Writing Historical Fantasy – Interview with Ian Tregillis

Something More Than NightIan Tregillis is the author of the Milkweed Triptych trilogy, and is a contributor to George R. R. Martin’s Wild Cards series.  His latest book is Something More Than Night, a noir urban fantasy detective story of fallen angels and nightclub stigmatics.

He joins us to answer questions on writing both historical fantasy and alternate history.

Your work is described as either historical fantasy or alternate history.  For readers who aren’t familiar with the differences between the two, could you explain how your work gains these descriptions?

I imagine that people who know me, or my background, must feel confused when they hear me described as a writer of historically influenced novels.  It surprises me, too, though I understand why it happens.  I’m very conscious of the fact that I’m not a historian, and yet somehow I keep stumbling into writing series that mash fantasy with various historical elements.  My first series, The Milkweed Triptych, mixed elements of fantasy (such as blood magic) with a historical setting (World War II and the Cold War).  But it also featured (wildly) speculative explanations for certain historical events, and radically changed history in other places.  So it falls into a strange space where it mixes alternate history and secret history with fantasy and science fiction elements.  The series I’m currently writing (tentatively titled the Clakkers Trilogy) takes place in the 1920s, but leans heavily on alchemy to posit a massive change to history in the 1670s.

For some strange reason, I’m drawn to story ideas that draw from historical settings, albeit sometimes loosely…

When you begin plotting or writing an idea that involves parts of history, what are the first steps you take?

The very first thing I do is ask around among my friends and fellow writers.  If other folks have already waded through the setting and identified good reference materials, I’m always happy to pick the fruits of their labors!  But that’s never enough.  So I just do my best to acquire as much information as possible — I read books about the setting, or written by people who lived in that setting.  This usually turns into a dedicated bookshelf (or shelves).  I try to get at least a general sense of the history before I start writing, just so that I’m not writing in a complete vacuum.  But unless you’re a professional historian who specializes in the area of interest, it’s practically impossible to have all the necessary research on hand before you start. It’s easy to look up dates; it’s much harder to evoke the sense of a long-gone time and place through how people dressed, and spoke, and ate. So I start with the big-picture stuff, and acquire more and more resources as I need to ferret out details.

Is there a degree of difficulty in reining in your plot (from running away with itself), as you possibly have fixed historical points that can’t change, no matter what?

There were definitely plotlines in the Milkweed books that I wanted to thread through real historical events.  For the most part it wasn’t a problem, but one irresistible event took place inconveniently later than I would have preferred.  So I did have to think carefully about how to get the characters, plot, and history to intersect there.  It meant taking a hammer and tongs to the outline.

I’ve avoided this problem in my current WIP by positing that the course of history changed quite severely 250 years before the story begins.  That keeps “real” history away from the boundaries of the story!  (Though of course the world still has to make a modicum of sense, which is hard work, too.)

Taking real events can be a tricky path to tread.  How do you decide to best present the event(s), including the side or sides that you’re exploring?  Do you have any suggestions for budding authors who wish to attempt this?

I’m an obsessive outliner.  So once the setting and characters are in place, the true historical events should flow naturally as part of the story.  That’s true regardless of whether they’re actively involved in bringing about those events, or merely present for them.  That’s partly the goal of the outline, anyway.  At that point it’s not so much an issue of presenting particular sides as much as it’s a matter of trying to evoke compelling characters — if the characters work, they’ll convey their view of events to the reader.

What are your thoughts on those who try to write using only words that were in use at that time, only mentioning items that were available, and so on?

I think that’s extremely laudable!  Ideally we’d all do that and build our stories with exacting verisimilitude.  There are writers who do this well, and they deserve a lot of credit — this is very hard to do, even for relatively recent historical periods.  (The 1940s, for instance, not to mention the 1640s…)  In my work I try to at least approximate it, though errors and omissions can always haunt one’s research.  The worst of all is the dreaded Thing You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know.

Applying that rigor to etymology can be quite a rabbit hole, though, depending on the particulars of the story.

Is writing alternate history, or historical fantasy, quite different from writing any other speculative fiction novel?

While the end products are obviously very different, the process doesn’t necessarily differ all that much (at a sufficiently high level of abstraction).  A story rooted in a known historical period and another set in, say, a far-future setting share something in common: both stories rely on worldbuilding.  It’s just that that one builds a world based on information mined from the past, while the other builds a world based on extrapolations from the present.  In the former case, the majority of the effort goes into tracking down information that already exists.  In the latter case, the majority of the effort goes into deriving it from scratch.  Whether one is more difficult than the other depends on the writer.  And that far-future story might involve more research than it first appears: What is the life cycle of stars like the sun?  What are the evolutionary pressures on modern humans?

Maybe it’s simpler to say that writing is hard work, no matter how you slice it!

What are your thoughts on including real people, and what suggestions do you have for doing this?

I hate it when I have to do this.  In the few places where I couldn’t avoid it, I’ve at least had the luxury of dealing with historical figures who were safely in the past.  Even then I tried to confine their presence in the story to brief “cameo” appearances.  (I wouldn’t even know how to approach the notion of using contemporary people as characters in a work of fiction.  I’d probably go out of my way to avoid it.  The potential for problems seems great.)   If I were to write something that hinged on a historical character, such that the “cameo” approach wouldn’t work, I’d devote a _lot_ of time to learning as much as possible about that person.  Biographies would be required reading, I think.

When writing alternate history or historical fantasy, there is the opportunity to include a warning or message to the reader.  As an author and as a reader, do you have any thoughts on this?

As an author, I try not to instill overt messages into my writing. Which isn’t to say they aren’t there, but they’re not deliberate. That’s because I generally find it off-putting and disconcerting when I stumble across an overt Message From The Author in my pleasure reading (particularly when I’m reading fiction).  There might be places where it’s appropriate, but it really depends on the intended audience.

Alternate history shows how little twists and turns can spiral events in world changing directions.  How do you know, when writing alternate fantasy, just how far to take it, and how far to show the changes rippling into effect?

I tend to believe that these choices should be dictated by the needs of the story.  And the story is determined by the interaction of the characters with each other and with their environment.  The setting informs the choices they make, as do their own personal motivations and proclivities, while their actions feedback on their corner of the setting and the other characters.  If your story naturally takes place entirely in the 1980s, based on a change to history in the 1970s, there’s no point in warping things just for the sake of sharing some cool ideas about where the 1990s will go.

Do you have any other suggestions or hints for writers?

I don’t have any wisdom of my own, but I can share some of the wisdom that others have kindly shared with me.  The key thing for any writer is to write.  That sounds obvious, but sometimes it gets overlooked.  Another thing that helped me was learning to accept that every writer works differently — a system that works perfectly for one person might be disastrous for the next.  Writing is hard work, and it’s easy to get discouraged.  But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you’re doing it badly or that the work isn’t valuable.  It got a little easier for me (well, okay, bearable) when I gave myself permission to write lousy first drafts.

Questions for Our Readers:

  1. If you could pick anything from history to base a fantasy novel around, what would you choose?
  2. What are your thoughts on including a warning or a message in historical fantasy?
  3. What is the best historical fantasy or alternate fantasy novel you’ve read? What did you enjoy about it?

9 thoughts on “Writing Historical Fantasy – Interview with Ian Tregillis”

  1. Does “Young Samurai” count as a historical fantasy novel? If so, that is my favorite one. I really enjoyed that book.

  2. Antonio del Drago I agree, after all readers see so many different things in a book. One person may see a message and the next does not, but subtlety is the key. Don’t thrust the message in the reader’s face.

  3. Any era, I would probably choose Roman or Ancient Egypt. The Egyptians had a fascinating and diverse culture and religion which would lend itself well to fantasy. The Romans also, great potential for it, polythesist, belief in magic, intrigue and politics aplenty.

  4. Antonio del Drago You are right! That is definitely an interesting one. I had been looking into the connection between them and the Horn of Truth (the archangel Gabriel’s horn). But any of it is fascinating to me!

  5. There are a lot of interesting possibilities with the Knights Templar that haven’t been tried yet.  There’s a fascinating historical connection between them and the Shroud of Turin that would be worth exploring.

  6. Wonderful interview! This is something I’ve toyed with in the past, but using historical…myths, if you will, to write a fantasy. The one I’ve actually gotten into are the myths that surround the Knights Templar and their keeping of religious artifacts. I know, all been done before, but it is so intriguing! I love history and it is indeed a wonderful playground for developing fantasy!

    I am in agreement that keeping any warning or message subtle would be fine, just don’t do it overtly.

  7. Hi
    Great interview, about a subject I know next to nothing about, so cheers.
    I know it’s been done, but writing within the time of the Roman Empire appeals. The 1920’s also piques my imagination, I like the sound of that. 
    I’m with Tony on the message, make it subtle and it’s just fine. I thought there were plenty of messages in the Wildcards series, but the story and characters always came first so they were never too overt. 
    The last interview on here led me to The Lies of Locke Lamora, which was fantastic, so I’ll be trying Something more than night, cheers. 🙂

  8. I think that including a message in historical fantasy is fine, provided that it doesn’t come across as preachy.

    It’s one of those situations in which subtlety is of the utmost importance.  A lot of great science fiction and fantasy has a message.


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