Thursday, May 17, 2012

Guest Blog: Oops I got History in my Fantasy (again) by Tansy Rayner Roberts

The huge recent success of steampunk has done a lot to show that fantasy fiction, even the most traditional and epic version of the genre, doesn’t have to draw purely from medieval European history, its social structures and its cultural detail.  It’s been great fun to watch the New Victoriana taking over fantasy as a genre, replacing tunics with bustles, and dragons with airships.

Though of course, we can always have dragons AND airships, which is even more fun.  We’re also getting our fair share of magical Regency, with empire-line gowns, the marriage market and Napoleonic dragons.

Using the first half of the 20th century as your historical touchstone has its difficulties.  I didn’t realise how difficult it was, of course, until I was in the middle of trying to do it.

One of those finicky world building details most likely to drive authors completely up the wall is whether we use conventional Earthly names for objects or creatures in fantasy worlds, or new words.  Of course, pretty much all the words we use have Earth derivations, and some readers (and authors) are more picky about them than others.  This is where medieval vocabulary often gets a pass, because there’s something more familiar about chatelaines and knights, paladins and princesses.

But what about the word Flapper?  One of my beta-readers protested at me using that particular word in my manuscript, because it felt like such an Earth-based term to her.  But I stuck to my guns largely because there were so few places in the book where I could drop in elements to evoke the 1920’s rather than pre-industrial historical snippets.

The Creature Court trilogy is a mash up of historical influences from various eras, but I was very firm on wanting to give it that early 20th century flavour.  But it was only very late in the writing process that I let myself include aspects of industry - Victorian style sewing machines, for instance, and trains.  So the best way to convey the 1920’s influences were through fashion, music and other cultural details, and the vocabulary of my characters.

Music was the hardest, of course.  Ever tried describing jazz in words without using the word jazz?  I tried, though I think I ended up just using the words from our world because, you know.  We have words for a reason, and sometimes the only way to access the connotations you need are by using the most obvious word.

Costume was easier for two reasons: my protagonist was a dressmaker, and saw the world through clothes; but also the magical underworld of the Creature Court was heavily reliant on appearances and theatrical presentation to augment status, which meant that I was totally justified in describing every single outfit. I talk more about my approach to the costuming side of the Creature Court over here.

I know that many people have come out of the Creature Court books having not particularly noticed the 1920’s aspects of the world building, and it works fine without being aware of that.  But if you read the books and don’t come away at least with a visual image of Livilla looking like the quintessential 1920’s vamp flapper in the red dress with sharp black bobbed hair, I’m not doing my job right!

For tone and voice, I fell back on an old writing trick that has proved greatly reliable in the past: I read fiction from the era I wanted to evoke.  You can only learn so much from factual books, but fiction is brilliant for the details they take for granted, and the casual vocabulary that their characters drop on the page.  It can influence the author almost on a subconscious level, and while I never applied the same rigour to my research as Mary Robinette Kowal (who only uses words in her Regency magic series that she is certain existed in Jane Austen’s lifetime) it can have a most pleasing influence.

I developed this particular technique quite by accident - I re-read Pride and Prejudice while writing my first novel, and there’s one scene that never quite recovered from all the unexpected formal diction and curtseying that suddenly arrived in my prose.  Later I thought, aha!  I can use that power for good, not evil.  It doesn’t work, of course, for historical eras where there are no extant novels.  But you can't have everything. 

There are many tiny world building details and dialogue tics in the Creature Court that came about because I was reading Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford novels, and even if that wasn’t the case, it’s not like time reading those authors would ever count as wasted!

I have nothing against the medievalist tradition in fantasy fiction (though I do rail rather against the faux-medievalist tradition and the overwhelming use of the less interesting aspects of medieval history in some fantasy fiction) but I am flying the flag for other historical periods to become just as powerful and influential.  We’ve made a good start with the Regency and Victoriana, but what about the neglected history periods of the world?  Where is our Egyptian steampunk, our Sumerian YA, and our 1950’s urban fantasy?

History is fun, but it’s more fun once you start adding werewolves to it.

Seriously.  Try it for yourself.

Some of my favourite recent historical mash up fantasies:

Kat, Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis - middle grade regency romp with magic
Soulless (and sequels) by Gail Carriger - Victoriana comic urban fantasy
Temeraire (and sequels) by Naomi Novik - Napoleonic dragons
Shades of Milk and Honey (and sequel) by Mary Robinette Kowal - Regency romance with magic
Cold Magic (and sequels) by Kate Elliott - epic Afro-Celtic post-Roman fantasy with Regency icepunk, Phoenician spies and trolls I AM JUST REPORTING THE FACTS HERE.

But I'm sure many of you can make your own recommendations...

This post was written by Tansy Rayner Roberts for her Flappers with Swords Blog Tour.

Tansy’s award-winning Creature Court trilogy: Power and Majesty, The Shattered City and Reign of Beasts, featuring flappers with swords, shape changers, half-naked men and bloodthirsty court politics, have been released worldwide on the Kindle, and should be available soon across other e-book platforms. If you prefer your books solid and papery, they can also be found in all good Australian and New Zealand bookshops.

You can also check out Tansy’s work through the Hugo-nominated crunchy feminist science fiction podcast Galactic Suburbia, Tansy's short story collection Love and Romanpunk (Twelfth Planet Press). You can find her on the internet at her blog, or on Twitter as @tansyrr.

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