Historical fantasy can be an incredibly fun and liberating genre to write in, allowing us to throw the rule-book out on the laws of physics that restrain lesser mortals, create alternate histories for our characters to explore, and play with reader expectations. But with so many possibilities, it can sometimes be hard to know where to start with this whirlwind of a genre.
Luckily, we have award-winning author and The Novelry writing coach Tasha Suri on hand to teach us her secrets. And she knows a thing or two about writing historical fantasy, with her latest novel, What Souls are Made Of, a retelling of the classic Wuthering Heights tale, hitting bookshops last week, and Doctor Who: The Cradle: a 1970s story out in hardback now!
Tasha explains exactly what the genre encompasses – with some examples you may not realise could be included under the term – before delving into the three secrets she thinks are key to writing a great historical fantasy book.
What is historical fantasy?
What is historical fantasy? Is it historical fiction with the faintest edge of magic and whimsy? Is it big, complex epic fantasy set in a secondary world that looks and feels inexplicably historical? Is it our own history twisted into something new and explosive by one large fantastical element?
I’m afraid the answer, simply, is: Yes.
The more complex answer is that ‘historical fantasy’ is a category applied to a diverse range of books where the fantastical and the historical meld together.
Historical fantasy can be the Napoleonic wars with dragons, or the suffragette movement with witches. It can also be a political epic in an unfamiliar world – let’s say, for argument’s sake, Westeros in George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones – where the genre of epic fantasy meets a real historical event like the War of the Roses.
I would argue it also encompasses books like The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton, where a singular fantastical element heightens and reflects the exploration of a marriage and a specific, vibrant historical period.
Historical fantasy can therefore run the spectrum from very historical to very fantastical. This can make it an extremely fun genre to write in, and also difficult to navigate when you’re first trying to dream up your novel. How fantastical should you make your own story, after all? What are some of the things you should consider before putting pen to paper – or let’s be frank, fingers to keyboard?
As a writer, I have written novels set in real historical periods (including the 1700s in What Souls Are Made Of, and the late 1970s in Doctor Who: The Cradle, which was published this week). I have also published fantasy novels that draw from history. The Jasmine Throne, for example, draws broadly from Indian history as inspiration.
Through writing these books, I’ve learned from experience there are three big factors you should consider when you start building your historical fantasy novel. I have listed them below in the hope that they’ll help you too.
1. Decide on your setting
What period of history do I want to focus on? Why? What appeals to me about this period?
When you write a historical fantasy you’re going to spend a significant amount of time immersed in researching and writing about the time period of your story, so it’s worth selecting a time that you’ll enjoy inhabiting for quite a while. Start by looking at the historical fantasy and historical novels that you read. When are they set? Why do they draw you in? Our blog post from Andrea Stewart on the seven best fantasy settings for your novel might offer you some inspiration too!
Could my story be set in any other time period or place? What makes this time and place vital to my story?
Your time period should feel crucial to your story. For example, a tale of debutantes, marriage, ballrooms and family drama could be sent in any period, but the Regency feels like a perfect fit. Throw in some magic and you may find yourself in a novel like Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey or Olivia Atwater’s Half a Soul.
If you ask yourself these questions and realise you’re not excited by the time period and location of your story, then it’s time to pick up your tale, pack your bags, and search for a new setting that really fires up your imagination. Dive back into your research books, or look at the historical fiction and historical fantasy that you love, to find where your writing heart truly lies.
And finally, ask yourself:
Do I want to write a story set in the real world or in a secondary world?
Many writers struggle with this particular question, so I’ll touch on this a little bit more deeply. Do you want to write a fantasy inspired by history or set in a particular historical period? Do you want to build a new world, using history as your bricks and your mortar, or do you want to drag your dragons and your witches into a house that is already standing?
2. Research history like you’re a historical fiction writer
As other brilliant authors have previously discussed right here on this blog, research is essential to writing historical fiction. That fact is no less true for historical fantasy. But research can also be particularly beneficial to those of us who mingle magic and history together.
Ground your fantasy elements in real history
The more authentic you make your historical setting, the more effective your fantastical elements will be. Look at how people lived: what they wore, what they ate, what troubled them and delighted them. Give your characters well-researched and grounded lives before you bring magic to the table. This will increase the believability and authenticity of your story. Think of your authentic historical setting as the soil that your magic will take root in. The better the soil, the more your fantastical elements will flourish.
Fuel the plot engine with conflict
Many (arguably, most!) periods of history are sites of tumult and change. Use that tumult to shape the conflict and plot in your own novel, and infuse your story with the unique energy of the historical period you’re drawing from.
3. Think about the magic in your novel
Finally – last but not least – we need to think about magic.
How visible is your story’s magic?
Are you going to make magic a known part of your world – something everyone is aware of? Or is it hidden away? In Heather Fawcett’s novel, Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries, the existence of the fae is commonplace knowledge, allowing us to follow a heroine as she goes on a cosy (albeit somewhat perilous) journey into a village community grappling with supernatural neighbours.
In Shannon Chakraborty’s The City of Brass, the existence of a world of djinn is concealed from normal mortals, which means our protagonist Nahri’s first contact with the world of djinn feels dangerous and wonderous.
Deciding to make your magic commonplace or rare, known or concealed, will impact your plot, your tone and the world of your novel. So it’s worth deciding on the path you want to take early on.
Tie your magic to your historical period
A question many writers ask when they first approach historical fantasy is: what kind of magic should I include?
Magic is infinite possibility. Magic can be anything. This is part of the joy of writing fantasy, but also something that makes the process harder. There are just so many possible paths, it’s hard not to feel lost!
Try bringing one magical element in and see how it reshapes your world, and tie that element to something significant about the historical period you’re exploring. For example, Once and Future Witches uses witchcraft as a way to enhance and explore its themes of suffrage and feminism.
As a final note before you move from these tips to diving into writing your own novel – not all of the books I’ve mentioned above were marketed as historical fantasy. Many books that play with historical and fantastical elements are simply marketed as historical fiction or fantasy fiction. But when you’re putting your heart on paper, how your work will be positioned in the market is none of your business.
As a writer alchemising history and fantasy into a concoction of your own making, you want to focus simply on handling the ingredients with the care they deserve. Hopefully with the guidance above, and your own brilliant imagination, you’ll cook up something glorious.