Monday, April 20, 2009

On living in the past

I grew up in the era of the technicolour historical epic – the kind in which Tony Curtis famously announced, “Yonda lies da castle of my faddah!” Even at eleven or twelve, I realized that the filmmakers may have been less than scrupulous with historical fact, just as they were less than scrupulous with their hero’s accent. And so as soon as I got home I hauled out the encyclopaedia to find out what really happened in, say, ancient Rome, or 14th century Britain. This is probably why I chose to be a writer of historical fantasy. It’s a genre that, along with a certain degree of imagination and narrative skill, requires close attention to historical fact.

From an online article in Salon magazine: “Children’s fantasy demands the strictest logic, consistency and attention to detail… It is no wonder that the greatest children’s fantasists – Carroll, Lewis, Tolkien – had day jobs in the driest reaches of logic and philology.”

Someone else remarked that when you venture into a fantasy world," it’s not seven-league boots you need, but good stout walking shoes and a Swiss army knife.” (To which I would add, a reliable map of the region.) What makes any fantasy novel work is not how fantastic it is, but how believable. You have to write as though you’ve spent time as an inhabitant of your created world.

A great many children’s and YA fantasy novels are time-slip books, in which the only fantasy element lies in the time-travel itself. The protagonist walks through a hidden gate or into a painting, finds a magic talisman, opens a box in an attic… These time-tourist. stories are entertaining and usually well-researched, and it’s a very appealing way to learn about history. However, events are necessarily interpreted through a modern eye and coloured by a modern sensibility.

As a writer and as a reader, I’m drawn towards the kind of story that totally immerses me in the long ago and far away. My protagonists have no choice but to deal with the dangers, both real and imagined, that lurk in their world. Whatever happens, there’s no chance of escape to the 21st century.

For that kind of book to work, the author has a special challenge. Every sentence must capture the flavour of the period, in dialogue, in narrative voice, in descriptive details -- and yet remain accessible to the young reader who picks up the book in 2009.

I started reading fantasy set in imaginary worlds as far back as I can remember, but as I grew older I realized that the history of the real world is every bit as full of magic, and mystery, and astonishing possibilities. lists over 32,000 children’s and YA fantasies. I was well into the hundreds in order of popularity before I came across a real-world historical fantasy title, and I found that disappointing. Historical fantasies deserve their place on bestseller lists and bedside tables; and they belong in every school library. A good story is always more engaging than straightforward facts. and a history text, however well written, can’t begin to capture the true flavour of a distant time. Add an element of magic, and you send the reader on an unforgettable journey.

Some Resources:

Living History Through Canadian Time-Slip Fantasy

The Historical Novels Review

Paradox: The Magazine of Historical and Speculative Fiction

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Ever-Expanding Bookshelf

With each one of my historical fantasy novels, I add another section to my already crowded reference library. It’s an eclectic assortment, reflecting many historical periods and many systems of belief. There are the books on northern exploration and Finnish mythology from my research for The Snow Queen; British prehistory (The Grey Isles trilogy) and prehistoric Indus Valley archaeology (Winter on the Plain of Ghosts.) There are Elizabethan histories and alchemical texts for The Alchemist’s Daughter, and a full shelf of books on Tibetan Buddhism and Himalayan travel for Dance of the Snow Dragon.

Here’s a sampling of the books I used for my latest novel, Wild Talent: a Novel of the Supernatural. You won’t find all of them in your local library, but for anyone interested in late Victorian England or fin de siècle Paris,-- particularly in the flourishing artistic and occult movements of the period – they’re well worth tracking down.

Charles Dickens, Dickens’s Dictionary of London 1888: an Unconventional Handbook (compiled by the novelist Charles Dickens’s son, and reprinted by Old House Books, Devon, England 1993)
Charles Fort, Wild Talents (Ace Books, 1932; reprinted in Complete Books of Charles Fort, Dover, 1975)
Barbara & Michael Foster, Forbidden Journey – The Life of Alexandra David-Neel (Harper & Row, 1987)
Philippe Jullian, Dreamers of Decadence (Praeger, 1971)
Ian MacDougall, Bondagers: Eight Scots Women Farm Workers (Tuckwell Press, 2000)
Marion Meade, Madame Blavatsky, The Woman Behind the Myth (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1980)
Alexander Varias, Paris and the Anarchists: Aesthetes and Subversives During the Fin de Siècle (St. Martin’s Press, 1996)