genre stuff writing & publishing

The Line Between the Historical and the Fantastic

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…

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

6 replies on “The Line Between the Historical and the Fantastic”

Presumably, if you were to place a story in a ‘real’ historical setting, you would have to spend a lot of time in research and that would slow down your productivity. There’s a weight of responsibility on a writer of historical fiction as readers are likely to use it as an easy way to learn ‘facts’ about the past. Get them wrong, or leave it unclear what’s ‘true’ and what’s made up . . . and people could feel let down or cross or both.

I can certainly agree with that point about the responsibility, yes. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy reading historical fiction too. Probably a lot of pressure to get that right; or at least to offer a really interesting alternate point of view to challenge the consensus. 

I think even with a non-historical setting, you still have to spend a bit of time creating new stuff and making that all work. I reckon the time spent either way could be equal, depending on the writer and the amount of effort put in to the project.

History is a fiction. The deeper you move into the past, the more you discover that the past itself – or at least much of what reaches us – is stitched together from pieces which might have been almost anything. It’s far more fluid than we tend to suspect.

There is very little firm ground. From the placement of brick walls and giant pithoi, to the task of deciphering the meaning of offerings and religious murals, it all has to be elaborated from sometimes little more than a handful of sand and a few coloured bits of glass. Is this a slim-hipped male ‘king,’ or in truth, a powerful female priestess? What you expect to find is as meaningful as what you uncover in your search.

Even written records are duplicitous. You’d think we could trust the narrative of the past but it slips away even as we hold it, or at least modern translations. Victorious societies spent considerable resources on seeing that their own versions of events were preserved, in both lasting materials and in the minds of their subjects – and others lost or even destroyed. What reaches us through their chroniclers is a mixture of first-hand reports and wild fabulism.

Historians piece together a mosaic picture of the past. But much of it has always been guesswork. Different scholars and competing schools are not unknown to come to very different opinions. It is nearly always missing one or more of its corners.

As a writer writing historically influenced fiction – though I’d argue what else can there be but this? – you are under no responsibility to be any more exact. No one wants a history book, there are plenty of these. But by weaving a spell, conjuring up a magic trick that opens the doors to the past which the best histories do as well, you can give a sense and a flavour of that possible past. Possible, but never proven.

Per Daniel’s post on Dribble of Ink, it seems the two of you are thinking in similar spaces.

Historical fiction and fantasy based on history may be close friends, but they don’t date, if you know what I mean.

I’m working on a series of stories about a 5th century Byzantine bishop, ‘The Good Bishop Probus’. He has been banished – more or less for political ineptness, to a bishopric on the far eastern shores of the Euxine Sea – in what is geographically today, called Georgia. In my stories it’s called Celestia and is as authentic a picture of a remote Byzantine region of it’s time as can be deduced from what records are available (which is not many).

Like you I’ve spent an extraordinary amount of time researching this period. Ultimately however, Celestia is a made up place, into which I have inserted fantastical elements. Demons and spirits, even a Cthulhu-like creature regularly trouble and challenge the Good Bishop.

To my mind, the veracity of the environmental detail adds power to the conflict between Probus and the demons.

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