Getting Lost In History

The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, By David Friedrich Caspar (1818)“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge – myth is more potent than history – dreams are more powerful than facts – hope always triumphs over experience – laughter is the cure for grief – love is stronger than death” ~ Robert Fulghum

Lost and Found: I’m a sucker for a good historical fantasy, but I’d been feeling like I hadn’t read a good one in a long while. That all changed in the last few weeks, since I found a series of books, The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb. I’m on book three, and I’ve been told there is another trilogy in the same world, featuring some of the same characters. Huzzah! As each book ends, I take a look at my existing TBR pile, consider what to read next, then download the next edition of Hobb’s work. I’m totally lost in her historical fantasy world, and I’m delighted.

It’s more like wandering than being lost, I suppose (and remember, “Not all who wander are lost.” ~JRRT). In reading Hobb, I am wandering through the recesses of imagination, exploring ideas of my own. Her writing is so compelling, her characters so well-realized, that I have mostly been able to turn off my writerly internal editor. Her work still makes me think, not just about my own work, but life in general—probing my perception of the world. I’m more than entertained, I’m enlightened and stimulated to further and deeper examination of my thoughts and feelings. By getting lost in her historical world, I find myself anew. Now that’s powerful writing!

The History Behind the Historiography: One of the things the series provoked me to ponder is the why behind my love of historicals. As far back as I can remember I’ve loved imagining myself living in another time. One recollection of the early kindling of my ardor was a trip my family took to Mackinac Island (in Northern Lake Huron), and my first tour of the restored British fort there. I must’ve been about seven or eight. I stood on the wall walk, sighting down a cannon barrel across green hillsides to the blue straits beyond, imagining being surrounded by hostile French and Indians.

In the fort’s bookstore (yeah, pretty sure that’s a modern addition), my mom bought me a copy of Young Voyageur, by Dirk Gringhuis. I tore through the Shooting the Rapids (1879), By Frances Anne Hopkinsaccount of a young British boy sold into indentured service to a crew of French-Canadian voyageurs. My heart raced as Danny hid in an attic during the famous massacre at the fort, begun under the guise of a La Crosse match between Ottawa and Chippewa braves. I could picture the very spot! Pure preteen exhilaration. From 18th Century Michilimackinac, I was on to Middle Earth, Narnia, Arthurian Britain, and 19th Century India. And my love lives on, unabated.

The Legend of the Legend-Makers: One of the things Hobb points out about her quasi-medieval world is the importance of minstrels and scribes. Since the small folk of our not-too-distant past were mostly illiterate, and there were no other sources for news, the job of passing along important cultural information fell to traveling singers and mummers. And all that was put into record, from a noble’s vainglorious accounting of his deeds, to the land deeds and marriage agreements of freemen, had to be written by hiring a scribe. Wherever folk gathered, from the courts of the mighty to the neighborhood taverns to the wayside inns, minstrels and scribes were welcomed and heeded. Storytelling and publishing for the masses were born. Just as does our news of the day, the singers sang of what had happened, in part to pass it along and in part to help make sense of it—to show the audience how the stories affected them. But, of course, minstrels had an overriding goal–to entertain.

And, as everyone loves a good story, and stories are often made all the better by ever-so-slight modification—adjustments that with time and frequent retelling turn into outright embellishment—so too are legends born. If a warrior won the day, soon enough he had won the day nigh alone, and with one injured arm tied in a sling. We have a hero, ladies and gentlemen! And of course all would then love to hear the details of his motives, including the smoldering eye contact he made with that besieged nobleman’s wife after the battle. You get the idea. Thank goodness our modern mass news sources have gotten away from such sensationalism and puffery.

“To know the truth of history is to realize its ultimate myth and its inevitable ambiguity.”
~Roy P. Basler

To Yore Place, Then to Mine: It’s said that myths and legends exist to explain the unexplainable, that they cement the basic structures of societal belief, and reconcile difficult dichotomies, such as good versus evil and existence versus nothingness. What better way to illustrate such difficult subjects than to see what has gone before? “How did our hero fare in this difficult circumstance? What happened to our heroine when she dared to go to that strange place?” Seeing the hero through dire straits makes facing our own circumstance seem a bit less difficult, which is comforting and alluring. “Well, if they can get through that. Our lot is jolly when laid out beside theirs.”  Give me more. I want to get lost in the days of yore.

I have always been comforted by stories from the past, but nothing could compare to what I felt when I started to dig through history, mining for details for the creation of my fictional world. As some of you may know, my work leans toward the historical rather than the fantastic. Once I had picked out my era and setting—a place and time that sent a shiver down my neck in imaging living there—I couldn’t get enough. One of my biggest writing hurdles has been to refrain from piling on the world-building details. I want so badly to convey my tingling feeling over being immersed in my setting, but too much and I’ve cluttered up the story. It’s a delicate balance.

“Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.” ~Machiavelli

Stripping To Be Romantic: There is a lot of romanticism in historical fiction and fantasy. We are offered a safe distance from which we can view a familiar world, but as it once was–dangerous and exotic. Legend and myth evoke a sense of mystery, often tinged with a sacred aura. We view well-known archetypes on a glorious stage, our preconceptions lushly painted by history’s continuum of minstrels and scribes, painters and poets. Not that a legendary feeling can’t be created in other genres. There is, for example, often such an atmosphere created in sci-fi or in dystopian fantasy. Heck, Star Wars is a perfect exemplar of  legendary romanticism.

In many ways, starting with a historical setting strips the process of story craft down to fundimentals, to be built on an existing foundation. Also, utilizing the window of history creates a safe distance and a legendary atmosphere for my tales. But for me there is more. I wanted the glorious painting but without the constraints of the existing stage. It’s why I write historical fantasy. Of course all history is fantasy–seen as we wish it to have been, and distorted by the lens of legendary storytelling. But I bent it a bit further. By building my own world, I was freed from history’s confinement, but (hopefully) left with our fond collective reminiscence. My setting is stripped of technology, modern convenience, and of our minute division of expertise; a place where safety is an uncommon luxury. I sought to build a world where the characters’ roles and conflicts are at once familiar and foreign, exotic and relatable.

By using history as a lever, I aspire to create an ease of passage into story. I’m hoping to take readers to a place that offers both comfort and exhilaration. A place that might even throw an occasional shiver down their neck.Arbo

What say you? Do you feel the romance of the past? Do you think history is a help or a hindrance to being transported into story? Does historical fantasy convey a legendary feel to you, or do you roll your eyes at us geeks?  

28 comments on “Getting Lost In History

  1. Vaughn,
    I love it when I find a book (or an author) I can’t get enough of. And, yes, I’m drawn to the romance of the past. I had the same feelings as you when I visited the site of my current WIP, a historical site, and then started digging into the time period when people lived and worked there. I think history helps anchor the reader in fiction that’s set in different times. I kept thinking of something a writing teacher said once: good fiction reads like memoir… Meaning, when we can tease the reader with bits and pieces of truth in our fiction, the story IS likely to resonate more and, possibly, send shivers down their necks.

    Great post!

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    • I remember when you were there! Isn’t that the best/spooky/cool feeling? Anchoring is a great way to put it, and I love your teacher’s memoir analogy for historicals. That’s one of the aspects I’m loving in Hobb’s Farseer books. It really does read like the MC’s memoir. Must remember that for future projects. Great observations, Christi, thanks!

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  2. I’m a proud history geek (as you know), so I loved this post. =D

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    • Oh yes, your reputation preceeds you, Ms. Marsh. 😉 One of the best things about WW2 history for me is it’s a part of my parents lives that they never spoke of, so I am all the more intrigued. I’ve often kicked around an idea for a story, loosely based on my dad and his brother (who we lost to WW2). We’ll see. Thanks, Melissa!

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  3. I read historical fiction of various kinds, thought it’s not my go-to preference. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps it’s because history was taught so poorly in school. Perhaps that the ones I’ve read tend to be lacking in humor, which is a compelling component of art for me. Death interests me, of course, but military battles generally don’t, so there’s that.

    Also, many follow the structure of the Hero’s Quest, as defined by Campbell and then Vogler, which some have noted to be a masculine sensibility. The external battle is often less important to me than the internal.

    Are you ready to shoot me, Vaughn? 😉 We’re still friends, right?

    I will note that I’ve read and will read Juliet Marillier. Wonderful books. Mary Stewart’s Arthurian legends were candy to me in adolescence. It’s not that I won’t read historical fantasy, but it has to be put on my radar. I don’t seek it out.

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    • Now worries, Jan! It was quite clear to me well before I started that my genre choice was not for everyone. I’ve actually been surprised and pleased to find out just how many do read historicals and historical fantasy. And I agree about the prevalence of the Hero’s Quest and masculinity in the genre, but I think it’s changing.

      I tend to favor series and authors who lean less heavily on the masculine and include stronger feminine elements. Juliet is a great example, and to a slightly lesser extent, Jacqueline Carey and Robin Hobb. It seems both the female market and the number of writers and titles that lean toward feminine issues and themes are growing for the genre. Having said all that, I still love a well-written battle scene. 😉

      I wonder if you’re right about history being poorly taught in school. I was lucky enough to have a couple of really great history teachers in jr. high and high school. Two in particular fostered my interest. One even invited a classmate and I to his house to see his medieval artifacts. Very cool guy.

      Thanks, Jan, for weighing in. Hope some other genre titles show up on your radar soon!

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  4. Sevigne says:

    I read a lot of historical fiction when I was young (actually, I read anything I could get my hands on), but I did love Jean Plaidy, and was drawn to books about the Tudors and the Stuarts. I also read almost every Agatha Christie mystery and, later, P.D. James. These days it seems harder, as you say, to find books that really transport me to another place. I’m listening to Lord of the Rings before I go to sleep…even though I’ve read it, at least three times, every night, I’m still transported into the world of Middle Earth, hobbits, elves, and black riders.

    Robin Hobb has been on my list for sometime, a good friend adores her books.

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    • My mom read a lot of historicals, so they were always readily availble to me when I was young, which may also have fueled my ardor. Mysteries not so much.

      The thread on WU about beginnings got me thinking about Hobb. The first book of the Farseer trilogy, Assassin’s Apprentice, unspools quite slowly, but very naturally and I never once lost interest. There was no real ‘action’ for at least fifty pages. It’s an interesting topic. I thought about it a lot as I read that opening. I was certainly transported! If you give her a try, let me know what you think.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Sevigne! 🙂

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  5. ddfalvo says:

    I adore that first quote, I felt the power of it giving me conviction with each line. Wow. You have such a gift for striking the perfect resonating chord.

    Loved learning how you were first inspired as a little boy on Mackinac Island. I can just see little you sighting down the canon. (I do admire your battle language.)

    “I wanted the glorious painting but without the constraints of the existing stage.” Oh, amen. And I adore the line, What say you? Sigh. It always takes me back to Aragorn. Another sigh. lol.

    Beautiful post, the reasoning is poetic in that I am charmed by the tenants connecting history and fantasy. Like you, I want readers to feel a familiarity they can cling to, like safety straps on the roller coaster while I give them the ride of their life.

    And yes, your work delivers neck shivers, but only because the fantasy fit is so well-tailored it challenges RL.

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    • Let’s all just take an Aragorn moment, shall we. *sigh* Serious Viggo man-crush over here, but Aragorn is perhaps one of my fave characters of all time. Loved him from the moment I met Strider at the Prancing Pony back in ’72. 😉

      Isn’t that Fulghum quote so perfect? I was wrestling with this post for a couple of days, and that quote brought it home for me. I’m charmed by those connections as well. And I know that it doesn’t need to be as close to an actual historical as mine.

      “Like you, I want readers to feel a familiarity they can cling to, like safety straps on the roller coaster while I give them the ride of their life.” Love this! What a gem that analogy is! You never cease to amaze me, D! Thank you, thank you for all you do, my friend! 🙂

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  6. Now I want to read Hobb almost as much as I want to read your work.

    I love historical fantasy and SF fantasy. It takes me to amazing places while giving me a wondrous way of understanding my own. However and sometimes I think this is the most important part for me, it also makes me realize the magic disguised in the familiar.

    When I first went back to school to study history, I was amazed at the progress made by modern science that dispelled some of the universal beliefs accepted by academics for ages. For instance, I was astounded to find that the prophecy that foretold of a coming Messiah was not the sole property of Moses’ wandering band in the desert, but had its beginning in other more ancient cultures.

    Recent discoveries have led me to question everything I had ever been taught. Rather than take away the magic I found this added dimension to it. If you don’t believe scientific and historical fact imbibes the mystic in us– just read up on some of the recent studies in Quantum Physics or about the National Geographic Genographic Project.

    This leads me in a long, rambling, and roundabout way to my point. We are only on the far edge of discovering what the human brain is, but we know its capacity to create worlds that never existed. To paraphrase Buddhist philosophy, historical and scientific fact become like one flap of a butterfly’s wing when compared to imagination. I suspect that Fulghum was on to something more profound, than even he could have suspected.

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    • I didn’t delve too deeply into the mystical aspects of legend and myth here, and it’s probably worthy of a separate post, but it’s one of the things I was interested in exploring in my work, B. I don’t have overt use of magic, but there is an ample theme of mysticism and its effects on my characters. I have a number of elements that may or may not have had a mystical origin or imbuement, but I leave it up to the reader to decide if it’s magic or not. I believe you, that we are only at the edge of understanding the power of the imagination.

      The basis of my main characters’ motives is rooted in mystical belief. A big component of that belief is that their destiny is ordained–that they have a sacred duty to fulfill in life. The power of the mind in making the improbable come to fruition is a recurring theme in my work, as well as the power of the beliefs of those around them. I honestly believe, if you lead a child to believe anything is possible, they will reach for greater things and find a way to make them happen. And, of course, the opposite is true. If you hammer it into a child that they are worthless or powerless, they will see to it that your vision for them is brought to fruition. It’s powerful stuff.

      And the historical setting is the perfect place to explore it. In spite of my characters’ relative backward lifestyle and simple rural setting, there is wisdom there. For them the Roman Empire is the symbol of civilization, and the wise and the holy in the MCs world believe civilization to be pernicious, the root of evil. It was fun to play with the ideas. 🙂

      Thanks for the awesome comment, Bernadette! You are amazing! I can’t wait to read your work, either! 😀

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  7. Nicole L. Bates says:

    Great opening quote! I used to read historical fiction almost exclusively, until I discovered science fiction and fantasy. I think it’s always important to have something in a story that a reader can connect with, that feels somehow familiar. Incorporating true historical elements into fantasy accomplishes this beautifully. The more you know about your setting, the more realistic it will feel to your reader as well. It sounds like you are up for the challenge! (I’m also a big fan of Robin Hobb by the way!)

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    • I think that it does enhance connection. I wanted even the most fantastic elements of my story to be rooted in history, to feel authentic as well as legendary. You and I have had this discussion, about reading historical fiction first. I read dozens of books about the local history of N. MI, with emphasis on Indian lore, but Young Voyageur was the first. I only found out in researching this post that it was published by the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, which makes it even cooler to me somehow. I know those historicals have had a great influence on my work. I saw a winter picture of M-119 online yesterday, with each limb and needle coated in snow. It was gorgeous, but looked treacherous as well. Made me think of you and your constant travel up there. Stay safe, my friend!

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  8. liz says:

    I love the idea of history providing a common language for the writer and the reader as they explore a new world together. And I’m excited to read the series you recommended — it has been a long time since I got lost in a new yet familiar place.

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    • Ah, and I love that first sentence in your comment. ‘Common lauguage’ and ‘together.’ How perfect. You have such a gift for boiling things into beautiful simplicity, Liz. I try to learn from you and others, but I still end up taking a thousand words to get to a hundred word point. And yes, give Hobb a try! Don’t let the word ‘assassin’ in the titles scare you off. It almost did me. Thank goodness for the recommendations of friends (in my case, Denise Falvo and Heather Reid). Thanks, Liz!

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  9. This was an extremely enjoyable read, both your post and the discussion that followed. Some would say that historical fantasy is the real world upside down, but I prefer to view it as the fantastic lent a foundation upon which we might set our feet. As for world building, my philosophy has always been to build an iceberg, but only use the tip. If the mass exists the reader will sense its presence in the background.

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    • Hi Christina, great to see you here! Oh, I love your iceberg philosophy. We have to know what’s keeping it afloat, but the reader only needs to see what rises to the surface of story. Perfect! Thanks, don’t I have great commenters? And yours now among them. Thanks so much for reading and adding your insight!

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  10. M.L. Swift says:

    Hey Vaughn,

    I love historical fiction—done well…guess that’s true for everything I read. Even in the most fantastical scenarios, it has to have an element of reality. What I mean is steering clear from all the outlandish stuff. No, I’ve not read Abe Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. Eh…could be good. Probably just stick with the movie on that one.

    I describe my WIP as a YA historical fantasy adventure. A freakin’ mouthful, yeah? Heck…I usually just say YA and leave it at that, but for those who want it more pin-pointed, that’s about the gist of it. It takes place in the 1870’s and has some pure fantasy elements, but I made sure to back it up with facts to make it all fly. It all feels like it could really happen—outside of a dream. Almost everything I’ve written is a period piece. There’s just something that makes the past so…intriguing to me. I rarely write contemporary.

    I’ve always loved history and, with the exception of one man, had some great teachers. Now that I think about it, most of my teachers and profs were very good at what they did. I was lucky. But I digress…I watch all the “educational” channels that no one else in my family wants to watch and pay attention. Then use it all. All of it, I say!

    Thanks for a swell read. See? I even talk like I’m in 1930. 🙂

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    • Laughing about ‘swell.’ 🙂 I know what you mean about genre specifics. I normally just say fantasy or historical fantasy, but it’s really adult alternate history with fantastic elements. Yeah, there’s no shelf for that at B&N.

      That’s cool, that you’ve explored various periods. It’s such fun to immerse yourself in a new one. Even before I started writing I was a fan. I’d start reading a period piece and I’d search the web for more as I read, and watch all the related shows I could find. As an aside, what the heck happened to The History Channel and to TLC? Now they’re just wastelands, filled with Ice Road Truckers, Hoarders, and the like. :-/ I know you can still find educational TV, but it’s a lot tougher than it used to be.

      Keeping digging up and using that historical fodder, M.L.! Thanks for your great comment! 🙂

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  11. karenselliott says:

    The older I get, the more I enjoy historical novels – fiction or non-fiction. I guess I want to revisit better times, calmer times, slower times. I love to write a bit of historical stuff too, from genealogical research (and throw in a little fiction). I love an author who hooks me – not in the same genre, but I’ve read nearly everthing that Stephen King every wrote. He’s the only one I’ve followed, since high school. There are others I have enjoyed, but not followed like King.

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    • I know what you mean about slower times. Everything’s so hectic in our day and age. Even action intense books in other eras have more breathing room. I’m the same with Steven Pressfield as you are with King. I’ll follow him to other genres–even a thriller, which I almost never read otherwise. Thanks, Karen!

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  12. Story Addict says:

    That’s a stunning quote, there. Nothing quite like finding a book that resonates with your soul. It’s like you made an epic connection. History is fascinating, and more than anything I love watching historical films. But I equally enjoy historical novels. I agree, it’s somewhat magical, and definitely requires a bit of imagination. Great post, Vaughn!

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    • It is an epic connection. Hobb’s series has kept me thinking, too, which is always a bonus. I think it can require imagination to place yourself there, but because of the shared context, it’s firm and common ground between author and reader. It can be very rewarding to have that head start, for both writer and reader. Thanks, Margaret! And thanks for sharing the post, too! 🙂

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  13. “The myth of the impossible dream is more powerful than all the facts of history.”

    ~Robert Fulghum

    I was a senior in drama when someone first pegged me as a romantic. I love your quote, and found this one to match. I think that when I’m not steeped in my usual horror/paranormal/speculative fiction, it’s that myth I seek. I’ve had some brilliant history teachers that opened my eyes to the dreams and imagination of our ancestors. With all the bad news spooned into us everyday, reading high-drama, kickass heroines, and travesty overcomed is better than a good bottle of wine.
    I love a piece that celebrates that aspect of our great human collective- no matter what kind of messes we make, people keep flying for the sun, wax wings or not. I think that aspect uncovers a great deal of why I write- to tell the story of how tremendous, stupifying, splendid, and crazy we humans are.
    I’d rather be a romantic than a nihilist. Sure, we may have further to fall on our way towards the sun, but I’d rather be awed and astounded than focused on the gloom and doom. Says this sometimes poet and full-fledged geek. 🙂

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    • Oh how I love this comment–so shimmery and lovely. Gee, I wonder how I can be so certain I want to read your work. You knock my socks right off! And you know how difficult that is, as I’m so attached to them. 😉

      I want to soar with you, my poet and full-fledged geek friend, and be awed and astounded! I have only one request: can we please read high-drama with kickass heroines AND have a nice bottle of wine? Not that I don’t agree with you, but both would be nice. Thank you for a beautiful supplimental quote and a gorgeous sentiment!

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  14. I always love the posts you write on history and the bridges you make between history and fantasy. It almost seems as if your historical research gives you the palette, the color choices, and then you paint them into your own story, characters, world.

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    • Hey Lisa! 🙂 I love your palette analogy! Perfectly apt. I was just rereading a book that sparked a large chunk of my story, and I expected it to be so much more indepth. It was a mere few paragraphs, but it led to an elaborate unfolding side-plot in my trilogy. I was amazed. It made me want to get back into drafting mode. Thanks so much for taking the time to come back and read and comment on these posts, my friend! 🙂

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