Fantastic History #24: Galactic Conquistadors by Abby Goldsmith

In today’s world, few uncontacted tribes continue to survive in remote rainforests. To their members, the developed world is an ominous mystery. Likewise, even in the Information Age, many people across the world speculate on what mysterious wisdom or ancient rituals those reclusive tribes might be hiding.

Multiply those questions by a factor of millions, and you can begin to imagine the scale of the collision between Old World and New. The Age of Discovery was a period of invasive exploration unlike any other in human history, in terms of magnitude. It was a time when entire civilizations were labeled as savage and alien. While Leonardo Da Vinci painted for royal patrons, and while Protestants challenged the Pope in Rome, across an ocean, illiterate sailors and mercenaries battled illiterate farmers and shepherds by the millions. The Spaniards and the Portuguese, versus the Aztecs and the Incas. They were arguably the most populous and powerful civilizations on Earth at the time. Each considered the other to be horrifically alien.

I write science fiction fantasy.Some might call it galactic empire fiction, one of the branches of space opera. My series has nothing to do with our real world, or with real world history … but it is about alien conquerors bent on enslavement on a massive scale. The Torth wield weapons superior to anything which humans or other alien civilizations can fend off. They outclass everyone with their instantaneous communication; their ability to cooperate and think collectively. And although the Torth resemble humans, and share a
common ancestry with humans, their fundamental values are vastly alien to any culture which has ever existed on Earth. They seem mysterious. And they are terrifyingly good at conquest.

The parallels are undeniable. When I read about conquistadors and the uncontacted lands they explored, as well as the mysteries they presented—I see shades of what I’m writing about. A frenzy of reckless enslavement. Translators forced to tread carefully. Shameful, or shameless, curiosity about outlandish prisoners of war. Dangerous quests spurred by half-baked myths and legends. God-emperors who demand sacrificial victims. Pirate strongholds in hidden caves. Swift changes in technology that necessitate new, never-before-seen battle tactics. Insane risks undertaken for the sake of glory. Kindness as a rare commodity.

From the perspective of history, recorded by the conquerors, the Age of Discovery is rife with descriptions of indigenous people as being primitive, savage, or barbarous. Some of this can be attributed to customs which many Europeans found shocking, such as human sacrifice and skull reshaping. But it is also, in part, because the conquistadors operated under a strict theocracy, promulgated by the Spanish Inquisition. Anyone who refused to convert to Catholicism was, by definition, unworthy of owning property or anything else.

More to the point, the conquistadors needed a legal excuse in order to pillage. The faraway Pope and monarchs would not condone invading and destroying faithful Christians. So when a conquistador invaded an indigenous village, his men did not translate the call to convert. They simply read it in Spanish, as their legal duty warranted. Then they would proceed to conquer the unrepentant pagans, gaining new land, treasures, and slaves. When the conquistador—often of peasant origins—sent a percentage of this newfound wealth across the ocean as a gift to the Crown, he gained a noble title, plus the right to own an estate; riches he could never obtain in Spain.

In other words, the conquistadors had strong incentives to enslave and exploit natives, rather than to trade peacefully. To learn anything nuanced about their enemies, such as indigenous languages, would only take time away from their goals. Many conquistadors were illiterate and uninterested in anthropology. They also needed to retain the loyalty of their soldiers, who were burdened by cumbersome armor, harquebuses, and warhorses. If they dared show any interest in pagan cultures, that would gain them the wrong sort of attention. The conquistadors were legally obligated to bring along Catholic priests, who had to be outwardly sympathetic to the Spanish Inquisition. Sometimes a conquistador would find it necessary to question a hostage, but in almost all instances, he relied on an indigenous translator who had been enslaved long enough to learn Spanish.

Like the 16th century conquistadors, the alien Torth of my series are under intense pressure to disassociate from their targets of conquest. The Torth don’t speak out loud, since their minds are permanently networked together in a souped-up internet. They don’t speak to slaves or “savages.” They never communicate with slaves, except to give commands. And as far as they’re concerned, humans are their primitive cousins, like chimpanzees.

On the other side of the clash…the Torth seem frighteningly mysterious to people who cannot plug into the galaxy-spanning mental
network. Slaves cannot easily hide secrets from their telepathic masters, which makes escape nearly impossible. The Torth are capable
of anticipating, and punishing, physical attacks, and they send slaves to die in battle for them. On the rare occasion when a slave succeeds in killing a Torth, the dying Torth will broadcast what happened to the whole Torth network, replaying a visualization of who attacked them, and ensuring that the rebel will be hunted and killed. And the Torth have soaked up knowledge from everyone they’ve ever conquered, which ensures that their technology is always cutting edge.

Technology, of course, was one of the key factors that allowed a few hundred Spaniards to conquer the Aztec Empire and the Inca Empire, both of which had armies numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Smallpox and other plagues could be considered a form of unintentional biowarfare, exported from a population with built-up immunities to a population without those immunities. And there was gunpowder. Horses. Armor. Sailing ships. Written language, conveyed on paper.

The most successful rebellions against the Spaniards, such as the rebel kingdom led by Manco Inca, involved treachery and intellectual theft. Manco Inca was a god-emperor, raised among Spaniards, educated in fencing and other Spanish pursuits, and pampered as a teenage puppet ruler. When he escaped and set up an indigenous kingdom-in-exile, his retreat included Spanish roof tiles. His army learned about gunpowder from Spanish prisoners who were pumped for information, and his kingdom remained free and independent for more than thirty years, even after his death.

My series is about rebellion against the galaxy-spanning Torth Empire, and one of the main drivers of this rebellion is a figure like Manco Inca. Thomas is the unwanted hybrid child of a human slave and a failed conqueror. Since he is neither fully human nor fully Torth, everyone underestimates him, uncaring that he straddles both sides of the galactic conflict. Not only can Thomas decipher Torth glyphs and operate Torth data tablets, but he spent time as a pampered Torth, absorbing their life experiences. So he knows why Torth don’t laugh or cry. He understands that the average Torth suffers immense pressure to please their peers, to avoid rousing a deadly mob. Armed with intimate knowledge of Torth values and intelligence, Thomas commits himself to aiding his enslaved friends in overthrowing their ever-greedy conquerors.

On Earth, the Age of Discovery was characterized by fatal misunderstandings and miscommunications. Indigenous populations in
the Americas did not understand Europeans. They had no frame of reference for contracts and land deeds, for instance. Gold, to the
Incas and to the Aztecs, was for ornaments. Gold lost its significance when boiled down to seemingly useless little bricks. It
looked like pure madness, to work miners to death in order to gain gold ore or gold dust. And gunpowder? Horses? These were instruments out of legends. Even before the conquistadors showed up in large numbers, plagues of smallpox and influenza decimated teeming cities, like portents of an apocalypse. The gods must be angry. And so the indigenous populations focused on appeasing their gods with human sacrifice victims, and with new chiefs, chosen out of brutal combat—unaware that these measures further weakened them for their enemy invaders.

Likewise, Europeans were horrified by deformed skulls; heads flattened or elongated by binding methods in infancy. Rituals involving mass human sacrifice shocked even the callous conquistadors. If any Spaniards harbored secret thoughts of befriending the natives, they backed off at rumors of jungle priests who ripped still-beating hearts from the chests of virgin warriors. Anyhow, nuanced intercultural congress took a very low priority, by necessity, next to plunder. Tithes needed to be sent to the Church and the Crown.

I’m fascinated by the depths of misunderstanding between each of these proud civilizations. Despite the shared commonality of being human, their value systems were pitted against each other in direct conflict. Science fiction allows me to kick it up a few notches. In my series, the slaves are familiar to us as being human, no matter what sapient alien species they happen to be. The slaves and conquered peoples are a mix of humans, ummins, nussians, govki, and more, but they are all capable of telling jokes, and mourning deceased loved ones. They have children and parents. They can make art and music, and they can tell stories.

In contrast, the Torth make no art. They steal it. Torth have no families. They mass-reproduce using biotechnology. The Torth have
outlawed sex as something disgusting and bestial. Torth never laugh or cry, since they consider intense emotions to be savage; something only fit for primitives such as humans. They wear brainwave-altering headbands in order to suppress their emotions. As far as they’re concerned, logic is vital, but love is a bestial weakness. Any Torth who makes the most persuasive rational arguments will rise in status and gain influence over other Torth.

So the humanoid Torth act alien, just as the Spaniards seemed to the Aztecs, and vice versa. The Torth resemble humans, but they’re more alien than the ummins, who look like mummified birds, or the nussians, who are as heavy as tanks, with tough hides like rhinoceroses.

An odd Torth here or there might show kindness. A few Torth harbor secret sympathies for their disposable slaves. But if their sympathy grows too strong—especially if they dare help slaves—then there are countless ambitious Torth who will report their misconduct to the rest of the Torth Majority. Their peers will shoot them dead with blaster gloves, in order to claim the glory of destroying a nuisance or a criminal.

The only way to rise in the Torth society is to curry favor with the luxury-loving, gluttonous, socially-savvy celebrities at the top. Defy them, or displease them, and you are courting death. And unlike the 16th century conquistadors, Torth cannot accidentally get lost, or shipwrecked, stranded among enemies. The Torth are always tracked by their mental network. The only way for a Torth to “go native” is to voluntarily sever their mental connection to the galactic network; an illegal act from which there is no return. Needless to say, renegade Torth are exceedingly rare. They generally only survive for a few days. A renegade Torth will be hunted by their nearly omniscient brethren—and if caught, they face death by torture.

The conquistadors had it only slightly easier. If they integrated with a native society well enough to gain tattoos or ear piercings,
they could expect mistrust and suspicion from Spanish priests. Few European women dared to live in the machismo frontier towns of the New World, but if a conquistador married a non-royal indigenous woman and had children with her, his family would be rejected by his peers, unable to inherit wealth or property.

Nevertheless, the conquistadors had such a spirit of adventure, a few rarities did join the indigenous Americans. A shipwrecked conquistador named Gonzalo Guerrero, for instance, became a Mayan warlord and raised Mayan children, leading attacks against his Spanish brethren. And some of the indigenous population, by dint of royal blood and political maneuvering, avoided enslavement—such as Doña Isabel Moctezuma, the Aztec princess who secured a European dukedom for her descendants.

That sort of audacity informs my larger-than-life characters.Throughout my series, the character of Thomas is, by turns, a helpless human, an authoritative Torth, a much-feared renegade hunted by the most powerful people in the galaxy, a prisoner of pirates, a top
advisor to the rebel warlord, and ultimately, the instrument of change, as he empowers former slaves to enslave their former Torth
masters. Thomas becomes the most widely feared and despised person in the known universe, as well as a symbol of hope.

Like the most memorable characters of the Age of Discovery, Thomas is surrounded by a colorful cast from every quadrant of the Torth-ruled galaxy. Ariock, the rebel warlord of mixed heritage, could be Moctezuma II or Atahualpa, if either of those god-emperors had gained enough foreign intelligence to drive the conquistadors back across the Atlantic Ocean. Kessa, the pragmatic runaway slave, has elements of the pragmatic Malintzin; the translator who gained power as Hernán Cortés grew reliant upon her. There are shades of the backstabbing Pizarro brothers, and entitled Almagristas, amongst the upper echelons of Torth society, where ambition and winning popular support are all that matter. And the Upward Governess, a canny Torth tactician with illegal secrets, has elements of Antonio Pigafetta, the chronicler who recorded insights into Magellan’s violent encounters with indigenous islanders.

I began writing my series before I’d read much about the Age of Discovery. However, I find myself drawn to that period of history
more than any other, because it includes multiple well-chronicled accounts of alien encounters—or foreign encounters which seemed very alien at the time. It’s about the exploration of new cultures, values, ideas, and lands; exploration on a scale which is no longer possible in the contemporary era. It’s a shame that so few films and TV series are willing to tackle the brutal warfare and clashing values of this period, outside of light-hearted romps such as Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” and DreamWorks’s “The Road to El Dorado”.

My taste in non-fiction runs towards dynamic narratives with fiction-style flair, rather than textbook chronologies. Some of the
books I’ve most enjoyed about this era include Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, by Laurence Bergreen, Columbus: The Four Voyages, by Laurence Bergreen, The Last Days of the Incas, by Kim MacQuarrie, River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana’s Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon, by Buddy Levy, and Night of Sorrows, a fictionalized account of the conquest of the Aztec Empire, by Frances Sherwood. I’ll welcome more non-fiction book recommendations.


Abby Goldsmith’s short fiction and articles are published in Escape Pod, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Fantasy Magazine, and several anthologies. A former animator and game content writer, Abby is credited on more than a dozen Nintendo games for Nickelodeon and Disney. She lives in Austin, Texas, where she works full-time as video editor, and co-hosts the Stories for Nerds podcast. You can subscribe
to her newsletter here.

Abby’s novels, serialized online at Wattpad

On social media:
The Torth

February, 2019

I’d like to say I’d been burning rubber on my new Klaereon Scroll book, The Wisdom of Thoth. I’d like to say that.

Instead, what I will tell you is that self-publishing is not for people afraid of work. Most of my time the last two months has been spent promoting and editing. Those of you who have agents and editors, take a moment to send them a bouquet of flowers, or a movie pass, or something.

Let’s be honest. It’s work. I don’t dislike it, although I’d rather be writing. Writing is the piece of this journey that gives me the most joy, that takes me away, and really makes me happy. That said, there’s something cool about holding your destiny in your own hands, about making a beautiful book with someone who cares about your book. I have a good editor, cover designer, and graphic designer. I am learning, and feeling good about my new career.

In short, I’m doing okay, and there is light at the end of the tunnel. I have to finish editing The Pawn of Isis one more time. I’ve sketched my con year and my author events. The canvas is painted, and what remains is the showing up. I’ll probably have to plan one more giveaway, but that’s not happening until Pawn is done and released closer to March 19th.

What do I have coming up in February and March? Since the winter here in Iowa is literally keeping us inside one day a week right now (our college has never cancelled this much school), it’s good I have no plans to get out there and promote, because I suspect most of what I wanted to do would have been cancelled.

March, then, is the first event, and it is a Facebook party with some of the authors who have contributed to Fantastic History: J. Kathleen Cheney, Carol Anne Douglas, Pat Esden, Kate Heartfield, Christopher Kastensmidt, Kirsten Lincoln, Dan Stout, and Dawn Vogel. The first one is March 9th, and the second one is March 30th, which is really, technically, better announced in the next newsletter. I will remind you.

And if you didn’t notice we have a give away for the new version of The Vessel of Ra, get thee to the home page and enter if you need one! Than lasts until midnight on February 14th, or until the two books are gone.

I will be at a convention the last weekend of this month, doing nothing with books. I know, I know. Gamicon Nickel has asked me to judge their costume contest. What? I could never have imagined a life when I had to convince people I was a cosplay queen, but back in the day…Anyway, if you like games, and you’re in Cedar Rapids, come check them out. Wear a costume too, if you like. I won’t judge. Wait. I will judge. Exactly.

Next month, I hope to be deep in the (ecstatic!) throes of what life is handing Marcellus and Gregorius Klaereon, and Flavia Borgia. I wish you all awesome writing and good cheer.

Fantastic History #23: The Future was India–The First Women Doctors in the British Empire

I base a lot of my characters in books on gaming characters. I belong to a crack squad of people who have been role playing with me for nigh unto 25 years, and the characters they run are very interesting. However, sometimes I cannot adapt the characters wholesale, as gaming is an imperfect medium, partly improve, partly hubris. Believe me, no one wants to read about your cool game, no matter how cool it is to you. Further, sometimes characters must be juiced up in order for them to have the drama necessary to participate as a character in a story.

Recently, I wanted to shift one such character, an Indian magician, into a firmer historical background. The character as conceived has some ability in medicine, so I decided to look into the background of Indian women in the 19th century. What I discovered is one of those happy accidents that suddenly made this character not only viable, but cutting edge.

Interesting and unknown to me previously, I discovered that the first women to graduate from medical school in the British empire were two Bengali women: Kadambini Ganguly and Chandramuku Basu. Both women graduated in 1883 from medical school in Calcutta, India.
Ganguly was the daughter of a Brahmo reformer. She studied in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and London before starting her own private practice. The mother of eight children, Ganguly was the ultimate example of a woman balancing professional and personal life. Basu ultimately earned an MA and became the first female administrator of a school in India. While Basu retired early due to ill health, Ganguly remained a stalwart figure for women’s rights in India.

Certainly, with these examples, my fictional character could find a toe hold in medicine at the time, following in Ganguly and Basu’s footsteps. And so Adah Kapoor, a new name for an old character, was well on her way to becoming a practicing doctor, as well as someone who followed in her family’s footsteps as a magician.

And the rest remains to be written. History, however, can be a wonderful, rich gift to the writer.

For more information on Ganguly, check out The Better India.


Cath Schaff-Stump writes speculative fiction for children and adults, everything from humor to horror. She is the author of the Klaereon Scroll series, the most recent of which is The Pawn of Isis, coming in March, 2019. Cath lives and works in Iowa with her husband. During the day, she teaches English to non-native speakers at a local community college. Other recent fiction has been published by Paper Golem Press, Daydreams Dandelion Press, and in The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk. Cath is a co-host on the writing and geek-life fan podcast Unreliable Narrators. You can find her online at Facebook, Goodreads, Amazon, @cathschaffstump,, and

Post 20: Going Indie

I am now an indie writer. Let’s break that down.

It seems to be conventional wisdom in writing these days that becoming a hybrid writer is a good idea. (TM). I was going to give that a go, and to start, I had planned to publish a book of short stories, which I did yesterday, by the way. I published The Devil’s Wingman and Other Stories as an ebook, with a print book to soon follow. You might remember from the last time I wrote an authorly post (not the one about my new studio, but post 18) I had lost my agent and Curiosity Quills had turned down my Klaereon sequel (coming out on March 19th, you betcha!). I planned to leave The Vessel of Ra with CQ and let it ride out its contract, and I also planned to pitch Abigail Rath Versus Mad Science to likely agents.

Think again. 😀

CQ recently radically changed its business model, and I decided to take them up on the option of getting my rights back for Vessel. And I’ve been having this unsettling question about time as it keeps on slipping (slipping, slipping) into the future. The Vessel of Ra took two years from acceptance to reach publication. Finding an agent to represent me came about because of that book deal, but it took me pretty much from 2009 until 2015 to find an agent. Mind, I do think I could find an agent again, but my mind has been moving in some strange directions during the past year.

First of all, what I want to write are the stories I want to tell. I want to write 7 Klaereon Scroll books, and I want to write about 7 Abby Rath books. I also have novellas and a serial to tell in the magical family universe, and I expect some other tangents I could explore. In the case of The Klaereon Scroll series, the publisher told me they didn’t want any more. In the case of Abby, my agent didn’t want to support it. And no harm, no foul to them. But I wanted to do these things.

Here’s the conundrum. What is more important to me? Is it to have an agent and a publisher? There are advantages to that, including wide distribution and a different kind of work. I have found out, however, what is important to me is to TELL the stories I want to tell, rather than to SELL the stories someone else thinks they can sell.

I used to be afraid of all the work self-publishing entailed, but I am enjoying editing, working with formatters and cover artists, and learning the ins and outs of each piece as I go. It is a lot of work, but it is also rewarding. For me to get my story out there, and have other people read it; for me to forego the winnowing and unlikelihood that I will be traditionally published, and sell well enough for my publisher to keep me, and for me to write and share the stories I want to, all of these are the reasons I have embraced self-publishing.

This is not to say I will never return to traditional publishing. But right now I want to be in a place where I can write what I want, that is flexible around my job. I am luckier than many, as I have some income I can devote here as I start up. And I am also lucky to be writing in a time where independent publishing does not have the stigma it once did. So, these posts will take a turn toward what it takes to self-publish a book, as well as many of the other overlapping aspects of being an author.

Take care, and happy writing to you. I’ll be over here, telling the stories I want to tell.

January, 2019

Well, this one’s later, and it’s because I was waiting to be able to tell you about my new books. Let’s hit the ground running.

As of yesterday, I entered the exciting world of the self-published author. This was a choice made after about a year of thinking about what I wanted from my writing career, and finding self-publishing was closer to my goals and desires. There will be (coincidentally right after I finish writing this update) a post about all of this reasoning, so if you find yourself ever contemplating walking the indie road, you can see how I got here. It was my plan to remain a hybrid writer, but then the small press I had published with radically altered its business plan, and I decided to go all in.

But you want to know about Brazil. 😀 Brazil was an amazing adventure. I could regale you with stories of all my classroom antics, but those looked remarkably like my actual day-to-day work. I met some awesome professors and attended more Brazilian barbecues than I would have guessed. Lavras was a great town, safe, rural, where I could drink student-grown coffee from the college where I taught, and could see Christmas lights in 90-degree weather.

The author side of the trip was also wonderful. Christopher Kastensmidt set me up to speak at the Instituto Estadual do Livro in Porto Alegre. A sudden summer storm meant we gave our talk about publishing in the US by candlelight–very atmospheric. I met some wonderful editors and authors, and was very impressed by the Port Alegre arts scene. Now, having returned to the States with a taste for Guarana Antartica and pao de queijo, I search for alternative ways to get my fix.

After Brazil, Bryon and I had a wonderful holiday and a relaxing break at home. This was my longest break in thirteen years, one of the benefits of returning to classroom teaching and giving up the administrative piece of my job. I wish I could say I wrote and wrote. I can say I edited and edited! I have 3 books being released in three months, with covers and formatting to arrange, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the disadvantages of going indie. I really am enjoying it, but yes, it does take time.

So, okay, you can read all about the indie choice, but what’s important for this update is that I have put out a book of short stories. The Devil’s Wingman and Other Stories is only available in ebook form, because the print form is currently getting a final edit, but that will be available soon. Every story in this book has been requested by someone who has heard me read it, so I wanted to put them all in one place for those folks. You might enjoy some of the stories too, if shorts are your thing.

Well, I gotta catch up with my January stuff, and then move onto some book support for The Pawn of Isis, which is coming your way on March 19th. More on it and the re-release of The Vessel of Ra forthcoming. Until next month, best of luck to you with your writing goals, and stay warm. Unless you are in Brazil, in which case, stay cool.

Fantastic History #22: Revisiting Shakespeare by Carol Anne Douglas

Writing historical fantasy is fun! I have felt compelled to put established character into my own stories ever since I was a child. I made up new adventures for Robin Hood, Lancelot, and Jo March, as well as for the characters in my favorite television shows.

So it isn’t strange that as an adult I wrote two novels in which Lancelot is a woman in disguise (Lancelot: Her Story and Lancelot and Guinevere) and that when those were done, I found myself writing young adult fantasy novels about Merlin and Shakespeare, starting with my recently published Merlin’s Shakespeare.

I have loved Shakespeare’s plays for many years, so it was natural for me to also read books about his life and literary criticism of his work. When I started doing that, I didn’t realize that I was doing research for fantasy novels.

My primary research for Merlin’s Shakespeare is reading and watching Shakespeare’s plays. He created—or borrowed—so many fascinating characters that I can’t resist using them. I also read the plays of Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson and learned about their lives because I knew I would want to use them as characters.

My choice of a villain was easy. How could I find a more interesting villain than Richard III? I love how he tells the audience what he’s doing. “I am determined to prove a villain.” That’s my kind of villain.

The daughter of one of my friends has been an excellent actor since she played Puck at age nine and learned all the lines in the play. She is the model for my protagonist, a high school girl who loves to act. Getting to know my friends’ daughters turned out to be a kind of research for me, though of course I did it because I love them.

I knew who would send my protagonist back in time: Merlin, of course. Having spent years researching and writing about the Arthurian legends, I knew he would be immortal and still active in magical doings.

Once I decided that I would send a teenage girl to Shakespeare’s London and the worlds of Shakespeare’s characters, I had to decide who would guide her in those worlds. Again, the choice was easy. I needed someone who would interest a high school girl and who would say outrageous things, so I quickly decided on Mercutio. But though he would introduce her to other characters, he wouldn’t give her the advice she needed. Who would do that? Macbeth’s witches, of course. They would give her clues in obscure language. Unlike Macbeth, she wouldn’t leap to conclusions but would try to find out what the witches really meant.

I did some research to learn about Shakespeare’s London. My favorite Shakespeare scholar is James Shapiro, who has written many excellent books like Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, which shows that the contention that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays didn’t emerge until the nineteenth century, and Shakespeare and the Jews. For information on Shakespeare’s life, I drew partly on Shapiro’s books A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 and The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. Of course, I also tried to learn more about London in Shakespeare’s time by reading books like Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England, which provides a great deal of period detail about what people ate, what they wore, how much things cost, and what shops stood on various streets in London.

I try to avoid anachronisms. I deliberately kept a few in my Lancelot books, primarily having the Virgin Mary be important to Lancelot, although devotion to Mary was generally later than the period in which my books are set. I try not to have hilarious anachronisms, like one prominent contemporary Arthurian novelist’s description of King Arthur and his men eating corn on the cob at the Round Table. (No, it wasn’t supposed to be a spoof.)

Writing Merlin’s Shakespeare and the upcoming sequel, The Mercutio Problem, has been the most fun project I have ever undertaken. What could be more fun than time traveling and having the opportunity to meet Shakespeare’s characters, not to mention Shakespeare himself? Putting lines in Shakespeare’s mouth requires a great deal of chutzpah. Writing historical fantasy allows me to live a magical life.


Carol Anne Douglas was supposed to have been born in a magical world but somehow ended up in the United States. She is unable to converse with birds and animals, but she spends a great deal of time watching them. Her role model is Nick Bottom, the weaver, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because she wants to play all the roles, but only a writer can do that.

In addition to writing Lancelot: Her Story and Lancelot and Guinevere and her young adult fantasies, Carol Anne writes plays, one of which has suspiciously Shakespearean content. Several of her short plays have been read at the Kennedy Center’s annual Labor Day program showcasing local authors’ work. She is also working on a contemporary novel, tentatively titled Shakespeare, Yellowstone, Refugees. In real life, she has spent a great deal of time in feminist organizations.

All of her books are available on Amazon in print and eBook versions.

Lancelot: Her Story

Lancelot and Guinevere

Merlin’s Shakespeare (also available in eBook form from Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Apple’s IBook Store)

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…

Fantastic History #19: You Just Can’t Make This Stuff Up by K. Bird Lincoln

As a writer starting my first historical novel, I spent untold hours Googling obscure facts and combing through my old college textbooks about Japanese history for my medieval Japanese fantasy series, Tiger Lily. Fun facts like “at what year were cats introduced to Japan?” (Either during the Yayoi period around 200 B.C. or around 500 B.C. along with Buddhism from India via China like so much else in Japanese cultural history) and “when exactly did the Nanboku-cho period start when Japan split into a Northern and Southern Imperial Court?” (1336 A.D. when Ashikaga Takauji drove Emperor Go-Daigo from Kyoto).

The fantastic parts of Tiger Lily, like singing to nature spirit kami gods and shape-changing trickster foxes, took far less time in creation. Melding imagination with a basic mythological framework didn’t send me down any time-consuming rabbit holes. Don’t get me wrong, I love historical rabbit holes. I could live full-time down there if there were coffee and chocolate ?. But it’s slow work.

Beginning an Urban Fantasy series set in modern Portland seemed like a sensible way to spend less time in research and more time actually writing story. No Googling of Voodoo Donuts or the Washington Rose Garden necessary—I lived there for seven years. There I was, writing happily the story of a Portlandian Japanese-Caucasian college student unaware her father is a dream-eating baku, only taking short research detours down the fascinating paths of Pacific Northwest First Peoples’ languages and myths–such as Dzunukwa, the ogress, bringer of wealth that steals children to eat–and Dream Eater was completed in a timely fashion. Lesson learned. Research costs time and is nowhere near as lively as my own imagination. Or so I thought…

Dream Eater ended with my three main characters headed to Japan. At first I only needed short forays into Tokyo maps. Tokyo, Iwate, and Tochigi have all been my home for short periods of time. But then this memory bubbled up of my Tokyo boy husband’s uncle, born in an obscure village in Northern Aomori, telling me his surname, Herai, was a Japanization of the world “Hebrew” over yaki-niku one night many years ago just before he died.

I Googled “Hebrews in Japan.” That led me to the Takeuchi Documents (or Takeuchi Monjyo.) And that lead me to Jesus’ tomb. In Japan. Down the rabbit hole I went. Not just any rabbit hole of dates and wars and trade, no sir, but a fantastical rabbit hole where a secret Shinto document appearing in the early 1900’s tracing the lineage of kami back through the ages describes how Jesus came to Japan on a flying airship as a teenager, studied esoteric Shinto practices, went back to Galilee to teach. When threatened with death, left his brother to die on the cross while he escaped to Northern Japan where he lived to the ripe old age of 118. Women in this village supposedly kept their babies in woven baskets like Moses, and the very rare surname of “Herai”, like my uncle-in-law, was exclusively from this town, now called Shingo-mura.

And the pièce de résistance? Jesus’ Tomb and museum. Of course I had to use Jesus’ Tomb and the accompanying museum in my story. It was so fantastic, weirder by far than anything my imagination could meld to history. So in Black Pearl Dreaming, (the sequel to Dream Eater) the main characters head to Shingo-mura and encounter Jesus’ tomb. Of course, in my book the tomb is just a front for some far more nefarious dealings by the bad guys, but whether my rabbit hole journey uncovered an actual historical revelation or just a strange attempt to rewrite history, I’ll leave up to you. But, I couldn’t make up something like this. Just goes to show you, dig down deep enough in history and you’ll uncover things more fantastical and weird then ever imagined by an author.


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 speculative short stories are published in various online & paper publications such as Strange Horizons. Her medieval Japanese fantasy series, Tiger Lily, is available from Amazon. World Weaver Press released Dream Eater, the first novel in an exciting, multi-cultural Urban Fantasy trilogy set in Portland and Japan, in 2017. 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 at her website.