Writing Historical Fiction and Fantasy
By Miles and Christian Cameron
Writing Historical Fiction and Fantasy: It’s something I’m asked all the time since I admitted to being Miles and Christian too–which is harder?
I hope I won’t appall you by saying that they are basically the same. Heretical, I know. I’ve been very interested in a conversation among my friends and some other authors online–I’ve discovered that most HisFic readers don’t read Fantasy, and most Fantasy readers don’t read HIsFic. Interesting. I’d like to suggest to both groups that you try dabbling in the other, and I’ve tossed out the names of some of my favorites in this blog to give each group a place to start. Er–after you read all my books…
Anyway, I read both. I love them both. If I didn’t have to spend my waking hours reading history (right now its essays on the education of boys and girls in the early Renaissance) I’d read Ben Kane and SJA Turney and Anthony Riches–AND CJ Cherryh and Michael Scott Rohan and Scott Lynch. I’d read them all, all day. In between bouts of fighting in armour.
Anyway, here’s my point. Historical fiction is, in a way, all fantasy. The past is another country. We cannot go there in the real world, and when we visit it in literature, we acknowledge a suspension of disbelief. It is virtually impossible for us to understand Greek worship of the gods–or Roman. It’s too far away. Ancient Greek clothes? I honestly think I know as much as anyone on the planet, and I’d kill for one bog-corpse in a 6th c. BCE chiton. Want to start a fight at an academic party among people who study Classics? Ask someone either 1) how a phalanx worked, or 2) what Socrates meant when he said almost anything. So when I write that period (which I hear I do with some authority) I’m, in fact, creating a whole world. It’s informed by hundreds of hours of serious research–but I won’t pretend I know. NO ONE KNOWS. Hell, we don’t even know if Alexander was a great general. The first serious description of him was written down hundreds of years after he died. And 50 BCE is as far removed from 300 BCE as 2015 AD is from 1765 AD…
But even more entertaining–all Fantasy is history. (Out there somewhere, one of my friends is throwing my comments across the room). But–it is. No one–really–can write about anything but what they have experienced. History–the written record of human experience–is just that, the sum total of all our stories. I have never read a fantasy novel that didn’t owe virtually all its culture to history. Tolkien? Slam dunk. Guy Gavriel Kay? Obvious. But even when you get to ‘original’ worlds–if they bother to ‘create’ economics or religion or weapons or armour… One of my favorite fantasy series is ‘Wizard of Earthsea’ by Ursila LeGuin. No part of her work is based on one simple history. It’s not ‘Rome, disguised’ or ‘Greece’ or ‘Egypt.’ And yet every page is, in fact, informed by all those cultures, and the books would be very different if they were written in China… My university D+D group (yes, friends, I am and was a D+D nerd) used to say we could type a borrowed culture in one weapon. Curved swords or straight? Dirk or dagger? Bronze or iron?
When a fantasy novelist wants to truly understand the culture she’s creating–where can any of us possibly go for data but history?
By the way, I’ve read some awesome books that were purely speculative, about alternative cultures that bear little or no relation to history–on the surface. Perdido Street Station by the superb China Mieville comes to mind–and yet, virtually every cultural allusion will return you to Victorian London; the whole novel is (to me) grounded in history. (The architecture, for example).
Of course, I’m a fanatical historian. So I see everything through the lens of history. But its not a bad lens, and it is the tool I use to focus my writing. My Red Knight and Fell Sword are NOT set in Arthurian England. They are not set on Earth–even an alternate Earth. In fact, they have a cosmology and everything–they are set in a multiverse not unlike Michael Morcock’s, because Mr. Morcock (whose work I also admire) was also a fan of medieval hermeticism. In the Red Knight’s world, there is a Jesus and a Mohamed (at least, people believe in them) for reasons that may or may not be explained–but I know why.
That said, the real reason that many of my characters are Christian is because I wanted to write my skewed re-telling of the Arthurian tales in the same mythos from which they REALLY sprang–the Christian mythos. It’s a fantastic set of beliefs that are arguably deeper, stranger, and better developed than anything any fantasy writer could invent…
That’s history. Basically, the best stories ever told. Our story.
Miles and Christian Cameron
Books by Miles/ Christian Cameron
1. The Red Knight (2012)
2. The Fell Sword (2014)
3. The Dread Wyrm (2015)
2. Storm of Arrows (2009)
3. Funeral Games (2010)
4. King of the Bosporus (2011)
5. Destroyer of Cities (2013)
6. Force of Kings (2014)
2. Marathon: Freedom or Death (2011)
3. Poseidon’s Spear (2012)
4. The Great King (2014)
2. Venice (2012)
3. Constantinople (2012)
4. Rome (2013)
5. Rhodes (2013)
6. Chios (2013)