[GUEST POST] Michael J. Martinez on The Joys And Perils Of Writing Historical Fantasy


Michael J. Martinez is the author of The Daedalus Incident, out now in ebook and due out in trade paperback in July. He spent 20 years in journalism and communications, writing other people’s stories, until he finally got up the nerve to try writing one of his own. In addition to Daedalus, he’s also serializing a novella, The Gravity of the Affair, on his website, www.michaeljmartinez.net. And he tweets now and then: @mikemartinez72. He lives in northern New Jersey with his amazing wife, wonderful daughter, and The Best Cat in the World.

[Photo by Anna Martinez]
The Joys And Perils Of Writing Historical Fantasy

By Michael J. Martinez

When I first approached writing The Daedalus Incident, I had yet to actually try my hand at any type of fiction, and I found the notion of historical fantasy oddly comforting. World-building can be very daunting, and I thought basing the book on the historical Age of Sail would make things easier.

And you know…it was. I had actual history to draw character and plot ideas from. I didn’t have to come up with a heap of odd fantasy-sounding names. I didn’t have to create my world from whole cloth.

But writing good historical fantasy has its own set of problems unique to the subgenre, and as I wrote and revised Daedalus, I came across a few things that I wrote down and kept in mind for future efforts – because, if all goes well, I’m hopeful The Daedalus Incident is just the first entry into this particular world.

First off, historical fantasy requires diligent research. And we’re not just talking Wikipedia here, although that was immensely helpful. We’re talking, in some cases, original source material. As I was working on Daedalus, I read numerous period letters and journals, including Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. I pored over reports and sketches from the Royal Navy archives. In San Diego, I walked the deck of the replica frigate that served as HMS Surprise in the movie Master and Commander.

I found that while I didn’t have to be a perfectionist in everything, I had to get pretty darn close. If I was going to talk about the rigging on a ship, I’d have to know my knots. If I was going to discuss the road from Paris to Passy in 1779, I’d need to find a good period map. Maybe it was overkill, but I genuinely believe that detail is key. If you gloss over something, or just make it up, someone will call you on it. Readers are smart!

I also found that featuring actual historical personages are a double-edged sword. There are four historical figures in Daedalus who play notable roles, including one who serves as the primary antagonist. However, two of the four are not very well known, and one of the two “celebrities” warrants little more than a cameo. The action in the book is propelled by the protagonists, none of whom have real-world analogs.

My feeling is that historical figures can add color to a piece of historical fiction, but it can be dicey when you place them center stage. I admit, I never read Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, but I did see the movie. And that movie lost me when they put Lincoln in the White House, with the glasses and the beard. Because at that point, I was just watching a period vampire movie with a protagonist named Abe. Once he looked like the guy on the fiver in my wallet, my suspension of disbelief was strained, to say the least.

I’m sure the book handled things a bit more deftly, but it remains an issue in historical fantasy. The moment you place a well-known figure center-stage, you find yourself weighing far more than just character and plot. You’re also trying to find ways to work with – or against – what’s known about that person. You’re battling the stereotype, and the decisions on why and how to subvert or run with that stereotype add layers of complexity and difficulty for the writer.

Finally, for all that detail and historical know-how, for all the historical figures in there, I had to come to grips with the fact that it wasn’t going to be perfect. For one, the real late 18th century did not, in fact, feature alchemically-powered sailings ships voyaging between planets. More importantly, however, I found you can go too far into historical accuracy, getting to the point where you alienate modern readers.

I was complimented recently on how I managed to so accurately mirror the stuffy, English, 18th century voice in Daedalus. That was really quite nice to hear, especially as it came from a Brit, but there’s nothing remotely accurate about it. Remember that primary research? I found the voice used in writing back then to be really unsuitable to the kind of story I wanted to tell. And I had no idea how people actually spoke back then, because nobody’s around today who heard it; even the literature of the day featured stilted, god-awful dialogue that would drag a modern novel to its knees. The voice in Daedalus is really an amalgam of Jane Austin movie adaptations, the voice found in 20th century novels of C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian, and my own sense of dialogue and pitch.

In the end, it’s all about the balance between historical fact and modern realism. No matter what fantastical elements you’re introducing into history, the setting has to seem historically authentic to readers. In some cases, that means intense focus on detail and some interesting historical figures. And in other cases, it means going for a facsimile that will appeal to modern interpretations of history.

The balance between the two is where art comes in.

5 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Michael J. Martinez on The Joys And Perils Of Writing Historical Fantasy”

  1. I know exactly what you mean about balance. Language can be a problem – there was no way I could write the dialogue for my Elizabethan novels in accurate 16th century English! But cultural differences can be just as big an obstacle for modern readers. If I gave all my characters the sexist, xenophobic attitudes of real Elizabethans, readers would probably close the book in disgust after a few chapters – so I have to fudge the issue a bit.

    For example my protagonist’s brother is in a mental asylum, but I could hardly have him (the protagonist) complicit in the kind of ill-treatment that went on back then. I figured it might be a bit different if it was someone you loved and had known when they were sane, rather than a random stranger, so I gave him attitudes a bit nearer a modern person – angry at the treatment but not as outraged as we would be.

    Am looking forward to The Daedalus Incident, btw – I love stuff set on sailing ships, I just hate writing it myself. All that terminology to learn!

    1. There were only a couple of scenes set there, and their practices were pretty simple. Bedlam was little more than a prison for the insane :(

      Now, the proper forms of address for various levels of society – that’s challenging! Especially remembering that they were slightly different to present-day usage.

      1. Of course both of you had the additional complication of having historical fantasy where significant historical changes meant creating, loaning and borrowing words for new concepts for your universes. How WOULD Ben Franklin talk about alchemy? How WOULD a 16th century Englishmen discuss Skrayling technology?

  2. This is all so true, I feel like I’m reading in my own diary! In Mirror Maze I made the setting as accurate as I could contrive (one reviewer was kind enough to say I wrote about Victorian London like I grew up there) and yet, in the end you always have to compromise with the now. You find yourself spending hours researching stupid, one-line details like, how much would a pocket knife cost or when did the bell actually go into Big Ben’s bell tower, and then you have to ‘cheat’ on the language in every paragraph, because nobody talks like that now, nobody would read dialog like that now. And even harder than the actual wordage was the subtext, the attitude. People just thought differently about things in the past.

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