Fantastic History #49: Whose Middle Ages? by Ariel Bolton

In recent years many writers of secondary world fantasy have been making a conscious effort to broaden their world building beyond the pre-modern quasi-European settings that have been the defaults for decades. Nevertheless, a lot of us still like to set at least some of our stories in analogues of medieval Europe. That’s why the most stimulating writing book I’ve read recently is Whose Middle Ages? Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past (Fordham University Press, 2019).

It’s a collection of short chapters, each looking at a different way that twenty-first century culture, from op eds to renaissance fairs, has referenced medieval history and tried to turn it to present-day purposes. The pieces are all written by scholars of Medieval Studies, mainly historians and art historians, and they’ve been edited by five professors at Fordham University’s Center for Medieval Studies.

While the book wasn’t meant specifically for writers of fiction, I found it useful as a catalyst for thinking about some of the tropes and casual assumptions in our genre that are due for overhaul and re-imagination. Here are some examples.

“Real Men of the Viking Age” by Will Cerbone examines the trope of the Viking as a lone warrior with a taste for plunder and axe violence. Cerbone points out that while such men certainly existed in early medieval northern Europe, the Icelandic literature that is the source for much of what we know about Norse culture consistently portrayed them as “tragic misanthropes, awful neighbors and primitive monsters.” The valorization of strongman characters who cared for no community happened only centuries later, when European nationalists tried to use Norse literature as origin stories justifying their own aggressive agendas.

“The Invisible Peasantry” by Sandy Bardsley discusses all the sources that historians use to construct a picture of medieval peasants’ lives. Despite the fact that this class left very few records of their own, a remarkable amount of information about them can be discovered in court documents, tax rolls, sermons, mystery plays, and archaeological sites. When the peasantry, who made up 90 to 95 percent of the population, are left out of modern stories and re-enactments of medieval life, it is not for lack of information about them.

“Ivory and the Ties that Bind” by Sarah M. Guérin traces the source of the ivory used to make three thirteenth-century statuettes found in the Louvre. The fact that French artisans could procure the tusks of savanna elephants to carve reminds us that neither medieval Europe nor medieval Africa were as isolated as has traditionally been believed. In reality, a complex series of economic ties linked Mande hunters in what is now Senegal with Amazigh caravan traders crossing the Sahara, port cities in North Africa, and Italian merchants plying the Mediterranean.

Stephennie Mulder’s “No, People in the Middle East Haven’t Been Fighting Since the Beginning of Time” takes on the cliché that Diana Wynne Jones dubbed the “Fanatic Caliphates”. Some of the responsibility for this image of the Middle East falls on medieval Arab chroniclers themselves, who were fond of depicting conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites as eternal and unrelenting. However Mulder, an architectural historian, points to evidence that tells a more complicated story. The Mashhad al-Husayn (shrine of Husayn) in Aleppo honours a major figure of Shia Islam, but it was built with the help of a Sunni governor during a period of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries known as the Sunni Revival. Inside, linked inscriptions honor the twelve Shiite imams and the four caliphs revered by the Sunnis. Hundreds of structures with similar programs were built and visited by both Shiites and Sunnis in the medieval Middle East, complicating the rhetoric of the chroniclers with the reality of everyday life.

Other chapters discuss medieval sexuality, immigration in the Middle Ages, blood libel, concepts of race, and the crusades. Each one ends with three or four suggestions for further reading. It’s a quick and digestible tour of some of the flashpoints in the current study of the Middle Ages. If you love medieval world building, but worry that it sometimes lacks texture, this book can be used as a primer for imagining a richer, more nuanced medieval world without accidentally setting off alt right dog whistles or tripping over discredited Nazi lore.

A recurring theme in Whose Middle Ages? is the invocation of distorted medieval imagery and medieval themes by modern people to further present-day political agendas. The old medieval tropes still have a power to stir emotions and shape narratives. And that is where our role as writers comes in. We need to think carefully about how we use the power of medieval world so that it is used for good.


Ariel Bolton lives and writes in Toronto. Bits of her PhD in Medieval Studies sometimes show up in her work. She has published work in Flash Fiction Online, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, and the anthology Myriad Lands.

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.

Fantastic History #45: High End Fan Fiction by Catherine Schaff-Stump

If you’ve been following my recent misadventures, you know I’ve been writing about Dante’s Inferno. For the third book in the Klaereon Scroll series, I found myself feeling this book might end up very much like the last two if I wasn’t careful. The first book introduced all the family drama, and explained the original contract. The second book expanded the parameters of the Klaereon world, and took us on a spin to see the other magical families. As cool as all that is, I needed a way to make this book distinct from the other two, and I also needed a way to expand the personalities of the characters in this book, twisting them in interesting ways. What was a Gothic writer to do?

Well, this writer decided to send her characters to Dantes’ Inferno. Well, why not? We knew the Egyptian pantheon had been banished to a place called the Abyss. We know from Book 1, when Carlo was pulled into the shadows, he ended up in a very Dante like version of Hell. Couldn’t Hell, the Abyss, and the Inferno be the same place? Sure, sure they could.

This meant a lot of things. I was know in great need of a read through and annotation of Dante’s Inferno. Thanks to Danielle DeLisle, a member of a horror group I joined, I got a line on a great translation–so good, in fact, that I will follow up my reading with Purgatorio and Paradisio by the same translator (Robert M. Durling, for those of you interested.) With the original text in Italian, an excellent English translation, and a ton of explanatory foot notes, I was on my way!

Now, you may think, writing a story in someone else’s world is easy. I have to admit to some practice from my Harry Potter fan fiction days in the early 2Ks. Translating your characters into another author’s world, while trying to retain the mood of both your own fiction and their setting, on the other hand, is a bit of a challenge. Whenever I am working on my manuscript, I have a notebook full of notes by Canto, the actual text, and my murder board of the actual plot I’ve planned all within easy vision.

Of course, characters always have their own ideas about how things are going to go, and as soon as this preliminary draft is done, yes, there will be a lot of shifting around.

A lot of classic literature is in the public domain. You might remember such mashups as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies from some time back. I know there have been sequels and prequels to Moby Dick. Sherlock Holmes’ sister Enola has her own series of middle grade adventures. Using the classics as your starting point is both harder and easier than you’d imagine. I look forward to sharing the end result with you next year.


Catherine Schaff-Stump is the author of the Klaereon Scroll series and the Abigail Rath Versus series. She authors the Substack column The Crone You can find out more about her at her website.

Fantastic History #44: Living without Historical Accuracy by J. Kathleen Cheney

I’ve been talking about cover art a lot lately, mostly because it takes up half of my creative day. The work gives me some insight into how covers generally turn out, and that often means not historically accurate.

When I was being published by Big Publisher, I had no say whatsoever in my first cover. It literally landed in my inbox one day; I hadn’t even known they were working on it. It is a lovely cover—no question about that. But it wasn’t accurate for my character or my time period.

My book was set in 1902, in Portugal, and the character was acting as a lady’s maid. Not exactly the sort to be wearing jeweled overlays. And historically, that dress is off. 1902 was the age of the S-bend corset, with that bizarre poof to the front of the blouse to accentuate the smallness of the waist. My character refused to wear a corset, even though that was a shocking thing—she made do with a corset cover with stays—but she couldn’t wear one because she had air bladders outside her lungs. (I’ll skip the non-human anatomy lesson.)

And I wasn’t entirely surprised that the cover wasn’t correct. My editor had at one point asked me whether, when I referred to the character wearing a suit, I meant a suit with a skirt… or a pant-suit. That was when I knew I could no longer count on the publisher’s grasp of period accuracy.

But this was a super-big publisher. Wouldn’t they want it to be perfect?

No, not really. They want the cover to be good enough. They want the cover to convey the rough historical period, but don’t worry themselves over pin-point accuracy. And that’s okay.

Most readers don’t know the difference.

As a writer, I do a lot of research and obsess over crazy things like the presence or absence of sidewalks. I do my best to put my character into a historically accurate setting, but… I sometimes deviate. Like the air-bladder business. As long as I could come up with an explanation for the deviation, I was happy with that. (Ask me at some point about the smoking in 1902… so much smoking. If you read novels from that period, everybody in Portugal seemed to smoke.)

Yet my readers didn’t complain too much about the cover or any historical quibbling I did inside that cover. They wanted a good story. (I’m now sighing over those hours I spent researching the sidewalks.)

So what should we be looking for one our covers? Particularly since most of us will be purchasing pre-made covers or having them custom made ourselves.

Roughly Correct Historical Look

For people who know costuming, there’s a difference between the clothing of 1815 and 1825. The length of the bodice changes, dropping down toward the natural waist, and the sleeves and skirt were fuller, the early stages of what we call ‘Victorian’.
But while the writers know all about the underwear of the period, on the whole, readers don’t. So when they look at your Regency (Georgian?) period cover, all they’ll be looking for is an Empire waistline.

From a cover artist perspective, it’s a little difficult to get even that much. That’s why stock photos that are decent representations of a woman wearing Regency era clothes get used over and over and over and over. Unfortunately for a cover artist, it’s difficult to sort the gold from the dross. When you put in the word “Historical”, you get search results that vary from roughly accurate to ‘high school girl with too much makeup in a Gunne Sax dress that’s 3 sizes too large.’ (Also, if you put in ‘Regency’, you get a large number of photos taken in front of a Regency theater or hotel.)

Now there are photographers out there taking fantastic period photographs, but we’re talking about people who expect to be paid far more than your average cover artist is paying. If you’re expecting to make thousands of dollars on your book, then that’s the route you might go.. or even have a custom photo taken.

But not everyone is so sanguine about their literary financial prospects, so we tend to economize. Therefore, we have to compromise.

Roughly Correct Hair Style

Hair styles changed along with fashion, but the vast majority of stock photos show women with their hair down. If you want to swap out their hair for a more-formally-coiffed style, you’ll probably have to steal hair from a wedding photograph. That’s the primary occasion in stock photos where the women wear their hair up.

What they don’t do is wear it with Regency-era sausage curls on either side of their face or scraped back as was more common in the Victorian era. So… even if you can find a woman with her hair up, you’re not likely to find one that’s just right.

Nor do you want to.

Readers will look at those sausage curls and cringe. Sometimes we choose not-quite-accurate because we want to attract the readers of today, not the readers of the 1970s.

Makeup—just try not to worry about it

This is a hard thing to say, but finding a model with no makeup is a rarity. Whenever I find an artist who does this, I bookmark that one, because it’s like I’ve found a unicorn.

Characters of color

Men and women of color are especially difficult to find in historically correct attire. Your cover artist might be able to work around this, but expect more of a struggle. (My personal guess on this is that the vast majority of stock photographers seem to be Russian, which means their model choices are somewhat restricted.)

So what can you do?

Look through some stock photo sites yourself to get an idea of what’s out there in your time period. This is especially helpful when you start getting frustrated with what the cover artist has to show you. Most of the major stock photo sites (iStock, AdobeStock, Deposit Photos) share about 85% of their photos, so if you find one you like, there’s a chance that the artist can find that one on whatever site they use to get their photos.

Check Pinterest. While this is unlikely to lead you to a regular stock photo site, you’ll find some fine photographs from independent photographers who take more accurate period pics. Just remember, Pinterest is a better place for ideas rather than for actual purchases*.

Bookmark/pin anything you like so you can come back to it later. This is vital, since going to an artist and saying “There was this girl in a blue dress I liked but I don’t know where to find it” is not particularly helpful.

Remember, while we’d love our historical cover to be perfect, it’s probably not going to be.

Good luck out there!

*There are some great photographers out there. HOWEVER, they will almost certainly want more $$ for use of that photograph than a stock photo will cost. Cover artists usually pays about a buck or two per image, so if you pick out a $200 image from Awesome Photographer X, you’ll probably have to pay the $199 yourself. In addition, many photographers who have great pictures don’t allow royalty-free use, which essentially means that you’ll have to account for each book sold and pay the photographer a royalty on top of the initial sale price. So much bookkeeping! Then there’s the question of model releases… so be aware that a lot goes into the licensing of a photograph. Even though there are great pics out there, some are more trouble than they’re worth!

J. Kathleen Cheney taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, but gave it all up for a chance to write stories. Her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist. Her novel, The Golden City was a Finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards (Best First Novel). She’s currently working on the sequels to Dreaming Death: In Dreaming Bound (2019), Dreams from the Grave, and Twilight of Dreams (both 2020.)

Can-Con 2019


Kirkwood was kind enough to pay for a trip to a writing convention this year, and I ran off to Canada to Can Con. I knew a couple of great people who would be attending the convention, (looking at you, Rati Mehrotra and Kate Heartfield), and I have heard great things about the education track at the con.

Can-Con exceeded my expectations and then some. On a purely social level, I had a chance to get to know people better, spending some quality time with the people I went to see, and meeting many new and truly interesting people. I talked to some people about writing articles for Fantastic History, and I talked to other people about their writing projects past, present, and future. I came away with awesome reference books and a list of things to buy in the future. I did karaoke. More cons need karaoke.

I love Wiscon, which I have attended for years with close and wonderful friends, and I love CONvergence, where I get to be both an author and a fan, plus go to a con with the love of my life. Viable Paradise was an awakening. Taos Toolbox was studying at the feet of Buddhist Monks. Paradise Icon feels like reuniting with old friends you see once a year, and you pick up where you left off.

Can-Con was the case of me coming in as a stranger, but being accepted into the conversation about writing with so much ease. We talked about everything: the different kinds of publishing, art, projects, research, trends. What we were writing. Hopes and fears and dreams and all the things writers think. I didn’t feel hierarchy as much as I have at some cons. I was strangely reminded of where I work. Yes, there are levels, but there’s an effort to be accessible and a sincere feeling we were all in it together. Or I could have been inventing a fiction. We do that. I loved it, though, and I want to go back.

Thank you, Canada. Thank you, writers. Thank you, new friends. My gratitude is Maple.

Fantastic History #43: A Time Traveler’s Guide to Genealogy by Wendy Nikel

In today’s digital era, researching family history is easier than ever before. We can now access vital records, military records, and censuses from centuries past with a click of a button. We can find distant relations through analysis of our DNA. Through resources like, FamilySearch, Heritage Quest, and others, we can connect with others working to solve the same puzzles of our shared family trees. And with advances in technology and increased record digitization, finding out about your ancestors is likely to get even easier as time goes by.

Until someone invents time travel and messes it all up, that is.

One of my readers, upon hearing that my Place in Time series was getting a fourth book on October 29, suggested I put together a family tree to help them keep the characters straight, and I agreed that might be a useful diagram, considering the previous three time travel books spanned eight generations over a course of 222 years… and not necessarily in chronological order.

So, I started looking at different diagrams genealogists use to keep track of family history. My family has already done some research of our own lines (discovering among our ancestors a professional boxer, a convicted witch, a countess, a mayor, and two brothers who died in the Lady Elgin disaster), so I looked first to some of the trees we’ve used.

One common genealogical diagram is an ancestor chart, or pedigree. Whether presented horizontally or vertically, it starts with one person (usually the researcher themselves) and works backwards, showing their direct ancestors (parents, then grandparents, then great-grandparents, etc). Fan charts and circle charts are also other version of this type of tree, with the starting person in the center and their ancestors expanding outward. Sometimes, you’ll even see these in a bow tie shape, with a married couple in the center and the husband’s ancestors branching out on one side and the wife’s on the other. The advantage of these charts is that someone in the present-day can look back and see very clearly their direct ancestors. They’re usually quite clean, simple, and easy to read.

Another common type of genealogical diagram works from the top down, selecting one ancestor and then branching downward from them to show all their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc – one generation per line. This is generally called a descendants chart. They can be trickier than ancestor charts, because they include all the children of each person, which could be a lot of names, especially when you include remarriages and stepchildren. If each person in a generation marries and gives birth to even just three children, by the time you reach the fifth generation, you could be needing to make room for the names of 81 children and their spouses on a single line. As nice as it is to include siblings (who then become aunts and uncles and bear cousins to later generations), it’s easy to see how a chart like this could become unwieldy.

Both these basic chart types have one thing in common, though: it’s easy to tell the passage of time. Ancestor charts start at the present day and work backward into the past. Descendant charts start in the past and work toward the present. This is where it gets tricky for a time traveler… or those who choose to write about them.

In the case of the Place in Time series, for instance, the bottom generation belongs to Dr. Wells, despite him being older than the other characters in the books. Cassandra, despite being born in the 22nd century, gives birth to a child in the early 20th century. For this situation, a regular genealogical chart simply wouldn’t do.

I decided, therefore, to make use of the x-axis. While the y-axis still shows the generations as normal genealogical charts do, the x-axis shows the centuries that each of the characters lived in. (I did have to fudge the chart a bit to include Dodge, who is adopted into the family.) The blue box roughly shows their life span prior to time travel, with the lines continuing downward to the next generation at approximately the point in time when that child was born.

Someday in the future, if jumping up and down the timeline really becomes a feasible option, I imagine there will be many other people calling for these sorts of genealogical charts, and family trees will include much more complicated, tangled branches. (Just think of tree you’d have to make for the song “I’m My Own Grandpa”!) But for the time being, we’ll stick with our ancestor charts and descendant charts and be grateful that they only move chronologically in one simple, orderly direction.


Wendy Nikel is a speculative fiction author with a degree in elementary education, a fondness for road trips, and a terrible habit of forgetting where she’s left her cup of tea. Her short fiction has been published by Analog, Nature: Futures, Podcastle, and elsewhere. Her time travel novella series, beginning with THE CONTINUUM, is available from World Weaver Press. For more info, visit her website.

Fantastic History #42: Stories within Stories by Kurt Wilcken

When I was young, I used to enjoy reading books of myths and legends: the Wanderings of Odysseus; the Labors of Hercules; Robin Hood and King Arthur; Paul Bunyan; How the Sea Became Salt and How the Bear Lost His Tail. They helped fuel my love of stories.

Looking back it occurs to me that many of the books I’ve enjoyed have contain their own internal myths, stories within stories, which add flavor to their worlds. The Baskerville Legend from The Hound of the Baskervilles; the Tales of El-ahrairah from Watership Down; the Creation of the Rings of Power from Lord of the Rings, (and many others; you can’t swing a hobbit in LOTR without hitting a tale of ages past). I’ve done something like that in my own stories too: inventing my own myths to provide “corroborative detail” for the worlds I’ve made.

I suppose I should clarify what I mean by “myths”. I don’t mean it in the “Mythbusters” sense of “Something Untrue”, or “Breathing a lie through Silver” as another fellow once put it. Nor am I limiting it to stories about gods and magic, although in a fantasy story either one may pop up.

What I’m calling a Myth is a story that has gained some degree of cultural significance. It conveys a truth — or at least is regarded as doing so — regardless of the factuality of some of its narrative details. It is held to be important by the people who tell it. That’s what separates these internal myths from other types of embedded stories, like flashbacks or backstories. It’s an anecdote which has attained apotheosis.

In the beginning of The Hobbit, Bilbo learns about how the dragon Smaug attacked the Lonely Mountain and drove out the dwarves who lived there. This is important backstory, because it establishes the reason why the dwarves want to return. But Bilbo does not first hear this story in a dry infodump; he, (and the readers), hear it in the form of a song the dwarves sing. This is no “Once Upon A Time” fairy tale. For the dwarves it is a piece of recent history that occurred within living memory of most of the party, but by recasting this tragic event into a song, they have transformed it into more than history. It is lore, a part of their dwarvish cultural identity; and the song captures Bilbo’s imagination in a way that a prosaic infodump might not. That’s what makes it mythic.

A myth can serve different functions in a story. In some cases it is little more than flavor text. In college I created a sword & sorcery comic titled Brisbane the Barbarian. Each issue would begin with an ornately-lettered caption reading: “Ages ago when Atlantis was young and the world still flat, mighty warriors blazed a path of blade and blood across unheard-of realms…” I intended this introduction to set the tone of the comic: Heroic Fantasy after the Robert E. Howard tradition, but not too serious.

Granted, that little snippet of mine, although it tried to sound mythic, is hardly a myth. It’s more like a cross between an invocation and a running gag. At best it serves a similar role to narrative formulas in fairy-tales like “Once Upon a Time” or “And They All Lived Happily Ever After”, which Tolkien compared to margins around an illustration or picture frames; they act like verbal parentheses, marking a story’s beginning and end.

Myths can be put to better use. One of these uses is to provide the reader with background information, as in the case of the dwarves’s song in The Hobbit. In my webcomic, Cat-Men from Mars, the Martian hostility towards the Earth derives from an ancient war between the Martian Old Ones and a now-extinct race which fled to Earth’s Moon. The reader learns about this war between the Martians and the Lunarian in bits and pieces, through fragments of legend which, even to the Cat-Men seem like half-forgotten lore.

The Mythic Introduction has become a standard gimmick of the Three Volume Fantasy Epic, like the Obligatory Map of the Fantasy Realm, describing the cosmology of the world and setting up the major conflicts which will shape the plot. I’m not sure how common this is anymore. Tolkien probably gets some blame for it, although he limited his prologue in Lord of the Rings to just explaining about hobbits and allowed the reader to pick up the rest of the History of the Elder Days as he went along. An Origin Myth shouldn’t leave the reader with the impression that there’ll be a quiz on this later on.

Myths are also useful for introducing McGuffins of Power. If a magical artifact has any significance at all, it’s got to have some sort of myths accumulated around it, if only the story of its creation. In a role-playing campaign I ran many years back, I wanted to give one of my players a magical shield. I invented a story about a warrior of long ago who was given a choice by the gods of either a magical sword that would kill his enemies, or an enchanted shield which would protect his friends. The story was a not-terribly-subtle hint to the player about which item to take when he faced the same choice later in the adventure. Not that the player needed a hint; he was playing Captain America, so of course he was going to take the shield.

None of these absolutely need the mythic voice. A writer can provide a history or a backstory through flashback, through an omniscient narrator, or simply through one character saying “As You Know, Bob…” to another. But invented legends and lore bring something to a story which other types of infodumps might not. A character, or a first-person narrator telling a story reveals something of themselves in the process of the telling. When that background story is presented as a piece of lore, then it also says something about the people who came up with that myth: what they believe, what values they hold, what assumptions they have about the universe. Apart from the narrative details found in a myth, the fact that people chose to mythologize that particular subject also says something about the society and culture.

I once wrote a story for a shared-world anthology a friend of mine organized, about an orkish shaman undergoing something like a crisis of faith when a new religion comes to challenge his traditions. I decided to start the story off with a creation myth, telling how when the World was New, the divine Powers summoned the young races of the earth to let them choose which of the Powers they would worship. The Humans chose the Sun, for it’s splendor and might; the Elves chose the Stars for their great beauty; and the Dwarves chose the Earth for her deep wisdom. When they came to the Orcs, the Father of Orcs, in his pride, refused to worship any of them, saying that Orcs could take care of themselves and would remain independent and free. This angered the Sun, who placed a curse on the Orc-folk, which is why Orcs don’t like the daylight.

This story did a couple of things. For one thing, it helped me get a feel for my narrator’s voice. More importantly, it helped me get into his head. The story of Urg-Dar, the First Orc, helped establish important elements of Orkish culture for my story: their pride, their sense of independence and self-sufficiency, and their strong ties to tradition. It led up to the later conflict with the new religion of the Sleeping God when the World Changes, and how the protagonist ultimately reconciles the old traditions with the new status quo.

Invented myths like these won’t fit in every story; but they can be a useful world-building tool, giving the reader a sense of the people living in that world. Even if the myths are not historically accurate, the presence of the myths give the reader a sense that there is a history behind that world.


In his secret identitiy, Kurt Wilcken is a ninja cartoonist. He has written and drawn stories for Antarctic Press and Radio Comix and his current webcomic, a Pulp-Era adventure titled Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine, appears on his website. He also blogs occasionally on subjects ranging from comic books to obscure Bible stories. You can find his story about the orkish shaman, “Spitting at the Sun”, in the fantasy anthology Hunt the Winterlands.