Some things to keep in mind when you’re writing historical fantasy

Originally posted on LJ on 22/10/2007 (mildly edited)

1. Don’t use a cuisine that comes from another continent a thousand years into the future. Don’t use tools that come from another continent a thousand years into the future. Don’t use farming or building techniques that come from another continent a thousand years into the future. Don’t use armour, weapons, horses that come from another continent a thousand years into the future. Unless there is good reason.

2. Don’t try to write in Ancient Greek or Old Norse unless you have *really* good reason. The best use of dead languages is sparse, to demonstrate concepts that English lacks and to demonstrate the differences in cultures. Another good use is in a polyglottal society where there are misunderstandings and where you can milk drama and understanding from that understanding (“You fool, I wanted a goat, not a new boyfriend.”).

Words thrown in just to show you’ve done a bit of homework can be really annoying. They’re more annoying to historians if you use the modern form of the language rather than the correct form for the time.

Mind you, this isn’t really crucial: it’s like whether you call 6 legged dairy animals ‘fonta’ or ‘cows.’ If you set everything up well enough then a reader will forgive the language thing and if you don’t then they’ll use it as a way in to complain. Brilliant writing trumps all.

3. Don’t call the majority culture and religion by the modern name and continually refer to said majority culture as if it were unusual in that place or time. Work out what is normative for that culture and use descriptions that reflect this. For example, don’t set something in Rome in the 16th century and have everyone explaining that they know nothing about Catholics and describing every second person they meet as a ‘Catholic’ and then giving hints to rites and rituals that they can’t know about because they’ve said they aren’t Catholic and don’t know these things. Even an outsider in a country will soon see everyone else as normal and have to work out who they are in relation to that place and time.

People’s identities change all the time. When I lived in France I was Australian. When I lived in England I was Australian. When I live in Australia I am Jewish Australian. When I was in America, I was Jewish and my accent was inexplicable. In France no-one cared a jot about me being Jewish (except for that guy in rural Normandy who showed me the local secret monolith, but he was an exception) and were more interested that I spoke French than in my nationality. In Britain everyone tried to work out who I knew of their friends who had migrated. In America everyone Jewish tried to work out how we were related (overall, I have known more of the British friends of friends than I have discovered US distant cousins, for the record).

We all make judgements about insiders and outsiders and borderpeople and those snap opinions are brilliant to indicate place and person in fiction – unless they’re misused, in which case they destroy the sense of place and time in the work.

If someone has lived a long time in a place, the place’s norms become part of their norms and they often focus on a set of similarities or differences that fit their own stereotypes.

And each country and each group within that country has their own way of doing this. Work out the norms for the groups and countries you’re writing about, then work out how your characters fit into this norm and how they would express this relationship. Don’t stick to current modern stereotyping.


4. If you want an outsider to describe things (which is a good technique) make sure they are an outsider or give them an amazingly sophisticated background (20 years abroad, for instance or much education and a contemplative brain) so they have an excuse for observing and describing. Give your bridge character good reasons (and the right background) for describing things as an outsider – insiders talking as if they are outsiders hurt my brain.

What’s funny is that some of my favourite young adult novels use the outsider/insider thing wonderfully, simply because teens are quite capable of being strangers in their own living room. Most adults, though, prefer to live comfortably and won’t question 99 % of what’s around them unless there is good reason (how we get the political leadership we don’t really want).


5. It’s not necessarily how much you know about the culture in your book/story; it’s how you work with it. Margo Lanagan very seldom gives detail. She writes emotions so perfectly that all her writing reads as if an insider wrote it. So you may not need to do 30 years work to get the culture right if you get inside the core of the story and understand the POV characters.

6. Think about how your favourite books work in our culture before you depend on them as sources. If I read another piece of fiction that takes the Holy Blood, Holy Grail universe and assumes it’s our own, I might scream. Likewise with ancient history and either Homer or Troy or the Bible or even The Last Days of Pompeii.
We get our understanding from popular culture a lot of the time, and this is cool. It’s not cool to write your fiction from it (unless you’re writing it intentionally, or as fanfiction – which the book that triggered this post wasn’t). Question it. Work through it and build your own understanding and your own society and think about food and economics and people and how they live and work together in that place and time.

7. The big thing about writing historical fantasy is that it’s not an easy way out. It’s just as intellectually difficult as historical fiction. It’s the favourite reading genre for a whole host of historians, too, and we will notice when the writer has not engaged their brain. We will also appreciate it when the fantasy world you have created works, even if it’s not historically accurate. My fiction is historically accurate when that’s appropriate and evilly inaccurate when that suits what I’m writing. Whichever I choose, though, I do a lot of homework. I need to respect myself, and never feel about my own fiction what I felt when I finished that book this morning.
These are my thoughts-of-the-moment, of course.

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