Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Why Historical Fantasy?

We're doing something a little bit different on my blog today. For those of you who love medieval style fantasy, I have a wonderful author to introduce you to. Stephanie Churchill is a reader of historical fiction who did not want to write it, a writer of fantasy with no love of dragons or magic. So, how did she find herself writing The Scribe's Daughter?

Welcome, Stephanie!

~ Samantha

Guest Post by Stephanie Churchill


When I decided to take a stab at writing, my mentor gave me this one first, and best, piece of advice: “Write for yourself, not for the market, not for publishers or editors, and not for readers.”  The idea was that if you don’t love your writing first, why would anyone else want to read it?  If what you write doesn’t make you happy, fulfilled, energized and excited, what on earth are you doing it for?  And how will you sustain it as a career (or even as a hobby, for that matter)?  With these words ringing in my ears, I took up my pen and started drafting.  Eventually The Scribe’s Daughter was born.  It’s a book that mucks about, in and out of genres while not remaining true to any single genre.  In fact, pegging it as a specific genre nearly topped the list of Things That Were Really Difficult To Do when trying to decide how to market the book.  It feels like historical fiction, but there is no history in it.  So that makes it fantasy, right?  Except there are no fantastical creatures and no magic.  I had created something hard to define, neither one nor the other, defying the genre gods by its refusal to commit.

In light of this, I have been asked by many readers, why not just write historical fiction?  Because. Don’t tell me what to do.  Okay, okay… if you want a non-snarky answer (what fun is that?)…  My first love is historical fiction.  I have read a lot of it, including novels by novices and novels by long-timers.  Several of them are personal friends of mine.  I respect their craft, and the integrity they bring to the genre.  I also know how hard they work to create their masterpieces, the hours of dedication to historical accuracy, and the amount of research that goes into accomplishing all these things.  This is the bar they have set, but I know there is no room in my life right now for that level of perfection.

Why does research take so much time, you might ask?  Good question.  If a fabric is mentioned… say, cotton… I want to be sure that cotton was really used in the time and place of my story.  That takes research.  Multiply one fact by pages and chapters, then multiply it again for all the little details in a book, and you get the idea of how much research it takes to write truly historically accurate historical fiction.

Here’s an example: “William surveyed the field, searching for the remnants of the vanguard amongst the carnage of battle.  As he walked the edge of the meadow, the boundary between an unspoiled world and the territory trampled by horses and men struggling at the height of their blood lust, his hand brushed the tops of a profusion of bright yellow black-eyed Susans.  It struck him just then, the juxtaposition between perfection and chaos on either side of him.” Nice detail – the black-eyed Susans --  right?  You could almost see where William walked.  But let’s say my book is set in 13th Century Devon.  I’d be in trouble.  Black-eyed Susans weren’t introduced into Britain from North America until the early 16th Century.  While they are common enough around my house, William wouldn’t see them for another three centuries!  Readers might not notice or care, but I would know, and I would care.  So why not just leave out mention of black-eyed Susans and refer rather generically to flowers instead?  While a reader might not consciously recognize the detail, our brains still processes the information to paint a picture in our mind’s eye as the story unfolds.  So… yes, it might be just me, but until I am able to commit to research and be true to what I think historical fiction should be, I will stay away from it in its purest form.

The next obvious question I get asked is this: since you labeled your book fantasy, why didn’t you include magic or fantastical creatures?  Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?  This one is easy.  See paragraph 2, subpoint 1.  For quicker reference, I quote: “Because.  Don’t tell me what to do.”  No, seriously.  I didn’t want to.  If I am writing first for me, myself, and I – which I was -- and I didn’t want to include dragons and wizards, why should I?  The genre gods hold no power over me, and magic or magical creatures served no purpose in my story.  “Write for yourself first,” remember?  Kassia’s story was the one on my heart, and that’s the one that came out.

Enough about what my book is not.  The inspiration for my writing is definitely history, and there is enough historical feel to my book for historical fiction lovers to feel right at home.  So much of our fiction culture is bathed in historical feeling, particularly the Middle Ages, that it’s almost commonplace.  Think Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga, Martin’s Game of Thrones, and even your local Renaissance festival.  Here are some of the ways that I borrowed from my love of history and historical cultures to write The Scribe’s Daughter.

Corium, Kassia’s home, feels Mediterranean and medieval, in look and climate -- like Viterbo, Italy for instance, but on the coast like Naples.  She moves on to the country of Elbra, a place reminiscent of Turkey.  While in Islay Bay, Kassia meets Serdar Janko Barbaros, a man with a name and title echoing Eastern European culture (a serdar is an Ottoman noble rank).  Throughout the book, Kassia dresses at various times in homespun (wool), cotton, and silk, all of which were known in medieval Europe, and were worn regularly, depending on one’s social class.  While I stay away from detailing the various wefts and weaves of each, I did some brief research on brocades, samites, and taffetas, just to make sure I didn’t misspeak when mentioning a particular outfit (remember my black-eyed Susans example?).  Kassia encounters herbs and the medicinal use for each: elderflower, feverfew, belladonna, yarrow… all of which were commonly used in the medieval period for infusions or poultices, to treat fever or other illnesses.

Outside the tangible details of food and clothing, the reader also encounters historical social norms throughout the book.  Kassia experiences life in several noble households, and much of it isn’t to her liking.

Once she reached a marriageable age, a noble woman could expect to be used as a bargaining chip to advance her family’s wealth, land holdings, and social status.  Marriage and love did not automatically coexist.  After she married, the noble lady wasn’t free to do as she pleased.  Rather than pass her days idly reading poetry and daydreaming, duties awaited: from overseeing all things domestic – food, clothing, and household management – to serving as her husband’s representative and hostess when he was away.  A noble lady lent her hand to stitching and needlework, engaged in charitable work, and oversaw aspects of her children’s domestic education.  To what degree she did these things of course depended on her social rank, but even a queen had work to do.

However, since I did not commit wholly to historical fiction, everything was optional.  If I had written historical fiction, Kassia, and everyone else in the book, would have had to live fully immersed in every historical detail.  Women would wear veils and wimples (coverings for hair, neck and chin).  A powerful church and its prelates would have dictated the hours of the day, mass would be attended, feasts and festivals scheduled.  Again, because I could indulge, I skipped these medieval conventions.  There is no way Kassia could have pulled off being as independent and snarky otherwise.  At least not in the way I wanted to write her.

And finally, I come to plot.  Oh, history definitely played a role in the storyline, but I’m afraid this little gem will have to wait until everything is revealed in the next book.  Suffice it to say that the stories of several prominent medieval families heavily influenced aspects of Kassia’s family’s story.  Hopefully I can tell all at some point in the future, once the story of Kassia and her sister Irisa is all told.  Until then…

Intrigued about The Scribe's Daughter? Purchase it on Amazon.
Connect with Stephanie on her website or Twitter.

12 comments:

  1. Hi. I read most of the time historical fiction. But you have wet my appetite. I enjoyed reading your blog. I don't always read blogs all the way through. I have a butterfly mind and my interest wanders. But I read yours all the way through. I like your style very 'neighbourly' and I do mean that as a compliment. I will read your book and hopefully we will,meet again

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed Stephanie's post. Make sure you connect with her on her website www.stephaniechurchillauthor.com. :-)

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    2. Thank you so much, Babs! This means a lot to me. Writing brings its own joys, but realizing you actually connect with readers is like the frosting on the cake!

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  2. I really enjoyed your blog. I am a stickler for correct detail etc for any particular era, spending days in research. However,on writing Medieval Romance (Dark Ages) I threw aside conventional veracity to include the odd wolf changer, water sprites, sorceresses, shamans, etc and thoroughly enjoyed writing it. I am now off to buy your book.

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  3. Oops meant to add my pen name to the above. Katy Walters

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    1. Thanks for connecting, Katy! I hope you love Stephanie's book. :-D

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    2. Thank you so much, Katy! I know there are many more of us out there -- those who are sticklers for details in historical fiction. Hope you enjoy my book!

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  4. Enjoyed your blog and style. I also love historical fiction and appreciate the books that stick to the history. I'd much prefer reading a book by an author who utilizes black-eyed susans to those that 'make up' history that is contrary to the facts.
    You teased enough in your blog to motivate me to seek out your book. Good job!

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    1. Great to hear from you, and I agree. I don't mind the wrong flower, but the wrong person at the wrong time? That's another story. ;-)

      I hope you enjoy Stephanie's book!

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  5. Very interesting post, nice to get some insight into Stephanie's writing! I read the book back when it came out, loved it and can't wait to find out what happens next! :o)

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it! Thank you for visiting my blog. :-D

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    2. Stephanie ChurchillNovember 4, 2016 at 7:34 AM

      Hi CrazyCris -- Glad you enjoyed my book and the blog post. It's s hard to adequately explain everything that goes into the type of genre-blend I chose, so I'm glad you got something from my explanation. I'm busily working on The King's Daughter now. Am hoping to have it published in 2017, but we'll see!

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