Cramming Fantasy into History

- by E. C. Ambrose

Part of the fun of writing historical fantasy is seeking out historical events and combining them with my own ideas to create something new, and hopefully, engaging for the audience.  I once heard a historical fiction author describe the work as like “doing card tricks in the dark.”  The trouble with historical fiction is that, if you work with a period people are not familiar with, nobody can see what you’re doing, and you lose half the coolness factor–at least in your own mind.  If you’re still telling a good story, most folks are willing to roll with it–as long as you don’t *expect* the coolness factor to come from the obscure historical stuff they’re not getting.

The opposite difficulty with historical fiction is using familiar history–and either getting it wrong, or stretching the believability until your audience won’t follow you there.  Sometimes, this can be done for good effect–often humorous (Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, anyone?)  The juxtaposition of known history and historical figures with something fun, exciting and new is one of the mainstays of the genre.In between, you have authors like Tim Powers in The Stress of Her Regard, who employs actual historical figures alongside fictional ones to create plots undreamt of by the participants, so you have Lord Byron and the Shelleys inspired by real vampiric intruders.  Powers is famed for what are termed “secret histories” where you read his version and think, “wow, that explains why those poets behaved so strangely.”

Or perhaps D. B. Jackson in Theiftaker, infusing colonial Boston with a magical subculture.  His fantasy elements and characters intersect at times with the lives of the real founders of the American Revolution, in a way that hits the right historical buttons.  He suggests that the magical action influenced the course of history, but without implicating historical figures.  In other words, he maintains plausible deniability.  Along with C. C. Finlay, he’s a progenitor of a new subgenre they’re calling Tricorn Punk.

Myself, I employ some methods described by Powers at a talk he gave at Eastercon a few years back.  Knowing the period of time my books cover historically, I started a timeline of events during that period–1347-49.  I discovered some strange coincidences of timing, and other curious events remarked on by the chroniclers of the time.  As my fantasy plot unfurls, I incorporate these real events, hopefully creating layers of history with fantasy which my readers will enjoy–without having to ask if it will be on the final.

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