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?  

Redirect to Lisa Ahn’s Tales of Quirk & Wonder

Romans Building a Fort at Mancenion, by Ford Madox Brown

Romans Building a Fort at Mancenion, by Ford Madox Brown

I’m very happy today to be guest posting at my friend Lisa Ahn’s beautiful blog, Tales of Quirk and Wonder. I’m discussing my world-building techniques for her Be Inspired series. Lisa and I kept crossing paths as commenters on our favorite writing blogs, including Writer Unboxed. I always found her comments insightful. At about the same time she began gracing my blog with wit and wisdom, I started following her blog, and immediately wondered why it had taken me so long. Her posts are not just witty and wise, they are gorgeously written. Her Wing-Feather Fables are moving and thought-provoking. Do yourself a favor while you’re over there, and dig back into the gems in her archives. You will not be disappointed! So what are you waiting for? Head on over!

A Sword By Any Other Name (…Would Still Just Be a Hunk of Sharpened Steel)

The Grande Ludovisi Sarcophagus – Depicting battle between Roman soldiers and Goth warriors.

“Every writer making a secondary world wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it.” ~J.R.R. Tolkien

Names—I haz ‘em: Lots of ‘em. My trilogy is based on the world of the epic culture clash between the Germanic tribe of the Goths and the ancient Roman Empire. Tom Shippey, Tolkien’s biographer, makes a case in J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, that for Tolkien everything started with the names. I took him to heart. One of the first things I did, before I wrote a single line of prose, was to come up with the names.

I just found my notes, dated January ’04 (I started outlining the story in November of ’03). I made lists of Gothic, Old Norse, Greek, and Latin words I thought were pertinent to the story and the world I wanted to create. I invented names not only for characters, but for nations, tribes, cities, seas, provinces, empires (yes, plural), oaths, clans, religious elements and ceremonies. I have characters with invented names as well as invented titles, and even invented nicknames. I even named a few swords (are you scared yet?). Heck, I even named the horses; over a dozen of them (now you’re scared, right?).  

“Names, especially names which are not strictly necessary, weight a narrative with the suggestion of reality.” ~Tom Shippey  

Namey-Namer: So did I do this just to emulate my literary hero? Just to be clever? Well, maybe those were a tiny part of it. But it turned out to be a very immersive exercise. In some cases, I’m not sure if I created the name to fit the character or the character emerged from the name. For example, my heroine’s name is Ainsela. She is the daughter of a warrior queen, and her birth was associated with the coming of a prophesied upheaval for her people. In the ancient Gothic language, áin is one, but áina is a ‘particular’ one—it denotes a certain or special singularity. Sela is a Greek moon goddess, but in Gothic a silda is a wonder or a marvel. Ainsela’s tribe’s patron goddess is a Teutonic moon goddess, Horsella, who is also the patron of untamed nature and all things wild. Hence, Ainsela is ‘the special one, a marvel, born of untamed nature.’

Yes, I did something like this for every one of my names. Not all of them were quite this elaborate, but they all have meaning. Some I just had fun with, for example the names of two of the Roman antagonists. Malvius is rooted in the Latin malevelle: of evil intent. And Turgian is from the Latin turgere: to swell (as in his head, with pride).

Submariner: In the pursuit of creating my own distinct world, and in the interests of relating the story without the encumbrance of historical facts, I even changed the names of all ‘real’ places and peoples. I made the Romans into Tiberians, the Goths into the Gottari, and so on. I explain why in a bit more depth on the homepage of my website in a post called The Origin of Epic, but to summarize, I did it to gain a bit of distance from the readers’ preconceptions. I was hoping to accomodate total submersion in my world, to take readers on a voyage without having them bring their baggage onboard the sub. As Tolkien says above, I was hoping not just to draw on reality, but in the creation of a peculiar quality derived from Reality, and that this Reality would then flow into my world. I wanted the reader to lose themselves not in historical detail, but in story. I know there will be those of you who feel otherwise, but I believe that by suspending disbelief through world-building, the best historical fantasy actually puts the spotlight on story, thereby enhancing the emotional experience.

It can get a bit complicated, but so can actual history. In the interest of simplifying, I made up a glossary doc. In the beginning it was just a reference for me. It has over 150 entries. I ended up rewriting it in the voice of the trilogy, including a pronunciation key for each entry, and I offer it out to beta readers. I’ve had several say they enjoyed having it, a few saying it was a necessity, and one saying it intimidated her so much she never read the book. But most have said they hardly gave it a glance.

Literary Trip, or Trip-up? I know what some (if not most or all) of you are thinking. Something like: Are you nuts? Why would you trip up the reader? Why make it any harder for folks to get into your story? Why add something that will make it more difficult to get published? The names don’t have anything to do with the story, right?

To answer those questions, in order: Perhaps (by whose definition?); It’s not my intention; I hope it doesn’t, and that for certain readers it’ll aid in their submersion into story; Because being published wasn’t on my mind when I started; And that last one is a bit complicated, and perhaps is my point here (in case it’s not evident). For me, story emerges in part from world-building, and world-building emerges from names. So for me, the names have quite a bit to do with the story that emerged (I’m still a pantser, after all).

I understand that a lot of the ‘tripping up’ of readers by names can be avoided through their judicious introduction, through their being woven into the fabric of story deftly, and I’m working on it. But I am pretty darn fond of them, and couldn’t be easily convinced to change too many of them. I mean, there was a time when names like Frodo and Gandalf, Hogwarts and Dumbledore all sounded bizarre, but can you imagine any other name for any of those?

Back to those hunks of steel: The two named swords in my trilogy (Nahtsrein and Bairtah-Urrin for those who are interested—Ruler of the Night and Bringer of Light, respectively) are not magical. But they are more than mere weapons. They are emblematic of the leadership of the two ruling clans of the Gottari. They are just symbols, analogies for power—their importance placed upon them by the Gottari people. And isn’t that what story really boils down to? Stories are symbolic analogies for life.

So what’s in a name? Quite a bit… In my book, anyway.

What about you? Do you think I’m nuts? (On second thought, don’t answer that.) Do names trip you up? Do you think this is all just geek-speak, reminding you why you don’t read historical fantasy? Or do you feel names can enhance the story? Or do they make no difference, as long as the story’s good?