There are ethical problems wrapped up in writing historical fiction. Should you use a real, once-living person as a character in your fiction? Their lives reduced to nothing more than plot points and themes? In essence, a human being’s existence shackled to the pursuit of the writer’s own ego?
Would you want some future author to make you the bad guy in their little story, the walk-on joke, the mumbling idiot, the obstacle?
And let’s face it, we don’t even know what the people around us are truly like, never mind those who existed hundreds of years ago. In those cases, we often only have a few scraps of paper to sketch out the things they did, with little hint to their motivation.
This becomes even more of an issue in fantasy, where the historical characters are divorced from the realities of their lives. It’s something I’ve certainly struggled with while writing the Swords of Albion books, which utilise a host of real people from the Elizabethan age. To be honest, even after writing I find it hard to decide if it was the right thing to do. I justified it to myself by my attempts to make the historical figures as true to how contemporary accounts described them, but that still leaves a great deal of psychological gap-filling.
The Sword of Albion and The Scar-Crow Men are set around the Court and Government of Queen Elizabeth, but she plays only a secondary role. I have less interest in the cosseted lives of Kings and Queens than I do in the men and women who do their bidding.
The stories concern spies, who had, for the first time, become a powerful weapon of the state in this era. And so in the first book one of the central characters is the spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, a dour, puritanical man who suffered much personal misery in his life, but who gave his all in service to the Queen. His successor in The Scar-Crow Men is Sir Robert Cecil, a clever, cunning politician who battled against prejudice and mockery for his hunchback and short stature – the Queen called him her ‘Little Elf’. These two men represent different approaches to power and control, one quite honorable, the other self-serving. They act as counterpoints to the flawed, vacillating central character, the spy Will Swyfte.
Swyfte’s friend is the acclaimed playwright Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare who wrote Dr Faustus and Tamburlaine among other plays. He was something of a rising celebrity at the time. He may have been a spy (there is some evidence); he may have been gay. In the books, Marlowe is another counterpoint to Swyfte, a man slowly being destroyed by the dark business of spying and the demands placed upon him by service to the state. Marlowe allows the reader to see Swyfte’s strengths and flaws more easily.
Despite my antipathy towards the lives of Royalty, the fact that important people play important roles is inescapable in this era. The common man was mainly concerned with simple economic survival. And so, as Swyfte travels the known world in his spying, we encounter James VI of Scotland (and future James I of England), Philip II of Spain and Henri of Navarre, the future Henri IV of France. Each one responds – and responded – in different ways to their regal status, and again, each one allows us to see Swyfte in a different light.
Dr John Dee is a key figure in both books, and the third, to come, and he really is the link between the history and the fantasy. Dee, who tutored the young Elizabeth, was both a scientist and an occultist, an inventor and mathematician who communed with angels and cast magic circles. Many of the themes I’m tackling have Dee at their centre.
There are others – Sir Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, the Earls of Leicester and Essex, the master criminal Laurence Pickering, the King of Cutpurses, who may or may not have been an invention of the Elizabethan equivalent of the tabloids. Each one was chosen carefully for what they said about Will Swyfte, in the same way that any writer chooses supporting fictional characters.
I hope I did them justice, but know in my heart I didn’t. No writer could.
When I decided I was going to write an historical fantasy, the attractions of the Elizabethan era were many. It was, for one, a time very much like our own, when society was going through massive changes – a rapid increase in new technology changing the way people lived their lives, foreign wars over resources and in pursuit of power, religious intolerance and religiously-motivated acts against the state funded by foreign powers, heightened surveillance at home, a fear of foreigners among the common man, rising wealth for a few but near-poverty for many, and massive leaps forward in art, literature and music. Not only would we understand the Elizabethan man and woman, there were stark resonances with our own age that would add a nice layer of complexity to any story.
Spain was the sixteenth century equivalent of the US, a global superpower influencing geo-politics at many levels. Under King Philip, the country ruthlessly pursued power and wealth, invading Portugal and putting pressure on France and the Low Countries while exploiting the New World’s resources of gold and silver. Though a devout man, Philip was not averse to using religion as a cover for some of Spain’s more aggressive actions and thereby keeping his subjects firmly behind him.
Beside Spain, England was a small nation with ambition and pluck, but little real power and no great wealth. Thanks to Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic church, the nation lived in a near-constant state of fear of either retribution from the Catholic powers of Europe or insurrection within from Catholic agitators. Young priests were being trained in foreign seminaries and sent to England to foment revolution and to spy. The Government feared Philip’s expansionist policy and rumours of an invasion of England began long before the Armada set sail.
This was a dark time of terror and sweat and deceit. Yet in a sequence of stories that were essentially about duality, I could also look to the other, more positive face of the time. This, too, was the English Renaissance, with Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser, Bacon and other writers blazing a trail, alongside composers like Tallis and Taverner, and architects like Inigo Jones. There was a great deal of enlightenment after long centuries of moral repression. Brothels were tolerated, including one composed entirely of young men. London was growing at an astonishing rate – faster than it could truly cope – and had become one of the great cities of Europe. So it was an exciting, vibrant time too.
The stories were to be about the point where fantasy collided with reality, but the more I researched, the more comparable and contextual collisions I found – socially, culturally, religious, political. Any fantasy – any story – needs a rich world and plenty of innate conflict. It was all here.
And while England was increasingly embracing what would come to be science, it still had the supernatural fears of past centuries at its back. The Elizabethan era was really the point where the country was caught between reason and unreason, hope and fear, past and future.
With the idea of a country trying to move forward while held back by the hooks of a superstitious past came the opening for my antagonists, the otherworldly Unseelie Court. Their existence was encoded in every myth and legend and folktale; the English had always lived in fear of the Fair Folk. But under Queen Elizabeth, England wanted to break free of their shackles and move into a new, brighter age.
Next time I’ll look at some of the historical characters who populate The Sword of Albion and The Scar-Crow Men and why I chose them.
The Scar-Crow Men, the second of my Elizabethan fantasy novels, is out soon in the US and UK. It’s fantasy noir, renaissance punk, historical fantasy, sword and sorcery, historical urban fantasy or one of half a dozen other labels, depending on who’s speaking. Like some of my other work, the story exists at the point where the fantastic smashes up hard against reality, only in this sequence that reality is in the past, five hundred years gone, among well-documented, pivotal events.
Writing historical fantasy – to adopt the broadest label – has its own peculiar demands. We’re talking about an alien world here, with its own customs, clothes, politics, transport, weapons, social classes, art, music and economy and every aspect needs to be fully realized for the reader to settle into it.
To say this entails a massive amount of research, doesn’t begin to do the job justice. The writer needs to understand everything, both as its own thing and in context within the time period. This involves more than the invention of a secondary world fantasy, more than looking out of the window or Googling or location research for a contemporary fantasy (both of which I’ve written in the past).
Our knowledge of history degrades the further back we go. Characters walk on stage and then disappear. Our understanding of events is based on often-biased accounts. And sometimes there are vast parts of life that are simply missing in contemporary accounts.
The Elizabethan Age is reasonably well-documented, particularly with regard to affairs of state. The lives of the common men and women are there too, but the information is scattered widely. While writing this sequence, I sometimes had to embark on three different strands of research for a single sentence.
The Scar-Crow Men unfolds in the shadow of the murder of the playwright Christopher Marlowe, a killing that has all the mystery and intrigue of the JFK assassination. The previous volume, The Sword of Albion (or The Silver Skull in the US), is set at the time of the Armada and the Spanish invasion of England.
Over a few posts here I’m going to be writing about what goes into creating these historical fantasies, looking at the places, the people, the milieu, not only setting the context but also underlining the basic premise that the more reality you get, the more effective the fantasy.
Here’s an excellent short lecture by Sir Ken Robinson (and very funny too – he’s a natural stand-up).
“The school system came into being to meet the needs of industrialisation… You were probably steered away from things you liked doing as a kid on the grounds that you would never get a job doing it. Don’t do music – you won’t be a musician. Don’t do art – you won’t be an artist. Benign advice. Now, profoundly mistaken.”
“Literature, meanwhile, is so intrinsically involved with magic’s very substance that the two may be effectively considered as the same thing. Spells and spelling, Bardic incantations, grimoires, grammars, magic a “disease of language” as Aleister Crowley so insightfully described it. Odin, Thoth and Hermes, magic-gods and scribe-gods. Magic’s terminology, its symbolism, conjuring and evocation, near-identical to that of poetry. In the beginning was the Word. ”
Alan Moore wrote a sprawling, in-depth and typically smart study of the occult for Kaos Magazine called Fossil Angels. The magazine folded before publication, but you can now read the piece online. The quote, above, comes from part two.
Harlan Ellison on the idiots who write for free, and the idiots who ask them to do it.
If I had to choose one book that had the greatest influence upon me during my formative years, it would be Harlan’s short story collection, Deathbird Stories – and when I say influence, I don’t just mean writing, but philosophically and politically too.
At Fantasycon 2010 this past weekend, I moderated a panel discussing the tightrope authors have to walk between writing what they want and maintaining a commercial career in the current tough publishing environment. For anyone aspiring to be an author, it’s essential listening:
(The sound quality may not be great in parts due to microphone malfunction, but it does improve if you persevere. Many thanks to Adele at Un:Bound for getting it all down.)
The panel guests are Saran Pinborough, Mark Morris, Conrad Williams and Tim Lebbon, all horror authors now working in other areas. We touched on why horror is commercially dead as a genre (as opposed to individual novels) and the difficult issues facing writers of SF and fantasy in an industry going through a period of rapid change.
It’s worth another blogpost on the challenges facing all the speculative genres in the coming years, I think. Whatever you’re used to on the genre front, the landscape is going to look very different.