Blog

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.

References
Tulip Mania
Archived version of interview with Jo Walton
Mervyn_Tuchet,_2nd_Earl_of_Castlehaven

***

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.

October, 2018

Didn’t you notice November started a week ago, Catherine. What’s up with that?

I took a little extra time to post this because I wanted to be able to post this news: Abigail Rath Versus Mad Science finally has a viable draft that is off to my beta readers. Yeah. That feels pretty good.

***

October was an eventful month, even if you don’t take it from a fake 5-week long perspective. First off, there was Icon, which also meant the writers workshop I run every year. It was great to reconnect with friends and see what kinds of projects they’ve been working on. I tried out the first installment of my upcoming serial on them, and got some solid advice, and a good time was had by all.

In the middle of the month, I had the good fortune to attend the Surrey International Writers Conference, which was a wonderful educational experience. I met many fellow writers, agents, and publishers, and learned a lot. Plus I got to hang out with my good friend Chris Cornell and meet some wonderful Canadian writers I know from online forums I’m involved with. So…all around a great time, one I would highly recommend to anyone who’s ever thought of going. I found it very useful in rekindling my desire to write, and giving me some direction regarding my writing career.

Events were rounded out with a brief book fair at my local Barnes and Noble the first week of November. I do not have any events planned for the foreseeable future. In December, I am visiting Brazil in my capacity as an English professor for Kirkwood and teaching a class, so I doubt I will get much new work produced, but I do have some plans.

I joined the Horror Writers of America, so now I belong to that august organization, as well as the Science Fiction Writers of America.

***

This is the part of the update where I give you some ideas about my plans to take over the world my upcoming release/writing schedule. What’s going down?

November: The Pawn of Isis, after being turned down by Curiosity Quills, will be self-published. This month it is with my editor getting a thorough read. Also this month, Abigail Rath Versus Mad Science is being read by my good friends who do beta reading for me. This month I plan to practice self-publishing by curating, editing, and publishing a collection of short stories many friends have been asking me for. Look for the short story collection to be published in early December.

December: I will be soliciting a cover for The Pawn of Isis, and spreading the word about my short story collection. I look for this to be a low key month regarding writing, given the obligations of my other life.

January: This month, I will be doing the interiors for, getting out ARC copies to readers, and releasing The Pawn of Isis. There will be some publicity. I will also be working on revisions of Abigail Rath Versus Mad Science, preparing it for solicitation to agents.

February: I imagine I will be finishing up Abigail Rath Versus Mad Science. This month, I intend to start writing new material. It looks like Klaereon 3 will be entitled The Wrath of Horus, and I will also be working on the first installment of my serial The Poet and the Navigator, which takes place in the same world as the Klaereon Scroll series.

***

Idealistically, 2019 will see the publication of The Pawn of Isis, four installments of The Poet and the Navigator, and most, if not all the writing of The Wrath of Horus. No plan like this ever survives contact with real life, but it’s what I want.

See you at the beginning of December, mostly with information about the short story collection, and my upcoming foreign travel. Enjoy Thanksgiving. Eat lots and lots of turkey.

Fantastic History #18: Alice Payne Arrives by Kate Heartfield

Today is the book birthday of Alice Payne Arrives, which I’ve been holding onto my opinions about for a while now, except for the 5-star rating I left of it over on Goodreads. I do like Kate Heartfield’s work, and she had been a frequent contributor here at Fantastic History.

Let me just put this out there for the purists on the blog; this is not only history, okay? There is a fair amount of science fiction in the mode of time travel, so if you’re coming to this book looking solely for the ramblings and adventures of a female highway-person in 1788, you might look at the work askance. That said, Alice is an interesting character study in a woman who must carve out her destiny in a time ill-suited for her. Part Jamaican in England, gay, and seeking adventure, the life to which she has been born is not the life she wants to have, Ergo, Alice takes matters into her own hands.

Alice becomes entangled with time travelers, notably Prudence Zuniga, who is battling to save the world, over and over again. This interesting alchemy produces a novel that is part science fiction, party history, and part steampunk (if anyone really knows what that is). The novella feels dense and there are a lot of unanswered questions, but I believe the second Alice Payne novella may answer some of them.

If you are looking for a book that does some interesting things with history, but stretches it out, this is a good read for you.

Fantastic History #17: The Elephant and Macaw Banner by Christopher Kastensmidt

My journey with Gerard Van Oost and Oludara has been five years longer than their fictional journey. Traveling back to 2010, I first met Christopher Kastensmidt, as we were both authors at a small press called Cats Curious. That same year, the first of these novelettes came out in Realms of Fantasy and was nominated for a Nebula. I was hooked.

Most of you know my twin infatuations with historical fiction and fantasy. Historical fiction AND fantasy are a combination I can’t resist, much like chocolate and peanut butter. One of my favorite authors is Alexandre Dumas, and Christopher Kastensmidt is a direct heir to him.

Kastensmidt has written a series of novelettes that span eight publishing years. The main characters, Gerard Van Oost and Oludara, capture the true spirit of early Brazil: itinerant hunters of folkloric monsters who set out to explore the wilds of the jungle in the early days of colonization, using their strength, skills, and wit. The two of them seem more than a match for anything they meet in the end, and their heroics are epic, considering they only two under the Elephant and Macaw banner.

Each novelette explores the beauty of the Brazilian landscape, explores Brazilian folklore, and reveals the texture and tapestry of the early settlers of Brazil. The research is painstaking; the content is woven together expertly. These novelettes are an immersive experience with characters you truly care about. Kastensmidt is committed to inclusivity in his series, and writes other cultures with care and grace.

Your entry point to these amazing adventures is now. Guardbridge Books is collecting the entirety of the series and is releasing it as a collection, which will be released on November 5th. To read more about the amazing journey Kastensmidt’s story has taken in Brazil, check out this entry in Fantastic History about Elephant and Macaw, as well as our Unreliable Narrators interview with the author.

Fantastic History #16: Creating Geomancy from the Ground Up–Beth Cato’s Blood of Earth Trilogy by Beth Cato

My Blood of Earth trilogy started with a single vague idea: the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, steampunk style. The only other certainty in my head was that it needed to also involve magic, but I needed to make the magic distinct from the healing powers in my novel The Clockwork Dagger, which was just starting to get offers from publishers at the time. My new project was intended to keep me occupied and somewhat more sane during the forthcoming months of existence under an agent-imposed gag order during contract negotiations. I couldn’t talk about The Clockwork Dagger in public until everything was official, but I could discuss my new book in the works. That project was soon titled Breath of Earth.

As I sat down to develop the concept, my first priority was figuring out how magic fit into this alternate history. Once I knew that, I needed to determine how that impacted my heroine. I began to ask an endless sequence of “What if” questions. What if she caused the earthquake somehow? What if something else did? What if the earthquake itself embodied magic?

I suddenly knew the kind of magic I was working with: geomancy. Not only was it a starkly different magic than in The Clockwork Dagger, but it was also a type that I hadn’t seen used much in fantasy fiction.

With geomancy in mind, I then had to look at the world I was building. If this was known magic–not a secret history kind of situation–how had it changed the world? Slowly, gradually, the pieces came together in my notes. Geomancy had a long history. The Romans used it–and even created airships! That painted a ridiculously cool picture in my mind. But with the fall of Rome, the technology was lost. But why? How?

I considered how materials might be necessary to practice geomancy, and that the loss of that resource could have contributed to the Dark Ages. I thought of the Final Fantasy role-playing game series, where I first fell in love with airships as a kid, and how crystals have important roles in various games.

I pieced elements together to form my own magic system within the context of my alt history. Geomancers were sensitive to earthquakes and other outflows of earth energy. They stored that energy as a fever. In an especially bad earthquake, the flow could kill them almost instantly. However, they could save themselves by breaking contact with the ground, or by having special crystals on hand, which I dubbed kermanite. Rome exhausted their original kermanite mines and soon thereafter collapsed as a civilization. In the 19th century, rapid technological developments occurred in America after kermanite was discovered in the California desert. Kermanite charged with earth energy can be used as a battery for everyday objects as well as new advances like airships, autocars, or tanks. That integrated the steampunk genre into the plot, right along with the magic.

That plot included a version of history where the American Civil War ended early due to an alliance between the Union and Japan. By 1906, that cooperation had been formalized as the Unified Pacific, a global superpower currently trying to complete its dominance of mainland China. This had major ripple effects on San Francisco with its high population of Chinese refugees.

Oh yes, and then there was my heroine, Ingrid Carmichael. Not only was she a woman of great geomantic skill–something thought to only be the domain of men–she was also a woman of color. Her understanding of geomancy has evolved with each book. In Breath of Earth, she endures the San Francisco Earthquake–which happens for more complicated reasons than mere plate tectonic action. The second book, Call of Fire, takes her to another geologically volatile region, the Pacific Northwest.

Of course, as a writer, I have to escalate the stakes, which is why the finale in the series, Roar of Sky, ventures to the Big Island of Hawaii to the Kilauea volcano. That book was just released on October 23rd.

Countless “What if?” questions guided me from my initial concept and through about 300,000 words of text. The complex alt history felt as if it broke my brain more than once, but the end result is a complete trilogy that melds geomancy and history in some fun, fantastical new ways.

***

Beth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a numbers-obsessed son, and three feline overlords.

She’s the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER (a 2015 Locus Award finalist for First Novel) and THE CLOCKWORK CROWN (an RT Reviewers’ Choice Finalist) from Harper Voyager. Her novella WINGS OF SORROW AND BONE was a 2016 Nebula nominee. Her new alt-history steampunk series began with BREATH OF EARTH and continues with CALL OF FIRE and ROAR OF SKY (out October 23rd, 2018).

Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.

Fantastic History #15: Seven of my Favorite Research Books by Kate Heartfield

Seven of My Favorite Research Books

Like all writers of historical fantasy, I know that every book I write stands on a teetering tower of other books. Each book has its own particular (and sometimes incredibly specialized) stack of research material, and I am so grateful for libraries, librarians, and everyone who has helped make books and articles available online. I’m also grateful to the academics and the other writers of non-fiction whose work informs every story I write.

In my little writing room, I have books on military tactics, clothing, folklore, food, gender, machines, politics… plus, of course, the standard reference books, from dictionaries to bird guides. There are all the primary sources: my copy of the Malleus Maleficarum is particularly well used, as I write about witchcraft a fair bit.

But there are some less obvious books on my groaning shelves that I find myself consulting over and over. I thought I’d give you a short tour of a few of these from my shelves.

These are just a few of my personal favorites, and this is emphatically not a balanced, curated guide or definitive list for other writers. They skew European and North American, for one thing. But they’ve been useful or inspiring to me, and they demonstrate how the research for historical fantasy often ranges beyond a specific setting, era or set of characters.

1. Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, by Melissa Mohr. Swearing can be tricky in historical fiction. Readers tend to trip on “bad” words, assuming they’re more recent than they generally are. Most swear words in English (and this book does focus on English) have been around for a very long time. That said, they didn’t necessarily carry the same heft that they do today, while other words (generally blasphemous ones) were more serious than they are now. Conveying the emotional and social significance of a bit of dialogue to a modern reader, while keeping true to the period, is a feat. Mohr’s book has been a great guide to those choppy waters.

2. A Dictionary of Chivalry by Grant Uden. I’ll be honest; the main reason I love this book is because I love this particular copy. It belonged to my late grandfather. And I adore how tricksy it is: The binding is a library discard of glaring plain orange, but inside, it’s full of gorgeous illustrations by Pauline Baynes. These days, I’m probably more likely to consult Google if I want to know what a “ricasso” is or what happened at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, so the dictionary tends to be a flipping-through, inspirational book rather than a pure reference guide.

3. Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada, by Chelsea Vowel. My main settings so far have tended to be northern Europe (where my family’s from) and North America (where I was born and raised.) Intrinsic to the histories of both those regions is the colonization of Indigenous people. Vowel’s book is a wealth of information and analysis on matters that will (or should) pre-occupy writers of historical fantasy, from cultural appropriation to respectful terminology.

4. Herbs for the Medieval Household for Cooking, Healing and Divers Uses by Margaret B. Freeman. This is another gorgeously illustrated book; it was, in fact, printed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I do use this book for reference — if I want a poison or potion, for example — as it is full of references to primary sources. But it, too, is mainly for inspiration. The woodcuts that illustrate each entry are from 15th century sources themselves.

5. The World Guide to Gnomes, Fairies, Elves and Other Little People: A Compendium of International Fairy Folklore by Thomas Keightley. This one was originally published in 1828 as Fairy Mythology. Despite the title, I don’t really use this as a guide to the folklore itself, but rather as one window onto how that folklore evolved and spread, and how it informed the fantastic in the 19th century. (Keightley was a friend of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s family.)

6. The Art of Blacksmithing by Alex W. Bealer. Smiths tend to turn up in whatever I write, or their work does. (For example, a water-powered forge hammer plays a role in my novel Armed in Her Fashion.) Metal is very important to both the history and folklore of Europe, and this illustrated guide has helped me with everything from nails and horseshoes to swords.

7. Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox by Jonathan B. Tucker. This one might seem an odd choice, but smallpox has loomed in a few of my books (especially the ones that haven’t come out yet, which are set in 18th century Europe.) It’s hard to overstate the effect that smallpox has had on the history of the world. Beyond that, the history of smallpox is a microcosm of the history of disease and of immunization in general, and the more recent history of how humanity has tried, failed, and occasionally succeeded to work together for a common goal.

***

Kate Heartfield’s first novel was Armed in Her Fashion (CZP 2018). She is the author of two time-travel novellas coming soon from Tor.com Publishing, beginning with Alice Payne Arrives in November 2018. Her interactive novel The Road to Canterbury was published by Choice of Games in 2018. Kate is a former journalist in Ottawa, Canada. Her website is kateheartfield.com and she is on Twitter as @kateheartfield.

Fantastic History #14: Masterpiece Theater by Catherine Schaff-Stump

About a month or so ago, I was hanging out with the other Unreliable Narrators, and we were interviewing Gail Carriger. Gail Carriger is the author of a great many books that take place in a peculiar place readers like to call her Parasol-verse, and at some point in the interview, Gail mentioned she liked her books to seem historical in the sense of Masterpiece Theater—not exactly authentic, but somewhat historical.

And I thought, yes, this is what I do. I try to create the mood of a historical novel. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I do a lot of research. I have a book that is a canal-by-canal photo album of Venice, which talks about when each building went up. I read general histories, look at old maps, try to dig into what kind of police force was in Gibraltar in the 19th century. I do the research things.

I also realize I am a 21st-century American woman, and there are many things I will get wrong. I will make many stylized choices a reader might not appreciate as accurate. I simply can’t make one hundred percent historically accurate choices because I am a creature of my time, AND I am writing fiction. Woah is me, but my first hope is to be entertaining, and I cannot escape who I am, where I am, or what my culture tells me to think.

In this regard, I think, Gail Carriger has it right.

Now, lest I am wrong, and I think I am, given the crazy popularity of, say Downton Abby, you might not be familiar with IPT’s Masterpiece Theater, which showcases a great many historical dramas, largely British, based on great(ish) works of British literature, or scripts meant to emulate the great works of British literature. Masterpiece is not the only avenue for these shows, as my third copy of A&E’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice attests to, but it is a handy shorthand for a certain kind of costume drama that recreates, within certain cultural standards, literary drama. I am a fan, and I should point out why I prefer writing with a certain entertainment flair, rather than historical accuracy.

I write fantasy: Not only am I writing historical stories, but I am writing fantasy stories. Even in the realms of alternate history or secret history, there is some amount of fudging the facts, or making assumptions. With fantasy, I am directly inserting the impossible (Egyptian gods banished for their presumption; trolls that traveled to the U.S. with immigrants; post Napoleonic French sorcerers.) into existing history. Accuracy is impossible when parts of your world are made up, although you can try to make your impossible seem plausible within the constraints of history.

Historical recreation sometimes makes for stiff drama: Not always. History can be pretty amazing. But sometimes what actually happened isn’t the most dramatic, as Hollywood reminds us with all of its movies based on true events, sometimes loosely. Adding pizzazz, angst, and drama serve the purpose of a story or novel, to entertain and involve us, the readers and viewers, in the human struggle of a story.

The look is the thing: One need only take a look at Gene Kelly’s version of The Three Musketeers and compare it to the 1993 The Three Musketeers to see what I’m talking about. Yes, we interpret history once again through the lens of our time. Lady deWinter’s crazy 1948 hair with jaunty hat, versus Lady deWinter’s low key long hair, unornamented in 1993, show what’s stylish in each time frame, not in the time Alexandre Dumas is setting the story. Sometimes we are closer to accurate, and sometimes we are way off base, but we do try to get a look we like that evokes the time of our historical drama.

I have to take my modern audience into account: This last one? Well, would you really want to read a story where people acted with past biases and prejudices rather than focused on entertainment? Some of the tensions and predilections of the past make for interesting drama, like The Crown’s revelation that Edward, Elizabeth’s uncle who gave up the throne for Wallace Simpson, thought Hitler was kind of all right. But others make modern viewers cry foul. In Downton Abby, how would we have felt if Sibyl and Thomas didn’t get to make their “unsuitable” match? Modern viewers were rooting for them! So yes, we tinker as dramatists to good effect.

Right now I am about to embark upon the third Klaereon Scroll book, and it will involve two characters from other countries: India and Martinique. I will be doing research into those countries, but I will borrow what works and modify what doesn’t in the tradition of all good historical novelists. So the overall effect might not be scholarly, but if you would pick it up after seeing it on public television, and if the costumes are good, well, my work is done.

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Cath Schaff-Stump writes speculative fiction for children and adults, everything from humor to horror. Her YA Gothic fantasy The Vessel of Ra is available from Curiosity Quills. Catherine 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. Catherine is a co-host on the writing and geek-life fan podcast Unreliable Narrators. You can find her online at Facebook, Goodreads, Amazon, @cathschaffstump, cathschaffstump.com, and unreliablenarrators.net

September, 2018

October is tomorrow. For the spookiest of months, I’ve taken some new author pics that fit the mood and the horror novella. I’m still plugging away on Abby Rath Versus Mad Science. I’ve been getting ready for the Paradise Icon writing workshop. And there was a pretty lengthy cold, and a bit of excitement with my mother-in-law (Good news! She’s still with us, but there was a roller coaster week in there.) In short, life can sometimes interfere with the best plans writers have.

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So…the reading at M&M was a success. It turned out I was their first reading EVAIR, and I really appreciated the opportunity to be so. We had a good time at the North Liberty Author Fair too, seeing some friends.

October is a busy month here, with a lot of travel and events. We’ll write as much as we can. But next weekend is Icon 43 in Cedar Rapids. And there are a lot of events:

Oct 4: Signing at Cedar Rapids Barnes and Noble at 6:30-8
Oct 5: Paradise Icon Author Critiques
Oct 6: Author Meet and Greet at 10-12
Oct 6: Abandoned Places Reading at 7-8
Oct 6: Paradise Icon Reading at 8-9

If you’re attending Icon, maybe we’ll see you there.

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From October 17-21, I’ll be in Vancouver attending the Surrey International Writer’s Conference. It’ll be a great weekend of writing instruction, and a chance to pitch a bit. I’ve never been to Vancouver, so I’m looking forward to it.

As an added bonus, although it has nothing to do with writing, Bryon will have his Halloween extravaganza at the end of the month, so I will share some pics of that. Keep writing, my friends, and so will I.