Updated: Aug 9, 2020
Hello, all. This is my first blog ever! I’m excited to share thoughts about my writing, what has influenced me, and what my future plans are.
When I started writing several years ago, my goal was not only to tell a thrilling adventure story but also to slip in a theme or two first voiced in the ancient past that is still pertinent today. It’s not that new wisdom and knowledge are not being generated now, but given that human nature has remained much the same over the millennia, much can be gleaned from history we can apply to modern life.
Why Historical Fiction?
In today’s blog, I’ll discuss my decision to make my first novel, Lost Scrolls of Archimedes, a work of historical fiction and not stray into historical fantasy or alternate history. This was easier said than done as my book dealt with technology not known to have existed in the time of my story (1st century B.C.). To do so, I had to avoid magical powers and keep the plot contained within what my research would show was a possibility, no matter how remote. The work had to be believable, even as it skirted the edge of the era’s scientific capabilities.
So, in this blog entry, I’ll discuss the differences between the genres of Historical Fiction, Historical Fantasy, Historical Romance, and Alternate History. They have several commonalities but differ in critical ways.
Historical Fiction. Historical Romance. Historical Fantasy. Alternate History. What do these terms mean, and what writing does each encompass? First, let me define each of these labels in the context of literary genres as I understand them.
Historical Fiction is a term used to describe a literary work of fiction where the primary plot and story action take place in a time at least 50 years in the past—measured from when the author wrote the story—and in which the time and setting play a prominent role.
Time and Place
The time and place often dictate how the action plays out and will rule out anything unreasonable. For example, you can’t take a trip by plane in ancient Egypt, right? The setting of the story also imposes restrictions on how the story’s characters act and even think. Though it’s not impossible for a character in the Dark Ages to see women as little more than property, it was not a common concept in the era. A story may want to illustrate enlightened beliefs in a character, and it’s acceptable as long as the author gives a reasonable basis for the belief.
The fictional world should also adhere to the physical, cultural, political, and scientific characteristics of the time and place. These elements set the stage upon which the action plays out. These parameters—the facts—the reader is familiar with, at least in broad terms, though the characters inhabiting the fictional world may not be aware of what these parameters are. And they may not even understand their meaning. In all cases, the story must be true to these basic tenants of the world.
As an exaggerated example, a Roman legionnaire can’t pull out a machine gun and start mowing down Hannibal’s troops. Likewise, Abraham Lincoln can’t show up in a historical fiction novel set in World War II.
To be authentic, characters should avoid modern slang or colloquialisms. It irks me somewhat to have a Roman soldier say “bloody hell” or another modern phrase. But I don’t like stories to use so much in the character dialog that you end up not knowing what they are talking about. As a reader, I like realistic dialog, but I also don’t want to be running to Google or Wikipedia every third sentence to get a definition of a word or concept. Even a glossary in the back of the book can get tiresome. As an author, I would rather sacrifice a little authenticity than make my story tedious or obscure.
Oh, Rhett... Not now, Scarlett. The Yankees are coming!
Most of you are acquainted with the characteristics of the modern Romance genre: love or a romantic relationship is the primary focus, and it’s usually between the major characters or between a protagonist and a secondary character. These stories can be aspirational, escapist, or both. For a contemporary/modern romance story, another dominant element is a happy ending, an emotionally fulfilling. Often the primary relationship in the story starts in a terrible place and tension builds as the characters warm to each other. For modern Historical Romance, the basic concepts are the same, but the story has a setting in the past. It is often the wildness and the inherent adventure found in those olden times that define another layer of conflict on top of the romantic/relationship conflict.
I say, chap. Magic in old London?
Before I discuss Historical Fantasy, let me define the Fantasy genre. Fantasy is a broad genre encompassing everything from Lord of the Rings to Alice Adventures in Wonderland. I’ll concentrate here on what I call epic or high fantasy. Fantasy stories need a lot of world-building by the author, as the reader needs to learn the makeup and internal “rules” of the world. Often, these worlds are a place other than Earth—although that is not an absolute requirement—and can be populated with either imaginary life forms or familiar flora and fauna or a mix. Fantasy can involve supernatural or god-like beings, good and bad, either created by the author’s imagination or based on the popular mythology of various cultures. While there may be monsters of various types (think dragons and krakens), the story characters are human or human-like (think elves, dwarves, and orcs). These stories often focus on the adventure and exploits of the chief hero/heroine. High Fantasy has escapist elements, but often also has high concept and premises. In most Fantasy, magic is a central focus, theme, or plot device of the story.
Historical Fantasy is a kind of crossover genre with features of both Historical Fiction and Fantasy. The stories take place in a world of familiar historical context, where everyday people co-exist with beings with magical powers. Often “regular” people are unaware of the existence of the fantasy characters or their superpowers. Magic exists, but only a group of elite initiates fighting evil forces know its secrets. For example, the Harry Potter books contain magic and fantastic creatures, and the setting is in the near past of 20th century Britain. Sometimes Historical Fantasy is set in a secondary world but one which has parallels to a known historical context and place (Renaissance Italy or Medieval Japan). Here, the author may ignore historical facts and events to give himself free rein to explore alternate paths.
Alternate paths? That brings us to the Alternate History (or Alternative History), a fiction genre in which one or more historical events are altered to create a changed but familiar world. The author may alter the historical facts to suit the needs of the story. Alternate History, often included in the speculative fiction genre, focuses on What-Ifs.
One of the first examples is Livy’s famous History of Rome (Ab Urbe Condita Libri) in the section where he speculates on what would have happened if Alexander the Great has not died young and had attacked west into Europe. Livy wonders how Rome would have handled the event.
A more recent example is the 1962 novel, The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick, in which he speculates on a world in which the Allied Powers lost World War II. It’s also the basis of the Amazon series of the same name. The king of Alternate History is Harry Turtledove, who has written a series of novels including themes such as the South wins the civil war, the Spanish Armada defeated the English in the Elizabethan era, and the British Colonies stay part of England as George Washington and King George make peace. This blend can make for some wild stories.
There or not there. That's the question.
In my historical fiction novel, Lost Scrolls of Archimedes, I strove to avoid the alternate history label by not changing any historical events and by leaving the knowledge in the scrolls to a handful of people. I also researched the scientific knowledge of the time, making use of new archeological discoveries that reveal the ancients to be far more advanced technologically than we ever suspected.
In particular, a book that influenced me was one by Jo Marchant, Decoding the Heavens, a fascinating story that continues today about the Antikythera device discovered off Greece by sponge divers in 1901. The device, on display in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens (which I had the great fortune to visit in 2013), is essentially a 2,000-year-old astronomical computer for calculating the positions of the moon, planets, predicting eclipses, and much more. It made use of gearing technology that we never suspected the ancients ever had. This was an example of technology that history knew not a whisper of and gave me the foundation for the technology I would use in Lost Scrolls of Archimedes.
For my novel, I also made sure that no written records of the story events are made by the characters. The story is like a ripple in a pool—there one moment in time and then gone without a trace the next. I’ll let you be the judge of whether I succeeded in walking the line between the two genres of Historical Fiction and Alternate History.
Now, dropping no spoilers for those who have not read Lost Scrolls of Archimedes, let me say a few words about the sequel I am planning for my Lost Artifacts series. Marcus, my protagonist, realizes his new reality. After the Roman Consul Octavian’s victory at the naval battle of Actium, there is nothing to stop the future Roman Emperor from overwhelming Marc Antony’s remaining troops and taking possession of both Cleopatra and the rich country of Egypt.
Marcus sees no haven for him in the Roman world and plans to flee East to the exotic land of India. It’s a long journey that will involve a caravan crossing of the desert from Gaza to the northern tip of the Red Sea and from there by ship down the Red Sea, pass the Horn of Africa, and into the Arabian Sea where the seasonal monsoon winds will propel him to the western coast of India.
Many adventures will ensue along the way. Marcus will, at last, meet the Oracle Prime. How will Marcus react when the top Oracle asks him to help study a new artifact that will magnify the impact of the new technologies revealed in the scrolls of Archimedes? Will he eschew a fresh adventure and stay with his plans for a new life in India? Or will he follow his old dream of bettering the world and choose a path that will take him into lands at the edges of the world known to the Romans?
So, there’s a slight peek at what’s in store for Book 2 of the Lost Artifacts series. I’m in the final outlining stages (yes, I’m a planner) now and hope to begin writing before this summer fades. Stay tuned to this blog as I report on my progress. In the meantime, please consider buying my book on Amazon (where the eBook has a new, lower price), Barnes and Noble, or Kobo.
If, like me, you enjoy ancient history, especially the lessons it can teach us, I recommend you check out the website Classical Wisdom. Their blogs are full of thoughts on how history can guide modern man and his societies.
Until next time, look to Ancient Dispatches to shine a light on your path.