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Member # 3280

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Right now I am struggling with the bounds between fantasy set on earth vs creating a new world. I know the story I want to tell and in it magic is minor (though exists), but otherwise I want England under Henry 8th. I would like for some of my characters to be nobility, but not real historical nobility- basically Tami of Yipville kind of thing- rich, but mostly private country living except their giant tower where their sorcerer friends can come to do spells. Most historical fiction that I have read seems to focus on peasants or people who for whatever reason would never make the history books (the elves don't want anyone to know they exist kind of thing). I really don't want to come up with a reason why no one has ever heard of Yipville or my sorcerers.

How do you guys draw the line between creating a new world and staying on earth? How much can you change history before it becomes an alternative history or time to just create a whole new world?

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Member # 8673

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I've read a few books that deal with this quite nicely, actually. Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey is based upon a society that lives in the geographical region of Europe, but the names are changed. The groups of people are fairly similar (the main character is obviously supposed to be french, Spain is called Aragonia, England--or Albia in the book--is run by the Picti, the invading army to the east are the Skaldia which remind me very much of the slavics and german barbarians, and there are even Yeshuites, who follow the teachings of a Christ-like figure). In terms of world building, all the author had to do was tweak some of the history (for instance, the "french" people live in Terre d'Ange, and the inhabitants are the decendants of angels) and she had to change the names. But she stayed very true to the way these groups would have lived. She created a history and lore for each group, but everything she wrote is based in some small way on reality.

(Before you go running to the book store to check this one out, I have to warn you it is quite sexual in nature. The main character is masochistic and that plays an important role in the book. However, the author does not empoly the "fade to black" technique that I prefer to use. The freind that recommended this book to me forgot to mention this fact before lending me the book. It's still a good story, just not for everyone.)

Another book that I found interesting was Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell. It is set in nineteenth century England and it's about two men that break from traditional study of magic (where no magic is ever attempted) and set out to do magic first hand. (It's been a while since I read this book so I know I'm butchering this summary.) This one is a fantastic book, but because of the way it's written, (heavy prose written like a victorian novel, with the very un-victorian splash of magic) it is not for everyone.

My advice to you would be this: if you want Henry the 8th setting but you don't want Henry the 8th, change his name. Or if you don't mind having some of the story correlating with history, just make up the parts specific to your book. Don't get hung up on the little things. People are willing to set aside their perceptions when they pick up a book. If you've got a good story, no one will mind that it borrows from history.

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Member # 8147

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Have you read _Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell_ by Susanna Clarke? That's an example of an international bestseller that takes some gigantic liberties with history and pulls it off. I think there's no limit to what you can get away with as long as the story is compelling.

If it helps, you might want to consider that 'history' and 'the past' are two completely different things. There's an essay by Eavan Boland, I think, and I can't find it now, but it makes the point that so much of the past, particularly the past as it relates to women, is lost to history.

I'll bet the same applies to anyone who might have been famous or notorious within their own lifetimes but whose stories, for whatever reason, fail to fit conveniently into the narrative of history. It seems to me that fantastic events that undermine the prevailing narrative are just the sort of things that would be conveniently overlooked, or cast in a different light.

Causality is difficult to ascertain after the fact. We can't even agree on the causes of the Great Depression, or the current economic downturn. As a reader, if I read a well-told story where evil mages caused the housing bubble I'd be able to suspend disbelief and stay in the story, for example.

In short, I wouldn't let history get in the way of the story you want to tell. That's the beauty of fantasy; it can be anything you want it to be.

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Member # 3280

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I like the idea of just writing the story, but I fear the historical fiction readers. I don't want people complaining that historically, the dress should have been bundled in one way, when obviously, I just gathered (comment made on my Regency era dress made for Halloween trick or treating).

My limited forays into historical costume design may have jaded me a bit. I wanted inspired by outfits, not straight from the museum stuff and some of my friends who were more into historical costume design were pretty horrified by what I was willing to change. My story would be the same.

[This message has been edited by sholar (edited April 16, 2010).]

[This message has been edited by sholar (edited April 16, 2010).]

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Member # 2651

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If you explicitly set something within "real" history, then you will inevitably open yourself up to scrutiny and criticism from those who have knowledge of and interest in that historical period. Some people are broadly happy to do this, some people are certainly not.

If you simply like the setting of Henry VIII's England - whether for its costume, politcal background, whatever - but don't actually want to make use of specific historical events, then I think you'd be wise set it in an alternate world. If there are specific historical events you want to use (an example here might be Marie Brennan's "In Ashes Lie", all about the Great Fire of London but with a fantasy perspective), then go for the "real world" - but be prepared to either do a LOT of research and no matter how much you do be prepared for some people out there to penly criticise your work for not meeting their vision of reality.

I'm surprised you say most of the historical fiction you have read is about "peasants or people who would never make the history books" - most of the historical fiction I've read is exactly the opposite.

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Member # 3280

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Well, the servants or peasants or bastard children or time traveler or elf often interact with the royals, but the main character, whose intimate life we get to know is often made up and lowly enough to be overlooked by history. Or the writer makes huge efforts to be accurate on every detail of the person's life that is known and dramatizes the rest. Or they add supernatural beings who like to keep their presence unknown.
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Unless you have done significant amounts of research, I'd bag the historical angle and just set the thing in a place that's like 17th century England. If you've got a time traveler he/she can go to a different place and time. The experience is going to be 'off' anyway. That way you don't have to worry about people correcting your inadvertent anachronisms.

I wrote a story set in Victorian England, but I simply made up the name of the town and the large river that ran through it and turned it into a steampunk fantasy.

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"How do you guys draw the line between creating a new world and staying on earth? How much can you change history before it becomes an alternative history or time to just create a whole new world? "

On whether I am writing fantasy or science fiction. Science fiction often requires new biology, physics, or whatever - so introducing alien races or planet colonies of necessity requires new worlds.

As far as world building in fantasy, I almost always use an Earth-based system. Pretty much any fantasy story works on Earth merely by making it an alternate history or accepting that there was once a time (or, as in Terry Brooks' novels - there may come a time) when magic exists. Then you have ability to do everything else. Take JRR Tolkien, he had middle earth, which was an entirely created world - but he spent the time on the politics and races and history of the world. As far as geography or whatever goes, you could just say "yup. Once there were hobbits and elves and dwarves and dragons and evil things in the past. But now there aren't."

All ancient history.

The other thing I would warn about (of which I have also been a victim) is building a world merely for world building sake. Its very easy for the author to get more involved in the world than the reader. The author can be very proud of their created world (or magic weapons, or political system, or history, or whatever) and the reader doesn't really care. They just want a good story and only need explanation of world building when it helps the story flow.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Call it "alternate historical fantasy" and do whatever you like.
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If it's magic, it's already historical fantasy. :-)

The great thing about taking an established historical era and just changing the names (Anglaterra with its king Harry XI or whatever) is that you don't have to do the research. You can take exactly what you want from the historical era and change everything else to suit the needs of your story.

If you declare that your story is actually set IN sixteenth-century England, you pretty much have to do the research (assuming your eventual goal is publication). Otherwise anyone who knows more about the period than you do will rip your book to shreds.

When it's an alternate history or historical fantasy, you might be able to get away with changes in fashion, but there will be some base physical realities (geographical, if nothing else) that you can't ignore. Either you have to get them right or you have to justify why they've changed (e.g. fire-breathing dragons melted the Tower of London). My rule of thumb for myself is 1) know the historical reality 2) decide on the change 3) justify it as evolving out of the magic I've introduced into my version of reality.

If you're looking for resources on the era, shoot me an email and I'd be happy to help you out.

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