Guest Post: Fantasy Writer’s Use of History

by Jenny Moss

When I think about the history of fantasy writers using history, JRR Tolkien is the author that first pops into my head. Many view him as the “father of modern fantasy literature,” and his work is known for its Germanic–particularly Anglo-Saxon and Nordic–and possibly Celtic mythological and historical influences.

What I discovered is that William Morris–who had one wild head of hair, but I digress–was a fantasy writer who influenced Tolkien, CS Lewis, and others. His prose romances were published in the late 1800s, and some see him as the first fantasy writer to create completely imagined worlds–but these fictional places emerged from Morris’s views of the cultural, political, and historical past. A 1912 Times Literary Supplement reviewer said that Morris “was always concerned with the future even when he seemed most absorbed in the past. He turned to it, not to lose himself in it, but to find what was best worth having and doing now.”*

Since Morris’s time, many fantasy writers have created fictional worlds using history as their foundations. Each writer has had to decide just how much history to use. I mean, and this is where it gets fascinating, where does one stop? Will history be foundation only, or frame too, or is history bounding creative worlds with walls and ceilings, which then can perhaps be labeled more purely historical fantasy? Do some writers blend history and fantasy, freely borrowing details from each, so finely and expertly, that pulling out the history would collapse their fictional worlds entirely?

Kate Milford has a set of writing guidelines she follows when creating her history-infused worlds. She uses “enough historical detail to solidly evoke time and place, but no more.” And she restricts her narrative to what could have been possible, if only history had gone in a different direction. In that way, the reader is not pulled out of her stories trying to reconcile facts and fiction. For example, Kate’s current work The Broken Lands “takes place about five years before the great hotels of Coney Island were built,” so Kate is free to build her own hotels. She likes to create her own world “within the confines of the historically believable.”

Kiki Hamilton has a similar philosophy. She’s fascinated by the missing pieces of history, the parts that have slipped through the cracks and have not been documented, and she sees those unknowns as opportunities for creative exploration. Like Kate, she’s committed to getting the history right. She set her novel The Fairie Ring in 1871 London and chose that particular year so that her characters, the princes Leopold and Arthur, “were accurately portrayed.” It’s important to her to “stay historically correct in the non-fantasy portions of the novel.”

In her first book The Unnameables, Ellen Booraem “imagined an island way off New England that had been settled by disenchanted Massachusetts Bay Colonists” but was “then dropped out of history except for the periodic trade voyages to the mainland.” What’s really interesting about Ellen’s set-up is the culture and language of her imagined island began as late 17th century England, but as her island moved forward in time within her narrative, it diverged from that historical starting point. Ellen says that “it was a complete hoot trying to figure out when the culture stuck to its own path and when it incorporated ideas from outside – sweaters, for instance.”

Laura Williams McCaffrey likes using “lived history” in her stories – “the experiences of people living through historical moments” with “sounds, smells, textures” and “the kinds of ideas that people argue over at the dinner table, or ideas that influence choices they make.” Laura has always used research to get these details right. For her novel Water SHaper, two texts were particularly helpful: Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror and David Thomson’s The People of the Sea.

Certainly these “sounds, smells, textures” from the historical past can be found in Tamora Pierce’s work. Her imagined worlds feel very real. Her ability to capture that authenticity so well might stem from her early obsessions with history and legend. As a child, Pierce read “anything and everything” she could find about “the knights, the Crusades, and the Middle Ages,” and then, in middle school, moved on to read about the knighthood in “fantasy novels and Arthurian legends.” She then–without doing research on medieval life–wrote her first book about “a girl disguising herself to serve as a page and squire to achieve her knighthood.” But she realized she had indeed done research: “back when I was very young, reading articles in encyclopedias because I liked finding out more about knights.”**

Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban–who grew up in Spain–was influenced by her schoolgirl studies of Spain’s two-thousand year history. Her novel Two Moon Princess is about a Spanish girl–Andrea–who journeys through a portal to present-day California from a parallel world, a world similar to 12th century Spain. Although Andrea’s world is fictional, Carmen wanted to ground it in an historical reality, so she established that her protagonist’s “ancestors had come to her world from northern Spain in the year 711.” Carmen says that all her hard work in her history classes paid off. (Yay, history teachers!)

Other writers have used their interest in a particular country’s culture as inspiration for their fictional worlds. For her work-in-progress, Pamela S. Turner “delved into 12th century Japanese history for the skeleton” of her plot: “the milieu is not obviously Japanese, but anyone familiar with the Gempei Wars will notice all sorts of parallels.” Sarwat Chadda is “a huge fan of Russian mythology and history” and has used “extensive references from that culture, the Romanov dynasty, the old fairy tales and its chief heroes and villains, especially the tales centered on Baba Yaga, the archetype of the wicked old witch living in the forest.”

Ah, but now we’re getting into the use of myths and legends in fantasy, and that will have to wait for next time!

*Florence Boos’ Morris’s German Romances as Socialist History
**Tamora Pierce’s website:

Jenny Moss is a former NASA engineer, with a master’s degree in literature. She is the author of MG/YA historical fiction and fantasy. Her works include Shadow, Winnie’s War, and Taking Off. She lives in Texas.

A previous version of this post appeared at The Enchanted Inkpot.

2 Responses

  1. Lauren Harris

    I agree that some fantasy writers make a great use of history in their books, some of the ones you mentioned in particular.

    I do think, however, that in some cases the research on our world works to the detriment of the author if that author uses details that are too specific, or doesn’t exert their creativity enough, to the point where they’ve dropped an existing real-world culture into an otherwise rich and original world. You can probably tell that I have a specific example in mind.

    You mentioned Tamora Pierce, and I am a huge fan of her early works, particularly the Lioness Quartet and the Immortals Quartet. However, I was very disappointed in the research that went into the Protector of the Small quartet. I’ve studied Japanese history and language, and have lived in Japan, and while I don’t take any issue with Pierce’s use of Japan as inspiration for the Yamani Islands, I think she applied it too heavily. Her world is fictional, yet she uses the Japanese language as the Yamani language, the Japanese customs as the Yamani customs. This isn’t what I’d call a good use of research–I call it substituting creativity with research.

    I finished the quartet, because I enjoyed the Heroine’s rise to the role of Commander, and because I love Tamora Pierce, but I’ve lost confidence in her ability to use research as inspiration to create her own world, or to simply add sensory details that enrich the world. I don’t see it as a writing failure, I see it as sloppy worldbuilding, and it takes a lot for me to say that about an author who created a universe I love.

    If she had used that research to create her own culture, I would have been fine with it. Heck, if she’d even gone so far as to created her own language, or just simply NOT use one, rather than lazily using Japanese words, I might have bought “the Yamani”. As it stands, I now have an image of a portal in the middle of the ocean where citizens of Tortall can travel to feudal Japan. Suspension of disbelief, gone.

    Had Tamora Pierce’s world been, from the beginning, a lightly-veiled version of our own world, such as Jaqueline Carey’s Kushiel world, I would not take issue. But it’s not. Tortall is its own, fully-fledged kingdom that I wouldn’t have placed in an alternate-universe Earth. Therefore, Japan has no place in the same world as Tortall, even if it does have another name.

    I think if Tamora Pierce had used her immense capacity for creativity to influence her research, she could have done a great job creating a new culture, which is what I think she should have done. As it stands, I found myself rolling my eyes every time her horse “Hoshii” (which the narrator helpfully informs us is Yamani (read: Japanese) for “star”) was mentioned, or every time Kel practiced with her Naginata (Yamani for “bladed polearm!”). Or drank tea. Or bowed. Or wore a kimono. Or…you get the idea.

    So while I do agree that research is important, and am a history-lover (Classical Studies Major in University), I’m also concerned about authors forgetting that research for stories–to make a research-paper analogy–needs to be used in spirit rather than word for word.

    Write (and research!) on.

    PS: I loved Pamela S. Turner’s use of Japanese history. And noticed. 🙂

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