Some things to keep in mind when you’re writing historical fantasy

Originally posted on LJ on 22/10/2007 (mildly edited)

1. Don’t use a cuisine that comes from another continent a thousand years into the future. Don’t use tools that come from another continent a thousand years into the future. Don’t use farming or building techniques that come from another continent a thousand years into the future. Don’t use armour, weapons, horses that come from another continent a thousand years into the future. Unless there is good reason.

2. Don’t try to write in Ancient Greek or Old Norse unless you have *really* good reason. The best use of dead languages is sparse, to demonstrate concepts that English lacks and to demonstrate the differences in cultures. Another good use is in a polyglottal society where there are misunderstandings and where you can milk drama and understanding from that understanding (“You fool, I wanted a goat, not a new boyfriend.”).

Words thrown in just to show you’ve done a bit of homework can be really annoying. They’re more annoying to historians if you use the modern form of the language rather than the correct form for the time.

Mind you, this isn’t really crucial: it’s like whether you call 6 legged dairy animals ‘fonta’ or ‘cows.’ If you set everything up well enough then a reader will forgive the language thing and if you don’t then they’ll use it as a way in to complain. Brilliant writing trumps all.

3. Don’t call the majority culture and religion by the modern name and continually refer to said majority culture as if it were unusual in that place or time. Work out what is normative for that culture and use descriptions that reflect this. For example, don’t set something in Rome in the 16th century and have everyone explaining that they know nothing about Catholics and describing every second person they meet as a ‘Catholic’ and then giving hints to rites and rituals that they can’t know about because they’ve said they aren’t Catholic and don’t know these things. Even an outsider in a country will soon see everyone else as normal and have to work out who they are in relation to that place and time.

People’s identities change all the time. When I lived in France I was Australian. When I lived in England I was Australian. When I live in Australia I am Jewish Australian. When I was in America, I was Jewish and my accent was inexplicable. In France no-one cared a jot about me being Jewish (except for that guy in rural Normandy who showed me the local secret monolith, but he was an exception) and were more interested that I spoke French than in my nationality. In Britain everyone tried to work out who I knew of their friends who had migrated. In America everyone Jewish tried to work out how we were related (overall, I have known more of the British friends of friends than I have discovered US distant cousins, for the record).

We all make judgements about insiders and outsiders and borderpeople and those snap opinions are brilliant to indicate place and person in fiction – unless they’re misused, in which case they destroy the sense of place and time in the work.

If someone has lived a long time in a place, the place’s norms become part of their norms and they often focus on a set of similarities or differences that fit their own stereotypes.

And each country and each group within that country has their own way of doing this. Work out the norms for the groups and countries you’re writing about, then work out how your characters fit into this norm and how they would express this relationship. Don’t stick to current modern stereotyping.


4. If you want an outsider to describe things (which is a good technique) make sure they are an outsider or give them an amazingly sophisticated background (20 years abroad, for instance or much education and a contemplative brain) so they have an excuse for observing and describing. Give your bridge character good reasons (and the right background) for describing things as an outsider – insiders talking as if they are outsiders hurt my brain.

What’s funny is that some of my favourite young adult novels use the outsider/insider thing wonderfully, simply because teens are quite capable of being strangers in their own living room. Most adults, though, prefer to live comfortably and won’t question 99 % of what’s around them unless there is good reason (how we get the political leadership we don’t really want).


5. It’s not necessarily how much you know about the culture in your book/story; it’s how you work with it. Margo Lanagan very seldom gives detail. She writes emotions so perfectly that all her writing reads as if an insider wrote it. So you may not need to do 30 years work to get the culture right if you get inside the core of the story and understand the POV characters.

6. Think about how your favourite books work in our culture before you depend on them as sources. If I read another piece of fiction that takes the Holy Blood, Holy Grail universe and assumes it’s our own, I might scream. Likewise with ancient history and either Homer or Troy or the Bible or even The Last Days of Pompeii.
We get our understanding from popular culture a lot of the time, and this is cool. It’s not cool to write your fiction from it (unless you’re writing it intentionally, or as fanfiction – which the book that triggered this post wasn’t). Question it. Work through it and build your own understanding and your own society and think about food and economics and people and how they live and work together in that place and time.

7. The big thing about writing historical fantasy is that it’s not an easy way out. It’s just as intellectually difficult as historical fiction. It’s the favourite reading genre for a whole host of historians, too, and we will notice when the writer has not engaged their brain. We will also appreciate it when the fantasy world you have created works, even if it’s not historically accurate. My fiction is historically accurate when that’s appropriate and evilly inaccurate when that suits what I’m writing. Whichever I choose, though, I do a lot of homework. I need to respect myself, and never feel about my own fiction what I felt when I finished that book this morning.
These are my thoughts-of-the-moment, of course.

On writers and their worldbuilding

This post first appeared on  my LJ blog on 21/7/2008
Worldbuilding for a novel is a funny business. Some worldbuilding is to make sure the plot works. Some of it is to make sure that the characters come from the place they are supposed to come from and go to the place they are supposed to go. A lot of it is to convince the reader that things are real and that they work. Today I realised, though, that just as much of it is to convince the writer.

My biggest single problem with invented worlds is when they don’t convince the writer and the whole novel feels like a game that hasn’t quite worked. By ‘invented worlds,’ I mean any background universe in which fiction is set. It could be New Ceres, or the Dune universe or Middle Earth, or it could be twenty-first century Canberra or 1950s Los Angeles. If the writer hasn’t convinced themselves that it has that depth and reality, then the lack of substance will communicate itself to the reader.

Sometimes I fear for writers. Some of my favourites always look as if they’re playing with danger; that any moment they may open doors into their strange realities and disappear forever. Sometimes I think that writers draw that same dangerous door with a scribble on a piece of paper, then add a big red sign pointing to the pencilled door and that big red sign says “Danger.” It’s a lot harder to believe when the door is obviously drawn on scrap paper with a pencil stub.

Quick explanation of my blogs

Much of the content here is echoed on my LiveJournal blog. There are, however, some significant differences. My personal blogposts will appear on LJ, and this site will be just a fraction more professional. LJ is about community: this site is more about Gillian-the-writer.

I’m also putting up some of my more interesting historical blog posts from various places on this blog. I might even put up some articles and short stories here or elsewhere on this site, if there’s an interest. Let me know what you want to see!

Asking Historians About Food

This post first appeared on my Food History blog on 14/9/2007

I get asked about historical background for fiction by quite a few writers. I hear “I want a Renaissance/Medieval/Victorian dinner – tell me what to do” from an increasing number of people. It’s about time I explained certain basics. Sensible people take these basics into account before they ask me anything. People who are less sensible often don’t get the answers they want or need.

Know the level of historical accuracy you’re comfortable with.
First of all, what level authenticity do you want? If you want something approximate, why ask an historian? Why not buy one of the many popular books and work something out for yourself? If you insist on asking an historian, you might want to choose carefully, as you don’t want to have sad eyes following you because you had to include chili in your Ancient Roman dinner party because a meal isn’t complete for you without chili.

If you only want a sense of the past, and you don’t mind about things not being exact, then consulting popular books is more sensible than asking a specialist.

Secondly, think very carefully about the place and time you’re reproducing. Things you need are: a country, a date.

“Renaissance” is not useful, because people ate different foods in different regions. “Renaissance Chinese cuisine” is a nonsense, because historians of China use different period descriptions. “Renaissance Italian” is better and “Venice 1564″ is best of all. With “Venice 1564″ you can find all the extant recipes and food descriptions that have emerged from that environment and go from there.

We all have our dialects when we look at the past. If you want to ask an historian a question, learn enough of their dialect to make the question something they can work with.

If you think in terms of ‘period’ costume and ‘period’ food, then you may want to think about the particular periods you are implying. Three times this last year, I’ve asked “What do you mean by ‘period’? I’ve been told ‘pre-1600′ or ‘pre-1700.’

In terms of human lifestyles, including food, I can’t make sense of these terms. They include places and times that really don’t have a lot in common. Even if you take it from, say, the Carolingians to the Tudors and stick to Western Europe and the Mediterranean, the range is too vast.
Precise places and times are a great help.

I would rather be told ‘England in 1030′ and then have to admit there are no cookbooks extant (or maybe even possible) from England in 1030. It’s how my mind works. “No cookbooks extant” doesn’t have to be an endpoint, but “I want to cook period food for my dinner party” is a bad starting point for talking to a specialist.

If you want to be inventive, then why ask a specialist?
If there are no recipes and very few food records from your place and time, it’s generally not a good idea to ask an historian to invent some for you. The best approach when there are no recipes and not much in the way of food records is to change your place/time, or to move to something more general (”Venice, middle of sixteenth century” then “Italy, middle of sixteenth century”).

Start with the precise place/time you want and then move to the more general if there isn’t enough material.
If you choose a place and you don’t read the languages and there is not much in translation, be very, very polite to your historian, because you are about to ask them to do an awful lot of work for you.

I have a little spiel prepared for times like this (since so many people want me to do their legwork and so few are willing to do mine). “If it’s a five minute answer, I’ll do it now. If it’s an hour-long answer, I’ll do it when I can because you’re a good friend or because I really care about your project. If it takes longer than that it displaces my own research and income, and you might want to think about paying or about asking someone else.”

Occasionally people ask “Why should I pay you?” I have various names for these people, and sometimes these names are polite.

If you don’t appreciate that professional historians have between four and nine years university training plus experience at their job and that the discipline is a tough one (Medievalists usually read from four to fifteen languages, for instance), then ask someone else. And if you find one who will do two weeks or a month of fulltime work for you without pay, then please respect that work. It can be quite humiliating to help on someone’s writing project and then not even be thanked in the acknowledgements.

Now you know why I started charging for inquiries above a certain level of complexity: it means that the questioner takes my expertise seriously and does just that much more of their own thinking.

My favourite historical novelists and re-enactment folk do their groundwork first, ask sensible questions and give back as much as I give them. It becomes an exchange between professionals.

My favourite dinner party/wedding banquet queriers, are also prepared to put the work in. I did the Regency Gothic banquet design gratis, partly because having all those people testing recipes enabled me to understand the cuisine of early nineteenth century Southern England much faster than if I had done hundreds of trial recipes all by myself: it was a win-win, or maybe a learn-learn. Every tester annotated their tests and I was able to discover quite a few things I didn’t know about changes in ovens and ingredients as well as changes in taste and palate.

Use the comments section, if you want to explore the topic further. I’m perfectly happy to discuss this again, and to talk through some of the issues. There are a lot of background assumptions I haven’t talked through and many ideas that can be explored. I haven’t even talked about sources, for instance, or what popular and semi-scholarly and scholarly books there are on various subjects.

NOTE: This is not an attack on anyone – this is me trying to sort out how people can get the information they want and often need without getting trapped in futile arguments.