Writing Excuses 7.7: Historical Fantasy

We begin with a definition of Historical Fantasy that allows us narrow the topic and differentiate it from Alternate History. When we say historical fantasy we mean “adding magic to a historical period we want to write in.” We offer some examples of this, talk about why it’s popular right now, and then talk about how you as a writer can do this well.


Identify a historical period that you like, and write a story in that setting. Don’t bother researching anything until you’re done.

His Majesty’s Dragon: Temeraire, Book 1, by Naomi Novik, narrated by Simon Vance

32 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 7.7: Historical Fantasy”

  1. Randall Garrett’s wonderful <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_Darcy_%28character%29"Lord Darcy" stories are both fantasy and alternate history. The alternate history diverges with Richard I, who is succeeded by his nephew Arthur rather than his brother John. The fantasy element is that in that world, magic has been codified with a theoretic underpinning, but science as we know it doesn’t exist. (The technology level is Victorian, although they’re set in present day — so there’s a bit of steampunkish feel to them.) Not quite what you’re talking about, but not your usual alternate history either.

    Fun stories.

  2. That is a brilliant idea with the homemade Jane Austen dictionary. Absolutely brilliant. It probably wouldn’t work for someone like Tolstoy whose work is translated into English from another language, but for Jane Austen that’s brilliant.

    So if historical fantasy is the fantasy genre’s adolescent period, what do you think comes next? I’m not sure whether this is part of a natural shift in the overall genre or simply another subgenre branching off in its own direction.

  3. Shades of Milk & Honey and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell are both magnificent examples of magic subtle enough that it doesn’t seem like it would have changed society overmuch.

    I loved His Majesty’s Dragon, but the thing I couldn’t get over was how much dragons eat. In a world where apex predators like dragons evolved, surely large animals must breed faster or something. Otherwise, the whole planet would be depopulated in a few generations. I’m no agricultural economist, but that seems like an awful lot of cows getting munched every day.

  4. I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around steampunk as historical fantasy. I suppose that I have always thought of the historical fantasy genre in much more constrained terms.

    The same thing with the Grimnoir Chronicles books, which I suppose is technically magic, but comes across as more superhero in execution.

    None of which is to say that I’m against the broader definition of the term or that I don’t enjoy steampunk/gearpunk. Rather that at some point there’s so much hybridization going on that genre/subgenre categories get tricky.

    Hooray for hybridization!

  5. “I loved His Majesty’s Dragon, but the thing I couldn’t get over was how much dragons eat. In a world where apex predators like dragons evolved, surely large animals must breed faster or something. Otherwise, the whole planet would be depopulated in a few generations. I’m no agricultural economist, but that seems like an awful lot of cows getting munched every day.”

    Exactly how many do they eat per day?

    Intrigued by your comment, I brainstormed some estimates/calculations on feasible Dragon population:
    -Assumptions: 3 cows (or comparable dragon food) supported by 1 square mile of land. 1 dragon eats 3 cows (or similar) per day. France is somewhere vaguely around 62,500 square miles.
    -Results: 1 dragon eats ~1000 cows per year. Thus, 62.5 dragons would eat every cow in France in 1 year. So, assuming dragons try to pick off those less likely to survive anyway (the weak, sick, or old) to lessen their impact on cow populations, France might reasonably support no more than 12 or so dragons.
    -Notes: Dragons would presumably eat quite a few fish, and similar seafood, so that would allow possibly another 24 dragons in France (since earth is 2/3 water). Also, 3 cows supported by 1 square mile is likely too pessimistic.

  6. Did you guys time this to come out with the announcement of the release of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter?”

    Loved this podcast episode — with an especial nod to Mary for her tip about the custom dictionary, which I think I might turn towards the works of Tolkien for me.

  7. Excellent discussion with some great examples and advice. The entire episode is chock-full of great tips and techniques. Mary’s build-your-own historical dictionary for checking usage is especially brilliant. I also loved the observation that, in general, historical fantasy should not be analyzed too far, as noted, doing so means you erase the historical period you want to tell a cool story in. Looked at another way, historical fantasy is a way to have your cake and eat it, too.

    Another well-done historical fantasy series I’d recommend is Gail Carriger’s “Parasol Protectorate,” which begins with “Soulless.” The novels are a onderful mash-up of Victorian era adventure, espionage, vampires, werewolves, and steampunk goodness.

  8. Historical Fantasy is *not* that new. In terms of Fantasy, it probably is one of the oldest genres/subgenres on the books and also has had a steady stream of authors.

    Arthurian Legends, Atlantis, Legendary Fantasy can easily be argued as a subset of Historical Fantasy–and they’ve been cornerstones long before Tolkien and Macdonald. Homer, himself, was writing about an earlier time period.

    Geoffrey of Monmouth who created how we know King Arthur today was writing about an earlier time period. He wrote in the 1100’s, though the legend itself was made before that time period by a series of probably folk authors.

    If you won’t count that Shakespeare often wrote Historical Fantasy–unless you see elves and fairies in your every day life (outside your books), I’m pretty sure that he didn’t actually believe in them and often inserted them for the King and Queen’s sake.

    Earliest Steampunk, however, was 1895 by HG Wells, which is long after this event. You can argue to some effect Jules Verne as well, but the term wasn’t coined until 1980’s. Epic Fantasy dates from George MacDonald in contemporary times. Historical Fantasy has always had a steady stream from earlier times–there isn’t a hiccup.

    In contemporary times, you have Marion Zimmer Bradley (60’s to 190’s) Morgan Llewellyn (90’s to present), Guy Gavriel Kay (84-present), Monica Furlong (YA–1990’s) which show it’s not really a recent surge.

    Thought that wasn’t clear–the massive *surge* and *fad* are new, though the genre isn’t. It’s an ancient one. Multicultural Historical Fantasy, however, in the US is a new thing. (Worldwide it isn’t. Pointing to Japan for this one as one of the many examples) Though there has been book in this area, there is a concentrated effort towards writing Multicultural Historical Fantasy. Most likely because of Racefail 2009.

    I should note that Mists of Avalon is probably the only Historical Fantasy that manages to get away without the close up examination process. (Though Diana Gabaldon manages to slide the magic with science as well.) This is because it went with the magic is dying premise, which means that you *could* possibly believe that magic existed for that time period. Magic was certainly real to the people of the time. But this is the hand waving with the Peter Pan’s fairies logic–they exist and you can see them if you believe in it hard enough. In this case history covers the magic and the magic works with the history (rather beautifully, especially since it is very symbolic about what the legends of Arthur really were about.)

    Legendary/Mythical Historical Fantasy often can be examined close without the history falling apart if the magic was naturally part of the people’s belief system (and it would be rude to call them “wrong”), and all you have to do is nudge it a little to make it work. It especially works with the softer end of the magic systems rather than the fast-paced rules of Hard Magic.

  9. I don’t know about His Majesty’s Dragon, but Anne McCaffrey did dragon economics rather well, I thought. They only get one or two beasts per week and the dragons sleep every chance they get to conserve energy. Even then, the agricultural requirements to keep those dragons fed are huge and impact the entire world economy.

    I found Mary’s Jane Austin dictionary fascinating too. She never ceases to amaze me. I don’t know how you guys convinced her to join the podcast but I’m glad you did.

  10. Historical Fantasy? So that’s what I’ve been doing with my Dark Age Fantasy serial? Who knew? Of course mine is also steeped with fay and the Arthurian mythos, but there is just enough history to justify the title, I think.

  11. So, if rinky-dink means conned, what does that inane barney song mean, I wonder. It probably is still all nonsense, but if rinky-dink and honky-tonk are both legitimate words, then…

  12. @Michael? Early morning whimsy suggests…

    A little poking around suggests that modern farmers in the US run somewhere between 3-10 acres per cow (look for “cows per acre” or “stocking rate”), and there’s 640 acres in a square mile, so probably 60 cows per square mile? Assume a little less efficiency, that drops us down to 30 cows. And I doubt that anyone could talk all of France into being arable land (growing stuff!) so maybe 10 cows per square mile? Which means maybe triple Robinton’s number (36 or 72)?

    But I suspect we’re missing another dimension — what’s a breeding population? I mean, even though dragons fly, they still need to get together enough to keep the population going. Even 72 dragons sounds a little low for a population, but I have no idea how to figure out how many dragons it takes to keep the ruglizards coming? Is there an annual breeding season when dragons from everywhere get together?

    (Incidentally, wasn’t there a Robinton associated with dragons on Pern? Sure, Mastersinger or something like that?)

  13. I was curious if you guys and, girl (Mary) included George Martin in the historical fantasy category? I know you didn’t mention him which I’m assuming is because he’s indeed not, a writer of that genre, but mainly I’m wondering why you all think he isn’t. Seriously, i just value all of your insight and would love to know why. From all the reviews I’ve read about his series it seems that many think his series is historical fantasy since he’s often quoted for basing his series off the war of the roses and the hundred year war. Or maybe you guys do consider him a writer of that genre and I’m just over analyzing this, sorry if that is the case and I was just rambling. :p

  14. What about something like Indiana Jones?

    It’s set in our world, but contains fantastic elements. It’s not exactly what comes to mind when you say “Historical Fantasy,” but simply calling it “Adventure Fiction” seems too vague. I know that in the end it doesn’t really pay to overplay the genre game, but if you were trying to sell it, what would you call it?

  15. I’m not sure how you feel about “secret history” fiction but I believe there is significant overlap with “historical fantasy.” My favorite author in that genre is Tim Powers. He’s won the World Fantasy Awards twice for his novels Declare and Last Call. But I would not start with those books. I would recommend either On Stranger Tides, which was the loose basis for the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, or Drawing of the Dark, which was his third novel but first secret history novel.

  16. @Michael Winegar: Thanks!

    @Mike Barker: Good research! If we assume 10 cows and 2 other dragon-edible creatures (horses that have died of old age, maybe? Or maybe dragons can develop a taste for hay? 😉 ), or 12 cows-or-similar per square mile, France would support ~48 dragons on what it can grow alone. But don’t forget the extra few dozen dragons that could live on seafood! Giant Squid taste good, if anything can go deep enough to catch them. 😉 So maybe 72 dragons in France?

    But many types of birds fly many miles in a seasonal pattern (Canadian Geese, for example). Dragons could migrate a few thousand miles every decade or so, with no particular difficulty. (It might require a few extra cows, now and then…) If France is approximated as a 250 X 250 mile square, and a dragon can breed with any other dragon living within a mere 500 miles (and you ignore uninhabitable land such as ocean) you get a breeding population of 1152 dragons per generation. Sounds small, but adequate.

    Yes, I took my forum name from Masterharper Robinton, from (probably among other things) the Harper Hall Trilogy. I’m always pleased when someone recognises “Robinton”s origin: most people I run in to are convinced that it is a misspelling of “Robinson”. 😉

  17. Don’t forget that a breeding population doesn’t have to be enormous if the breeders are very long lived. You need lots of sheep for a viable population because of predation (both natural and human!) and a very short breeding life. If dragons could live and breed for tens and tens of years (thinking great whales and humans here) while at the same time not being subject to much if any predation, then 50 or so dragons could easily be a viable population.

  18. @ Michael Winegar If you don’t know what subgenre your fantasy book is, how about calling it simply “fantasy” for the agents? You know KISS it.

    And if it is Fantasy and Science Fiction, “Speculative Fiction” if it’s more than that, just call it Interstitial, which according to the late great Miss Snark, made her toes tingle. (Historical Fantasy is interstitial, if you’re being technical.)

    Again, you don’t have to list every genre/subgenre out there that describes your book, which is why Urban Fantasy and Paranormal have been conflated/confused in modern times. =P Last I checked Bram Stoker’s Dracula didn’t live in a city. If we had to do that I don’t think we’d have room for the pitch in the cover letter.

  19. Oh and Indiana Jones doesn’t have enough History to call it historical fiction. It’s plain Adventure Fantasy. Last I checked Archaeology is far more boring than a rolling boulder about to kill you and excessive traps. Hate to break it to you, but there is no such thing as a Crystal Skull.

    The majority of the people who are leading digs aren’t doing treasure hunting style. They are people in their 40’s, isolated in a long and sometimes frustrating process.

    Adventure Fantasy.

  20. Dearest Rachel,

    I would like to gently disagree about the importance of sub-genre. Current media allows niche markets like never before and it’s important to know what audience your most aiming for.

    If you told someone that you had a “Fantasy” for them and then handed them Indiana Jones, I think they’d think you confused, no matter how technically correct the label is.

    You answered my question by calling it Adventure Fantasy though, which, to me at least, doesn’t immediately call to mind traditional fantasy elements.

  21. @Michael Winegar

    I think if the agents are that dumb to think that fantasy has to be Tolkien, which should not be called “Traditional” since there are older Fantasy subgenres than that particular kind, you don’t need that agent or publisher. They gotta be pretty thick and not very well-read. (It would be like saying the only Mystery you’ve ever experienced is Sherlock Holmes by Sir Conan Doyle. O.o; Really? Not even the Purloined Letter by Edgar Allen Poe who is credited for starting the genre?) It behooves us in the publishing industry and those who are in love with stories to be better read than that. Besides, I give credit to George Macdonald for the first modernistic fantasy as we think of it today. (Besides which we really gotta look outside of the US and English-speaking Europe–calling European Fantasy auto-traditional is kinda an insult since several countries were inhabited before Europe was and certainly had fantasy before Europe did. I kinda view it as Ethnocentric… but then I’ve read very widely.) At least *I* wouldn’t want an agent whose only definition of fantasy is Tolkien’s LoTR.

    I also think it’s short-sighted to say that fantasy readers or readers in general will only stick to one subgenre only. Your audience is anyone you can get because you think your story is that good. That’s all. The only time you need to worry about subgenre labels is when the agent specifies in their guidelines that they don’t want X subgenre or would like X genre–but figure out *at that time* if you want to submit to them. Look up the classifications then.

    Odyssey outdates Tolkien and I’m sure very, damned sure that there are stories that are older than that are fantasy. (I caught a fish that big, but it got away has to be one of the oldest fantasies in the world. ^.~) Arthurian Legend also outdates Tolkien. And that’s primarily Legendary Fantasy. Midsummer Night’s Dream is somewhat interstitial between Magic Realism and probably Historical Fantasy. (Shakespeare is mostly Historical Fantasy… unless you know real life fairies and witches. nobs say that he doesn’t have a Fantasy classification–but then they also say Jane Austen isn’t Women’s fiction–so I think one can laugh at that.)

    Indiana Jones is more Adventure than Fantasy though. If it were a book, it most likely would be shelved in Adventure section because the fantasy falls apart if you stare at it too long, but the adventure doesn’t. (Though the Adventure section of the book store is recent… I’ve been keeping track of bookstores for years)

    If I classed my story by all the subgenres people would squint at me because I took up 3-4 lines. My current work is Women-centric Multicultural Asian (BTW, I mean the continent, not the definition of narrow-minded White Americans of What Asians should look like who’ve never stared at a map with hints of Europe and Africa) Alternate Reality (With time slip tradition–though no modern characters) Historical Political mostly countryside (though there is a little Urban) Royal Priestess Fantasy with fairy dust of Military. I won’t be listing it that way for an agent. Instead, I know that Historical and Multicultural are hot and on the rise, so I’m listing those. (If I had more diversity, I’d list it a Diversity Historical fantasy instead)

    By that logic Tolkien is properly classed as Other World pseudo-medieval Europe (white people only–since there were people of color running around Europe waaaayyy back. *cough* Romani) Mythic Sword and Sorcery Quest Mostly-Country Fantasy. Would you really write out all of Tolkien’s subgenres that way?

    Sub genres, BTW, are mostly named by critics of books. And they weren’t really defined until after the turn of the century. (Mostly after Gertrude Stien, whom you should study if you don’t know since she and her crew have a huge influence on what we consider contemporary books today).

    Write with passion something you love no matter how interstitial, and you’ll find an audience. If you worry about the audience first, you might miss out on some really good stories. I’d choke if I was told that I could only write Urban fantasy in the narrow definition of it. (i.e. no Paranormal sghosts, vamps or angels.)

    Anyway, if someone isn’t well-read–AND is an author/agent/editor they really shouldn’t be in the business of books in the first place. Leave the marketing to the publishers/agents. (You gotta be pretty thick as an agent to think all fantasy has to take place in White Europe in Medieval times. Odyssey anyone? Tale of Genji for crying out loud?)

  22. This brings a big question for me. Even if narrating something in present day while reminiscing about ancient Greece from the POV of someone who lived in both times…I’d still need to learn some of the terminologies from them? Or … especially for a young adult novel… would I assume it’s all been translated from the language into something more modern?

    For example… a Greek God’s child born in ancient Greece but because she was partially immortal for other reasons…she’s telling how she was born/created in modern day.

  23. On a technical note — there are several spots in this episode (and in several others, but we happened to be listening to this one today) where Mary and Dan are nearly inaudible. Have you considered adding “the Levelator” as part of your production process? (http://www.conversationsnetwork.org/levelator – free tool for podcasters)

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