Please welcome Michael Livingston to the blog! His new book, The Shards of Heaven, just came out this month, and he stopped by with a great guest post about writing historical fantasy!
Though I never stopped to think about it, writing a historical fantasy set during the rise of the Roman Empire — as I’ve done in my novel The Shards of Heaven — might well be one of the more foolish things one could aim to do as a writer: that time period and that place present equal difficulties from both the historical and the fantasy parts of that equation.
That’s not to say that every setting doesn’t have its troubles. Writing a novel is rarely easy, after all; every book has its own set of unique challenges whether due to characters, styles, or intricacies of plot. Every book is difficult in some measure.
But some are more difficult than others, and I think setting goes a long way toward that determination.
Write a novel set in the real world, for example, and you don’t need to work very much to establish the world in which your characters move. The clothes of the characters are the clothes of the reader. The surrounding culture and mindset is (more or less) the reader’s culture and mindset. Set a book in modern Barcelona, for instance, and you can go and touch the earth there. You can smell the sea. That’s convenient stuff.
The more you push your setting back in time, however, the more you increase the difficulties you face as a writer. A setting in pioneer Nebraska is relatively easy to imagine, but the 11th-century Kievan court of Yaroslav the Wise is a very strange place for any of us to picture. (But don’t think I haven’t tried!)
Go far enough back, of course, and at least one of your problems as a writer disappears: when we know hardly anything of the culture and society — say 10,000 years ago — you’ve got a fairly clean slate as a writer. Barring any real historical howlers (“Ugg flipped his lucky nickel to decide which club to grab from the rack in the foyer”) it’s pretty hard for folks to say you got the history wrong when no one truly knows the history.
About the hardest thing you can do, though, is to hit that sweet spot of being so distant from present reality that you’ll have to do a lot of explaining, while also being close enough in history for there to be gobs of mistakes you might make, and thousands upon thousands of devotees of the period ready to call you out on each and every peccadillo and mortal sin.
About the hardest thing, in other words, is to set a novel in a place like ancient Rome.
I noted up above that The Shards of Heaven is a historical fantasy, and you might think that the second part of that identification — the not-real part — could make things easier. A lot of people think that about fantasy in general: it’s easy, because magic allows you to do what you want. This is true in a relative sense, of course: magic does tend to break the “rules” of real-world physics. Yet magic nevertheless still works within its own set of rules. It sets boundaries of its own, integral to the world in which it is ensconced.
And in The Shards of Heaven I had perhaps the most difficult boundaries of all: the limitations of the very real time and place that we know so well. I had to maintain the rule system of the magical elements in the tale while simultaneously working to preserve the rules of our historical facts of the period.
Seen in retrospect it was, as I said above, a rather foolish undertaking, but it’s also one I would gladly do over again. Because no matter the troubles and the trials, bringing history and fantasy together made for a different kind of adventure. When it worked — and I hope it worked more often than not — it was absolutely thrilling.
Plus, no matter what anyone else says, I’d like to live in a world of magic — even if that magic must be hidden away, a fantastical secret backstory to the historical facts we know. That’s what I tried to accomplish in The Shards of Heaven. Whether I was successful or not — and whether this really was worth trying in the first place — depends on you, dear readers.
For the sake of the next volumes in the series, I hope it is a yes!
About the author:
MICHAEL LIVINGSTON holds degrees in history, medieval studies, and English. He is an Associate Professor of English at the Citadel, specializing in the Middle Ages. His short fiction has been published in Black Gate, Shimmer, Paradox, and Nature. MichaelLivingston.com. @MedievalGuy.
About The Shards of Heaven:
Julius Caesar is dead, assassinated on the senate floor, and the glory that is Rome has been torn in two. Octavian, Caesar’s ambitious great-nephew and adopted son, vies with Marc Antony and Cleopatra for control of Caesar’s legacy.
But as civil war rages from Rome to Alexandria, and vast armies and navies battle for supremacy, a secret conflict may truly shape the course of history: two sons of Caesar have set out on a ruthless quest to find and control the Shards of Heaven, legendary artifacts said to possess the very power of the gods — or of the one God.
Caught up in these cataclysmic events, and the hunt for the Shards, are a pair of exiled Roman legionnaires, a Greek librarian of uncertain loyalties, assassins, spies, slaves . . . and the ten-year-old daughter of Cleopatra herself.
The Shards of Heaven reveals the hidden magic behind the history we know, and commences a war greater than any mere mortal battle.