Sunday, January 22, 2012

Writing Historical Fantasy

As I've probably mentioned before, the book that's undergoing revisions with my agent (Aillea's Cards) is historical fantasy set in 1631 Ireland. I've written several historical novels, ranging from Ireland to India to China. I don't claim to be any sort of expert on the subject. Writing historical is difficult, and I definitely have tons of room for improvement, but I thought I'd share a few world-building tips I've picked up over the past year or so.

1. Trace articles back to their origin. For instance, if you're reading an internet post about a certain time period, find the references at the bottom and go backwards from there. If you can find the original book/article, you'll usually get more complete and accurate information.

2. Find pictures. Like they say, a picture is worth 1,000 words. It helps to get a visual in your head of the world you're trying to describe. Even a modern-day photo can help.

3. Start with the basics. Research governmental structure, organization of towns, current political situation, role of religion, types of housing, foods eaten, and layout of the landscape. This is when I usually write my first draft. I get a rudimentary framework of plot, characters, etc, without too much emphasis on the historical setting.

4. When you write your first draft, make sure the dialogue doesn't contain any modern phrases (like the word "okay"). Research language and speech style for your particular time period. Sometimes you won't be able to find anything on this, but if you can (specific phrases, colloquialisms, terms of formal address, etc) then you can go back through during your first round of revisions and tweak dialogue here and there.

5. Details. I usually devote an entire round of revisions to historical detail. Working scene by scene, I research the little stuff (the Irish term for stove, the exact method for threshing barley, types of plows, names of specific pieces of clothing, who gets to wash their hands first before dinner, etc). These additions are what really bring your story to life. For me, it's best to focus on these things after I've got a first draft, because otherwise there are just too many terms and details to remember. Also, I don't want to disrupt the flow of work on my first draft to go look things up. I often mark specific pages that need more historical detail so I can come back to them later.

6. Remember, small additions can make a big difference. References to political situations, customs, and cultural nuances help ground your story in the real world and provide an additional layer of depth.

So there you have it. I still have a lot to learn about writing historical fantasy, but I hope to improve with each book. How about you guys? Does anyone else write historical? What are your tips?


  1. *giggles at 4* The Color of Yin has okay EVERYWHERE.

    Yeah, I'm perpetually in awe of your ability to make these extremely unique worlds feel authentic. I have a historical fantasy in the queue, but I'm scared to research...luckily I have you to bother :)

  2. I write traditional fantasy set in other worlds, so although I don't need to research specific details of specific countries, I still need to research life in the Middle Ages - life as it would be for my characters.

  3. I would say that even in historical fantasy a writer must remember the character's humanity first and foremost. Yes authentic worlds are wonderful and beautiful things but to me they become a backdrop for imagination and emotion. While I am writing my current WIP, that is what I'm thinking of. I'm thinking of what is troubling their existence, how society and their position affects the characters arc, and mostly how best to communicate it in a poetic manner that makes the reader drawn in not only by words but also the reality of the world. The struggle of the character, the obstacles, the hurt that comes from being a part of a world that you did not choose, is the part that drives the themes. To me, that is what makes it universal.

  4. @Anonymous Well of course the character's humanity comes first and foremost. I sort of automatically assume that writers know this. I've done many character-related and theme-related posts, but this particular post, as indicated by the label "world building", isn't about character development. It's about building an accurate historical world. If you're writing historical fiction, developing your world is an essential aspect of telling the story. I certainly believe character development to be of the utmost importance, but I don't really think it pertains to this post.

    1. True accuracy is definitely a part of it. The only research that may prove the most effective is some primary resources, because it will show a certain part of history that may not be included in history books or websites. Some of the most reliable sources come from databases. Some research that may be found in such databases may contain the true social and psychological aspects the people during that time endured. That is what I meant by the reality of the world. The post was not to get off the topic of world building but was meant to emphasize the complexity of of it. World building requires readers to draw a connection to reality while introducing a foreign setting, hence to make it universal. Yes world building deals with society on a macro level but the more micro view is what makes everything alive. Sometimes research on certain physical things will not accomplish that fully, because only the author can take an object like a ring and ascribe a strong power to it. I hope that clarifies what I was trying to say earlier.

  5. My MA in art history really helps me with my writing (I swear, I use it more for researching writing than for anything at work. :P) because I love to research. I need to plunge into the time period and immerse myself fully before I can start plotting, because more often than not my plot ideas stem from historical facts.

    I highly recommend using university libraries for research, since they can often get you copies of articles you need from other institutions without having to be a member of the library. Plus, they may have online journal databases like jstor to use.

    Once you have this, only then can you determine exactly how your main characters will react to their environment, imo.

  6. This is great advice. I don't write historical because my passion is in another genre, but I am always impressed with those that do. ;)

  7. @Tere That's a great idea. I haven't really had the opportunity to peruse my university library, but I'll have to check it out.

    @Anonymous Yes, I definitely understand what you're trying to say. I also think there's a difference between people who write historical fiction and people who write historical fantasy. With fantasy, you're allowed to take more liberties in terms of altering facts, customs, and beliefs. The goal is to retain the essence of the culture while staying true to plot and characters. I also toy around with alternate history in some of my books, which requires deviation from historic culture as well as an understanding of what that culture was actually like.

  8. I haven't done anything historical yet, but I have reached a ton of time periods for various, completely made up fantasies. Your advice is spot on. I do many of the same things. Too many pictures. :)