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Sunday, March 02, 2014

WRITING HISTORICAL FANTASY: GUEST POST by BARB GALLER-SMITH

'Warriors', Book Three of the Druids Trilogy
THE FOLLOWING IS A GUEST POST BY BARB GALLER-SMITH on the ins and outs of writing historical fantasy fiction. Barb knows of what she speaks, as her Druids Saga trilogy, which she co-wrote with Josh Langston, deals with the Celts in Gaul, at the time of Rome’s campaign to rule the world. I have had the pleasure of working with Barb as a fiction editor for the past number of years. I am very happy to host her here, on Suzenyms.

MOST PEOPLE JUST WANT TO GET TO THE NEXT DAY in reasonable shape—alive with their families, not hungry or thirsty, and with reliable shelter and safety. That’s something we’ve had in common with humanity for millennia. What we don’t have in common is the gap between our 'civilization' and a way of life we can’t comprehend. Romancing or sugar-coating doesn’t work well for historical fiction.

Modern readers probably won’t accept how rough, dirty, dangerous, and unsanitary conditions in the past were, or how the world views of people have changed. We often have to tweak history so our readers can relate to our characters. It’s those details that can make or break an historical piece.

How do you pay attention to those little details?

For your story to ring true, you must do your homework. This means doing more than checking out a few photos on the internet or that informative Wiki article.

Learn as much as you can about the time period and its day-to-day life. What recorded history tells us is easily laid out. Read historical, anthropological, and archaeological papers. Visit museums and write letters to experts. When researching for the Druids Saga trilogy, I contacted many experts in the field on the use of stirrups and the types of grains and foods grown in France two thousand years ago. We researched weather patterns to find out if snow could be expected to fall in Brittany in 90 BCE. We studied the geography of the time, including ancient shorelines, and even discovered to our dismay that we had made a few errors in our draft because we’d failed to sketch a local map to make sure our characters were heading in the right direction!

When it comes to dead religions of people who left archaeological records and historical notes from other societies, it’s not a good idea to just 'make it up' wholesale. Your religion will seem truer if it's based on what is already known. We based our Celtic religion on aspects of many modern tribal-based spiritual systems and old Irish and Welsh myths. We examined, used, or altered many practices still in use today: drumming and spiritual journeying; diviners or seers; religious holidays based on the sun, moon, and seasons; tribal rites of passage for men and women, sacred objects and magical implements; curses; and the gender roles of men and women.

All societies have daily rituals that may be centuries old. Use them! Alter as your story requires. It seemed reasonable to us that societies have always had divisions of labour, partly based on ability and inclination. So we defined 'druid' as 'learned one'. That meant that women were not relegated to a subservient role and could be druids: healers, judges, advocates, and bards. This was the modern writer in action: taking what we needed from the past and trying to honour the truth. It is the author’s responsibility to be as accurate as possible. If you know the real history or the real way people behaved, try not to change it. If there is still a debate, pick the side that best fits your story and move on. And yes, we had to ignore certain truths that would have prevented our story from unfolding. Only one caution: do not include something that you know is untrue—you will be called on it. You’ll want  to be remembered for doing your best, not trying to fool uninformed readers.

You may make lots of mistakes because what is known keeps changing. New facts require new explanations or models. Nevertheless, keep writing, for in the end, it’s the story that must grab and hold the reader.

(Thank you, Barb. As a writer of historical fantasy myself, that's excellent advice.)

Barb’s Bio: Barb Galler-Smith lives in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. She is an award winning author and a long-time mentor of emerging speculative fiction writers. A fiction editor with On Spec: The Canadian Magazine of the Fantastic, she is also the author of numerous short stories and co-author with Josh Langston, of their historical fantasy/epic trilogy The Druids Saga: Druids (2009), Captives (2011), Warriors (2013), available through Amazon and Edge Books at: http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/warriors/war-catalog.html

1 comment:

  1. Gwynn Alcorn3:19 PM

    Good advice Barb. Do exhaustive research for fiction as well as biography or straight history. Believe me, the Encyclopedia Britannica edition from 100 years ago has a LOT more information in it than current encyclopedias, or current books. I'm still broken-hearted that I had to leave my 100-year-old Britannica behind when I moved. Also, American author-written history differs greatly from British author- written history. Think of the different views from other countries. Very good advice Barb. Thank you. Gwynn Alcorn

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