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.