Stealing from the Past: Fantasy in History – a Fantasy Con 2015 Panel

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The fantasy genre is hugely influenced by history. Whether it’s the reinvented Medieval Europe of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the scrambled Victorian era of steampunk, or the tendency of urban fantasy vampires to have lived through history’s greatest moments, real history seeps into every pore of our imaginary worlds. One of the panels at this year’s Fantasy Con explored historical fantasy, where real history comes to the forefront of the fantasy, and as a writer in both genres I took copious notes. Here are some of the highlights….

The Panellists

Susan Bartholomew – moderator

Jacey Bedford

Susan Boulton

Anne Lyle

Juliet E McKenna

Toby Venables

The Introductory Bit

The first question for the panel was about what period they write in and whether, if they had a time machine, they’d go back to that era. The general consensus was that they wouldn’t, due to the ways in which most periods of the past are uglier and more dangerous than our own. Toby Venables said that he would if he could have a year to train first – a pragmatic adventurousness that won me around, as did the fact that he writes 12th century stuff – after the panel, his Hunter of Sherwood went onto my to-read list.

In the general conversation that came out of this, Juliet McKenna impressed me, as she always does, with insight and ability to pin down important ideas. In talking about making historical details convincing, she pointed out that if you get four historical academics together you’ll get seven different opinions on the period under discussion. As long as you use plausible versions of history (or write in a fictional world, as she does), people can’t legitimately tell you you’ve got it wrong – though they’ll still try. That’s the pitfall of writing about history.

Changing Perspectives

One of Susan’s most interesting questions for the panel was whether they’d had to change characters’ points of view to fit the period they were writing about. Juliet pointed out that popular perspectives on history are often Victorian inventions rather than the truth, and so have an old-fashioned white male bias. We hear about the exceptional people, not the ordinary ones, but you have to understand the rules of the ordinary to write about people living outside them.

Anne Lyle talked about softening a character’s prejudices, so that they would reflect the historical era but be palatable to readers. For me, this seems like a key thing. Historical fiction is an encounter between modern readers and the imagined past – it’s already a compromise, that’s not always a bad thing.

Another important point Juliet raised was that we have to understand the biases affecting historical analysis of the periods we’re examining. For example, academic books from the 1950s about Athenian culture had to be careful in how they discussed homosexuality, as it was still illegal in the UK. The AIDS epidemic forced another shift in understanding in the 1980s, as officialdom recognised the importance of situational homosexuality in prisons and the army. The context of later historians affects what we see as true.

Then everyone was mean about Richard I, winning my approval. Richard I = most over-rated jerk in English history. Fact.

Emotional Truths

Speaking of compromises in depicting the past, the panellists talked about the real historical details they hadn’t included in their fiction because readers would find them unbelievable or incomprehensible. One obvious area is language. Modern people can’t understand 12th century English. Deadwood had to deviate from the way real frontier thugs talked in order to give the language the same emotional impact, as the language considered outrageous at the time now sounds mild.

The final discussion led to a couple of my favourite quotes of the panel:

Toby Venables, discussing deviating from standard historical conceptions – “For a Viking crew, there was no rulebook that said ‘this is how to be a Viking’.”

And in response more wisdom from Juliet McKenna – “One of the biggest mistakes you can make is making the past too homogenous.”

Another Great Panel

This was a fascinating panel to listen to, and I’m sorry I didn’t take enough notes to properly credit the wisdom of all the panellists. Juliet McKenna has been a highlight of every panel I’ve ever seen her on, and this was no exception, but everyone had interesting things to say.

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