The Ins and Outs of Historical Fantasy.
My genre of choice is historical fantasy. A lot of what I write always tend to veer into this sub-genre, whether it is a short story or a series. My main series, The Spectacular Flying Thieves of 1903, takes place in, well, 1903. There is magic in that world, but it is still very much our world. I also have another project that takes place in 17th century Venice, so there is also a lot of history running around my head, desperate to be paired up with magic.
Today I am going to answer some questions you may have about writing historical fantasy, as well as throwing out some tips, tricks, and just talking about what makes it so fun. I hope you find it helpful!
What is historical fantasy?
It is a sub-genre of fantasy which incorporates the element of real-life history. You don't create your own world, as you would with a "high-fantasy" story, but merely weave the magic system around a certain time period in history.
What's the difference between alternate history and historical fantasy? Also, how is it different from historical fiction?
Alternate history is simply another version of history. It asks a "what if" question that doesn't deal with magic. Think The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. That book deals with the question "what if the Axis powers won WWII?" and the story is built around that idea.
Historical fiction is where the plot takes place in a setting located in the past. The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah. That tells the story of two women in occupied France, in the 1940s. It was realistic (somewhat, I suppose, I have my thoughts on that book), but it dealt with events that actually happened, with no fantastic elements.
Veering away from WWII, a good example of historical fantasy could be A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab. It takes place in 1820 London, but there are other versions of London and lots of magical characters, alongside real-life figures such as King George. It combines history and magic.
How to conduct research?
With any history related project, research is a necessary part of the process. The way you conduct research for a historical fantasy story really depends on you and how your brain works, because we all absorb and learn things differently. However, I have listed below some tips that have helped me in my research and planning for my historical fantasy projects.
- Narrow down the point in history. You can't just say "Oh, my book takes place in Victorian London" and then just look up "victorian era facts." There are multiple decades within the Victorian Era and each decade comes with different slang, clothing, and ways of life. Think about how different 2020 is compared to 2000. Only twenty years have passed, but the style is completely different and the world is vastly changed. If someone was to write a book in the "Internet Age", there is a big difference between say, 2003 and 2017.
-This ties into the tip we just talked about, but do proper research on clothing and phrasing. Style changes so much from year to year, so please do through research about what your characters would actually be wearing. Also, take into account gestures and phrases they might say. If zippers haven't been invented yet, they wouldn't "zip their lips shut". Some common phrases we never think about, such as "oopsie-daisy", didn't really appear until the 1920s.
-Don't rely on movies and TV. It's important to do more research on your own. If you're writing about British gangs in the 1920s, just watching Peaky Blinders doesn't count as research. Historical shows often try and depict things realistically, I like to believe, but often their costumes and decor are all off.
-Research a lot, but don't bog yourself down with it. Learn what you need to know for your book. If you are writing about magical gladiators, then become an expert on gladiators, Roman traditions, and the lay-out of Rome, but you don't need to know every battle Rome won, every emperor they ever had, etc...balance your work with what is actually important.
How accurate should I be with real history?
I think it depends on what your dealing with in your story. If there are dragons in Renaissance Florence, then you can probably take a little bit of liberty with complete historical accuracy. I mean, we're dealing with magic. We're allowed to bend the rules a little. I actually once read a quote that said in regards to historical fantasy, "Twist history, but don't break it."
What resources to use?
You can never go wrong with the library! If you don't have access to a library, then the Internet can be your best friend, but also make sure to double-check if your information is accurate. Google Scholar is probably a more reliable source. Also, if you're a student, utilize your university's online libraries and search engines!
Some sites I go to when I want to learn a thing or two are:
-Wikipedia, because it leads me to other sources
Also, if you're looking for information on accurate clothing and costumes, the Youtuber Karolina Żebrowska has accurate, fantastic videos on clothing from all sorts of different eras.
What about the fantasy part?
Ah, that's right, the fantasy part of historical fantasy. Not only do you have to worry about all this history stuff, but now you've got to incorporate a magic system of some sort? It's actually a lot of fun! What I do is I'll establish my main time period and location. For my Flying Thieves series, a big chunk of it takes place in Paris in 1903.
From there, I'll pick out locations and moments that seem interesting and perhaps magical. The Eiffel Tower was built in 1889, so I can use that. The Tour de France happened in July and my book takes place in March, so I can't use that. Notre-Dame, check. The catacombs, check. Versailles, definitely. Shakespeare & Company, not around yet.
I will essentially find places that seem interesting to me and see if I can build magic around them. The catacombs are filled with dark magic, as is Versailles. If you are writing a historical fantasy, let the world that already existed help you weave magic into the story. It's up to you to decide if your magic is based on elemental powers, demon creatures, fairy dust, or whatever, but the world is there to help you out. Use it.
Also, keep this in mind: does the world know magic exists? Or is it a secret? If they know it exists, that wanders off into alternate history territory. (Which is fine. Sub-genres of sub-genres, and all that.)
How do I refrain from info-dumping?
There is a lot of information you need to fit into your book. History, character backstories, culture, magic, etc...my advice is to take it slow. Take the reader into the world through a normal person's eyes. Even if your narrator is the king, he won't know everything about the world. We don't know everything about our own world. Just guide the reader into what they need to know, in a realistic way. If they are a mere painter, they probably won't know everything about those dragons flying around in the sky. Keep it clean, simple, and don't confuse yourself.
Why should I write historical fantasy?
Well, first off, write what you want to write. However, I think that historical fantasy is a great genre to try because you already have the world at your fingertips. There is so much to explore, so much to learn, and you can stretch your imagination in different ways that traditional fantasy might give you. I personally love exploring what might have been hidden in these pockets of times...what our eyes might have glazed over while writing the history books.
All in all, this is a really rewarding genre to write. I love it to death and really hope that it begins to pick up more steam in the literary world. If you have any questions or want to chat more about historical fantasy, please feel free to reach out to me! Also, please subscribe to the blog, so you will be notified of new posts. There are author interviews, lots more articles on writing, and guest bloggers coming up!
Thank you so much for reading!
Until next time,