Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The "History" in Historical Fantasy

What is "historical fantasy?"

According to Wikipedia:

"Historical fantasy is a sub-genre of historical fiction that incorporates fantastic elements (such as magic) into the narrative. It is used as an umbrella term for the sword and sorcery genre and sometimes, if fantasy is involved, the sword-and-sandal genre too. Stories fitting this classification generally take place prior to the 20th century."

Ever since I read Leon Uris's "Exodus" when I was 14 years old, I've been a fan of historical fiction. I think fictional stories are a wonderful way to express historical facts in a way that's relatable, fun, and easier to understand than reading non-fiction. And, since I've always loved fantasy and all its subgenres -- horror, fairy tales, sword & sorcery, paranormal, etc. -- it seemed only natural for me to combine history and fantasy in my own writing.

Shiksa-bait
(This isn't just gratuitous. He's in the
movie version of "Exodus.")


BLOODSISTERS takes place in Meiji-era Japan, which lasted from the late 19th century to the early 20th. Why set my novel then and there? I set it in Japan because my original idea for the story comes from a college friendship with someone who was half-Swiss and half-Japanese. We both loved the same dark fantasy books. We'd talk, at great length and in excruciating detail, about which paranormal creatures we loved, which ones we'd be if we could, and what it would be like to live forever. How would that affect our friendship? From there I got the idea for BLOODSISTERS. The original idea was to start the book with my two main characters, Atya, a Lithuanian witch, and Ochira, a Japanese vampire princess, meeting and traveling together. Eventually they'd end up back at Ochira's home in Japan, where Atya would shack up with Ochira's twin brother.

When I finally sat down to write BLOODSISTERS I realized the real story lay in what happened after the two women arrived in Japan. What would Atya's outsider status mean among a royal family of vampires? The Meiji-era in Japan is rich with possibilities for historical fantasy writers: Japan had only recently opened its shores to the West and was coming to terms with some fallout from that. This had an enormous impact on Japanese culture, society, and government. Therefore, it seemed a natural fit to set my novel about a foreigner coming to Japan during a historical period when Japan was dealing with this very issue.

Purely by coincidence, my work-in-progress THE HOLLOW QUEEN takes place during the same era. I've always been obsessed with my own ancestry and the stories of my family coming to America. Like so many other Ashkenazi American Jews, my family came here through Ellis Island. Our new apartment overlooks New York harbor with a view of the Statue of Liberty. The idea for a story that takes place on a ship bound for Ellis Island just sort of happened one day last summer. But what would happen on that ship? Ghost stories are always fun, and I'm fascinated by the idea of people being stuck in a crisis together. A ghost ship full of immigrants, who all come from different countries, speak different languages, and carry a multitude of traditions and beliefs with them, trapped on a ship mid-Atlantic, haunted by a ghost.

My imagination went into overdrive with this one, and I'm pleased to say that after starting work on the first draft of THE HOLLOW QUEEN less than a week ago I'm already 8,000 words in.

And then, of course, something like this happens:

Can you believe I took this with my iPhone?

That's the view of New York harbor from my living room balcony this morning. You can't see the harbor, of course, because it's buried under all that fog. If this doesn't stir the imagination, I'm not sure what will.

What are your favorite sub-genres? Do you prefer your history straight-up, fictional, or magical?

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