Fantastic History #53: Two Stories or More than I Can Chew by Shannon Ryan

This is a tale of two stories, one I abandoned, realizing I was way over my head, and one that I finished in a week. I offer these examples in the hope someone can learn from my mistakes.

I generally write urban fantasy with a humorous twist. However, two years ago, I had a grand idea. Or maybe you could call it a Grand Wizard idea (sorry). I decided to write a novel based in the US Civil War with cavalry general Nathan Bedford Forrest as the villain, based on the fact that they called Forest “The Wizard of the Saddle.” I intended it to have an X-Files meets Wild Wild West feel. This was a horrible idea on many levels.

While Forrest was a famous, and some say brilliant, cavalry leader, he was a Confederate general and a slave trader. And given the sentiments in US politics today, any comedy involving a slave owner would probably go over slightly worse than a remake of Hogan’s Heroes. However, as a writer, I experienced something even worse. I could not find any empathy for Forrest, and I believe you have to have a little love for your villain.

Forrest’s legacy after the war was even more problematic. He survived the war and went on to found the Ku Klux Klan, and he is a hero to white supremacists. Not an organization or group of people I want to promote or encourage on any level. Finally, I am not a historian, and I’m a little soft on geography as well. I could probably do decently filling out the names of states on a map, but I probably would not get 100%. The US Civil War is one of the most documented and dissected periods in history, and no matter how many films, articles, or books I ingested, I felt like I only had the first layer of the onion peeled.

Even though I failed in this endeavor, I did find it an enriching experience. While I might never be able keep up with a Civil War buff or historian, I know how McClellan’s leadership differed from Grant’s and how the political organization of the Confederacy affected the provisioning of their military. I even hold opinions on these topics. So my wholly failed endeavor taught me more about American history than my secondary education—not to disparage my teachers, I just know my learning style and designed a curriculum to fit.

However, I did mention two stories. Well, a few months ago, I was hanging out with some writer friends, and we came up with the idea of a vampire doing porn in the 1970s as a protagonist. Now, unlike Civil War cavalry, this was a little more my speed.

I found the 1970’s a great time to write in. Not that I remember it, I was a toddler in the 1970s. However, all the pop culture of the time is available through the Internet in bite-sized nuggets. You want fashion of the times, you can find thousands of pictures—including one of David Hasslehoff wearing a pink shirt with only two buttons, both below the navel. Need to come up with the names of pornography studios or actors, just a web search away. Want the protagonist to drive a Dodge muscle car made in 1977, Wikipedia will tell you the Super Bee wasn’t made after 1971, but the Charger was in production.

But here’s the main takeaway from my 1970s story. It was easy to write because I was not writing about any relevant historical events, just using the trappings of the time as a setting. If I had been writing about the assassination of Harvey Milk and the White Night riots, I am sure I would have felt just as paralyzed. Now that I have finished a historical piece, I have to say I’m a little hooked. I might have to write a story that takes place during the Civil War someday, but I think I will avoid characters who might show up in a history book.


Shannon Ryan lives in Marion, Iowa. He writes weird, funny stories in the urban fantasy genre, featuring satanic telemarketers and awkward vampires. His latest book PANIC NO MORE is about a computer programmer harassed by a Greek god.

Fantastic History #52: Horror and Magic in the Old West–Beyond the Western Mythos by Oliver Altair

When thinking about Westerns, the image of the cowboy riding into the sunset always comes to mind. But what happens after the sun sets?

The American Frontier represents, in itself, a horror trope: the voyage into the unknown. The American philosophy of the Manifest Destiny guided settlers from the Atlantic to the Pacific, in a time when traveling such distances represented a titanic, if almost suicidal, feat.

The settlers walked into hostile and unforgiving land, facing their most primal fears. Imagine being part of the famous Oregon Trail:

You rein your horses as your wagon crosses the Great Plains, following the wagon train. Everybody’s hungry, thirsty, and exhausted. The trip pushes you and your family to your limit, but at least there’s plenty of open blue sky to cheer you up. Then night falls. Darkness reigns supreme. The light of your fire seems but a dot under the black, starry sky above you, beautiful and daunting. All you can hear are the whistling of the wind, the howling of coyotes and wolves, and the occasional rattle of a rattlesnake, warning you to watch your step. How near these beasts might be, you cannot tell. A sick man whimpers on the wagon closest to yours. Everyone knows he won’t make it. You pray the disease won’t spread.

After a long night, the sun finally rises. Some fears recede, but new ones are about to come up. Your wagon master chides you for moving too slow. You’re in Indian land and an attack might be imminent. Later, he’s worried about the bandits roaming the area, ready to ambush, pillage, and kill. But it’s too late to go back. So, you hold on to your reins and move forward, always forward.

Such was the day-to-day of a pioneer traveling the trails of the West. Yet reaching a destination didn’t make life any easier. The settlements were small, far apart, and difficult to defend. Food was scarce. Sickness spread swiftly from one cabin to the next, as did fire. Some people survived by doing their best, some, their very worst. Justice was dubious. Survival was everything. Death and violence were as much a part of Western culture as anything else.

But Western travelers also found adventure and awe. Magic, if you will. Pilgrims on their way to Salt Lake Valley heard their voices boom and bounce when crossing Echo Canyon, with its twisty walls and strange colors. The majesty of the Blue Mountains both challenged and enraptured pioneers, its cerulean peaks almost part of the sky itself. Faced with the rush of the Shoshone Falls, the endless vastness of the Great Plains, the oddness of Chimney Rock, travelers found themselves time and again in places that seemed out of this world.

This sense of wonder nurtured the pioneers’ hope, their endurance and their will to follow their dreams. It reinvented Western folklore, adding new legends of heroes and monsters, spirits and gods, blending European and Native American myths. A trip through the West could be as magical as it was dreadful, as mysterious as it was epic. If the West was Wild, its magic would be too.

As a horror and fantasy author, the Old West offered me a delightful playground, one that already showed the perfect balance of adventure, legend, and dread. In my short story “Gold,” I explored the Gold Rush, a fascinating historical landmark of exploration tied to obsession and greed that broke more men than it made rich.

My first and second novels are set in Souls Well, a small mining town in the San Juan mountains of Colorado, based on the mining camp of Animas Forks. One of the highest mining settlements in the country, Animas Forks was infamous for its constant blizzards and its tendency to get completely cut out from the rest of the world in the winter. Isolated, dangerous, and inhospitable: a perfect place for a suspense story that dives into the occult, where heroes and villains are forced to remain at an arm’s length.

My third novel will explore Mesa Verde and its awe-inspiring Puebloans ruins. If you’re not familiar with the area, just search for a photo of the Cliff Palace. You’ll immediately understand the attraction. The place breathes mystery and magic. It’s a treat for any fantasy author and a fantastic trigger for the imagination.

The Wild West is much more than the cowboy mythos that was built in the pages of the dime novels of the 19th century. Its reality is sometimes darker, sometimes lighter, but always inspiring, intriguing, and deeply human. I invite you all to do as the pioneers did and dive headfirst into the unknown. What you’ll discover will be worth the trip.


Oliver Altair is a storyteller that dives into the beauty of the bizarre. Highly influenced by classic science fiction and fantasy, and the stories in the golden era of Pulp magazines, Oliver loves exploring all sorts of uncanny possibilities. Oliver lives between the United States and Europe and loves to travel.

Fantastic History #51: An Interview with Marcelle Dubé

1. Backli’s Ford is an intriguing tale of aliens interacting with Canadians in the early 20th century. Can you talk a little bit about how the A’lle and how you created them? I am particularly interested regarding your decisions about the A’lle’s appearance and emotional abilities?

Cath: Backli’s Ford is an intriguing tale of aliens interacting with Canadians in the early 20th century. Can you talk a little bit about how the A’lle and how you created them? I am particularly interested regarding your decisions about the A’lle’s appearance and emotional abilities?

Marcelle: The A’lle were part of a large flotilla fleeing the impending destruction of their home world. Their ship crash-landed in Lower Canada in 1711. While many of the colonists sheltered the injured A’lle, some reacted with fear and loathing. That set the tone for A’lle-human interactions.

Once I realized that they were “strangers in a strange land,” I had to work out how their home world would have shaped them, and what their social constructs would be. I had fun trying to figure out what the A’lle reaction to religion would be, for instance.

The A’lle are humanoid, but their home world was a cold, dark one, with a lower gravity than Earth’s, the result being that they have large eyes well adapted to darkness, but vulnerable to sudden light; they endure the cold very well, but suffer with the heat; and they are taller than the average human.

They have a wide range of similar emotions to humans, but are more rational. The world they came from was so harsh that they had to cooperate to survive—violence does not come naturally to them. For instance, as an investigator, Constance had to work hard to overcome her resistance to using violence.

Even after two hundred years, humans still baffle the A’lle. They understand concern, for instance, but not worry, since the emotion is completely useless.

Cath: While some writers might have used an alien race appearing in Canada as a start for a science fiction story, you are writing in the mystery genre. Why did you choose mystery for these novels?

Marcelle: I didn’t exactly choose mystery. That’s just how the story presented itself. I had this very interesting (well, I think so, anyway) alien race trying to survive and adapt to a world that is already occupied. Each A’lle has a special gift—some to a lesser degree, some to a greater degree—just as all humans are gifted in some way. These gifts are odd to humans, however, and in the early days, some A’lle were accused of being witches and killed. For that reason, A’lle never discuss their gift with humans.

Constance’s gift is knowing absolutely if a person is being truthful or not. It seemed like a gift that lent itself to police work.

Cath: Like many women, both in the past and in the present, Constance must struggle with the expectations regarding her job performance in a male dominated profession. Her situation is complicated by not only being a woman, but also by being an alien. For our readers less familiar with your series, can you discuss what Constance does and why she encounters resistance?

Marcelle: Constance’s problem isn’t that she’s a woman so much as that she’s an A’lle.

She is a brand-new investigator for the Baudry Region. Her boss is Chief Investigator Médéric Desautel, a fine man in all respects but he has a prejudice against the A’lle—especially one foisted on him by his boss, the magistrate of the Baudry Region. Desautel keeps Constance tethered to a desk, refusing to give her a case to investigate. That way he can keep an eye on her.

Constance—like all A’lle, really—is very patient. She bides her time, paying attention to her coworkers’ interactions and learning as she observes. Most of her colleagues have never worked with a female investigator before, though there are more and more female constables on the force. A female investigator who is also A’lle… that’s a bit more than many of them can handle.

In spite of his own prejudice, Desautel is a scrupulously fair and honorable man and when someone reports the suspicious death of an A’lle boy in Backli’s Ford, a few hours away, he sends the most logical investigator—Constance—to investigate.

Along with two senior investigators, just in case.

She’s thrilled, despite the babysitters. She knows she can be a good investigator, if given the chance. She’s smart, observant and capable. And now she can finally show Chief Investigator Desautel what she can do.

Ah, the naiveté of youth.

Cath: Prejudice is often a theme in a story where a group of aliens land on earth. What kinds of prejudices do the A’lle face? Beyond the obvious of being different, are there any particular reasons for the biases and prejudices against them that make the other characters uncomfortable?

Marcelle: There are several A’lle characteristics that many humans envy: their longevity (they can live up to fifty years longer than humans), their ability to heal quickly, even from serious injuries, and their immunity from many human diseases.

An extreme faction of humans don’t see the A’lle as God’s children and therefore, not worthy of being treated as humans. They want to study and experiment on the A’lle to learn how their bodies work.

Cath: Inventing an alien culture can be challenging. The A’lle have many different expectations and customs, from their family meetings and group oriented decision making, to their marriage customs. What do you feel are some of the more interesting aspects of A’lle culture.

Marcelle: I love how they depend on an innate sense of honor to keep their society functioning. Being honorable is very important to them, especially as some of their gifts can be very invasive. In such a culture, you would have to be able to trust that the person who can read your feelings isn’t going to invade your privacy.

On their home world, as soon as they were sexually mature, they could bed anyone they wanted until they found their permanent partner, after which their body chemistry bound them to each other only. With so few A’lle on Earth, however, they seldom find their permanent partner and end up finding a moderately compatible one, instead. In any case, in Lower Canada society, there was no sleeping around before marriage. Some choose not to partner and have children, a great taboo in A’lle culture on Earth.

Family is the most important social group for the A’lle. Their first allegiance is to their immediate family, even if they are married. That allegiance shifts to include husband/wife only if there are children from the union.

Cath: It is intimated in Backli’s Ford that there might be something going on between Prudence and Desautel. I know you can’t give away spoilers for the rest of the series, but are they A’lle and human relationships in the books? What kinds of issues would a couple like that have to negotiate?

Marcelle: While Prudence and Desautel like each other a lot, they have serious obstacles: she is much younger than he is, even in A’lle years, and there is no such thing as an A’lle-human union. Not to mention that the union of a human and an A’lle can never produce children. Their body chemistry is just too different. For an A’lle woman to forego adding to the A’lle population would be a form of treason.

So, yes, there are issues with potential human-A’lle pairings.

Cath: By setting the book in Canada in 1911, obviously, you had to do a little historical research. What are some interesting things you learned about Canada at that time you used in the novel?

Marcelle: I was surprised at the amount of industrialization in Canada in the early 20th Century. The presence of automobiles, especially in the larger centers, as well as factories of all kinds surprised me. Also, it surprised me that Canada was doing relatively well in the lead up to the First World War.

Not that exact dates matter. Since Backli’s Ford is an alternate history, I was fast and loose with historical facts, especially their timing. The truth is that the arrival of the A’lle in Lower Canada changed the course of what would have been. Even if their ship was mostly destroyed, along with their technology, they still brought their knowledge to Earth, changing the way things happened.

Cath: Are there any other A’lle mysteries, or can we look forward to more?

Marcelle: Epidemic is the second novel in the A’lle Chronicles mystery series. Here’s the write-up on it:

Two months after the events in Backli’s Ford, Constance A’lle, first A’lle investigator for Lower Canada, and Chief Investigator Desautel still haven’t identified the cabal responsible for the kidnapping and murder of so many A’lle.

While they pursue their investigation in Montreal, Constance is sidetracked by family and the threat of an epidemic—an epidemic for which the immune A’lle might be responsible, intensifying the already simmering human resentment against the A’lle.

With A’lle and human hostility spiking, Constance and Desautel must navigate the increasingly brittle peace to find the head of the cabal threatening the A’lle in Lower Canada and keep their own fragile trust from shattering.

Set in 1912, Epidemic follows Constance A’lle and Chief Investigator Desautel as they navigate the fraught relationship between humans and A’lle while trying to find those responsible for the deaths of so many A’lle. Epidemic is the second of a proposed five-book series set in the A’lle Chronicles—for this timeline, anyway. Book Three is under development.

I also have one short story set in the A’lle Chronicles world, “The Man in the Mask.”

Violet Stanhope defies her despised uncle to go on the long, arduous journey to the Klondike, but she spends the entire trip looking over her shoulder. Though she suspects her uncle of sending a tracker after her, she will stop at nothing to fulfill her sister’s final request, even if it means risking her life.

Once she reaches the Yukon, however, her troubles truly begin and she finds herself at the mercy of a mysterious masked man and his strange, mechanical dogs.

But will he help her with her mission—or will he kill her?

A short story steeped in classic pulp style with a hint of steampunk influence, “The Man in the Mask” is set a few years before the events of Backli’s Ford.

Cath: Are any of your other books set in a historical setting?

Marcelle: No other novels, but I do have a few short stories set in 18th and 19th Century rural Quebec:

“Midwinter Run”: In the deep cold of a midwinter night, Annalise races through a frozen wilderness to bring her injured father to help. But when she stumbles across a pixie on the frozen river, she will have to face a band of angry Fey who blame her for the pixie’s death. If she leaves, she risks the wrath of the Fey—but if she stays to explain, she risks her father’s life.

“Skywalkers”: Night after night, Gisèle roams the streets of Montreal near the half-built Great Victoria Bridge, searching for whatever is unraveling the warp and weft of her island city. What she finds shakes her belief in herself, and reveals an ugly truth about the Fey who live in uneasy proximity to the humans.

“The Wise Woman of Ste-Agathe”: At the turn of the last century, on a dark, bitterly cold night in rural Quebec, a stranger comes to midwife Clara Castonguay’s door. A woman is in labour and Clara is needed. The stranger is unlike any woman Clara has ever met and something about her brooks no disobedience, but when the stranger orders Clara’s daughter, Millie, to accompany them, Clara balks. This is not the path she wants for her daughter.

But Millie has her own ideas, and soon she and Clara are trudging dark, snow-clad country roads, heading for a woman whose baby is coming too soon. Before the night ends, Clara and Millie will face death and life, and make decisions that will change both their lives.


Marcelle Dubé grew up near Montreal. After trying out a number of different provinces—not to mention Belgium—she settled in the Yukon, where people still outnumber carnivores, but not by much. Besides her novels, her short fiction has appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies. Learn more about her and her published work at her website. You can contact her at She is also at Facebook and Twitter. Her books are available wherever ebooks are sold.

Fantastic History #50: Writing Truth into Fantasy Fiction in the Blood of Earth Trilogy by Beth Cato

I was probably about ten years old when I asked my mom, “Why does Hanford (our hometown) have a China Alley and none of the surrounding towns do?” At that point, I understood that many towns throughout Central California were founded because of the railroad and that Chinese immigrants supplied the labor for that construction. Hanford was–and still is–very proud of its China Alley with its Taoist Temple Museum and annual Moon Festival. But where were those things in Selma? Fresno? Tulare?

“Those cities have changed a lot in the past century,” my mom said. “Hanford just happened to keep their alley.”

Over twenty years later, I found out the truth. Selma, Fresno, Tulare–they all had Chinatowns, sure. Chinese fruit packers were expelled from Selma by a posse of forty men, and when the Chinese came back that night, they were dragged from their homes, and as the police watched, forced to leave. Everything left behind was looted. In Fresno, laundrymen and shopkeepers were given five days warning to leave the city, or else. In Tulare, where 20% of the town was Chinese, fires burned through the Chinese quarter, and then white citizens evicted those that remained and intentionally burned down the rest of the district. In the 1890s, Chinese immigrants across the valley fled in terror as rumors spread of an actual anti-Chinese army that would make the Celestials ‘git.’

My Blood of Earth trilogy, which begins with Breath of Earth, takes an alternate history spin on the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake by adding in geomancy and incredible creatures. Though the fantastical element is strong, to me, it was very important to get my facts right. In changing history, I wanted to make conscious changes rather than ignorant ones. That was especially important when it came to representing the Chinese experience. It’d already been dismissed from the mainstream historical narrative. I didn’t want to be part of the problem.

As much as I love research, though, when it came to this particular topic, sometimes the reading was outright depressing. Assault, murder, injustice; some people denied that the Chinese were human beings at all.

As I dug deeper, as I uncovered the connections to my own hometown, my research became personal. My mood switched from dismayed to furious. I found mention that my town paper (still in existence today) included an 1893 editorial that admonished young women of Kings County to learn the ways of the kitchen so that they didn’t need to hire a Chinese cook.

I hadn’t been taught about any of this in school. Neither had my mom. Even worse, my grandma didn’t know, and she grew up in the 1930s on a ranch three miles away from Hanford right outside the still quite-small town of Armona; the only remnant of its Chinese district is Shanghai Street, which borders the cemetery.

We hadn’t even been lied to across the generations. The historical facts had been utterly erased. The vineyard laborers driven out by an armed posse, forgotten. Firebombed buildings, built over.

Turns out, outrage over historical injustices makes for good writing fuel.

In my books’ world, the United States and Japan are allied as the Unified Pacific and in the process of taking over mainland Asia. The Chinese are treated even worse there than in our actual history, but I base everything on fact.

I’ve heard from many readers that they thought I had made up everything. I talk about things like the Dog Tag Law, how the Chinese were forced to carry photo IDs (a first in the world) or risk deportation. That and so many other details are real, and I make sure readers know that, too. At the end of each book in my trilogy, I include an Author’s Note where I break down the major changes from history and include a complete bibliography. My sources are also listed on my website.

Breath of Earth, Call of Fire, and Roar of Sky might be shelved with the Fantasy & Science Fiction and include a whole lot of magic, but writing about history also includes a responsibility to shine a light on the darkness of the past. My books make for entertaining reads, sure, but I hope they are also enlightening ones… and that at the end, readers look at my source materials and dig a little deeper on their own, just as I did. Maybe they’ll find out some things that hit close to home, too.


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 alt-history Blood of Earth trilogy includes Breath of Earth, Call of Fire, and Roar of Sky.

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

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.