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[GUEST POST] Gillian Polack (THE TIME OF THE GHOSTS) on How a Speculative Fiction Writer Writes Non-Fiction

gillianpolackGillian Polack is a speculative fiction writer and a historian. Among her publications are five novels, three edited volumes, two historical cookbooks, and The Middle Ages Unlocked. One of the novels (Ms Cellophane/Life through Cellophane) was a Ditmar Finalist, as was one of the anthologies (Baggage). She was awarded the Best Achievement Ditmar in 2010.

Her PhDs are in Medieval History and in Creative Writing and she claims she needs a third to ‘round things out.’ This means that she also has academic publications. Her current research is mainly to do with how writers think of history and how they use it in their fiction, but she also has interests in genre, in Young Adult fiction and in matters historical.

Gillian is in demand at SF conventions largely because she carries chocolate and was the GUFF delegate in 2014. She currently lives in Canberra, Australia, which explains everything.

How a Speculative Fiction Writer Writes Non-Fiction

by Gillian Polack

I have three new books and one of them is not like the others.

Two of them are modern urban fantasy of my peculiar sort. I tend to write novels that are hard to categorise – I call them one thing, my publisher describes them differently, reviewers describe them differently again. There are two of them, that’s the important thing.

The first is my once-cursed novel (The Art of Effective Dreaming), written many years ago and finally brought into print (the curse made Wikipedia – it must be real)! It’s about dreaming, and realities, and is an inverted quest with a central character who was designed to be unlikeable. It struck me years ago that the sort of person who crosses the boundaries between worlds might do so because they aren’t easy to like, and so I wrote a novel about it.

I wrote the second (The Time of the Ghosts) much more recently. It’s about Canberra, and ghosts, and history and has a teenage girl doing many interesting things, but at the heart of it are three women facing both old age and evil. I tell people it’s my ‘elderly women as superheroes’ novel.

The third contains youth and age. It contains ghosts and magical creatures. It contains cities (but not Canberra) and farms and textiles. It’s non-fiction and it represents the other side of myself. I am one of those beings (there are quite a few of us, hidden in between realities) who is both historian and fiction writer.

The Middle Ages Unlocked was begun because writers and fans said “We need this book and you are going to write it.” In the end, it wasn’t just me. Various friends have come and gone from the project, but the final book was co-written with a German archaeologist, Dr Katrin Kania. We share fandom as well as the Middle Ages.

People ask me “How does a speculative fiction novelist write non-fiction?” For me, it’s part of my natural geekishness. I did my MA in Toronto at the Centre for Medieval Studies. I like to think of the CMS as nerd-central for Medieval Studies. I did my PhD in Sydney, which is not nerd central for Medieval Studies but which gave me the freedom to research what I wanted to, which is another sign of geekdom.

Because writers and history fans demanded their book, I became a generalist who was a specialist who was a generalist who was a specialist. Or is it the other way round? Am I a specialist who’s a generalist who’s a specialist who’s a generalist? Either way, it’s been exceptionally handy both for me as a writer and for other writers who want to use the Middle Ages.

When it came to getting the book into print The Middle Ages Unlocked, the publisher said “This is a work for a wider audience.” It was designed for writers. It meets many of the needs of fiction writers. But it also fills a hole in the market. A whole heap of other people wanted to learn about that particular range of subjects. And they wanted the research to be solid and to not have condescended unto. They wanted it to be easy to read and to be a trove of knowledge. In short, they wanted a book written by specialists, and it had to be as easy to read as if one of the writers were also a novelist.

Something important it’s taught me is that fandom cares just as much about the history in fiction as it does about the science. The same person who pulls the latest episode of Dr. Who to bits scientifically, or compares movies set on Mars in terms of whether they are possible, is going to devour a work of history and apply the same principles to writers who use history in their fiction. This makes me very happy, as a historian who also uses history in her fiction (I’ve even written a time travel novel: Langue[dot]doc 1305) but it means that the writer who says “This doesn’t matter – it’s all about the ripping yarn” needs to be prepared. It’s about the ripping yarn just until a particular fan (and which particular fan depends on the year and the fannish interests) pulls apart their work and says “This doesn’t work. This is why.”

And thus my work of non-fiction, written by my historian self and a professional archaeologist, is selling to our fellow SF fans. We are a complex and intellectual breed, us SF fans. And by this you can tell that I rather like being the writer who is also a historian who is also a geek and an ardent fan. I’m writing this post while wearing a black t-shirt from an SF convention. To my left I have a teaching kit Katrin helped me put together, so that when writers ask me “Can’t you teach me this stuff” I can pull out authentic potsherds and replica coins and jewellery and needles and pins and start explaining. I established my teaching trove for writers, but I use it in fandom.

And for me as a writer? I have a book event on 22 October for The Time of the Ghosts and I will be brewing a litre or two of coffee using historical methods and flavouring. This is how a fiction writer wrote a reference book about history: the moment it became clear that she was also a fan, it was inevitable.

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