This was supposed to go up Sunday; apparently being out of town glitched my brain and I managed to get it written but not posted. Sorry about that. We now return to our regular posting schedule.
I’m in Tulsa at the moment, at the Nimrod conference, and yesterday they had me do a session on using history in fantasy. It’s kind of a broad topic, and most of it ended up being Q&A, but I did end up with a few points I thought I’d share.
I break down history-in-fantasy into several categories. The first is what’s referred to as “Secret History,” or what I call “fantasy in the cracks.” this is the kind of story that starts from the assumption that everything we know (or think we know) about real-life history is true…but only as far as it goes. More was happening behind the scenes – the battle was won with the secret help of the magician’s cabal, the earthquake happened because of an escaped elemental or a spell gone wrong, and so on.
Fantasy-in-the-cracks requires a tremendous amount of research because the first thing you have to do is find the cracks…and once you’ve done that, you have to be very sure that all the events around your story are as accurate as you can make them. It only takes one mistake to invalidate your whole premise, and believe me, the readers will find it. When they do, their suspension of disbelief falls apart, followed quickly by the story. If you think there’s a good chance of you missing something, you’re almost always better off deliberately making something alternate history or parallel history; on the other hand, if you trust your sources and your research skills, this kind of fantasy can be enormously fun and satisfying.
Alternate History With Rivets is the second type, and it can require even more research than Secret History, because here the writer is extrapolating the ripple effect of one specific change in history. Some writers pick a major event, such as Napoleon winning at Waterloo, which instantly causes major changes in history-as-we-know-it; other writers pick something obscure or something that will take a while to have an impact. In either case, though, the idea is to do a rigorous and justifiable examination of the consequences of a single change (or perhaps a tight cluster of small changes). This one needs both research and logic, and even if you can justify every comma, people will argue about it.
Then there’s what I call Parallel History, which is like Alternate History With Rivets, only looser. This is the kind of thing I do. In nearly all of my pseudo-historical fantasies, magic has been around, known, and an accepted part of society for a long time, usually since prehistory. If I were doing AHWR, everything would be different; at the absolute least, the names of people and countries would be strange and the cultures would be unrecognizable.
But Parallel History assumes that for some reason (which the author may or may not have made explicit in their notes, and which hardly ever can make it into the book), history proceeds more or less along the same route even with this major difference that goes back thousands of years. A lot will be different, but enough will be the same that many places, people, and events will be recognizable.
Next would come the total alternate history, the sort you find in Lois Bujold’s Sharing Knife series, where the only thing that’s the same as the real world is the geography. And finally, you get the books where history is used only as something to mine for ideas from which to build a totally imaginary world, from climate to culture.
Which of these things a particular writer chooses to write will depend on a number of things, including how much the writer likes reading about history, what sort of story they have hold of and what they think it needs, and how much confidence the writer has in his/her ability to pull off the degree of worldbuilding accuracy that each sort demands.
That last is particularly important. The past is different from the present in a lot of ways; one is constantly faced with decisions about when, where, and how to present differences in everything from culture to morality to changes in everyday life. I’ve had several people comment on the size of Eff’s family in Thirteenth Child as if it were very strange and unlikely for anyone to have fourteen children, yet my mother was one of ten children, and her family was not considered unusually large, and that was as late as the 1920s.
There are also a surprising number of history buffs around, which one can view as either a feature or a bug. The bug is, of course, all the passionate amateur historians who will point out your mistakes and argue with your interpretations after the book is published and they’re too late to change. The feature is that if you can find any of these folks while the book is still in manuscript, they’re usually happy to provide help with the research.