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There are two reasons why I’m discussing historical fiction and fantasy in the same post. Firstly, when it comes to fiction they’re the main genres that I read and write. Secondly, there are incredible similarities between the two.

One is draws occasional details from real life and fills in the blanks with imagination, and the other is fantasy.

“But that’s incorrect!” You exclaim, scandalised. “There are hundreds of books on Tentieth Century history alone.”

“You’re right.” I admit. “And how many of those concern the life of Maude Merrypond, a fisherman’s wife from rural Hampshire?”

To write historical fiction and fantasy, you take some details from the past or present and use your creativity to expand on them. The finished result is a compelling story. You might set your historical novel in Henry VIII’s court or base your fantasy universe on Tudor England, but with elves and dragons thrown into the mix. Either way, your characters as you’ve portrayed them aren’t the real humans who walked the earth hundreds of years ago. Those people’s quirks and characteristics are largely forgotten.

It’s a tightrope act

Fiction has to be believable in order to engage the reader. That statement is a contradiction of sorts. It’s fiction, as in a story that isn’t true. The reader and writer know that it isn’t real. But you both have to believe it. That’s a fine line to walk along.

History or fiction

Historical novelists base their story on what they know of a period in history. This comes from reading, studying and listening. Historical fact forms the basis of the story. It provides the setting, people and events, but only in a very limited sense.

You know that ancient temples had columns. Whether the marble column against which your hero leans as he looks out across the forum was cracked, faded or painted bright yellow in 54BC is entirely a product of your imagination.

History can give you the names of famous characters, but not what foul or noble deeds they got up to where no prying eyes could see.

Rome conquered Gaul, but perhaps the entire campaign’s success rested in the hands of a young Gallic princess captured by the legions and sent undercover into the enemy’s camp by the charming Caesar.

The crucial issue is that the historical aspect of this genre serves the purpose of immersing the reader in a lost time, one which can never be revisited except in fiction. A novel isn’t about facts or famous personas, it’s about people. The reader sees someone on the page whose character wouldn’t be out of place in the present. That ability to relate draws them into the past, a foreign land to an inhabitant of the now.

Fantasy and freedom

So where does this leave fantasy fiction? The historical novelist can elaborate on the past, but they cannot change it. They can’t write a story in which Ceasar fails to conquer Gaul and is forced to live the rest of his life as Caz the shepherd. That would be alternative history, a different genre.

The fantasy writer isn’t forced to work within the same constraints. Looking at A Game Of Thrones, it is clearly based to some extent on medieval history. You have a feudal civilisation, swords and shields, jousting and feasts. But the author is not forced to keep wider events true to that setting. Winterfell’s answer to Scotland’s William Wallace doesn’t have to be tortured and executed by the Lannisters to the south (England).

Fantasy can play by its own rules in this sense, only taking what it wants from our universe and nothing more. However, it has its own tightrope to walk. Here I’ll call the other side of the coin fancy. By this I mean a story which is so imaginative that it becomes absurd. It isn’t always a bad thing. Some authors have become bestsellers in the field of absurdity. But you’d have to exercise an awesome amount of literary flair to turn a polka-dot dragon shooting rainbows from its mouth into a compelling and relatable character for mature readers.

Opposites attract

In a way, what pulls historical fiction and fantasy together in my mind is one of their larger differences. A historical fiction writer must avoid letting their tale be overwhelmed by fact. On the other hand, a fantasy author has to stop their story from straying too far from reality, becoming mere fancy.

Pulling away in different directions draws the two closer together. A historical writer has to allow their imagination to create people, places and events that never existed. A fantasy author has to rein in their creativity in with swords of iron, feudal lords and elves who walk on two legs.

My advice

When you self-publish a book, post a story on your blog or send a manuscript to agents / publishers you have to attach a genre to it. Fiction is a genre-focused business. When I go looking for something new to read, I often already know whether I want fantasy, historical fiction or sweltering Eighteenth Century romance.

But when you put pen to paper, hand to keyboard or writing stylus to wax tablet there is nothing constraining you. This is what I did for my Vikingr book. It’s historical fiction. I knew that when I started the project and that’s how I market it. However, think about life for a medieval Norse explorer.

In the human mind, there is no rigid divide between myth and reality. I’ve been told that there are serial killers and celebrities lurking somewhere out there, but have never seen one with my own eyes. They’re things we fear or idolise without ever having proof they exist. It’s the same in Vikingr. Erikr lives in a world of history, not fantasy, but at the back of his mind there are powerful gods, mysterious grimm and hideous monsters. His senses put these myths into the world around him. He might hear web-toed grimm scratching at the underside of his longboat, ready to drag him down to a watery grave.

Draw elements of other genres into your fiction. What’s stopping you?

Let me know in the comments if any of this was useful. Do you have any writing tips to share?

Previously:

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12 thoughts on “Tip #7: Writing Historical Fiction and Fantasy

  1. Great advice. Historical fiction is a challenging, and satisfying genre. Take some aspects from the past and use them to craft an original tale of your own. But do not change historical events, otherwise you’re writing alternative history.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great piece. There’s nothing wrong with genre. You make a valid point about not being constrained — plot has to be the driver. Historical settings are a tremendous hook but they should never dictate to the extent of making the work predictable.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Michele, would you classify Biblical fiction in the same way you do historical fiction. I love Bible fiction and I think I see it the same parameters as historical fiction, but there might be other factors which need to be considered. What do you think? You posted “Escaping Icy Prisons” last week. Would you call that genre Bible fiction? I find your advice on Useless Book Club valuable to one who is inclined to write for money. I don’t see myself there at all; yet I enjoy your advice and recommendations.

    Liked by 1 person

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