Today I have something a little bit different for you all. I present a guest post from the one and only Marc Turner, author of the Chronicles of the exile and one of my favourite authors writing at the moment.
In this post Marc talks about the importance of historical detail in fantasy literature, without further adieu, take it away Marc!
How Important is Historical Detail in Fantasy?
It seems absurd to talk about historical realism in invented worlds that may contain magic, dragons, and any number of other fantastical elements. But of course there are many different types of fantasy, and the importance of historical detail will depend on the setting of the story that is being told. If the premise of a book is Victorian England plus magic, then clearly the author needs to get the “Victorian England” part correct. If you make representations to the reader at the outset, then you need to stay true to them.
But I write epic fantasy in a secondary world. My setting shares no common history with the real world, and that means I can ignore historical detail completely, right?
Imagine you are reading a fantasy book set in a faux-medieval world. Imagine a queen sweeps into her throne room, settles onto her throne . . . and pulls out an iPhone. What would you make of that? Most likely you would conclude that the writer doesn’t know what he is doing. Or that he was on some sort of trip when he wrote the passage.
Obviously no world-building mistake is going to be as glaring as that, but the cumulative effect of a number of smaller mistakes could be the same. Suspension of disbelief is critical to a fantasy story, and if a reader is going to be willing to go along for the ride, they have to trust the writer. Yes, a secondary world is made up, but it has to feel real. If readers stop believing in the world – if it starts to seem false to them – they may put the book down and try another.
As a reader, I admire writers who come up with something new in their books – who invert a trope, or put an innovative twist on some element of our world to create something I haven’t seen before. But a fantasy setting, no matter how imaginative, still needs to have some rules. In my own story world, people fight with swords, so that immediately puts constraints on other areas of technological advancement. I read somewhere that you can include spaceships or dragons in a story, but not both. I’m not sure I agree with that – in fact that sounds like a book I would enjoy reading! But if you are going to have dragons and spaceships in a novel, you need to think through the consequences. First off, it couldn’t be set in a medieval world, because if people have invented spaceships they are unlikely to be running around shooting bows and arrows. Your world has to be consistent and plausible within the parameters you set for it.
Clearly, different readers will have a different tolerance for historical errors. My publicist once received a four-page essay from a disgruntled reader about another book that she represented. The novel in question referred to a safety release on a gun that shouldn’t have been available for another five years. Is that a reasonable complaint? Some people will say no, on the basis that we are dealing with novels, not historical textbooks. When we read a fantasy book, we expect to be entertained, not educated. Of course, entertainment and accuracy are not mutually exclusive. But authors are not historians, and there comes a point where we have to stop doing research and start doing some actual writing.
I think an overreliance on historical detail can carry risks. Imagine, for example, that a writer has decided she wants to base one of her civilisations on the Romans. She researches their political institutions, their technology, their military organisation. But in the pursuit of authenticity, the writer might end up dropping the entire Roman civilisation into her secondary world. If her premise is to pit the Romans against an invented society, maybe that would be interesting. But research should never be used as a replacement for creativity. Isn’t it better to invent something new than rehash something old?
I think there is another instance too, where excessive historical detail is bad for a story. When I research a particular topic, there can be a temptation to put everything that I learn into my novel. It’s the dreaded infodump. Just because someone has researched a historical setting, though, doesn’t mean they have to include every aspect of it in their book. Too much detail risks slowing down the story. A good example of this is in relation to fighting. Returning to the example of our faux-medieval world, let’s imagine you are writing a sword duel between two characters. A fight is supposed to be exciting, and the surest way to strip all entertainment and tension out of a battle is to pause to count the number of rivets in a knight’s armour.
As yet, I haven’t had someone point out an inaccuracy in my own books – he said, handing fate a stick to beat him with. But I think I can speak for all authors when I say that if you do find an apparent mistake in our books, it’s not actually a mistake. It’s a deliberate departure from the historical precedent, which was done for reasons we will make up on the spot when we have to.