Fantastic History #21: The Accretion Theory of Story-Telling by Tiffany Trent

First, big thanks to Catherine for inviting me here. Because I’m a process geek, I thought talking a little about my story development process might be fun.

Stories for me come together in very odd ways; they’re pastiches of anything from weird science news to little snippets of conversation I’ve heard. (Beware! she says. I am a magpie!) I call this the “accretion theory” of storytelling, but I suppose I could as well call it distillation or alchemy. Whatever it may be, I love taking seemingly disparate or unrelated ideas and mashing them together to make something—a mixed-media collage of story elements.

All of my stories seem to start with a simple base and then get all kinds of flotsam and jetsam pasted on to them. In fact, this year’s anthology project, THE UNDERWATER BALLROOM SOCIETY, co-edited with Stephanie Burgis was very much like this. At the core, was an underwater ballroom (that actually existed!). We asked our authors to riff on that idea. I think I was perhaps the only one who used the actual historical ballroom, but that’s absolutely the idea. We wanted people to add their own spin to it, so we had a ballroom used as a smuggler hideaway, a ballroom under the inland sea of Mars, a ballroom on the verge of collapse, a ballroom that was the scene of a magical heist, a Faery rock-n-roll fete, etc. And in my own story, the signs of accretion were very much present because I used my keen interest in mudlarking, historical research about Chinese and Indian lascars in 1800s London and the quarters that sprang up to serve them, and the underwater ballroom itself to add another story to THE UNNATURALISTS series. Thankfully, our readers were willing to go along for the ride, and we got some truly lovely reviews in response.

Another example: A novella I have on submission is an accumulation of my feelings about adoption (I’m the mother of two adopted children), space exploration, symbiosis, anglerfish mating rituals, sacred cycles (like the Aztec flowery wars), and virulence, to name but a few. The last bit in particular has long fascinated me. In my day job as a science writer, I often come across interesting scientific facts or principles. One recent idea is that many bacteria that become virulent require the activation of only one gene to become virulent/disease-causing. I wanted to think about this in terms of an entire race of beings who when quiescent interact with their environment in one way and when virulent act in another.

I have absolutely no idea if anyone will buy this novella, of course, but I loved setting myself the challenge of writing something so dense and difficult. Whether I succeeded remains to be seen.

As to how I manage to find and remember all these tidbits, I used to try to keep them all in my head. But the combination of motherhood and middle age has left me with precious little storage capacity. I now have a notebook where I just jot down whatever little story seed interests me, sure I’ll use it later. There really isn’t much pattern to what seizes me, except wonder or a sense of the sublime or macabre. But I reread them all periodically to see if any of them are speaking louder than the others and try to figure out how I might string some of them together.

I think a lot of why I do this is that these story seeds are bits of code that I string together to decrypt a bigger story. I often don’t even know why or how they go together (and truthfully sometimes they just don’t!), but I’ll try to find the story in them with everything I’ve got. Stephen King mentioned in On Writing that the bones of stories are already there; we writers just have to find them. Like him, I believe the story is already present. We just have to fit the bones together to make it whole.


Tiffany Trent is the author of eight novels of young adult science fiction and fantasy, including the HALLOWMERE series (Wizards of the Coast) and THE UNNATURALISTS duology (Simon & Schuster/Saga). Her first novel, HALLOWMERE: IN THE SERPENT’S COILS, was named a New York Public Library Book of the Teen Age. THE UNNATURALISTS was a 2012 Green Earth Book Award Honor winner. She has published numerous short stories and is the co-editor with Stephanie Burgis of the anthology THE UNDERWATER BALLROOM SOCIETY. She teaches in the Southern New Hampshire University online MFA in Creative Writing and is a science writer for a research institute at Virginia Tech.

December, 2018

Happy holidays to everyone out there. My professor life has taken center stage this month, as I am journeying forth to Brazil to teach a course for our partner college in English as a Medium of Instruction. I will be flying to Sao Paolo on December 7th, and I’ll stay in Lavras for a week, at which point I’ll fly out to see Christopher Kastensmidt in Porto Alegre. For those of you who don’t know Christopher, you REALLY want to read his collected Elephant and Macaw Banner novelettes, which just recently came out from Guardbridge Books, a fine Scottish publisher. I’ll be home on December 19th, well in time for Christmas with the best husband in the world.

A sad event occurred last Friday. Our beautiful 2000 Hyundai Elantra, which had served us for 18 years and 392,000 miles (yes, that is NOT a typo) died, due to a dead transmission. Honestly, we’d been riding it quite hard since Bryon retired. Still, it was a member of the family, an honored car that had become part of personal mythology, and we will miss it so much. Today Bryon is out there getting it taken away to salvage, and we have purchased a second car. but we will feel this grief for a while.

I did one book event this month at our beloved M&M books for small business Saturday. If you are a local author, I cannot say enough good things about M&M. While I have always felt welcome at our local Barnes and Noble, M&M handles a great many indie authors on sort of an equal footing. If you are looking for something diverse to read, it’s a great place to stop and see what they have for your literary adventures.

Writing-wise, I am currently in editing mode. The first week of the month I finally finished what is a feasible draft of Abigail Rath Versus Mad Science, which I will revise in the New Year and submit for traditional publication. I imagine it and the first book Abigail Rath Versus Blood-Sucking Fiends will be my self-publishing projects for 2020, but you never know. At any rate for the foreseeable future, all the new series will make the rounds with new agents until and if my self-pub career demands so much time it’s not feasible to do that anymore.

Just this past weekend, I finished editing my book of short stories, and now it’s off with my graphic design friend Michele, who is doing its cover and layout. There is a story about the aforementioned Hyundai Elantra in it. The volume is largely for people who have heard me read these stories at conventions, and wanted these stories somehow. Every story has been requested. Look for The Devil’s Wingman and Other Stories in January, very soon.

And The Pawn of Isis is edited! Kate Heartfield, and excellent historical fantasist herself, has edited it for me, and J.Kathleen Cheney, another amazing writer, is working on the cover. My current publication date is March 19th, and I will be looking for reviewers to share the news, as well as organizing events on and off line. Stay tuned.

I will see all of you in January, when I return from my adventures abroad and we’ve all had wonderful holidays. Take care, and we’ll talk again in the new year.

Fantastic History #20: Fact or Fantasy? Challenging Readers’ Expectations about the Past by Anne Lyle

Fantasy as a genre is inextricably linked to history; with its roots in myth and legend, it cannot help but reflect our past, even when the stories are set in some version of our present. The fantasy aspect gives us some leeway, of course, but a writer who is ignorant of historical fact is bound to attract criticism and even turn readers away. I well recall wincing at a book set in an otherwise fairly accurate medieval Western Europe that described a garden as having tulips among its flowers, despite “tulip mania” being a well-known 17th-century phenomenon (speculators would pay ludicrous sums for the rarest specimens of this new plant). I have not bought any other books by this author!

What is less obvious is that the reader’s ignorance of historical fact can also result in criticism of your work. Jo Walton christened this “the Tiffany Problem”, after discovering that Tiffany (an anglicized version of the Greek name Theophania) was quite popular in the Middle Ages. Because the name was out of fashion until fairly recently, it sounds very modern to a present-day reader and is likely to make them find a medieval fantasy novel with such a character “inaccurate”.

I had a similar problem with the gay and bisexual characters in my alternate history fantasy trilogy. Most of them move within the world of the Elizabethan theatre, well known for its practice of employing young male actors to play female roles, and it seemed likely to me that, then as now, such a milieu would be welcoming to gay men in a way that wider society tended not to be. I did my research, pretty thoroughly I think, but inevitably some readers found it implausible that anyone could be openly gay in Elizabethan London and not get burned at the stake.

In case you too have your doubts, I’ll briefly summarise my research. Firstly, it’s well known that laws get passed because something undesirable is already happening; it doesn’t in any way mean they will stop it continuing to happen (just look at the effect of the death penalty on murder rates). Secondly, I discovered that despite homosexuality being illegal, there were actually fairly few court cases on the subject in early modern England, and only a small percentage of those resulted in prosecution. Much of that is undoubtedly because any sexual misdemeanour is difficult to prove, and in the case of consensual gay sex neither participant is likely to come forward with an accusation. Indeed the case most often referred to, that of the Earl of Castlehaven, centred not around homosexuality but the alleged rape of Lady Castlehaven by a male servant with the earl’s assistance. Castlehaven’s homosexual leanings were then exploited by his wife and son to get him executed, along with the accused and another male servant.

Such a high profile case is atypical, and should not be considered the likely fate of a working-class gay man. More probably he would be subjected to queer-bashing, much as happened well into the twentieth century (and sadly still happens today), which would leave little or no historical record. However since my books are intended as fairly lighthearted adventure novels, not examinations of what it was like to be gay in Shakespeare’s London, I deliberately played this down, as I did with the bear-baiting, cock-fighting and other unpleasant activities that were considered perfectly acceptable in this period. For the same reason my characters don’t wallow in angst about burning in Hell, but apparently neither did the playwright Christopher Marlowe, who is alleged to have said “those who love not tobacco and boys are fools”. All in all I don’t think there’s anything in my novels that openly contradicts the historical evidence; the problem is all in the eye of the beholder.

A reverse form of the Tiffany Problem can afflict writers of secondary world fantasy, which by definition is not our world and therefore doesn’t have to work by our rules. The fans of grimdark fantasy like to claim that their favourite books are full of rape and torture because “it’s realistic for a medieval world”, ignoring the fact that it was the writer’s choice to focus on these aspects of the real Middle Ages and overlook the positive ones. You might therefore find that your heroic fantasy is criticized for being unrealistic, just because your world has sexual equality or decent public hygiene or whatever.

So how do you avoid the Tiffany Problem? The short answer is: you can’t. You just have to do your best and then prepare to roll with the punches.

The long answer is that you can work around the most glaring issues by having some beta-readers who don’t know much about history. They may tell you that your coin-operated water dispenser sounds a bit too steampunk for an Ancient Greek setting, at which point you realise you need to explain earlier in the book that the Ancient Greeks knew all about steam power and levers but only used them for gimmicky devices, because they had slaves to do all the hard work.

With secondary world fantasy, strong internally consistent worldbuilding can help. A public sewer system and abundant clean water requires massive resources and organisation, which is why the ancient Mediterranean empires had them and the squabbling kingdoms of medieval Europe didn’t. Baths need lots of hot water, which in turn requires fuel and hard work, so before the invention of domestic boilers only rich people with plenty of servants or slaves could afford them. Think about where your “modern” luxuries come from, rather than dropping them into the world just because you want them there.

In either type of setting, more complex pseudo-anachronisms like my gay Elizabethans are much harder to “explain”, and you will have to decide whether to try to slip in a brief incident or bit of dialogue to give it some context, or just accept that readers bring their own experience to a story and may find some things implausible. I feel it’s best to avoid infodumps unless your beta-readers have flagged it up as a major obstacle to believability.

Be warned, however, that there’s nothing you can do about the willfully ignorant, like the commenter I saw online the other day stating that the Ancient Greeks couldn’t have been gay because they followed the teachings of Jesus (*headdesk*). Like any criticism of your work, you just have to suck it up and move on—and on no account respond to the reviews! If it really bugs you why not write a blog post about it? The article I wrote on homosexuality in Elizabethan England is one of the top search hits on my website, which probably brings in a few readers who otherwise would never have heard of my novels, and all without feeding the trolls.

I hope this article hasn’t made you nervous about including lesser-known historical facts in your fantasy world. It will enrich your writing, make your story more believable to those in the know, and might even open readers’ eyes to how complex and sophisticated our ancestors’ worlds really were.

Tulip Mania
Archived version of interview with Jo Walton


Anne Lyle was born in what is popularly known as “Robin Hood Country”, and grew up fascinated by English history, folklore, and swashbuckling heroes. Unfortunately there was little demand in 1970s Nottinghamshire for diminutive swordswomen, so she studied sensible subjects like science and languages instead.

It appears, however, that although you can take the girl out of Sherwood Forest, you can’t take Sherwood Forest out of the girl. She now spends practically every spare hour writing – or at least planning – fantasy fiction about dashing swordsmen and scheming spies, set in alternate pasts or imaginary worlds.

She prides herself on being able to ride a horse, sew a sampler and cut a quill pen but hasn’t the least idea how to drive one of those new-fangled automobile thingies. Paradoxically she is a big fan of 21st century technology, being a Mac geek and full-time web developer. Well, it’s the nearest thing you can get to magic in our own universe…