Fantastic History #27: Cultural Sensitivity Beyond the Novel Itself–The Devil is in the Details by K. Bird Lincoln

A plethora of good definitions for cultural appropriation, primers for those wanting an understandable framework, a time when a big author pulled a project due to sensitivity issues, and lists of ways to avoid cultural appropriation in the context of fantasy and science fiction can be found with a quick Google.

Let me be transparent about my bias before we get started. I’m a white, middle-class woman from the USA who has spent significant time on the West Coast and in Japan.

I’m also a writer who often uses Japanese and Chinese myths and culture in her historical and urban fantasy. I like to think I mostly portray myths and legends with complex characters who do not perpetuate stereotypes and present East Asian cultural motifs within an atmosphere of respect.

It’s an ongoing struggle not to fall into the trap of willy-nilly plucking katana, ninja, or hari-kari from Japanese culture as if it were a buffet and it didn’t matter what I shoved into my story. Not that I’m at risk for white savior faux pas like shoehorning Tom Cruise into a samurai movie, but all those cute kitsune in manga and anime sometimes tempt me towards the dark side of stereotypes.

Fantasy writers have a license to be imaginative and creative, but need to temper creativity with sensitivity when writing the fantastic based on real life cultures that are not our own voice. Whether that borrowing be obvious roots to Edo period Japan in Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightingale Floor or the fantastical parade of Chinese mythical creatures in M.H. Boroson’s Girl with the Ghost Eyes, or the subtle changes in WWII history resulting in Japanese supremacy in Beth Cato’s Breath of Earth—the trick is to twist it far enough for the fantastic without losing nuance.

Writing whole books provides a large canvas on which to present nuanced and sensitive portrayals. Recently a couple of potential issues related to other author activities—especially indie published authors—have come to my attention.

I am in an author Facebook group where a long discussion about a cover for a historical fantasy set in Hong Kong revolved around the model’s face: too white. There is a lack of good stock photography of a variety of types of East Asian and mixed East Asian ancestry to use on book covers. My cover for Dream Eater, where the heroine is bicultural Japanese-Caucasian, had this problem. Use a Caucasian model and risk white-washing her? Use a full on East Asian looking model that doesn’t signal to the reader the complicated truth of the cultural area my heroine occupies? This gets harder when going for historical models. No wonder so many fantasy authors spring for original artwork, like JC Kang’s Master of Deception or Nicolette Andrews’ Dragon Saga. Where are the resources?

The second issue is author names. I’ll admit, I approach books like Jade City by Fonda Lee differently than I approach Daughter of the Sword by Steve Bein. Both books base themselves in thoroughly researched East Asian history. But what if, as a yet unpublished author I came across recently, someone decides to use a pseudonym that confuses the reader’s ability to judge whether this is an #ownvoice or not? The author in question used a pseudonym with a Japanese-sounding first name and an English-sounding last name. His argument was that not only was this first name a nickname he’d used for most of his adult life because he lived in Japan, but that he felt strongly it shouldn’t matter if readers picked up his book without knowing first what background he came from. Those arguments unsettled my stomach—not because I think only Asians can write Asian fantasy, but because as a rabid reader myself, I want authors to be up front about the lens through which they view the world. I have the right to consume stories based on true knowledge of the author’s background. Taking the stance that it’s okay to present yourself as possibly Asian when you’re not seems oddly stubborn. Authors and readers should be able to trust each other.
Finally, we come to yet another touchy issue: reviews. Last year I read and reviewed 115 books. Whether authors should review other authors is a whole basket of thorny issues for another time. Let’s say, though, that you’re reading along in a historical fantasy and suddenly you come across descriptions of the alpha hero where his skin color is compared to a food item. There is an acknowledged understanding out there that not only is this cliché, but can also be fetishizing. But it’s historical! And it’s fantasy! As a reviewer, do you call out the author on her World War II Hong Kong heroine gazing at her own almond eyes in the mirror if that was an oft-used phrase from that time period? What if it’s in an alternate fantasy world? How do you balance warning other readers about problematic themes without crossing the line into politically correct police territory?

Outside the actual book itself, writing the other can bring up a lot of other issues. Staying sensitive to other points of view and presenting your own self in as transparent a way possible might keep authors from massive blunders—but it still doesn’t fix the dearth of good stock photo models!

Someone could make good money from that niche.


The stunning conclusion to K. Bird Lincoln’s Urban Fantasy Portland Hafu trilogy drops March 19th! Check out the first in her series, Dream Eater or pre-order the conclusion, Last Dream of Her Mortal Soul. K. Bird Lincoln is an ESL professional and writer living on the windswept Minnesota Prairie with family and a huge addiction to frou-frou coffee. Also dark chocolate– without which, the world is a howling void. Originally from Cleveland, she has spent more years living on the edges of the Pacific Ocean than in the Midwest. Her medieval Japanese fantasy series, Tiger Lily, is available from Amazon. She also writes tasty speculative fiction reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Check her out on Facebook, join her newsletter for chocolate and free stories, or stalk her online.

Fantastic History #26: Grounding–Finding the Floor of Your Historical Details by Jeff Reynolds

It took me twenty years, but I finally got a short story published. As I’ve told anyone who would listen to me (and plenty who’d rather I’d stop going on about it), I consider my first professional payment to be the ground floor of my ambitions. Now if someone would please direct me to the elevator that leads to the floor labeled “Fiction Writing Career,” that would be very helpful. We can skip the floors for sporting goods and lingerie.

In terms of novels, I came to the conclusion that high fantasy wasn’t what I wanted to write, at least not yet. Nor low fantasy. Anything where I had to plan the intricacies of a secondary world, from races with detailed histories, to continents and complex ecosystems, didn’t appeal to me. There are plenty of great writers doing that, and doing it brilliantly. But I’d read a ton of science fiction alternate history, and I started wondering if there was a place for historical fantasy. That, along with a role-playing game group I participated in with a distinct 1930’s noir flair, led to my first novel. Shadow of a Doubt is set in a Baltimore of 1938, featuring trolls who work as mechanics, witches as detectives, and elves with fascist views.

Writing historical fantasy is both easier and harder. It’s easier because “It’s Earth! Mostly! Well, kind of?“ It appealed to me to root fantasy in our existing world. The world is the world, and aspects of our real world can exist in historical fantasy (I’d suggest should, but that’s a personal decision best left to each author and their readers). All we’re doing is rearranging some things, modifying or creating a bit of history, populating it with strange beings, adding a dash of magic, maybe a sprinkle of eerie, a pinch of strange.

But, for me, good historical fiction of any sort doesn’t work unless its grounded in truth, historic details sprinkled through the work in unassuming and unexpected ways. Properly leavened, the work will rise like a loaf of bread and become far better tasting than the sum of its parts. And who doesn’t like a fresh-baked loaf of warm bread? Delicious!

History is the easiest type of grounding to work with. There are numerous works of historical non-fiction. Countless websites give broad views of wide time periods, or deep dives into narrow topics. With so much information readily available, it becomes easy to twist. The Battle of the Somme becomes a civil war between trolls and humans. There is no Nazi party, but Canada was settled by isolationist elves whose ideology mirrors the German Reich of the 1930’s. The west of America—much of the plains and all the Rockies—was never colonized and remains in the hands of indigenous people.

Grounding historical fantasy has to go deeper than using history to flavor your recipe, though. I spent a great deal of time researching Baltimore of the 1930’s. One of the resources I found most useful were photo archives. Granted, if your novel is set more than 150 years ago, photos are going to be non-existent, although paintings and tapestries might provide a useful alternative. But for anything post-industrial period, particularly where a modern city is involved, you should be able to find plenty of reference material.

I started with Getty Photos. Getty contains over two thousand images of Baltimore alone. But sites like Getty focus on modern stock photos that can be used copyright free or via paid licenses, and that wasn’t my goal. Pinterest had far more of what I needed: lots of images of Baltimore from the 1930’s. I used those to paint a picture of a time and place. What did people wear? What did transportation look like? Were the streets squalid or clean? Did a certain building existing in the time period in question?

I learned that, indeed, a building I wanted to include as a critical location in my story did exist, well before 1938. An important sign on top of it with a glowing red eye didn’t exist until 2008 or 2009, though (oops). However, I opted to include it in the story anyway. While any Baltimore resident or historian might note the discrepancy, it’s important to remember we’re not writing a true history. We are modifying history to suit our fantasy setting. So, the Natty Boh beer sign (a picture of which accompanies this article) is a critical item in my narrative (and really, who doesn’t love a great big beautiful beer sign hovering over your city). It brings a touch of “I know this place” to the novel, and for any Baltimore native or visitor, it creates a thrill of memory that roots them firmly in location.

Streets were another touch I thought about long and hard. For example, there wouldn’t be a Martin Luther King boulevard in 1938. Learning the former layout and names of streets that the protagonist would encounter turned out to be one of the hardest parts of my research. Google searches proved fruitless in finding maps from the 1930’s, though I did find one from the late 19th century. But Baltimore grew enormously between 1890 and 1938, so it was interesting but not useful.

I finally found what I needed on a website called Digital Maryland. The site is a collaboration with the Enoch Pratt library system in Baltimore to digitize historic content. Not every state or city will have such resources, but visiting local libraries and/or state archives when possible will provide you the same types of data. A 1930 Cram map of Baltimore provided a close-enough proxy for what I needed. Now I knew that parts of MLK Boulevard follow a line along what was Freemont Street, before curving north and cutting through what would have been blocks of buildings that were replaced in the sixties and seventies by government housing projects.

What radio stations existed in 1938? What were the cars like? Did some people still use horses and carts? Does your history include airplanes, airships, other details? What hair styles were popular? Every detail you include—but only where its relevant, where it slips in unobtrusively—contributes to a picture that you and the reader build together. Every detail you change and adapt modifies that picture. It ties the reader to a sense of “I know this place,” while creating a disconnect with their “known” reality. And that is exactly what we as historical fantasists strive for. The real connects to the fantastic, deepening a reader’s immersion.
And while I’m speaking of building a picture, did you examine architecture? New buildings in 1938 were influenced by the art deco movement, incorporating the neoclassical Greek and Roman influences of previous years while adding touches of chrome and steel streamlining and decorative trim. Having my protagonist enter a building gives myself the opportunity to comment on the physical details of the entry and further sets time and place.

Grounding your story in historical detail doesn’t have to be done with a heavy hand. It’s the little touches you include that create the bigger picture. Something as simple as the style of comb a young woman uses to brush her hair gives important details to your audience without resorting to long swaths of information dumps. I love spotting tiny details, like the style of phone resting on the desk in the lobby of a building a protagonist entered. Or the man who stands next in the elevator in his green suit, a stiff, black cap on his head, waiting for you to tell him which floor.

I just hope he hands me a warm loaf of bread and lets me off where they sell those fiction writing careers.

Natty Boh sign on old Baltimore Brewery by Elliott Plack is used by permission under CC BY 2.0.


Born and raised in central Maine, Jeff Reynolds currently resides in Maryland, where he and his incredible, supportive, and uber-geek-tastic wife, Jennifer, have a lovely view of the mountains. He enjoys reading and hiking, a good cold beer every now and again, and anything to do with anyplace that’s warm (and absolutely hates the cold). His lifelong dream is to quit work and write full time, if he can ever get his kids to move out and start being adults.

Jeff works for Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, home of New Horizons and other amazing space probes. His story, The “Fairy Folk”, appeared in Andromeda Spaceways magazine (issue #73, December, 2018).

March, 2019

What I have learned in January and February part 2

1. You can never proofread too much, even when you have an editor. Always look over every copy of your book.
2. ALWAYS get a proof of your book and read that.
3. Send your editors and publicists flowers. For realz. Or food, or coffee, or whatever they might like. Those people are doing a lot of work on your behalf.

I have learned a lot about the process of putting out a book, and I have learned that there are many ways I can save myself a lot of grief in the future. Like, I should really read my book out loud, always. I should really print out my book and read it, always. Do as much editing as I can.

And…I have also learned that human error will happen. I have been as careful with my three new books as I know how to be, and so now I need to forgive myself for any problems we find in the ARC drafts. I will work harder to make the ARC drafts easier on readers in the future.


All that said, THANK GOD that phase of this year is OVER. While I will be doing lots of author support in the upcoming months, my main goal is to WRITE ALL THE THINGS. This is my current slate for the year:

1. The Wisdom of Thoth (Klaereon Scroll #3)
2. As yet untitled Carlo Borgia novella which explains what he’s up to during The Wisdom of Thoth
3. The first two installments of my serial The Poet and the Navigator
4. The rewrite of Abigail Rath Versus Mad Science

Yeah, that’s a lot, especially for someone with a full time job. The two serial installments are meant to go out this year, but the rest? Well, it is my plan to publish The Wisdom of Thoth next year, as well as Abby Rath 1 and 2. The Borgia novella is flexible, as it occurs independently of the Klaereon Scroll, so it could go out this year or next.

There are many things for me to look forward to writing at the moment, so I will just get on with it. 😀


Last things to note:

On March 19th, I officially release The Pawn of Isis. On March 9th and March 30th, I will be involved in two online parties which feature writers from the Fantastic History part of this blog, talking about their new books. Information on the home page.

April 6th will find me in Clear Lake, Iowa at the Northern Iowa Book Bash, so feel free to stop by if you are in the area. I will remind you of this one.

I hope the weather begins to improve. It’s been a long, cold winter in Iowa. We are ready for a change.