Where does one begin and another end? Where do the genres break down?
I’ve always suspected historical fiction is the same as fantasy fiction, but without the confession that it’s really fully committing genre. But I’m genuinely interested in the mental territory where the two actually meet (and, for the purposes of this post, not in the ‘history with magic’ sense).
Previously I’ve talked about how most fantasy fiction tends to borrow its aesthetics from the Dark Ages. But what about when you more consciously attempt to build a secondary world from the bricks and mortar of ancient history?
I’ve just spent a year recreating a fictional classical age. I did a lot of research, from building design to trade routes (indeed, I’m the type of person to find that interesting), and built a world from those components. I like to think that it could now sit just off our maps of the ancient world – a forgotten continent, perhaps. It’s a lot more progressive than things were back then, but then again, history reminds us that cultures have been occasionally surprisingly progressive. There’s a blog post on the subject of male authors writing about women as inferior, and using history as their defence for doing so – which isn’t really true, but I’ll save that for another day. (Edit: on the same day as this post, Daniel Abraham comments on this same subject.)
I suspect, as tends to be the way for pseudo-historical books, people will tend to ask ‘But is it Fantasy?’ Aside from the obvious, ‘Well, yes’, I think those sorts of questions, which come up all the time when we look at series like A Song of Ice and Fire, speak about our perceptions of fantasy. That it’s got to have a bit of magic in it, or that it needs a weird creature or two. Sometimes building a secondary world doesn’t seem enough to invoke wonder.
Anyway, as discussed ages ago, historical fiction and fantasy fiction are close friends. But a question that I came up with to challenge myself at the end of writing the recent Drakenfeld book was: Why didn’t I want to write this as a historical book, in a real-world ancient setting, as opposed to it being a secondary world?
I suppose there are certain freedoms for the fantasy writer. Creating the above, more ‘progressive’ world was one benefit. The sheer geekery of geofiction was another. The closer I looked, though, the less of a distinction I could find. Even if I’d started writing in, for example, Byzantium, I’d be still creating a secondary world of sorts. Some streets of that ancient city would have to have been created out of my imagination in precisely the same way that I’d created a fantastical city made up of ancient world pieces. The mental process was barely any different. They were both fantasy. They were both historical. One had the surrounding of an already well-documented city; the other’s stone was carved from already well-documented places.
It’s an interesting mental point to reach and I’m always fascinated by where genres break-down and begin to merge with each other. Ultimately, both of them seem to become lost in each other’s territory, though I’m still not sure if I answered my own question.
That said, I would, in future, like to write a consciously fantastical spin on the real ancient world. As with most writers, I’m making notes on books that are probably years away…