Friday, May 02, 2008

Crossing Borders: Historical Fiction and Fantasy

Susan Fletcher

talks about writing fantasy and historical fiction


Literature gives us the boundaries to experience the world from another point of view. As writers we have to go there first. We have to become characters that are different to us and entice our readers to come with us to these new worlds. These worlds need to be
accessible and comfortable to our reader.

Susan Fletcher is drawn to the past. She knows her characters inside out and outside in and recognises everybody is different in profound ways. She does a lot of research, speaks to experts and tries new experiences, such as exploring the ancient ruins in Iran. We should take culture, time, place and attitude into account.

We need to make our writing accessible to the reader even if we need to compromise. Help the reader to cross time and culture. Leans more to the universal attitude rather than the
particular attitude.

Respecting other people’s cultures is important for a writer. You are crossing cultures when you write historical fiction. Writing exercises are like a tool box. The more tools you have the more likely you are able to solve problems you may come across when you are writing your books.

Commonalities between Historical Fiction and Fantasy

Fantasy and historical fiction are similar from a writer’s point of view. Even in historical fiction you are creating a world from bits and pieces of information and imagination. Historically accurate details combined with stuff you’ve had to make up. Real places can be used as the basis for fantasy worlds. Connecting fantasy worlds to reality helps the reader to cross the boundaries and builds up a sense of what it is like. The properties in fantasy have to be convincing. The tools you need are research, imagination and alchemy. Get to know your reference librarians.

Map exercise

Drawing maps and studying real maps can help a writer get into their world. It is useful to have real maps to refer to and alter. Create a pocket of made up geography within the real
map. Use geography as a portal to the past.

Examine the map and think what influence the terrain would have on the people who live there. Make up a new town for the map and give it a name. Make up history of town and how it affects the people who live there. Just writing about the place can develop the new world. Think about the water features, the altitude, anything that helps get a feel for the place. The world should develop like a Polaroid. Tell the reader what they need to know without disrupting the story.


There is so much to explain without jerking your reader out of the world you have created. First of all – grind it fine. Get rid of the lumps. Divide it into bricks to break it up and build it in. Sprinkle in exposition between the action. Or better still, convert it into action. Never remind the reader they are reading. Have the action show what you want to tell.

The characters carry on working and what they do creates the world they live in. This enlivens the story by putting information into action.

Information into action exercise

Use passages from historical books and re-write as fiction. We were given passages from some of Susan’s favourite books she uses for her historical research and asked to convert the information into action by creating a character and showing them at work in a short scene.

We used the information conveyed in the passages to write make our writing feel more authentic to the time period.

Susan makes a note of her references in her first draft to double check accuracy issues and make sure she hasn’t repeated the info too closely to the original text. If you put in too much info it can break the story too much and make the writing look sloppy – so cut it out.

Need to think where to put the information that is needed. Not too soon but, not too late so readers are not scratching their heads in confusion. Put it where it is needed but not too much at the front of the book.

Bed the exposition in emotion. Curiosity is good as the reader is dying to know what you want to tell them. A lot can be left out to increase the interest.

Hidey Hole Exercise

Describing objects through the character’s actions and sensations can convey information about time and place in an imaginative way. We were given a selection of different types of hidey holes to choose from:

  • A cart shed;

  • A coracle;

  • A large iron cauldron;

  • An olive jar;

  • An Elizabethan buck basket.

Or we could use our own idea.

The Rules of Magic

There is a limit and a price of writing fantasy. The good news is you get to make up the rules of your fantasy world. The bad news is you have to follow them. Fantasy magic should be limited, consistent and pays a price. Think carefully about the rules and cost of any magic in your fantasy world. Leave out as much as you can of the explanation and let the reader put it together.

One sentence should explain everything the reader wants to know. Do not have large exposition lumps. Drop in occasional terms as the character thinks of them and explain by showing consequences in their actions later. A lot can be left out to increase the interest. The writer implies far more information than is stated.

  • Holding in Abeyance – writer throws something out but doesn’t explain it.
  • Implication – reader trusts them to fill in the details later.

Flying Exercise

As in Night Flying by Rita Murphy, you can fly. The exercise was to write a
brief scene to show this in action without an expository lump. We were given
a series of questions to consider before writing our scene:

  • What is the benefit?

  • How is it useful?

  • What are the limitations?

  • What is the physical price?

  • What is the spiritual/emotional price?

  • What can you hold in abeyance?

  • What can you do by implication?

Authenticity in Dialect

The dilemma in historical fiction is you can not write in dialogue in the 5th century without confusing readers and making it difficult for the reader to link emotionally. Rosemary Sutcliffe gets medieval dialect just right and it is worth reading some of her books.

If writing historical fiction and fantasy go through your own manuscripts and highlight any dialogue that seems too contemporary and take it out and replace with words that are more timeless.

Authenticity in the way characters think

It is OK to work along a continuum which is historically accurate and take great liberties with
history but, you must show authenticity in the way the characters think. Characters struggle with issues of the time. They would absorb prejudices they struggle to overcome.

World is Flat Exercise

We had to write a scene where our viewpoint character truly believed something, such as the world is flat. In our scene we had to show how strongly they believed the idea through action
and emotion.

Susan's workshops were two of the most useful and informative classes I have ever been to. You did not have to be interested in writing in the fantasy or historical fiction genres to get a lot out of what she said, as her ideas are relevant to all genres of writing. I totally recommend attending one of her talks if you get the opportunity. She mentioned that one day she plans to bring out a how-to-book on the subject and I for one look forward to the day she does and being able to purchase this book.


Anonymous said...

you're so good anita. you know i started taking notes during her talk but gave up because well, she did talk a bit fast. but yes, susan fletcher's workshops really flew. i don't usually like workshops and i found myself enthusiastically doing the exercises. thanks, susan!

Absolute Vanilla (& Atyllah) said...

Wow! What an excellent and comprehensive post, Anita! Thanks!

Anita Marion Loughrey said...

Glad you both liked it.

Susan Fletcher really impressed me. She gave me a critiques of my most recent children's book as well and it was the most comprehensive critique I've ever had. Well worth the money and has given me loads to think about.