toland tells us about the rock 'n' roll of her new release.‏
Jan 25 : Author Rowena Sudbury talks about inspiration and its spark in her fiction.‏
Jan 26 : Author Anne Brooke shares her new release "A Stranger's Touch".‏
Jan 27 : Author Chrissy Munder suggests we examine our assumptions.‏

Jan 15 : Jen of Well Read savours the memory of food, and seeks it in her fiction!
Jan 16 : Author Mel Keegan tells us why we should all be visiting the GLBT Bookshelf.
Jan 17 : Author Cassandra Gold discusses the wonderful world of the romance sub-genre.
Jan 18 : Author Wren Boudreau asks "Who am I...and am I okay with it?"
Jan 19 : Author Jenna Hilary Sinclair confesses her writing!
Jan 20 : Author Dakota Flint discusses the fascination of the Epilogue.
Jan 21 : Author Janey Chapel treats us to pictures of her favourite kink!

Jan 08 : Jessewave wonders - tongue in cheek - where the less shiny guys are!
Jan 09 : Anne Cain shares her art and encourages a show and tell!
Jan 10 : My latest release Upwardly Mobile is out at Amber Quill today.
Jan 11 : Author Lee Rowan discusses why love should not be a garotte.
Jan 12 : Author Jaime Samms asks if readers prefer short or long stories.
Jan 13 : Author Erastes explains why her submissions keep aiming for the stars!
Jan 14 : Author Daimeryan Rei describes the rewards of writing both fan and original fiction.

Jan 01 : The New Year brings the release of the Immortal Fire anthology IN PRINT.
Jan 02 : author Chrissy Munder asks if current affairs in fiction is delightful or just dates us.
Jan 03 : author Madeleine Urban describes how her characters hijacked her brain.
Jan 04 : author Theda Black's inspiration reaches from a bionic penis to the power of Pan.
Jan 05 : author Josh Lanyon shares some exceedingly good books with us.
Jan 06 : author K. Z. Snow questions what all the fuss is about authors 'making shit up'.
Jan 07 : Josie aka 1more_sickpuppy compares her life and friends online and off.

Want to grab a day to pimp, pose or pontificate? Email me at clarelondon11 @ and I'll happily find you a space ♥

NOTE: most pictures chosen by me and credited where known, others may be used without direct permission, please contact me with any queries/concerns.
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