Fantasy as a genre is inextricably linked to history; with its roots in myth and legend, it cannot help but reflect our past, even when the stories are set in some version of our present. The fantasy aspect gives us some leeway, of course, but a writer who is ignorant of historical fact is bound to attract criticism and even turn readers away. I well recall wincing at a book set in an otherwise fairly accurate medieval Western Europe that described a garden as having tulips among its flowers, despite “tulip mania” being a well-known 17th-century phenomenon (speculators would pay ludicrous sums for the rarest specimens of this new plant). I have not bought any other books by this author!
What is less obvious is that the reader’s ignorance of historical fact can also result in criticism of your work. Jo Walton christened this “the Tiffany Problem”, after discovering that Tiffany (an anglicized version of the Greek name Theophania) was quite popular in the Middle Ages. Because the name was out of fashion until fairly recently, it sounds very modern to a present-day reader and is likely to make them find a medieval fantasy novel with such a character “inaccurate”.
I had a similar problem with the gay and bisexual characters in my alternate history fantasy trilogy. Most of them move within the world of the Elizabethan theatre, well known for its practice of employing young male actors to play female roles, and it seemed likely to me that, then as now, such a milieu would be welcoming to gay men in a way that wider society tended not to be. I did my research, pretty thoroughly I think, but inevitably some readers found it implausible that anyone could be openly gay in Elizabethan London and not get burned at the stake.
In case you too have your doubts, I’ll briefly summarise my research. Firstly, it’s well known that laws get passed because something undesirable is already happening; it doesn’t in any way mean they will stop it continuing to happen (just look at the effect of the death penalty on murder rates). Secondly, I discovered that despite homosexuality being illegal, there were actually fairly few court cases on the subject in early modern England, and only a small percentage of those resulted in prosecution. Much of that is undoubtedly because any sexual misdemeanour is difficult to prove, and in the case of consensual gay sex neither participant is likely to come forward with an accusation. Indeed the case most often referred to, that of the Earl of Castlehaven, centred not around homosexuality but the alleged rape of Lady Castlehaven by a male servant with the earl’s assistance. Castlehaven’s homosexual leanings were then exploited by his wife and son to get him executed, along with the accused and another male servant.
Such a high profile case is atypical, and should not be considered the likely fate of a working-class gay man. More probably he would be subjected to queer-bashing, much as happened well into the twentieth century (and sadly still happens today), which would leave little or no historical record. However since my books are intended as fairly lighthearted adventure novels, not examinations of what it was like to be gay in Shakespeare’s London, I deliberately played this down, as I did with the bear-baiting, cock-fighting and other unpleasant activities that were considered perfectly acceptable in this period. For the same reason my characters don’t wallow in angst about burning in Hell, but apparently neither did the playwright Christopher Marlowe, who is alleged to have said “those who love not tobacco and boys are fools”. All in all I don’t think there’s anything in my novels that openly contradicts the historical evidence; the problem is all in the eye of the beholder.
A reverse form of the Tiffany Problem can afflict writers of secondary world fantasy, which by definition is not our world and therefore doesn’t have to work by our rules. The fans of grimdark fantasy like to claim that their favourite books are full of rape and torture because “it’s realistic for a medieval world”, ignoring the fact that it was the writer’s choice to focus on these aspects of the real Middle Ages and overlook the positive ones. You might therefore find that your heroic fantasy is criticized for being unrealistic, just because your world has sexual equality or decent public hygiene or whatever.
So how do you avoid the Tiffany Problem? The short answer is: you can’t. You just have to do your best and then prepare to roll with the punches.
The long answer is that you can work around the most glaring issues by having some beta-readers who don’t know much about history. They may tell you that your coin-operated water dispenser sounds a bit too steampunk for an Ancient Greek setting, at which point you realise you need to explain earlier in the book that the Ancient Greeks knew all about steam power and levers but only used them for gimmicky devices, because they had slaves to do all the hard work.
With secondary world fantasy, strong internally consistent worldbuilding can help. A public sewer system and abundant clean water requires massive resources and organisation, which is why the ancient Mediterranean empires had them and the squabbling kingdoms of medieval Europe didn’t. Baths need lots of hot water, which in turn requires fuel and hard work, so before the invention of domestic boilers only rich people with plenty of servants or slaves could afford them. Think about where your “modern” luxuries come from, rather than dropping them into the world just because you want them there.
In either type of setting, more complex pseudo-anachronisms like my gay Elizabethans are much harder to “explain”, and you will have to decide whether to try to slip in a brief incident or bit of dialogue to give it some context, or just accept that readers bring their own experience to a story and may find some things implausible. I feel it’s best to avoid infodumps unless your beta-readers have flagged it up as a major obstacle to believability.
Be warned, however, that there’s nothing you can do about the willfully ignorant, like the commenter I saw online the other day stating that the Ancient Greeks couldn’t have been gay because they followed the teachings of Jesus (*headdesk*). Like any criticism of your work, you just have to suck it up and move on—and on no account respond to the reviews! If it really bugs you why not write a blog post about it? The article I wrote on homosexuality in Elizabethan England is one of the top search hits on my website, which probably brings in a few readers who otherwise would never have heard of my novels, and all without feeding the trolls.
I hope this article hasn’t made you nervous about including lesser-known historical facts in your fantasy world. It will enrich your writing, make your story more believable to those in the know, and might even open readers’ eyes to how complex and sophisticated our ancestors’ worlds really were.
Archived version of interview with Jo Walton
Anne Lyle was born in what is popularly known as “Robin Hood Country”, and grew up fascinated by English history, folklore, and swashbuckling heroes. Unfortunately there was little demand in 1970s Nottinghamshire for diminutive swordswomen, so she studied sensible subjects like science and languages instead.
It appears, however, that although you can take the girl out of Sherwood Forest, you can’t take Sherwood Forest out of the girl. She now spends practically every spare hour writing – or at least planning – fantasy fiction about dashing swordsmen and scheming spies, set in alternate pasts or imaginary worlds.
She prides herself on being able to ride a horse, sew a sampler and cut a quill pen but hasn’t the least idea how to drive one of those new-fangled automobile thingies. Paradoxically she is a big fan of 21st century technology, being a Mac geek and full-time web developer. Well, it’s the nearest thing you can get to magic in our own universe…