23 February 2007

Can a fantasy be considered historical?

This question comes to mind because I’m attempting to write a fantasy. One of the rules to penning a good fantasy is creating a believable world. It’s called world-building, and the writer better do her research. The writer must understand the political climate and laws that govern the world. This is the world in which your characters interact and it has to be believable to the reader.

To create my fantasy world I’m reading history books, mythology, and studying architectural buildings of the ancient world and fashion. I need to know what influences my characters - what type of dwelling do they live in, do they trade for goods, what clothes they wear, what is their political and spiritual beliefs… All the same ‘stuff’ I need to know when I’m writing a historical novel.

Lord of the Rings set the standard for all fantasies that came after it. J.R.R. Tolkien created an amazing world and went further, by creating the language of his mythical creatures. He was an Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon and pursued the study of languages, and the branch of philology, linguistics concerned with the relationships and ancestry of languages. The world he constructed came from his studies of the past.

So, my question is do you think fantasies can be considered historical?


Becka said...

Wow, Vicki, you weren't kidding! We really did blog on the very same subject! I swear, I didn't see this post before I made mine on Writers Across Time... lol

But I think, in a way, fantasies are based on history. And because of that, they are "psuedo-historicals." Like an alternate history, if you will, of what Earth would be like if magic and magical creatures existed. :)


Michelle Styles said...

The Historical Novelists Society does recognise some historical fantasy. See http://www.historicalnovelsociety.org/definition.htm

But I do think you need to very careful here. When does a historical stop being historical and start being more of a fantasy?

Is there a market for fantasy set in other pasts than Tolkien's? the Regency for example -- eg Mr Norrell and Jonathon Strange (a book which needed a good editor)

How historical for example are the Icelandic Sagas, and Homer? Everyone believed Troy was a myth...until it was found.

Where do time slip novels fit in? And what about paranormal? We know that historical belief fervently included the belief in the supernatural?

Where does the historical end and the fantasy begin?

The Gothic historical often traded on some sort of fantasy or believe in the paranormal...

It is a blurred line, and I think where a writer falls depends on her inclinations.

Zoe Archer said...

In a way, I think that any book that isn't set in the contemporary time period (barring paranormals) is a historical, and this even includes futuristics. I don't believe that the concept of historical is necessarily limited to the past, or "our" past.

Fantasy generally borrows elements of myth and history so that the reader can relate to this world that is both strange and familiar. I think it's the same with futuristics, many of which use the Joseph Campbell hero myth (cf. films like Star Wars, The Matrix) as part of their structures, which has a deep historical and psychological resonance with readers.

Also, these varied settings enable the writer to construct worlds wherein the social structures are just different and dramatic enough so that the hero and heroine can perform feats of daring and heroism.

(ne of the reasons I suspect that paranormals and romantic suspense are so popular is because they permit scenarios wherein the stakes can be high, life-or-death, and that, in particular, the hero can make the large, dramatic gesture to prove his love for the heroine. It's tough to do that in a straight contemporary setting.)

Sandra Schwab said...

Since the setting for most Sword & Sorcery is a pseudo-medieval world -- yes, in a way: you have to know about castles, about swords, medieval armour, warfare, etc. Some knowledge about everyday-life might come in handy, too.

In other ways writing a fantasy is of course quite different from writing a historical: you don't necessarily have to research real settings, historical customs, etc. Depending on what kind of fantasy you write, you can make up your own countries, cities, religions, political conflicts, political and economical structure, etc. In this way, secondary world fantasies are definitely not historical.

On the other hand, there are those Celtic fantasies that were so popular a few years ago (Diana Paxon's White Raven comes to mind, a re-telling of the Tristan & Isolde story) and fantasies set in alternate histories like Joan Aiken's Willoughby Chase series (set in a Britain in which the Glorious Revolution was not succesful and which is still by the Stuarts in the 19th century).

Tess said...

I'm with Michelle - there's a fine line and for a lot of historical readers, they really aren't going to want to be fooled into thinking they're getting a historical, only to find it's a fantasy.

That said, Guy Gavriel Kay's later novels, like Sailing to Sarantium and Last Light of the Sun straddle the historical/fantasy fence extremely well - enough believable history for the history lover and a touch of fantasy for the others.

carrie_lofty said...

I'm picky and I'm a history snob :>

I tend to want straight history in my historicals, which means prophetic dreams, sorcerers, oracles who actually see the future (rather than play wizard behind the curtain), etc. all tend to bother me. That's just my preference as a reader, because I can't suspend my disbelief in those realms.

You won't generally find fantasy elements in 19th c.-based historicals, but the father back toward medieval spells and sorcery you travel, the more frequent they become. I am writing my WIP in direct contrast to that trend, basing all of my characters' rather fantastic actions on the science available to them at the time. No runes and spells -- just proto-chemistry! Watch me alientate every potential reader with this strategy!

That said, good fantasy and sci-fi can draw from historical inspiration. You wanna write about political infighting and relations with a church? Look to d'Medici Italy. You wanna write about empires? History has plenty of examples of how the begin, thrive, and crumble. I'm an historian by training, so I see history as a record of human nature--frailties, ambitions, hopes, consequences--and ultimately that's what we're trying to convey.

Karen Mercury said...

I agree, Carrie. I've always adhered to historical accuracy to the point of mania--triple-sourcing everything, making sure the lunar eclipse in a certain month in 1872 occurred on a Tuesday, etc.--even when most other writers told me I didn't need to be that strict and I was unneccessarily killing myself.

I've eased off a bit on that lunar eclipse level of intensity, and my WIP that I'm terming a paranormal now involves a real mystic in 1876 who could levitate. I know, ha ha, levitate, talk to dead people, make harmonicas float and play. But he had thousands of witnesses, and educated level-headed scientists (including Houdini) studied him and were unable to debunk him.

I've chosen to believe this all happened in "real history" because it suits me to believe :) but I'm still approaching it from an angle of "shit that [coulud have] really happened." I agree with whoever said the farther back you go in history, the blurrier the line becomes.

Isn't there a fiction category of "alternate history," such as Kurt Giambastiani's "Cloud" series?