Historical fantasy is a sub-genre that combines the imagination of fantasy with the facts and settings of story. In this genre, you don’t create your own world, like you would in writing a high fantasy. There are no Narnias, no Shires, no Prythians. Rather, the magic and fantasy in these novels is woven around a certain period of time that actually happened. History of all kinds and from around the world can be worked with. Historical fantasy is also a great genre for pulling other genres into as well, as the setting makes throwing romance, adventure, steampunk, and more easy into what you’re building.
How to conduct research?
With any history related project, research is a necessary element in historical fantasy. The research process is different for each person, but here are some quick tips that might help you:
Narrow down the time period. Don’t just think “Victorian England”, because that Queen Victoria’s reign lasted many decades, and as we all know, every decade has its own characteristics. Every period, every decade, and every year varies in style and innovation. 1837 was extremely different from 1901. (That’s the stretch of Victoria’s reign,as it turns out.)
Research the correct clothing. I’m inclined to say don’t rely solely upon online sources, but getting to the library and bookshop may be a bit more difficult nowadays. Nevertheless, make sure your research into costumes and clothing is accurate. This also applies to language use in your books. If zippers haven’t been invented yet, don’t have a character “zip their lips.” Often, clothing and cultural norms go hand in hand.
Don’t rely on movies and television. Just because you saw beautiful gowns on Outlander doesn’t mean that they are historically accurate.
Research a lot, but don’t over do it. You don’t have to know what ever brick in Dublin looked like a hundred years ago. Let yourself become well-versed in the time, but don’t burn yourself out. Realize that you can keep researching as you begin to write.
Something I do is write different kinds of research notes in different colors. Setting and landmarks are jotted down in green, costumes in blue, era-accurate names in purple, etc...it helps me keep track of all of the aspects of my time period!
Are there any sites or methods you find helpful?
For research, I tend to lean more towards books. It can be extremely time-consuming to read a ton of books (especially if you’re working, in school, etc…) so go through your research books and pull chapters that will be most relevant to your writing. For example, I have this large book on the history of Venice. For my book, however, I only need to know about Venetian Carnevale, during the late 17th century. So I would find passages about Carnevale and Venice during this time. I don’t need to know about the first citizens of Venice.
I would also vary the kind of research you conduct. If you’re writing about the burning of Alexandria, don’t just pick out books on the city/library itself. Do a little research into modern Egypt, guides to living in the desert, fables from that area, etc…
Some websites I find helpful are National Geographic, Britannica, Atlas Obscura, and Wikipedia. (No worries, I’m not about to give the Wikipedia lecture.) Also, if you’re a student, utilize your university’s online libraries and search engines!
What about the fantasy part?
My suggestion is to do all your historical research first. Well, not all of it, but enough to have a basic understanding of your world. Then you will be able to start developing your magic system and figuring out it fits into history. As with all fantasy, there are thousands of different ways to write magic and incorporate it into your story. Think about what the world of your historical fantasy might think about magic.
Does the world know about magic? If magic is an open secret, how would that affect technology? If magic is a secret, how is it hidden? Are there places in real life that have a connection to magic? Does the Statue of Liberty possess a magical meaning? Are the saloons of the Wild West where magicians gather?
My personal favorite part about historical fantasy is shaping this aspect of the world. Putting magic into the everyday, common, or seemingly plundered world is so much fun.
How accurate should I be with real history?
I think it depends on what you’re working with. If your story has dragons in Renaissance Florence, then you can probably take some liberties with complete historical accuracy. I once read that when writing this genre, one should “twist history, but don’t break it.”
Difference between alternate history and historical fantasy?
Alternate history is simply another version of history. One example is The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. In this novel, the Axis powers won WWII, so it’s another version of history being told. Historical fantasy is just adding magical elements into a history that has actually occurred.
How do I avoid info-dumping?
There is a lot of information you need to fit into your story; history, magic, culture, etc...My advice is to take it slow. Take the reader into the world through the narrator’s eyes. Chances are, much like a real person, your narrator won’t know about every aspect of their world. If they are a common shopkeeper, they probably won’t know every detail about how trains work.
Weave the world into your writing through the eyes of the ordinary.
Historical fantasy is a broad and exciting genre, there are endless possibilities within it. I hope that these tips have been helpful and I wish you the best in your writing journey! Let me know if you have any questions or would like to discuss anything, my messages are always open.
Contact me on Instagram (@madison_siwak_writes) or through email (firstname.lastname@example.org).