Writing contemporary fantasy is easier by comparison because, in some way or another, we are simply recording the details of the world around us while we weave our fantasy story. Likewise, pure fantasy worlds are realities we ourselves shape. We make the gods. We make the men. We make all the rules.
When writing historicals, however, we have a duty to capture the details and the experience accurately. How does a writer capture the essence of a past era, whether 100 years ago, 300 years ago, or even millennia?
The answer: research.
As daunting a task as you may think researching your time period might be, if you write historical fantasy, you’ve probably been doing it for a long time without even realizing it.
Here are some sources and references that will be useful to the historical writer.
HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS: Yes, I will start by saying the vastest source of historical detail lies within history books. It’s absolutely true—but very daunting. Apart from earning your degree in history, what else can a writer do to get those necessary details?
FILM & SCREEN: This is avenue of research you’ve explored without really thinking about it. It may even be the reason why you’re interested in writing historical fantasy in the first place: you’ve visited a particular era and you want to go back and put your own spin on it. TV, movies, documentaries. If it’s on a screen, watch it. Get a feel for the way people move, their mannerisms, their speech. Beware, though—you cannot view one program and declare yourself a historian. You’ve got to watch a lot. Look for patterns—consistencies, oddities. Over time, you get a feel for what is perceived by most viewers as the norm. Anything outside it will be viewed either as uniquely difference or wildly inaccurate. Choose your path wisely.
TOURS: Visit the place where you’d like to set your story and seek out historical details yourself. Stop at a visitor’s bureau. Go on guided tours. If you cannot travel, take a virtual tour instead.
Those are what I consider the easy ways. Here are a few others I’ve learned from a wonderful author, Nomi Eve, the author of Henna House, a historical women’s fiction novel set in 1920s Yemen. I had the pleasure of hearing her speak at a writing conference and she gave amazing advice to authors on how to “breathe life into the past”.:
MISSIONARY & EXPLORER JOURNALS: These are first person accounts of strange lands and new places. Some were scientists, out to record every detail of a new land. Some were missionaries, eager to bring back the details of new cultures. You can collect their sensory experiences—taste, smell, sound, color—and wrap your readers in them.
COOKBOOKS: Did you just laugh at me? If you did, then stop, because one of my favorite cookbooks is one based on A Game Of Thrones. The feasts are massive, the food both eloquent and medieval. The cookbook puts me right back in the middle of George R. R. Martin’s world. My second favorite is a German cookbook that is perhaps fifty years old. I love it not only for the recipes but also the stories within, the introductions to each chapter, the side notes about preparation and serving. That cookbook transports me back into the kitchen of someone’s Bavarian great-grandmother and is a historical excursion all on its own.
Think on this a moment…how much of our lives are spend eating and drinking, alone or with others? Cookbooks will tell you not only how food tastes and looks, but how a house smells, how people prepared their meals. You know that one does not snap their fingers to have a feast appear. Work goes into food preparation, and life occurs while we do that work.
MUSEUM CATALOGS: Museums will publish and sell catalogs of their exhibits which you can purchase on-line or in museum gift stores. We can’t all travel to different continents to tour an exhibit, but we can buy the catalogs: they contain pictures of the items on exhibit, along with descriptions and explanations of their use. My favorite museum catalog is one I picked up after viewing a Leonardo DaVinci exhibit.
MUSIC & FOLKTALES: Both are wonderful sources of historical data. Lyrics are signs of the “current” times. Songs are part of a culture’s “oral tradition” and is accessible to all singers, all listeners. We even classify music by the era in which it was recorded. The language, the sentiments, and the “current events” used to write lyrics give great insight into the singer’s world at the time. The bardic tradition truly is alive and well today. Likewise, folktales are windows to the past. You can find folktale collections for sale anywhere you shop for books.
HISTORICAL SOCIETIES: The Internet makes contacting them easier than ever, and they are generally staffed by people who are passionate about the history they preserve. Nearly every town in my area has one. We have a rich coal mining history in my area and so our towns were established on the coal companies, the German and Welsh men who ran them and the Irish who worked them. Lots of history, both Old World and New, have been preserved by our local historians.
SOCIAL MEDIA: Crowdsource your contacts list. Ask questions on Facebook or Twitter. You may be surprised at who in your friends list knows the answer. Social media truly is a global community so you may find a lot of information about the world you are researching just by posting a question.
Five Tips To Improve Your Historical Fantasy Reader’s Experience
Some things to remember: when you set out to write a historical fantasy, remember that it’s a fantasy, first and foremost. You need to incorporate the proper types of plotting, characterization, and story elements necessary for the fantasy genre. The historical aspect should come secondary to the story—it anchors the story, it enhances the setting, it gives individualized details to your character, and it may cause you to alter story specifics to fit the era.
Historical aspects should submerge the readers in the experience so make sure you provide a sensory experience: sight, taste, smell, sounds, and touch.
- Capture your setting. Incorporate street names, landmarks.
- Pay mind to clothing worn at the time, especially if social classes had great disparity between them.
- Add a layer of language. Remember that speech varies among people based on social class and education, even personal experience. Do use slang and foreign words when appropriate. (I’m not a big fan of books written in dialect, though. I don’t want to have to sound a line out just because I didn’t know what to do with all the apostrophes and mysterious contractions.)
- Incorporate prevalent religious beliefs. Faith systems are very important because they may influence social behavior, mannerisms, and speech--everything from ethics to OMG.
- Make sure your fantasy fits the history, and vice versa. They should enhance each other, not make people wonder what the heck was that author thinking?
Another reason why I chose that era if because the story is structured to follow Edgar Allan Poe’s story Masque of the Red Death. The first lines of the book mention the character was born the year it was published, each section is started with a relative quote from the story, and the main character’s journey through her mortal/immortal life take place in the same order as the seven apartments of Prospero’s palace. The last room is draped in the colors of black and blood and it is there that Death awaits. Once again, the fantasy and the history complement each other as perfectly as I could imagine.
Give Your Readers An Experience They’ll Never Forget
Ultimately, you want to write the story that takes a reader to a place in time and space that leaves them wondering…could this have actually happened? Historical details aren’t just decorations—they build an environment that readers can experience for themselves. You want them to journey back with you to live out that story, page by page.
And there is no greater reward than hearing a reader tell you that you got it right. This is a review The Heartbeat Thief earned shortly after it was published.
"Krafton not only tells you a story, she makes you experience it with your senses. You can feel the fog moistening your skin as Senza wanders around London. You can smell the city's decay. You can hear the clatter of horses against the cobblestones. And your own heart will anguish along with Senza as she despairs about life--and death--in an era when a woman's beauty guaranteed her a well-matched marriage, even more than her wealth..." --Ronesa Aveela, author of the Mystical Emona seriesThis review quote went a long way to validate the research I’d put into writing The Heartbeat Thief. It makes me feel proud of this book.
You should be proud of your book, also. Put serious work into researching your historical period. Don’t write your book as if it were a history lesson; write it as an amazing fantasy that dwells within the constraints of an interesting time period.
Historical details should infuse the setting and characters with the flavors unique to that place and that time. If you wrote your fantasy story a dozen different times in a dozen different historical settings, you should end up with a dozen separate, unique experiences.
Take your reader back to a time long gone by. Let the fantasy keep them there.