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?

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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.

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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

Wow.

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 Ancestry.com, 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.

Fantastic History #41: Heirlooms, Mementos, and Psychic Energy by Pat Esden

I’ve been an antique dealer and collector for most of my life, in fact I started actively buying from estates and working flea markets as a teenager. Since the beginning, I’ve been fascinated by which objects people are eager to sell versus what they feel compelled to keep. Even people who don’t like antiques will often hold onto a piece of heirloom jewelry or vintage teacup. Rocking chairs and kitchen implements are also often chosen as keepsakes. One time I bought an entire estate, except for a broken wooden milking stool that the owner couldn’t bear to part with. I asked the owner if it reminded him of a family member and was surprised to learn he hadn’t ever noticed the stool before that day. Still, he stood there clutching the stool like it was the most important thing in the world.

Incidences, like the man and his milking stool, have convinced me it isn’t always sentimental, aesthetic, or financial reasons that draw a person to keep a particular object. Sometimes the attraction happens at a deeper level. When a person uses an object for years, it’s bound to absorb their vibes and develop psychic energy—like a paintbrush used by an artist or a cook’s favorite mixing spatula. This energy may not resonate with everyone, but certain people will be attracted and experience a feeling of well being or garner strength from the object’s energy.

I’m not talking about a spirit literally being housed in an object or about psychometry. I’m referring to a subtle energy that radiates comfort. Of course, this can be experienced in the opposite way as well. Some objects can repulse a person, like a razor strap that was used for punishment or perhaps a wedding band from an unhappy marriage.

I do think this connection is stronger when the person who currently possess the object shares a personal history with the previous owner.

How about you? Have you felt drawn to keep certain heirlooms or mementos? Are there things you’ve gotten rid of because they gave off negative vibes? What do you think the correlation is between us and the objects we choose to keep?

My latest novel, THINGS SHE’S SEEN comes out October 22. It’s the second novel in the Northern Circle Coven series and centers on a young woman who was once known as “Violet Grace The World’s Youngest Psychic Medium.” As a newly recovering alcoholic, she keeps a journal where she writes poems and also saves small objects, such as a note from a long lost lover, a train ticket stub, and a fake ID given to her by a stranger who changed her life. These things bring back fond memories, reminding her of the good parts of her personal history. But more than that, touching them physically eases her anxiety and gives her a sense of hope.

***

Pat Esden would love to say she spent her childhood in intellectual pursuits. The truth is she was fonder of exploring abandoned houses and old cemeteries. When not out on her own adventures, she can be found in her northern Vermont home writing stories about brave, smart women and the men who capture their hearts.

She is the author of the contemporary fantasy Northern Circle Coven series from Kensington Publishing’s Lyrical Press, and the Dark Heart series from Kensington Books. Her short fiction has appeared in a number of publications, including Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, the Mythopoeic Society’s Mythic Circle, George Scither’s Cat Tales Anthology, and the Fragments of Darkness anthology. She is a HOLT medallion finalist, and a member of RWA, and a Director-at-Large for the League of Vermont Writers.

***

THINGS SHE’S SEEN (Northern Circle Coven series book 2)

The coven’s under investigation. Its future is in peril. And for one troubled young psychic, the coming battle will threaten her newfound freedom—and brings back a dangerous desire . . .

Exploited as a child medium, Emily Adams escaped to grow up on the streets—and hit rock-bottom. She took shelter with the prestigious Northern Circle, intent on staying only long enough to get back on her feet. But the Circle is still reeling from a devastating supernatural attack and betrayal. And vengeful High Council of Witches investigator Gar Remillard is determined to make Em surrender the truth—and disband the Circle forever.

When Em’s psychic ability allows her to see Gar is haunted by a formidable ghost, her attempts to free him challenge Gar’s rugged French Canadian heart and rancorous loup-garou instincts. But even as their new alliance and past connection kindles into raging desire, a malevolent force rises up to destroy them—the Circle and even the High Council.

With all she’s grown to love on the line, Em must draw on her darkest nightmares and alliances with the dead to outwit and out magic a force who can imprison souls with a flick of the fingers and command legions of wraiths with one word. . .

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Fantastic History #40: An Interview with Marie Brennan

Cath: While this interview is predominantly about your new book, Turning Darkness into Light, readers might appreciate a little grounding in the setting and world of this book. To that end, would you talk about The Memoirs of Lady Trent? The history of the world borrows from our own nineteenth century, but clearly the world of Lady Trent is not our world. How would you summarize the series to people yet to have the pleasure of your work?

Marie: The Memoirs are the life story of a lady adventurer and dragon naturalist in, as you say, a quasi-Victorian world. In this setting, dragons are natural animals — not magical creatures like Smaug — and each novel of that series showed Lady Trent on a different expedition in various lands to study them, and invariably getting into trouble along the way. Because that’s what happens when you’re a protagonist. Turning Darkness Into Light then moves along to a sightly later period, a bit more like the 1920s, and concerns itself with the ancient past . . . and the effect it’s having on the present day.

Cath: Lady Trent is a dragon naturalist. The five book series is a memoir written by an older Lady Trent. Why did you choose the memoir format for this series?

Marie: To be honest, I more or less stumbled into it. When I began playing around with the idea, the voice defaulted to first person, and to a retrospective tone — which authors do all the time without framing the story as a memoir, but given the Victorian-ish setting, that seemed like a natural fit.

I didn’t realize until I got deeper into the story how many advantages there were to that approach. It let me get away with a great deal of description and exposition that also doubled as characterization, and opened up space for perspective; Lady Trent comments on her own youthful foibles, which I think invites the reader to also reflect on where they might still disagree with her. It wound up being the perfect way to tell the story, so I wish I could take credit for having done it on purpose!

Cath: Fantasy’s fascination with dragons is enduring and deep. There are parallels between the nineteenth century fascination with antiquities and ancient history in our world with that of Lady Trent’s desire to study dragons and the ancient sites associated with them. Why did you choose to present dragons as an anthropological/archaeological study in the series?

Marie: One of the first things I did for this series was make a list of fun pulp adventure tropes, and “ancient ruins” were pretty much at the top. So of course that meant I had to invent an ancient civilization whose ruins could be relevant to the plot! And it’s such a Victorian mood, discovering the past while also charging at top speed toward the future. I shamelessly borrowed everything from the ruins of Abu Simbel to the decipherment of Linear B to the legend of Atlantis, and only regret that there are all sorts of awesome archaeological things I didn’t manage to work in there, like the Terracotta Army.

Cath: The world of Lady Trent is not ours. Sometimes writers of fantastic history choose to integrate a fantastic element into our world, but your books are secondary world books. Why did you choose to invent a new world rather than use this one?

Marie: My previous series, the Onyx Court, was set in London at various points during its history, and I did epic piles of research for it. Which was a lot of fun . . . but it also meant I knew the standards I would hold myself to if I set this story in the real world. It would wind up shackling me: I couldn’t just make up an ancient civilization and stick it into the past, then expect everything after it to stay the same. Plus I wanted the freedom to address issues like colonialism without making them exactly the same as they were in real history. Scirland is still a colonial power, but the imbalance isn’t as great as it was in our own nineteenth century, nor as unilaterally tilted toward the West. Making up a secondary world gave me the freedom to play around with the details to suit my story, without feeling like I was misrepresenting the actual past.

Cath: Now onto your new book! Turning Darkness into Light is about Audrey Camherst, as she translates ancient Draconean tablets. You use the epistolary technique in this novel to brilliant effect, telling this story through newspaper articles, letters, and journals. Can you talk about your decision to use this technique?

Marie: There’s a tendency for authors to do a clever thing they wind up regretting later. It happened to me with the titles of the Onyx Court books (all of which are quotations from period literature that end in a verb), and it happened with this setting, when I decided to make not only the Memoirs but a short story I wrote later on consist of in-world texts. With those data points in place, it felt wrong to write anything else in that world as a conventional piece of fiction.

And in fact, the original idea for this book was something else entirely. I was going to write an in-world novel — a contemporary of Lady Trent penning a sweeping historical epic about the downfall of the Draconean civilization. I soon realized the downfall of a civilization makes for a depressing story, though, so it slewed sideways into being a Draconean myth, and from there into Lady Trent’s granddaughter translating such a myth, with associated complications in the present day. Which naturally lent itself toward alternating between the text of the myth and what’s happening in the present moment — and for the present moment to itself be a text, I had to turn to diary entries, letters, and so on. Which was a fun challenge, but also made me tear my heart out from time to time . . .

Cath: A lot of fiction being written right now examines ideas of difference and prejudice. Your book takes these issues and confronts them head on. One could say that prejudice is the driving mechanism of the book. How much did what is happening in the world today influence your decisions to examine Scirland’s reaction to Dragonkind?

Marie: I try not to actively foreground those kinds of thoughts, because past experience tells me it results in me writing very preachy fiction. But yes, I have no doubt that I was influenced by current events. I do know I consciously chose to make Audrey bi-racial, half white and half her world’s equivalent of African, because there’s not enough racial diversity in fantasy. And of course if I wanted there to be conflict around an ancient mythological epic, then there had to be conflict around the people in the present day for whom that epic is important. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a great deal of romantic nationalism, i.e. the promulgation of the idea that racial groups had some essential (and unified) identity expressed in their culture, especially in their literature. So it was a natural move to bring in those issues . . . which are sadly all too topical these days.

Cath: An important element of this novel is the story and translation of the Draconean tablets, prose akin to ancient Eddas. What were your influences for writing such text? How did you so skillfully manage the discussion of the translation of the work as the characters were considering it?

Marie: It helps that I’ve done translation work myself, though not professionally. I studied both Latin and Old Norse, along with various other languages for more conversational purposes (none of which I’m fluent in). That gave me a footing for asking useful questions of people who specialize in cuneiform and Akkadian, which I used as a basis for the Draconean language.

I also have an academic background in folklore, so I was already familiar with many of the world’s great epics, and before I began writing I dove into a binge read or re-read of quite a few: the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Mahabharata, Journey to the West, the Kalevala, the Popol Vuh, and so on. The fingerprints of those are all over what Audrey and Kudshayn translate.

Cath: I can’t talk about the ending of the book, because I certainly want people to read it spoiler free. However, the story is more about friendship and professionalism than it is about romance, and I applaud how the book is more about these things, because this can be an empowering message for young women. What do you hope readers take away from Audrey and her journey?

Marie: A lot of readers responded very positively to the fact that Tom and Isabella don’t hook up in The Memoirs of Lady Trent. I enjoy a good romance subplot as much as the next person, but I also adore friendship, especially between men and women — because media so often pushes the message that such a thing isn’t really possible (it will always turn to sexual attraction at some point), or that friendship and professional success aren’t satisfying enough on their own, especially for women.

Which isn’t to say romance doesn’t get addressed in the book at all. Like you, I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just say that I think it’s important to talk about what happens sometimes when romance falls apart.

Cath: Can you talk a little bit about your next projects?

Marie: I’ve got a novella coming out this month, The Eternal Knot, that’s connected to the game Legend of the Five Rings, but can definitely be read by someone who isn’t familiar with the game. But my big news is that last year I wrote a collaborative novel with my friend Alyc Helms, and we recently sold the series to Orbit Books. That’s going to be the Rook and Rose trilogy, and it will come out under the joint name of M.A. Carrick — a fact which we’re trumpeting far and wide, because we want readers of our individual work to know that these books are our work, too.

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Marie Brennan is the World Fantasy and Hugo Award-nominated author of several fantasy series, including the Memoirs of Lady Trent, the Onyx Court, the Wilders series, the Doppelganger duology, the Varekai novellas, and nearly sixty short stories. More information can be found at Marie’s website, her Patreon page, and on Twitter as @swan_tower.

Fantastic History #39: The Historical Becomes Personal by Chia Evers

Like Cath’s last post, this one will be a tribute to our friend and Unreliable Narrators co-founder Chris Cornell.

As many of you know, Chris, Cath, George, and I met at the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop in October, 2009. What you may not know is that I first collaborated with Chris months before the workshop, on what became “Revenant Harvest I: The Bitterest Fruit,” and I first met him at one of my favorite bars in San Francisco, the 21 Club, which closed in 2015.

“I spent a year in Vietnam, fighting the VCs, and now we are fighting the VCs here—the venture capitalists, but they are more relentless.” —Frank, former owner of the 21 Club.

The 21 Club, like so much of the “Old California” Chris and I both loved, fell victim to California’s endless boom-and-bust cycle, but it’s that same cycle that’s given birth to so much of the mythology that the Golden State spins around itself—as if it had been born in the Gold Rush and known nothing but exquisite success marred only by temporary, character-building setbacks ever since.

The reality is, of course, both more complex and more interesting—and that brings us to E’ville.

Welcome to Emeryville, California. E’ville for short. A nickname perhaps more appropriate in the last century, or at least more obvious back in the day. The murder capital of the country, or so they used to say. These days it’s all microbrews and Swedish furniture. Chain fajitas served on reclaimed wood. The underbelly of this town has been scrubbed clean. Scratch that, more like scraped and burned off, forgotten. E’ville belongs to a new age now, one with no time for heedlessness or equivocation. No time for a lost soul like me. The feeling is mutual, though despite every impulse I’m stuck here. Have been for almost a century. How that came to be, well, we’ll get to that eventually. Another day. For now I think it best to start at the beginning, when I stepped off the train with two dollars and thirty five cents. February 4, 1927. Alcohol was verboten, and never had it flown as freely as in the card houses and bordellos of that grimy port town. Oakland had a reputation as the heart of the criminal empire, but when they closed their doors to the vices of the day, those vices headed across the street to E’ville. And so did I.—Ross Weeper

E’ville, an eight-part, old-style radio serial, started out as a collaborative, shared-world project. George co-wrote Episode 2, all of us contributed plot seeds and references, and I swear the character I voiced, Cassandra “Cassie” Sharp, will make future appearances in my own work—but Chris was always the driving force behind it. “I wanted a challenge that combined my many creative interests,” he said, “and by god, that’s what I got. Every writer knows that nagging idea that takes hold of your brain and refuses to piss off while you finish that other shiny project on your desk. This wasn’t going anywhere until I delivered, so I did.”

Set in Prohibition-era Emeryville, once known as “the rottenest city on the West Coast,” E’ville drew from deep wells of both California history and myth, and the histories and myths of many of the people drawn to California over the years.

Some call Los Angeles the City of Dreams. Started that way for me, but wound up a nightmare.—Cassie Sharp

Chris was, himself, one of those people. He grew up in the Midwest and Mountain West, and made the Bay Area his home. He never lost his fascination with his adopted state, taking regular, solo roadtrips to visit places that interested him, from the mountains of Northern California to the strange deserts of the Salton Sea. And his clear-eyed love for the place shone through his fiction, as honest about its horrors as it was about its charms.

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Chia Evers is a graduate of the Viable Paradise writers’ workshop, and a member of the Codex Writers’ Group. She grew up in Wyoming, spent more than a decade in California, and now lives happily in history-haunted New England.