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24 January 2011 @ 06:27 am
Fantasy writer's use of history, legend, & myth  

This subject started out as one blog post. But I quickly realized one post would only barely touch on the subject. Of course, two wouldn’t either. Now that I think about it, not even three. The truth is, I could be talking about this my entire Inkie life. But I’ll begin with this one, and then see where it goes in the future.

What I’m focusing on first: “Where does history end & creativity begin?”

When I think about the history of fantasy writers using history, JRR Tolkien is the author that first pops into my head. Many view him as the “father of modern fantasy literature,” and his work is known for its Germanic – particularly Anglo-Saxon and Nordic – and possibly Celtic mythological and historical influences.

What I discovered is that William Morris – who had one wild head of hair, but I digress – was a fantasy writer who influenced Tolkien, CS Lewis, and others. His prose romances were published in the late 1800s, and some see him as the first fantasy writer to create completely imagined worlds – but these fictional places emerged from Morris’s views of the cultural, political, and historical past. A 1912 Times Literary Supplement reviewer said that Morris “was always concerned with the future even when he seemed most absorbed in the past. He turned to it, not to lose himself in it, but to find what was best worth having and doing now.”*

Since Morris’s time, many fantasy writers have created fictional worlds using history as their foundations. Each writer has had to decide just how much history to use. I mean, and this is where it gets fascinating, where does one stop? Will history be foundation only, or frame too, or is history bounding creative worlds with walls and ceilings, which then can perhaps be labeled more purely historical fantasy? Do some writers blend history and fantasy, freely borrowing details from each, so finely and expertly, that pulling out the history would collapse their fictional worlds entirely? 

Fellow Inkie Kate Milford has a set of writing guidelines she follows when creating her history-infused worlds. She uses “enough historical detail to solidly evoke time and place, but no more.” And she restricts her narrative to what could have been possible, if only history had gone in a different direction. In that way, the reader is not pulled out of her stories trying to reconcile facts and fiction. For example, Kate’s current work THE BROKEN LANDS “takes place about five years before the great hotels of Coney Island were built,” so Kate is free to build her own hotels. She likes to create her own world “within the confines of the historically believable.”

Inkie Kiki Hamilton has a similar philosophy. She’s fascinated by the missing pieces of history, the parts that have slipped through the cracks and have not been documented, and she sees those unknowns as opportunities for creative exploration. Like Kate, she’s committed to getting the history right. She set her novel THE FAIRIE RING in 1871 London and chose that particular year so that her characters, the princes Leopold and Arthur, “were accurately portrayed.” It’s important to her to “stay historically correct in the non-fantasy portions of the novel.”

In her first book THE UNNAMEABLES, Inkie Ellen Booraem “imagined an island way off New England that had been settled by disenchanted Massachusetts Bay Colonists” but was “then dropped out of history except for the periodic trade voyages to the mainland.” What’s really interesting about Ellen’s set-up is the culture and language of her imagined island began as late 17th century England, but as her island moved forward in time within her narrative, it diverged from that historical starting point. Ellen says that “it was a complete hoot trying to figure out when the culture stuck to its own path and when it incorporated ideas from outside – sweaters, for instance.”

Inkie Laura Williams McCaffrey likes using “lived history” in her stories – “the experiences of people living through historical moments” with “sounds, smells, textures” and “the kinds of ideas that people argue over at the dinner table, or ideas that influence choices they make.” Laura has always used research to get these details right. For her novel WATER SHAPER, two texts were particularly helpful: Barbara Tuchman’s A DISTANT MIRROR and David Thomson’s THE PEOPLE OF THE SEA.

Certainly these “sounds, smells, textures” from the historical past can be found in Tamora Pierce’s work. Her imagined worlds feel very real. Her ability to capture that authenticity so well might stem from her early obsessions with history and legend. As a child, Pierce read “anything and everything” she could find about “the knights, the Crusades, and the Middle Ages,” and then, in middle school, moved on to read about the knighthood in “fantasy novels and Arthurian legends.” She then – without doing research on medieval life – wrote her first book about “a girl disguising herself to serve as a page and squire to achieve her knighthood.”  But she realized she had indeed done research: “back when I was very young, reading articles in encyclopedias because I liked finding out more about knights.”**

Inkie Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban – who grew up in Spain – was influenced by her schoolgirl studies of Spain’s two-thousand year history. Her novel TWO MOON PRINCESS is about a Spanish girl – Andrea – who journeys through a portal to present-day California from a parallel world, a world similar to 12th century Spain. Although Andrea’s world is fictional, Carmen wanted to ground it in an historical reality, so she established that her protagonist’s “ancestors had come to her world from northern Spain in the year 711.” Carmen says that all her hard work in her history classes paid off. (Yay, history teachers!)

Other Inkies have used their interest in a particular country’s culture as inspiration for their fictional worlds. For her work-in-progress, Pamela S Turner “delved into 12th century Japanese history for the skeleton” of her plot: “the milieu is not obviously Japanese, but anyone familiar with the Gempei Wars will notice all sorts of parallels.” Sarwat Chadda is “a huge fan of Russian mythology and history” and has used “extensive references from that culture, the Romanov dynasty, the old fairy tales and its chief heroes and villains, especially the tales centered on Baba Yaga, the archetype of the wicked old witch living in the forest.”

Ah, but now we’re getting into the use of myths and legends in fantasy, and that will have to wait for next time!

Thanks, Inkies, for all your input for the post!

To be continued . . .



 *As cited in Florence Boos’ Morris’s German Romances as Socialist History

**Tamora Pierce’s website: http://www.tamora-pierce.com/

annastanannastan on January 24th, 2011 01:49 pm (UTC)
So interesting! I have a couple of writing projects that draw on history, but it's been so tricky to decide how much of that history to use. Like Ellen, my stories tend to go in their own direction, completely away from the history. So I guess I use it as a base, but let the story go where it wants.
Kate Milfordkatemilford on January 24th, 2011 04:15 pm (UTC)
And, um, those "guidelines" I claimed to have...
I fail them all the time. I should speak up and be really clear about that. I almost always include too much of the historical stuff, because I love it and I am always sure (and often wrong) that everybody else will love it, too. I also always figure I can cut it back, and then it's seriously hard to do. So I gave myself this rule about using what's necessary and no more. I'm trying to stick to it. Maybe one day I'll get the balance right.

Another thing, too--I am perfectly happy to mess around with history, but I do feel like I have to protect the story from the reader just thinking I got something wrong. Like those hotels--for some reason I don't want to claim Coney Island's Oriental Hotel existed in '77 when I know it didn't (and run the risk of somebody thinking I just made a mistake), but I have no problem inventing a fictional hotel. Or in The Boneshaker, where a version of electro-shock therapy is used. Electro-shock wasn't really in use (or the term coined) until the 1930's, so I reinvent the process as something weirder and more fantastic and call it something different.

I guess I think the best historical fiction I've read seems to come from an unholy balancing act where the writer is at once clearly in love with the history (without overwhelming the reader with it) and perfectly willing to throw it out the window if necessary--it's that throwing it out the window that has to be done with incredible skill. I haven't got that balance down yet, but that's the goal I work toward.
A View of My Roomjenny_moss on January 24th, 2011 05:44 pm (UTC)
Re: And, um, those "guidelines" I claimed to have...
I see you what you mean, Kate: finding that balance can be tricky. As a writer, there's *something* that nags at me if I'm choosing to change an historical detail for the story. I came across that some when I was writing my first book, which is historical fiction. I went to great lengths to "protect" the history - but when that started to affect the story negatively, I had to make (difficult) choices and find that balance.
Jackiefabulousfrock on January 24th, 2011 08:08 pm (UTC)
Re: And, um, those "guidelines" I claimed to have...
"I guess I think the best historical fiction I've read seems to come from an unholy balancing act where the writer is at once clearly in love with the history (without overwhelming the reader with it) and perfectly willing to throw it out the window if necessary--it's that throwing it out the window that has to be done with incredible skill."

Nice way of putting it.

It's really an instinctive thing for me, and I do struggle with it. I'm such a history geek and I find myself wanting to draw more from history with each book (although that trend could just as easily change with the next book) so I do a lot of research, but then it just has to step in organically. But I think it's always so much richer for having done the research.
A View of My Roomjenny_moss on January 24th, 2011 05:36 pm (UTC)
That's so interesting to me - what Ellen did & what Carmen did as well in Two Moon Princess - to have that historical starting point & then imagine - such fun! - what happened from that point on. Good luck with your projects!
Lisa Greenlisagailgreen on January 24th, 2011 04:04 pm (UTC)
What a great topic! So much to learn from. In one of my manuscripts I use the basis of a legend, but from there make up my own lore and try to blend them together to create something believable. It was very freeing!
A View of My Roomjenny_moss on January 24th, 2011 05:39 pm (UTC)
That's what I did w/ Shadow - I began with a myth, and because there wasn't that much known about it, I was able to imagine & make it my own. Very freeing, as you said!
inthewritemind.wordpress.com on January 24th, 2011 06:16 pm (UTC)
This is what I'm trying to do with a current WiP. I found a fascinating Indian legend that I'm creating into my own story. I'm using the history in it, but creating my fantasy world based off Indian culture (along with a few other influences).

I've also done this with another WiP, about the legendary snow woman of Japan. There's lots of stories about her and I chose one and decided to expand on it and tell it from her POV. I set that one in rural Japan in the early Edo period. I still have a lot of research to do though!
A View of My Roomjenny_moss on January 25th, 2011 02:06 am (UTC)
"Legendary snow woman of Japan": sounds very, very cool. I love all these legends & myths.
(Anonymous) on January 24th, 2011 09:06 pm (UTC)
History in Fiction
Thank you for you post. I love the use of history in fiction. To me it lends a framework to the story that allows the reader to better visualize the setting. It also allows the author to have something solid and familiar to build on and around. In my last novel I've used historical facts from the late 1600's and early 1700's. Though the basic premise of my story could have taken place during any time in history, it was my love for the european middle ages and the renaissance period that sparked my imagination. I also incorporated mythology for characters with name such as Perseus and the lore of the sirens and Persephony.~K.L.Parry~
A View of My Roomjenny_moss on January 25th, 2011 02:09 am (UTC)
Re: History in Fiction
"It lends a framework to the story that allows the reader to better visualize the setting. It also allows the author to have something solid and familiar to build on and around."

Good point - simultaneously good for the reader AND the writer!
al_harron on January 25th, 2011 06:11 am (UTC)
Worlds and Times
It should be remembered that Tolkien's Middle-earth wasn't entirely an imaginary world, but intended to be our own earth in some dim, prehistoric past, much like the creation myths of ancient cultures were set in the past. It isn't an entirely new world in some distant solar system like, for instance, Westeros. As such, the allusions to earth history are not just convenient to give resonance and verisimilitude, but actively seek to connect Middle-earth with modern history. Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age was a similar case: not so much fantasy worlds, as fantasy times.
A View of My Roomjenny_moss on January 26th, 2011 03:27 am (UTC)
Re: Worlds and Times
Yes, good point!

(Such a complex, fascinating world he created & imagination he had.)
Jenny Gordonjennygordon on January 25th, 2011 12:04 pm (UTC)
I completely agree - history is such a fantastic jumping off point for imagination. Guy Gavriel Kay is particularly good at blurring the lines between historical fiction and fantasy.

Looking forward to reading the rest of your thoughts on this.
A View of My Roomjenny_moss on January 26th, 2011 03:28 am (UTC)
It really is the subject with no end - makes me want to go back and do my master's thesis on it.
Sayantani DasGuptaSayantani16 on January 25th, 2011 05:23 pm (UTC)
future, past
Great post! I'd be interested in thinking with all of you about where a fictionalized imagined history might fall in here - steampunk is an example of a genre that, like dystopian fiction, imagines a different sort of a world, but in the case of steampunk, firmly set in the past.

(I recently posted on Cherie Priest's "Boneshaker" - a great example of a reimagined history: http://storiesaregoodmedicine.blogspot.com/2011/01/boneshaker-playing-for-team-feminist.html)

I'm now actually working on a WIP that reimagines an Indian epic story - although it's set in the future, it's a post-technological, agrarian future, so a bit harkening to the past!
A View of My Roomjenny_moss on January 26th, 2011 03:42 am (UTC)
Re: future, past
I just read your post about Boneshaker - I've now added it to my TBR list. I love Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 - that comparison alone sold me. :)

Have you read the CHAOS WALKING series by Patrick Ness? It's sci-fi dystopian set on New World - don't want to say too much because I can't remember what the reader knows at the beginning of the series. But if you have read it, I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on it.
ebooraem on January 25th, 2011 09:18 pm (UTC)
Love your "unholy balancing act," Kate. That's exactly what it feels like.

I'm definitely one of those who gets sucked into the historical research and then has to be very, very stern about not overwhelming the story with cool facts. My second book, SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS, involved a fair amount of reading about Charlemagne and French history and art history, which I was DYING to include. I'm very proud that I kept most of it to myself. (And what I did sneak in, my editor sternly took care of.)