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).

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.