Medieval Europe is all the rage in the fantasy genre. Though settings inspired by different places and times are becoming more popular, the main flavour of heroic and epic fantasy is knights, kings and feudal oppression. Even when settings aren’t medieval European-looking, they still pick up that era’s traits by default.

4894996801_343c483b7f_z

The doorstep evangelists got a real shock at Tod’s house

But in the other genre spinning unreal worlds from the real past, that of alternate history, medieval settings are fairly rare. The different way of combining the familiar and unfamiliar used in that genre leads to a lot of setting rooted in the 19th and 20th centuries, in particular the overwhelming volume of variant Second World Wars.

Redressing the balance, I wrote a piece for Alternate History Weekly Update looking at three possible alternate medieval pasts. So if this stuff interests you at all please check it out.

 

Photo by Ed Alkema via Flickr creative commons

I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the ‘Building the same old world’ panel at FantasyCon. Based on the panel description it could have gone two different ways – focusing on the mechanics of world building in fantasy fiction, or focusing on diversifying the worlds we build. In the end it was an interesting mix of the two, thanks to the excellent panellists. These were….

One of the results of all this world building

  • Camille Lofters – the panel moderator  and a PhD student who is dealing with world building in her thesis – how cool is that as a subject to study?
  • Foz Meadows – a YA fantasy writer and one of the people who most impressed me over the weekend.
  • Tiffani Angus – a creative writing PhD student who writes in many genres
  • Peter Higgins – writes epic fantasy based on 20th century Europe.
  • Kate Elliott – a guest of honour at the con and writer of all sorts of speculative fiction.

Camille did a great job of moderating a panel for the first time, keeping the conversation flowing without intruding too much with her own views.

The tension of world building

‘Our preconceptions are the hardest thing to push through.’ – Kate Elliott

One theme that came out early on was the tension in world building between presenting the familiar to draw people in and the unfamiliar to interest them and make a fantasy world. As Camille pointed out, deviating from accepted reality risks confusing and alienating readers, and so you have to be careful how you do it. It’s important not to try to change everything, but to give readers things they understand.

All the panellists found exploring imaginary worlds useful in writing, whether to create a lens for exploring contemporary issues as Foz does, or to tell stories Kate couldn’t read when she was young.

Challenging assumptions

‘It’s so sad because speculative fiction is about all this cool shit and there’s this one thing that people can’t get past.’ – Tiffani Angus

Discussion turned onto the concept of presenting more diverse and unusual worlds, combining conversations about world building with ongoing debates about representation in fantasy.

It’s hard to argue with the fact that the majority of fantasy is built from a male Euro-centric perspective. It doesn’t take long for debates about this to get angry, and that was something Camille directly raised. As Foz pointed out, people who are used to seeing themselves constantly represented get confused and angry when this changes, as their expected representation has been taken away – this reminded me of Sue Archer’s guest post here on the lack of women in genre blockbusters.

Kate gave some great insight into how to approach this sensitively. We should like what we like and be courteous about what we read, because other people will like it even if we don’t. What’s comfortable to read varies from one person to another, and it’s useful to think about whose comfort is being defined in any story.

But for all the maturity of Kate’s point, a line from Peter gave me a certain dark satisfaction – ‘One of the things that comforts me all the time is that most people hate most things.’

Fantasy and fantasising

‘If you can get away with it then it works.’ – Kate Elliott

Peter also drew a distinction that we easily forget but that’s important when talking about fantasy – the difference between fantasy and fantasizing.

Fantasy is things like a dragon, an imaginative creation empty of defined reality, that the author can shape and readers will believe in.

Fantasizing is transforming the real into something unreal, like making a hitman pleasant. It upsets readers’ expectations, and so can be harder to believe.

My own thought on this is that what’s fantasy and what’s fantasizing may vary from one person to another, but it’s a very important distinction to make in trying to create your combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Of course there was more

I sadly don’t have time to write up everything that was said in the panel, or even everything that interested me. This particular discussion brought together two different but related subjects and made something interesting out of them. I hope that I’ve given you a taste of that.

Nowhere is the line between representing the real world and inventing new ones more grey than when writing alternate history. On the one hand you have to craft a setting that is new and coherent, that presents enough novelty to interest readers. On the other hand you have to get a lot of real details right or those knowledgeable about the period will criticise.

Damn that’s some tasty cover art

Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt shows one response to this challenge, deviating from reality far enough back that the fictional world swiftly becomes very different from what we’re familiar with. Differences from reality don’t undermine plausibility. This approach also suggests that history could have been very different based on a single change.

Harry Turtledove’s Great War series takes a different approach, using so many historical details that you can’t help but be convinced, if occasionally overwhelmed. This is alternate history that suggests a certain level of inevitability, that other historical outcomes would have been similar to our own.

For ‘Odin’s Mirror’ in From a Foreign Shore I took yet another approach. This is a story about someone who doesn’t understand what is happening around him, and so the reader doesn’t need to know the details. I avoided key points like ‘how did this happen?’ because they weren’t what the story was about, and because hopefully readers will be focussed on the character’s perspective and not mind that I’ve fudged the issue. Only time and reviews will tell.

What other ways can you approach world building for alternate history? And what alternate histories have you found convincing or unconvincing? Share your thoughts below.

FantasyCon 2014

Posted: September 10, 2014 in reading, writing life
Tags: , , , ,

As I mentioned on Monday, I spent this weekend at FantasyCon 2014, the British Fantasy Society’s annual convention. It’s only the second time I’ve been, and the first time was several years ago, so I was a bit uncertain of myself. Despite that I had a great time listening to panels, catching up with a few old friends and making some new ones.

Taking notes helps me to take in what people say when they’re talking. As a result I took extensive notes on some of the panels, and will summarise the more interesting ones over the next few weeks. But to start with I just want to mention a few people who impressed me and why:

  • Juliet McKenna – a politely spoken grey-haired lady who turns out to be a sword-wielding badass – this is what action heroes should be like
  • Foz Meadows – the most thought-provoking panellist I saw over the weekend, bringing intelligent feminism and an analytical attitude to social and political topics
  • Paul Cornell – a lively and entertaining host for the weekend’s two gameshow panels who tolerated my brief burst of fannish enthusiasm while he was busy feed his son
  • Chris Barnes – a Scottish voice actor who did a very entertaining reading with Graeme Reynolds, complete with accents and voice modification via pint glass.

Special mention should also go to writer David Tallerman, who I spent quite a lot of time chatting with. I recommend his bonkers comic Endangered Weapon B, which I bought on Comixology after seeing a copy on Friday night, and I am now the proud owner of David’s own battered copy of his first Easie Damasco book, which I’m looking forward to reading. Though unsurprisingly it’s not the only book I’ve come home with.

Just some of the books I accumulated at FantasyCon

Just some of the books I accumulated at FantasyCon

 

This post-FantasyCon post by Den Patrick is also an interesting reflection on an aspect of author etiquette at cons, and perhaps reflects how as creative types we sometimes shoot ourselves in the foot. Den’s name will come up again later, as he was on a couple of the panels I enjoyed.

More on FantasyCon and its panels later in the week.

Here’s the second in my series of interviews with book people. This time I’m very pleased to present an interview with Russell Phillips. Russell’s a self-published non-fiction writer who’s been a huge help to me in finding my own way into self-publishing.

 

Tell us a bit about yourself and your books.

I’m originally from South Yorkshire, though I currently live in Stoke on Trent, and I’ve had an interest in military history for as long as I can remember. I started writing articles for magazines in my early 20s, but never thought about writing a book until a few years ago. Once I’d written that first one, I realised that I wanted to write more.

Why did you pick military history, and in particular modern military history, as a subject to write about?

Initially, I chose the Falklands War. I’ve long thought that a lot of British people think the outcome was never in doubt, and the book gave me a chance to show at least some people that it could easily have gone completely wrong. The title (“A Damn Close-Run Thing“) is a direct quote from the commander of the British land forces, and was chosen to reinforce that point. All my subsequent books have been about modern military history because it’s what I’m interested in, and it seemed to make sense to stay within a similar time period. That said, I have vague plans to write books about other periods (particularly the Napoleonic Wars) at some point. So many ideas, so little time … :)

What led you to self-publish your books?

When I started writing A Damn Close-Run Thing, I wasn’t sure if I’d finish it, but I started reading about publishing options. Initially, I was thinking that I’d ask the History In An Hour publishers if they were interested, then look into self-publishing if they weren’t. By the time it was written, self-publishing had become my preferred option. I’m something of a control freak, and so having complete control appeals to me. I’m also a techie, so the technical challenges weren’t a barrier.

What have the biggest challenges been for you as a self-published author?

Initially, marketing was a major challenge, but resources like The Creative Penn and The Sell More Books Show have helped a lot with that. Self-doubt has been a constant challenge, though. I generally try to ignore reviews, because the bad ones bother me more than the good ones please me.

And what have been your biggest triumphs?

I’ve been interviewed by The Voice of Russia, which was a great, but odd, experience. Earlier today, I posted a copy of A Damn Close-Run Thing to the Argentinian Army Central Library. I was amazed that they’d even heard of it, but also very proud that had, and that they wanted a copy.

If you could give one piece of advice to other writers out there, what would it be?

If you want your books to sell, you will have to do some marketing, so look for ways to market that you’re comfortable with.

Last question – what book have you enjoyed recently, and what was so good about it?

The Blue Effect by Harvey Black. It’s the final part of a trilogy, and finished the story nicely. The trilogy is based on a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe in 1984. The author served with the British army during the 1980s, and it shows. Much of the focus on the NATO side is on British forces, which frankly makes a pleasant change, and it’s well researched, which is important to me. If I notice a technical mistake, it drops me out of the story, and if it happens too often, it spoils my enjoyment enough that I stop reading.

 

* * *

Thank you to Russell for taking the time for the interview. You can find out more about him and his books on his website, which includes some handy tools for self-published authors.

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

 

My new short story collection, From a Foreign Shore, is out today. Containing five short stories set in the past, or an alternate past, or something vaguely related to the past, it includes Arthurian knights, Vikings, surly peasants and a statue found guilty of homicide – man, those medieval folks sure knew how to do law.

This collection dips into my fascination with history and with twisting that history around. It features real historic incidents as well as stuff I’ve just made up, and the characters range from the historical to the mythological to the clearly invented.

From a Foreign Shore is available on Kindle through Amazon and in all other formats via Smashwords, all for less than a pound/dollar/euro/other currency without too many zeroes, so please go check it out.

 

The free copy of From a Foreign Shore that I offered for reviewing my previous books goes to Dylan Hearn, who not only left me an Amazon review but wrote a whole blog post about how much he enjoyed my book – thanks Dylan, your book will be in the email shortly.

 

* * *

On a completely unrelated note, I attended Fantasy Con in York over the weekend. I had a great time and have a lot of notes from panels and other events, which I’ll write up and post here over the next month. So stay tuned for authorial insights on sword fighting, publicising your work, politics in sf+f and how to sound like a radio using only a pint glass.

It’s Saturday, it’s the weekend, it seems like this should be a break from my usual ramblings. So here are some other things to read and enjoy:

  • Warren Ellis is my go to comic guy, from Dave’s Corner of the Universe. Some good discussion of Ellis’s comics that explains why my favourite comic writer is so awesome. If you’re wondering what to read next, or considering dipping your toe into comics for the first time, then you could do far worse than to pick things from this list.
  • An article on Tor that should have come from a steampunk story but covers a real thing – New York’s pneumatic post system of a hundred years ago. As Alan Gratz says win his article title, it’s like the internet before electronics.
  • Review: The Adventures of Hergé on Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog – turns out there’s a biography of Tintin’s creator in the style of a Tintin comic – how cool is that?

If you’re still stuck for something to read after all that, why not try my booksMud and Brass and Riding the Mainspring, out now through Smashwords and Amazon.

And let’s finish with some music, from the ever excellent Postmodern Jukebox: