Fantastic History #48: Interactive Historical Fantasy by Kate Heartfield

What draws me to historical fantasy is its ability to poke at our conceptions of the past, to explore the ways in which it is strange, and the ways in which it is familiar. Interactive fiction offers another approach to a similar project: it asks us what we would do, if we were in circumstances very unlike our own.

Both the interactive form, and the historical fantasy genre, question the extent to which human decisions can change the course of events. Is there anything Machiavelli could have done to avoid getting on the bad side of the Medici family in Florence in 1512? Could the people of Renaissance city-states have shaken off corrupt oligarchs if their artists were also magicians, or does power simply entrench hierarchy? If Leonardo da Vinci had found a way to keep his flying machines in the air, how would that have shifted the geopolitics of his age?

These are things we can’t know, and choices we can’t make – except in fiction.

My second game for Choice of Games, The Magician’s Workshop, was released on Dec. 19. It’s set in Florence, Italy, in the late summer of 1512, just when the Medici family came back into power after years of exile. But this is Florence where magic is real, and where the workshops that churn out sculptors and artisans also churn out alchemists, animators and soothsayers.

Like all Choice of Games projects, it’s a text-based adventure you can play on your phone, tablet or computer. I’ve written the story to unfold in several different ways, depending on the choices the player makes. You play an artist-magician in one of the city’s most prestigious workshops, with clients to keep happy, rivals to keep at bay, and a shadowy figure who wants something from you.

The lure of both interactive fiction and historical fantasy is that they open up possibilities. The challenge for the writer is, well, that they open up possibilities. When you’re writing interactive historical fantasy, the trick is to keep the story from veering too far from the history you’re trying to explore, without dampening the writer’s (or the player’s) imagination. The rules of magic and the scope of player choice are like the walls that contain bumper cars: you want to keep the cars in a certain area, without ruining the fun.

Magic and choices must have limits. The player can’t do whatever they want, or the bumper cars would simply leave the fairgrounds and fly into the air like the carousel horses in Mary Poppins.

But it’s surprising, sometimes, how far the story can roam before I have to put up a wall.

For example, in my game, magical technology can lay bare everyone’s secrets in the public square. No one would be safe from such technology. One question my game invites is whether this would change the politics of Florence, and in what ways. That question is one the player must answer, but ultimately, history is surprisingly robust. In our real world, Renaissance Florence was a place where neighbors could turn on each other, putting little pieces of paper into snitch boxes on street corners. It was a city of shifting factions, where no one could be certain a confidant was not a spy.

What matters is not how easily secrets can be found, but what we do with them, and whether we value privacy as a society. What matters are our choices.

As for those choices, well, there too, granting freedom to play doesn’t necessarily mean losing control of the story. Choices are always constrained by their consequences. In my game, you can rat out your own mother to the authorities, but that means you lose her support and affection. You can use magic to make boat fast enough to lose its pursuers in a chase on the Arno, but if you fail, you’ll get just as wet as you would in a world without magic.

And so our journey into fantasy brings us, as always, home. Back to human frailties and human strengths, and the worlds we make for ourselves every day of our lives.

But in the meantime, we can imagine what it might have been like to do what no one did, and pilot a flying machine over the rooftops of Florence in the year 1512.


Kate Heartfield is the author of two interactive novels for Choice of Games: The Road to Canterbury, which was published in 2018 and shortlisted for the first Nebula award in the game writing category; and The Magician’s Workshop, published at the end of 2019. She is also the author of the historical fantasy novel Armed in Her Fashion, which won the Aurora Award for Best Novel and was shortlisted for the Locus First Novel, Crawford and Sunburst awards. Her two Alice Payne time travel novellas were shortlisted for the Nebula and Aurora awards. A former newspaper journalist, Kate lives in Ottawa, Canada.

FH #47: Using Your Own Memoir in Fiction by Catherine Schaff-Stump

While I talk a lot about the writing I do that takes place in the 19th century, there is another piece I had published in 2018 from Paper Golem Press called The Ground is Full of Teeth. In this novella, there are really four characters: Alice, a high school teacher; Chris, the werewolf veterinarian; Irv, a paramedic, and the town where I grew up, which is called Oscar Springs in the story.

Whenever someone uses memoir in historical fiction, or any fiction for that matter, it’s important to note the experience of memoir is highly subjective. The town I portray in Ground is meant to convey not an accurate picture of my hometown, but the hometown I remember. My adolescence was a painful time, not because of the town, but how I perceive the town is irrevocably shaped by those experiences. The town had beautiful homes, well kept with manicured lawns, but it also had jagged barns tilting and ready to fall, rust-covered gas pumps from the 1930s, and outdoor buildings painted with indoor paint. The people of the town were sort of similar, my own family more like the tilted barns than the manicured lawns.

I wanted to revisit my past, not to exorcise demons, but to take a look at it. Memoir means you see details because you have lived them. If you read Ground, you’ll see cracked sidewalks because of tree roots, the same three-tiered school I attended, the railroad tracks that cut through town like stitches holding a wound together. The Methodist Church, solid stone and maintained. Tracks of land wild and overgrown. Children popping wheelies on a blacktop street. All of these things are not just the description of a place. Because it’s memoir, they are also descriptions of me.

Writers try to recreate authenticity through research and trips to places. The life you have lived can be the most important research. It is small wonder there is a suggestion to write what you know, because you can do that down to the molecules of what you’ve seen and felt. My small town in this novella is the story of my memory, and takes place based on my life in Oscar Springs in the 1970s. Recreating what you have lived, by virtue of it being in the past, creates a painstakingly accurate history, and the more you write, the more you remember.


Cath Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and adults, from humor to horror. She is the author of the Klaereon Scroll series, the most recent of which is The Pawn of Isis. She lives and works in Iowa, teaching English.

Fantastic History # 46: Choosing Details in Historical Fantasy by L.S. Johnson

If you write fantasy of any kind, sooner or later you’re going to hear about the iceberg theory of world building, a spin on Hemingway’s concept of the same name. It goes as follows: for all the world building you do for a project, you only need to include a small amount in the final story—the visible tip of the iceberg. Everything else remains off the page, yet works to convey the fullness of your world, giving your readers an immersive experience without bogging down the story in information.

In historical fantasy, much of your world building is done for you; still, the iceberg theory applies. You cannot assume your reader has intimate knowledge of 9th century Persia, or the 19th century timber trade, yet you don’t want to overwhelm them with your research. By giving some thought to the details you include, you can not only signal your time period without slowing down the plot; you can imply the rest of that massive, hidden iceberg.

In the novella I’m writing now, it’s the early 1750s. My character travels to Georgian London and stays for several days, moving between four different neighborhoods and interacting with denizens from all walks of life. I’m reading histories of London and compendiums of Georgian life, studying 18th century maps of the city, and dipping into period writing.

Now I could just build on the average reader’s sense of London, mentioning landmarks like Parliament or the Tower, and invoke “historical” with some remarks about cobblestones and horse-drawn carriages and urchins begging on street corners. But I want my details to do more. It’s especially important to me because my protagonist is a lesbian and one of her companions is black. I want to show the diverse, queer, sometimes violent, sometimes astounding city that they would have inhabited, not a generic Past London. So the question becomes, what details can I use to invoke that city?

Consider: the molly house.

“Molly house” was a slang term for the clubs and rooms where homosexual men gathered. They were found throughout London, ranging from private residences to the back rooms of public houses, where passerby could (and did!) see men embracing, drinking and dancing together, and coming and going in pairs.

Now I don’t need to include a molly house. There’s nothing in my story that depends on my protagonist visiting one, and there are other types of establishments that would convey “London” just as well. But when I learned there was a molly house in the back rooms of The Royal Oak in St James Square, right where my protagonist is staying, well. Here was an opportunity in just a few brief sentences to show the reader the queer London that was. Mentioning The Royal Oak and its clientele, does a huge amount of work in the story:

It makes my protagonist part of a larger queer population in England, not an oddity or an aberration;
It implies that this queer population encompasses a range of social classes (St James Square is a wealthy enclave);
It demonstrates that there are many Londoners who are willing to work for, serve, transport, and otherwise do business with a gay clientele;
It implies that a great number of people, including people in positions of authority, know all about The Royal Oak and feel no compulsion to do anything about it.

With this one specific mention, that generic Past London has been brought into sharper focus, made at once more real, more human, and more specifically itself. It brings context to my larger story and validates the presence of my queer characters. It implies the hidden iceberg of Queer London, without my having to bog down the story with an essay’s worth of references.

All from one public house.

What might a well-chosen detail evoke in your stories?


L.S. Johnson writes speculative fiction, with work appearing in Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Strange Horizons, Interzone, and other venues. Her first collection, Vacui Magia: Stories, won the 2nd Annual North Street Book Prize and was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. Ask her anything except how the novel is going.