November 16, 2012

History in Fantasy

        I could have titled this post another "What's new in the studio," because it's about the issue I'm struggling with in my current writing work in progress.  The problem is how much actual history to incorporate into the back-story of the fantasy plot.  It's not so much a matter of letting truth get in the way of a good story, though.  It's more a matter of how much explaining the truth gets in the way of narrating the story.  See, The Extraordinary Book of Doors is based on a real book by a real sixteenth century architect, whom I'm casting as a wizard.  I've done a tremendous amount of research on his milieu - his patrons, his colleagues, the buildings he worked on and the places he lived, and all kinds of fascinating historical interconnections to explain why he made his magical books.  But none of that is strictly relevant to the plot taking place in the present, and I can't imagine that my readers would actually care about it.
        Then there's the history of how these magical Books get into the hands of characters in the present.  So I did a tremendous amount of research on connections between real historical figures, and how books might actually have been passed down among them and ended up in the cities where I'm basing my story.  But none of that is strictly relevant to the plot taking place in the present, and I can't imagine that readers would care about it.
        And then there's the treasure hunt devised by Benjamin Franklin with clues hidden in the copy of the magical Book that was his.  I've done a tremendous amount of research into Franklin's life, and places he spent time, and buildings (and their doors) that were built in time for the Book's publishing in the sixteenth century, would have been familiar to Franklin in the eighteenth century, and are still standing now in the twenty-first century.  There are actually more of those than you might expect, and I'm finding out all sorts of fascinating things… but none of that is strictly relevant to the plot taking place in the present, and I can't imagine that readers would care about it.
        I've been thinking about Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code, which is the kind of fun, roller-coaster adventure I'm aiming for, but which disintegrates into sheer idiocy if you actually engage your brain at any point in the reading.  I definitely don't want to treat my historical elements that way!  I'm thinking about Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost, which was critically acclaimed by practically everyone, but which just didn't work for me, in part because of some historical errors in his portrayal of Quakers, about which most readers wouldn't know or care particularly.  And then I'm thinking about Marie Rutkoski's Kronos Chronicles (first book The Cabinet of Wonders), which incorporate real historical figures, such as John Dee and Queen Elizabeth I, but happily make complete fiction of others, such as the Prince of Bohemia.  Rutkoski manages a blend of history and fantasy that works pretty well, in part because she is very clear about what she's doing - not pretending to total historical accuracy, but using just enough to give a flavor and atmosphere of real times and places; enough facts to engage the mind in fantastical "what if"s about history.
        So the issue is this: if I mention history, I can't have it inaccurate.  If I explain all the history, I bore my readers and slow down the story, which is meant to be a fun, exciting romp, not a deep, scholarly drama.  But if I don't mention any history, I lose half my plot and all the reason for the magical books' existence.   And I can't stand when stories are built on inaccuracies of fact and history so that as soon as you notice the error the whole edifice becomes unstable and you just can't suspend your disbelief about it any more.
        After several frustrating days earlier this week of wondering whether I could even salvage a story with such a contradiction between fact and fun, logic and adventure, I think I've found a path that traces the balance.  I'm writing a few introductory incidents that illustrate the historical background and then, having established the rationale for the state of affairs, I'll let the facts go, as the adventures pick up speed and the characters (and readers) no longer have the time or the inclination for research and scholarship along the way.  I'll assuage my tendencies toward historical scholarship by including at the end (as Rutkoski, Brian Selznick, and some other authors do) a note on what's a fact in the real world and what's made up for purposes of the story in my fantasy world.  So, that settled, now back to the writing!
        What do you think of the use of facts intermingled with fantasy?  How much of a stickler are you for accuracy, and in what instances do you not mind a little fudging?  Does it make a difference if the author acknowledges where she departs from factual truth?  What are your pet peeves, or what stories succeed in mixing history and fantasy most effectively and enjoyably?

[Pictures: Stately Door, rubber block print by AEGN, 2012;
Rustic Door I, woodcut by Sebastiano Serlio from Libro Estraordinario, 1566 edition (image from Open Library).]

5 comments:

  1. Hmmmm. Good question. Sometimes I think I am losing my mind and have to run to do some research to convince myself I am not misremembering. Case in point: HBO's The Tudors which purports to be history but includes marriages and murders that simply did not happen. Made me insane--until I told myself to relax and enjoy the costumes.

    Dorothy Dunnett (Lyman Chronicles) and Hillary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, A Place of Greater Safety) do a wonderful job of giving the history needed, but spending most of their time creating believable characters who think in terms of their own times, not ours. Mantel includes an afterward where she discusses her struggles with the many players and events of the French Revolution and how she narrowed her focus.

    In the fantasy field, the latest thing I've read is Palma's The Map of Time, which I thought did a good job of using H G Wells and other real characters and events in an alternate reading of history.

    Once again, Anne, you have set me thinking. Usually I don't worry about this, and just try to take whatever ride the author has prepared for me. If the story follows its own internal logic and rules, then I am usually uncomplaining. When it is a fantasy and not a fictional history, I am extremely forgiving. Let the flights of fancy begin!

    Good luck with the new book!



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  2. I agree that the more an author claims to be historical, the more it bothers me when they aren't.
    You also make an excellent point that characters' mindsets can be as inaccurate as marriages or murders. How can a modern author balance historical accuracy of attitudes with the need for present-day readers to be able to relate and empathize?

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    1. I remember being terribly upset with Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror. She pretty much said that medieval parents did not love their children. I felt that was a serious misunderstanding of differences in attitudes and eras, a confusion of public and private personas.

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  3. I only just read this post, and it made me think about all the lovely historical fiction I have read. Seems to me that, having done the research, you can treat the setting (and characters) as just another place that might be unfamiliar to your readers. So, just as I would more vividly describe my childhood in Puerto Rico to my students who are from the woods of the Pacific NW than I would to a child from San Juan, perhaps you just explain the history as it comes up? For example, you might treat as matter-of-fact a person eating soup, but if the processes of kitchen or table are important go into more detail about the way it was prepared or the way it was served because those things were different in the 1500s than they are now. And I think for characters I wouldn't go into extreme detail about a person's importance in history (which is so present-centric), but I would definitely mention what they were working on or thinking about in the time snippets you talk about.

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  4. Stidmama, you make a good point about telling readers what they need to know - not what you're longing to prove you know! I think a lot of writers (and I'll admit to being among them) hate to waste knowledge. But it's an important reminder to cull out whatever isn't really needed to clarify or set the scene.
    Thanks!

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