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[GUEST POST] Stephanie Burgis on Finding the Fantasy in History

Stephanie Burgis grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, but now lives in Wales, surrounded by castles and coffee shops. She has published over thirty short stories in various f/sf magazines and anthologies, including Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She is also the author of the Kat, Incorrigible trilogy of MG Regency fantasy adventures (known in the UK as The Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson), and is a graduate of the Clarion West writing workshop. To find out more (or to read the first 2 chapters of Masks and Shadows), please visit her website:

Finding the Fantasy in History

by Stephanie Burgis

The best thing I ever did for my writing career was to go to grad school. I didn’t get an MFA in Creative Writing, though. Instead, I studied opera history and politics, and the way those two things intertwined.

There are lots of obvious reasons why it’s good for any fiction writer to study history. You get to see the way the world really works (sometimes over and over and over again, in distressing repetition). You get to see the (sometimes unimaginable) ways real people have schemed and fought for power, as well as breathtaking acts of real heroism, generosity and self-sacrifice, too.

But sometimes, you get another bonus, as a fantasy writer. Sometimes, you get magical ideas handed to you.

As I got ready to write this guest blog, I kept thinking back to the first line in the Acknowledgements of Lois McMaster Bujold’s wonderful book The Curse of Chalion (which is set in a fantasy world based on Renaissance Spain): “The author would like to thank Professor William D. Phillips, Jr., for History 3714, the most useful four hundred dollars and ten weeks I ever spent in school.”

In Bujold’s case (if I’m remembering this story right, from an interview I read many years ago!) she took a course on Spanish history just for fun, in mid-life, and it sparked a whole new setting for her next few books and also a basic historical setup that she could turn into something astonishingly unique and powerful. (I am a huge Bujold fan in general, but I love her Chalion books best of all!)

Her kingdom of Chalion bears a number of resemblances to Renaissance Spain, just as her fiery young heroine has a lot of overlap with Spain’s own historical Queen Isabella – but Bujold made that world her own with the addition of an all-new, original and convincing religious system that includes five gods taking an active part in history and directly affecting all the characters and their struggles.

…So it started with history, and became something new. That’s a fabulous way of doing it!

But sometimes, it’s just a matter of finding what was already there.

In my own case, I spent my years as a PhD student studying opera and politics in late eighteenth-century Vienna and Eszterháza…which meant, inevitably, that I read a lot about the many different secret societies that were rife in Vienna in that time period. Most famously, Mozart’s The Magic Flute is full of Masonic symbolism – and the provocative chapter title of one academic book I read, when studying Mozart’s operas, was: “Why did the Freemasons Visit Hell?”

Of course, that visit never literally happened. The author of that book was only discussing a rite in which they symbolically visited the underworld.

But as a fantasy reader and writer, of course I immediately thought: What if it wasn’t just symbolic? What would that have been like?

Vienna also happened to have a number of active alchemists working in the late eighteenth century. Some of them, of course, were proto-scientists…but others were fabulously successful showmen who held audiences rapt with their astonishing “supernatural” summonings.

As a lifelong fantasy reader, it didn’t take long for me to wonder: what if those weren’t just fraudulent performances? What if that kind of mysterious, supernatural alchemy actually worked?

And I was at an academic conference at Oxford University (run by the Society for Eighteenth Century Studies) when, just for fun, I attended a talk about Sir Isaac Newton, who had nothing whatsoever to do with my own work. I had attended a lot of talks that day, and I’d listened with more or less interest to lectures on dozens of different aspects of the eighteenth-century world, trying to pick out any details that might be relevant to my PhD thesis, and also daydreaming a little about where I might head out for dinner afterward, until…

…Halfway through that particular talk, I suddenly perked up, stopped daydreaming, and started frantically scribbling notes on my program book, as the speaker discussed Newton’s theories of the aether, the material and the immaterial worlds, and the ethereal medium that (according to that model) hovered in-between the two worlds, just beyond the limits of our vision.

Those theories went on to become the direct basis for the work done by one of my alchemists in Masks and Shadows, when he summons very real and dangerous elementals from the immaterial world into the luxuriant palace of Eszterháza, with bloody results.

It wasn’t what I’d expected to get out of that conference – but when you start studying history, you never know what you’ll find!

In my case, I found a novel full of dark, alchemical magic – and it all came out of looking at dry historical facts and wondering… What if???

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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