Monday, July 12, 2010

Why I write pseudo historical fantasy

So, when I was young, most fantasy looked a certain way. The culture was pseudo-Medieval. There were kings, wizards, possibly knights, dragons. Women were supposed to settle down and get married but instead they were spunky... You know, things like that. The key word is PSEUDO-MEDIEVAL PLUS MAGIC a la Dungeons and Dragons or Tolkien novels, which were clearly some of the #1 influences on all fantasy that followed. If you wanted to mix it up, throw in a pseudo Middle Eastern bazaar with some thieves.

My early attempts at fantasy followed along these lines. There were girls who lived in small villages who wanted to be witches, and groups of people including a swordsman and healer who came together to go on a quest, etc. At age 12, I created the world of Arestin, which started to develop its own sort of unique culture, but nevertheless was modeled on a more traditional fantasy mold.

I still remember the day when this changed. I was 16 years old. I had a book out from the library on the Renaissance. It was lush with pictures of all the wonderful paintings and ideas that were around then, and it got to the time when Europeans discovered the Americas. It struck me what a bizarre thing that must have been. I started wondering what would have happened in the people of the Americas had had more advanced technology than the Europeans. I never actually pursued THAT particular idea, but in the course of thinking about it, my brain went off in some other directions, and I started writing a story based on a vaguely Edwardian culture--they had electricity and nightclubs and newfangled automobiles--encountering a Renaissance era culture that had been isolated for some reason. There was also magic and a race of winged people.

I had a ton of fun writing it, although it was never finished. It kind of blew my mind, too. OMG, I thought, YOU CAN WRITE FANTASY BASED ON ANY TIME OR PLACE! Why is it always MEDIEVAL!? Why is it always ENGLAND!? Why did I never think of this BEFORE?

Fast forward to now. Magic Under Glass is pseudo historical fantasy. And it's certainly not the only book of its type. Far from it. However, the common thing still seems to be that if it isn't Medieval, you need to set in in an alternate version of this actual planet. You can have Victorian wizards, sure, but they have to live in London and chill with Queen Victoria at some point. Sometimes people ask me why Magic Under Glass isn't set in our actual 19th century if it's going to be just like it anyway.

Well, it's not just like it. I don't really want to play with real world politics or real world people. It's not just a fear of research--I do gobs of research for these books anyway--it's that I want my own players, my own societal structures, my own land masses. The time period is there to set a mood, but the politics are my own. Sometimes people then ask, if you just want to set a mood, why don't you make up something totally new? I have Arestin to play around with some new ideas, but the idea of creating a bunch of "totally new" worlds is pretty exhausting...culture takes thousands of years and millions of people to develop, I don't quite have the hubris to try and fabricate that, and I think few writers can really create many different genuine fantasy worlds that feel entirely fresh.

Plus, most so-called "unique" fantasy worlds are still based on something...maybe just a few different things instead of one thing. For now, I'm sticking to it to the plan pseudo Medieval fantasy worlds have used for decades. I am going to feel free to co-opt the buildings, fashions and technology of any era I feel like evoking, and if you want to see Queen Victoria and Napoleon chilling with the sorcerers (and sometimes, mind you, I quite enjoy it myself, but not in my work), I recommend you to the many fine writers of alternate world historical fantasy.

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