Fantasy, The New Historical Fiction

2012-Feb-28 -> from the 29-days-of-fantasy department Tags:

Two days left, and look at all we've covered! And still, there are so many more topics we could discuss. Today's guest brings us a look at Fantasy as The New Historical Fiction.

Aubrey Hansen (www.aubreyhansen.com) is an indie screenwriter and author from Wisconsin. She self-published her first novella Red Rain, a sci-fi dystopian drama, and is currently working on a Ruritanian trilogy entitled Peter's Angel. When she's not writing, she's watching movies, Twittering, or moderating Holy Worlds.

I love Colonial costume. Forget a knight in shining armor - my imaginary Prince Charming wears a ruffled cravat and silver buckle shoes. I adore the the lacy cuffs and the floor-length gowns, the breeches and the stockings. I'm fascinated by images of coachmen with tricornes driving black carriages through crowded streets, or of politicians with clubbed wigs scribbling with feather pens.

I wanted to write a novel set in the Colonial era. But I didn't really want to write historical fiction. First of all, I don't like research. Half the time I can't find what I need, and the other half I find more information than I could possibly work into the story. I didn't want to have to worry about what type of gun was era-appropriate or whether my protagonist should own a harpsichord or a piano.

Second of all, I didn't want to be historically accurate. I didn't want to write about the Founding Fathers or the Revolutionary War. I wanted to write about a monarchy, but I didn't want to work with England's parliamentary system. I wanted to design my little kingdoms and invent their political systems for my own dramatic purposes. I wanted a colonial monarchy.

That's not allowed in historical fiction. If I wanted to write historical fiction, I had to work within history's framework. I was limited to real-world locations and settings. Even the "alternate history" genre prevents me from messing with geography; I can't rearrange North America and put mountains and oceans wherever I feel like it.

The obvious solution would be to make my novel fantasy. In a fantasy world, I can design my countries any which way I want. I can create my little rural kingdom and set my cravat-wearing prince to rule. And I wouldn't have to worry about being realistic or historically accurate - I could just make it up as I go along.

But there's a problem with that approach, also. Namely, my novel wasn't fantastical enough. It was too realistic, too plausible. There were no magic, no mythological creatures, no obscure fantasy races. It was a very plausible story about very normal people in a very realistic setting that felt strongly historical.

But it wasn't accurate enough to be historical fiction. It was too fictitious to be historical fiction and too realistic to be fantasy. It was neither, or both, or something else entirely. What in the world was it?

Thanks to a friend's input, I was relieved to discover I had not invented a new hybrid genre. Rather, I had unwittingly bought into a niche genre known as Ruritanian. Or, specifically, Ruritanian romance, which Wikipedia defines as "[A] story set in a fictional country, usually in Central or Eastern Europe... Such stories are typically swashbuckling adventure novels, tales of high romance and intrigue, centered on the upper classes, aristocracy and royalty. The themes of honor, loyalty, and love predominate, and the books frequently feature the restoration of kings to their thrones."

This genre was popularized by Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda. Published in 1894, this political adventure with a dash of romance featured a fictional European kingdom named Ruritania, from which the genre got its name. The book combined fantasy and historical fiction into a delightful niche genre that offers a world of possibilities.

The benefits of writing Ruritanian are many. You have the freedom of designing your own country with a unique history, geography, and political structure. Your setting does not have to fit into any specific time period, but you can make it as historically accurate as you like. You can set your story in a specific era, or just mix and match cultural elements as it suits you.

Writing Ruritanian dictates that you set your fictional country on this earth, which is very helpful in many cases. It allows you to use familiar our-world physics instead of expending the effort to design a universe from scratch. You can reference real-world places, events, and more. This is especially useful for writers that like to work religion into their stories; you can portray real-world religions "as-is" without needing to write an allegory or create a complicated explanation for how the religion made its way to a fantasy universe.

Like historical fiction, however, Ruritanian does have some restrictions. While your story doesn't have to be historically accurate, it does have to be plausible. The laws of this world must be obeyed, so anything paranormal or magical must be explained appropriately. Mythological creatures, talking animals, and other fantastical elements are out of the question, and you are limited to using normal, average human beings. You probably will end up doing some research to make sure your novel is realistic.

Ruritanian also raises some marketing questions. Should the cover be more historical or fantasy in appearance? What should the novel be categorized under on websites? Knowing whether to push the fantasy or the historical side of your novel can be difficult. Ruritanian, even though it is an established style, is still a hybrid and lesser-known genre, which can make marketing difficult.

But for me, it's worth the effort. Making my novel Ruritanian allowed me to set my fantasy-style plot involving a long-lost prince in the colonial era. I was able to have fictional countries and Christianity in the same book. I could have rich historical settings without needing to work around historical politics. It was the best of both worlds.

The only drawback is that it didn't get me out of researching entirely. Anybody know anything about coal mines in the 18th century?

This is definitely a genre I'm going to have to look into! :)

Thank you, Aubrey, for bringing us something very new, and cool! I'm sure there are a great many fantasy fans out there looking for something fresh to read.

Tomorrow is our last day together, but these last 29 days have been phenominal. Coming up tomorrow, and finishing off the month, is an article on the pros and cons of... cons!


Thanks for reading!

I'm always interested in hearing what you have to say. Contact Me, I'd love to hear from you.

Don't forget to join in on the conversation in the comments section below.

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