Why write historical fantasy?
I was recently on a panel at a convention and one of the questions put by the moderator was, ‘Why historical fantasy?’ Good question, but it’s actually a question of two halves. Why is the first half, but the second half is when.
Jacey writes science fiction as well as fantasy
I write science fiction as well as fantasy and when is always a good question. My Psi-tech space opera trilogy is set five hundred years in the future because I needed it to be distant enough for me to change things about technology, society and attitudes, but not so far distant as to make my characters into post-humans, unrelatable to my readers.
My Rowankind fantasy trilogy is set two hundred (and a bit) years in the past. Again, not so far distant as to make my characters unrelatable. The first book in the trilogy, Winterwood, is set in the Britain of 1800. Mad King George is on the throne and Napoleon Bonaparte is hammering on the door. These are the cornerstones on which my story is built, but in addition there is magic, and there is a magical race, the rowankind, living in bondage, and nobody can remember why.
My heroine Ross (Rossalinde) Tremayne is a cross-dressing privateer sea-captain (and unregistered witch) who cruises under letters of marque for fat French merchantmen, accompanied by a crew of barely reformed pirates and the jealous ghost of her dead husband. When she pays a deathbed visit to her estranged mother she inherits a task she doesn’t want, and a half brother she didn’t know she had.
Enter Corwen, wolf shapechanger and occasional enforcer for the Green Man and his Lady of the Forests. He’s handsome, competent, and Ross really doesn’t like him. Neither does Will’s ghost. But there’s someone Ross likes even less, and that’s Walsingham, secretly working for the government to prevent Ross from carrying out her task. If he has to kill every last member of her family to do it, he will.
Know your history
To write a historical fantasy you have to have some sympathy with the time period. I’m not an academic historian, but I’ve done a lot of local and family history research, much of it going back to the seventeen and eighteen hundreds. I’ve also read a lot of historical fiction of the period from Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer and recently written Regency Romances, to the Richard Sharpe books of Bernard Cornwell and C.S. Forester’s Hornblower series. Writing in that period has expanded my non-fiction reading exponentially, for pleasure and research.
Sometimes inspiration comes from where you least expect it. The Georgian Seaside by Louise Allen gave me a whole sequence of scenes where my protagonists kidnap King George III from his bathing machine. (Don’t worry, they put him back before anybody misses him.)
Then there’s a wonderful gem for those of us looking for realistic ‘low’ dialogue: Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1811.To someone looking back from the distance of 200 years the terms are mind-boggling and often hilarious, as well as occasionally jaw-droppingly literal. Download this for free legally from Project Gutenberg. Look up WINDWARD PASSAGE, I dare you. There are a number of words for male body parts – some lewdly descriptive, others slightly whimsical. Sugar stick,for instance being defined as: ‘the virile member’ (along with prick, but not cock or dick which did not seem to hold that meaning then). A woman’s commodity is described as ‘the private parts of a modest woman, and the public parts of a prostitute.’ Hey, those of us who write in this period need to know!
Some of my best resources are map and picture related. I found a fabulous large scale map of London in 1806, and an online series of maps of Plymouth (where my story starts and returns to). Some of the posh bits of Georgian London are still there, of course, but I also have several Pinterest boards with Victorian photos showing dilapidated buildings in London and Plymouth from Medieval times onwards. Since they are still there in the late 1800s, they obviously exist in my time period.
My Rowankind and Psi-Tech trilogies are now complete with the publication of ‘Rowankind’ at the end of 2018. My publisher is DAW in the USA, and because of contractual stuff that my agent understands better than I do, it’s available all over the world in its paper form (as an American import) from that firm named after a South American river. However it’s only available in electronic form in North America and related territories. The Rowankind trilogy takes Ross and Corwen’s story from 1800 to late 1802, but if I tell you how it ends I’ll have to shoot you. I hope you’ll read it for yourself.
But I still haven’t said why historical fantasy.
I like writing science fiction, and I also like writing second-world fantasy, but I get deep joy from working a magical plot around real events. In the Rowankind trilogy there’s a magical reason why King George is going mad. The actual political events of the day (such as the short-lived peace with France in 1802) make a difference to the twisty plot. William Pitt the Younger makes a cameo appearance, and events in the book directly affect the Industrial Revolution. It’s a challenge to combine history and fantasy, but you can’t take too many liberties with the history, or the fantasy ceases to be believable.
I recently wrote a post on The Truth in Historical Fantasy here on my writing blog for those who are interested.
What next? I’m working on a historically based story set in an analogue of the Baltic States around 1650. The working title is The Amber Crown, but don’t expect it to hit the shelves before 2020.
Thanks for reading.
Jacey Bedford is a British writer of science fiction and fantasy, published by DAW in the USA. She has six novels out. In another life she was a singer with vocal harmony trio, Artisan (in which capacity she played the Port Fairy Folk Festival in Y2K), and once sang live on BBC Radio4 accompanied by the Doctor (Who?) playing spoons.