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Building something new over the familiar

Building something new over the familiar

Natasha Pulley, author of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, explains how historical fantasy books build upon the ruins of the past

Posted on 22nd August 2015 by Natasha Pulley

Historical fantasy is an odd, lovely genre, and its doing quite well at the moment. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Penny Dreadful, Outlander theyre all a blend. But it is a genre in horrible danger of looking lazy. I think there are lots of people who would say that history is quite interesting enough without the insertion of unnecessary elves who possibly cover over the fiddly bits the writers cant be bothered to research. And history alone is interesting enough, which is why we have historical fiction. Historical fantasy is doing something quite different, and it isnt in the least about not wanting to research properly.

From a distance, fiction looks as though its all rather cool and hieratically mysterious creative processes, but then you hear phrases like world building, plot construction, deconstruction, character development, machinery, and quickly it becomes obvious that the whole thing is nothing more mysterious than a building site. Different genres build differently, but they do all build. Fantasy writers are stonemasons. They chisel out their own marble and design all their own structures, from scratch. The way historical fiction builds is much more like an archaeological reconstruction. It finds facts carefully and brushes the dust from them, and starts putting them all back together as well as it can. Im a truly rubbish stonemason and so ninety per cent of what I write is researched history.

The trouble, though, is that history is full of lost things. When you write historical fiction, you make, at first, a kind of ruin, because from the moment a thing happens, whats known about it erodes. Peoples memories are unreliable, some things go unrecorded altogether, and after a while, language shifts; even if events are recorded in perfect detail, what would have been plain reading to anybody at the time becomes a contested academic exercise. One of my tutors at university, probably the cleverest person Ive ever met, wrote a forty page article on four words of Old English, wyrd bith ful araed, a phrase that probably most Anglo Saxons could have explained in a few sentences. Immediacy the sharp edge is lost quickly. Over time whole structural chunks disappear, sometimes so much that you cant see enough to really know what it all used to look like.

A piece of writing becomes historical fiction rather than historical fact when it guesses at what fills the gaps. Where academic writing leaves those gaps in, and keeps the ruin exactly, fiction restores the worn-away bits and sharpens things until the building stands whole, maybe as it really once did, maybe not, but brought to life again.

Fantasy in historical fiction goes a step further. It says, well, I like the look of this place, but Id rather go over it a bit. Perhaps the windows were smaller to begin with, but Im going to rebuild them taller, and the roof is going to be twenty feet higher, and perhaps this light was all right in nineteen hundred but its wretchedly dim now. To a point, its about restoration and reconstruction. But its also about building something new over something familiar. Some people do that in the style of the time, and so a reader looking at the result casually might not be able to tell whats new and whats original. Some people will remodel the whole thing and make it clear where the newness is; in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, for example, Belgium is moved briefly to America, but I dont think anyone was fooled into thinking that that was historical fact. How smooth the grafts between history and fantasy are, and how bold they are and how many, depends on the architect.

It can seem mercenary to take a piece of history and put a chunk of something made up on the side of it, but its quite valid to do that in real architecture rather than in the story-making kind. Theres an Anglo Saxon church in Oxford, about a thousand years old now. The tower is a bit crumbly and even in an elderly street in an elderly city, it stands out as being especially ancient. But its got glass doors. Whether or not you like glass doors in churches is up to you, but the urge to put glass doors in an old church is the same as the one to put fantasy into history. It isnt lazy, or out to trick anyone; its Grand Designs.

Related books

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (Hardback)

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (Hardback)

Natasha Pulley




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