This year I’m doing a new series on my blog: Fantasy Focus. Each month, I’m focusing on a different fantasy subgenre. Fantasy is such a broad genre with so many different things to offer. So far, there have been focuses on Comedic Fantasy, Romantic Fantasy, Grimdark, Urban Fantasy, and Epic/High Fantasy.
This month the focus is on historical fantasy, and I’m delighted to feature Angela Boord, author of Fortune’s Fool.
Writing Historical Fantasy: It’s the Vibes
by Angela Boord
In a blog series on historical fantasy, it’s probably not surprising to hear that I cut my adult fantasy teeth on the books of Guy Gavriel Kay. I liked how juicy his worlds were, how real, how they took history and transformed it into something at once familiar and strange. That’s always been the draw of historically-inspired fantasy for me, how recognizable history can give a world detail and depth, especially when it takes that “quarter turn to the fantastic”.
My own Renaissance-inspired fantasy, Fortune’s Fool, follows a slightly different strategy to hopefully end up at a similar place. A lot of historical fantasies, including many of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books, base their worlds firmly on instantly recognizable earth-history analogues. As an example, I would venture to say that most Renaissance-inspired fantasies usually include a Church everyone knows is the Catholic Church with a different name. But I thought it might be fun to reconstruct the process I went through in building an historically-inspired fantasy that relies on something different for recognition: the historical vibe.
Finding an historical vibe that makes a world feel like history without using the same structures of earth-history (like the Renaissance Church) can be challenging. You have to make a lot of choices along the way. What do you import, and what can be left behind? What is absolutely necessary to get the feel of a place and time, and what can you riff on? Writing historically-inspired fantasy is a little like being a jazz musician in that way. You work in a recognizable framework, but there’s a lot of room for improvisation.
Consider the following a case history of historical riffing—or the nuts and bolts of writing an historical epic based on a history that doesn’t exist.
Coming up with the Original Idea for Fortune’s Fool
All my stories start with a character who walks into my brain and won’t leave. Kyrra walked in one day and dropped an opening line that made me sit up and pay attention: “My right arm is made of metal”. Trying to scientifically tease apart the process of story creation is almost impossible, but somehow Kyrra also connected with another idea that had been nagging me since reading Romeo and Juliet in high school. I’d always hated the idea of Romeo and Juliet being a romance; it only made sense as a tragedy to me, and a somewhat ridiculous and yet sadly believable tragedy at that. After Kyrra claimed her portion of my brain, I started wondering, what would have happened if Romeo and Juliet hadn’t killed themselves? What kind of consequences would they face? And from there I wondered, what if I took this whole issue of a love affair between feuding Houses and wrote more about what happens after? What if I made it fantasy?
With that in mind, I had my setting. But Renaissance Italy—in particular Venice, which I used for all the reasons everybody uses Venice, because canals are cool—is hardly original, so I started thinking about all the ways I could make it mine. Kyrra had introduced herself by telling me she had a metal arm, where had that come from? Why had she lost her arm?
It was answering these why character questions that set me off into building a fantasy world based mostly on historical vibes. I borrowed cultural details more than strictly historical ones and layered in my own worldbuilding. I decided to dive into the Renaissance drive to recover classical knowledge, so instead of a Church, my world has a pantheon of scheming Greco-Romanesque gods. I included an ancient, fallen empire but I based it more on the Etruscans than the Romans, messed around with spelling, and came up with the name Eterean. I was tired of reading generic medieval fantasy, so I wrote England out of my world and made it Mediterranean instead, facing more south and east than west. I shamelessly cribbed a possibly apocryphal story about an Italian merchant stealing silk worm eggs from China by stuffing them in his pockets. I made sure all my names sounded Italian. But my world was becoming an amalgamation of changes that served the story rather than sticking with anything just because it was part of the Renaissance in our world.
There were more pieces to Kyrra’s story. Kyrra disguised herself as a man, and mercenaries were a very fantasy-friendly aspect of the Italian Renaissance, so…she was definitely going to be a mercenary. And guns. The Renaissance interested me because it was such a transitional period in almost everything, and that included warfare. The Italian Wars of the late sixteenth century were the first wars in which portable guns (arquebus) and gunpowder were used to definitively alter the outcome of battles, but at the same time, soldiers were still using swords and pikes; plate armor was in the process of phasing out. The era was a fertile jumble of the ancient, the merely old, and the new. It seemed like nobody knew where they were going, but they were headed there very quickly. I wanted to capture that feeling of change in my book, too, and I did it by introducing guns and a war that devastated Kyrra’s city—a war that like Helen of Troy, she was blamed for starting. Again, I was reaching more for echoes of a time rather than specific actual events.
While I noodled about the basic idea, I also plundered my books about Renaissance history. Then I was ready to write, yes?
Well, kind of.
Initially I thought Fortune’s Fool was going to be a short novella in which Juliet got her revenge on a Romeo who had used and discarded her in service to his family’s political scheming. By the time I got to the end, I knew it was not going to be a novella. That early draft, in which Kyrra slices Cassis di Prinze’s arm off in retribution for the loss of her own, introduced more questions than it answered. As soon as I finished, I knew it was only the outline of a much, much larger story. All because Kyrra had introduced one name in the telling: Arsenault. The man who made her arm.
The result of me wanting to know more about Arsenault was a 700 page novel contrasting the devastating effects of a bad teenage love affair to a mature love between two people truly devoted to each other—whose only goal was to see the other safe and whole with little regard for themselves. It opened up a huge world which was far deeper than I expected and sent me off to research (to date): Viking mercenaries, traditional silk growing and weaving, Renaissance amputations, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Nigerian cuisine, traditional vodka production, pirate codes, Etruscan burial practices and religion, ancient Carthage, Italian folk magic… by now, the list is really long, and will certainly only get longer.
The manuscript for Fortune’s Fool sat in my closet for a long time, because my kids were little and there were a lot of them. When I finally pulled it out, technology had advanced, and I had access to google! (I said there were a lot of kids, right?) As I dismantled and re-mantled the book into the shape I wanted, I could stop and look up what Italian peasant women wore in the Renaissance (a simple dress called a guarnello), how Renaissance soap was made (sometimes scented with tea), and watch endless videos about traditional silk production. These smaller details helped build a word that could be tasted, smelled, and felt, but I started to feel like I was getting bogged down. What was the point of building my own world if all I was doing was using details from ours? Why not just layer magic into actual Venice?
It was a good question. The bottom line was: Because I didn’t want to. And also, I’m a little lazy and it’s fun to make stuff up. My forthcoming portal fantasy is partially set in Illinois in 1988, and working on that book is an exercise in not being able to fudge small details, like: what day of the week was Halloween in that year? (Saturday—which worked out well for me). What songs and movies were out in May? How much did a calzone and a coke cost? (I lived through the 80’s but I honestly can’t remember, except that it was much less.)
My solution in Fortune’s Fool was to lean harder into the gods and magic, but also to make the world itself just a tiny bit more fantasy. I introduced a species of giant silk moth whose larvae spun burgundy silk exclusively for Kyrra’s family. I’ve had a number of readers ask me if all the silk stuff is real, including the giant moths, and the answer is 98% of it is as realistic as I could make it. The two imaginary elements I added—the giant moths and the exaggerated length of the combergirls’ fingernails, which they use to pull apart the cocoons—seem to fit seamlessly into the details I pulled from the real world, and happily, most readers seem to think it all feels real.
I usually put my books through a couple of big revisions. A friend of mine dubbed the first revision my “inflationary draft” because I usually add a lot of words instead of cutting. I also do at least one major revision after I get feedback, which includes comments from my trusted readers, editors, and any sensitivity readers I’ve hired. I didn’t hire sensitivity readers for Fortune’s Fool because I didn’t know they existed at that point, but I did hire expert readers for Smuggler’s Fortune and the forthcoming sequel to Fortune’s Fool, Fool’s Promise. Their feedback was invaluable, not only for developing the characters of Razi and LiSang in Smuggler’s Fortune and Jon Barra in Fool’s Promise, but also for making the world deeper in general. One of the most valuable aspects of sensitivity reader feedback, for me—and one which doesn’t get talked about a lot—is the questions they ask about the worldbuilding, which always ends up making the world more real, meaningful, specific, and consistent. After receiving sensitivity reader feedback on Smuggler’s, I spent a week or two reading about the Order of Assassins, Zoroastrianism, and male veiling among the Tuareg. This research—which I didn’t know I needed to do until my reader suggested I should–gave me a better handle on Razi, an elite Qalfan fighter who’s also a bit of a hedonist. In fact, it helped me see why he was a hedonist; his religion considers it a sin not to enjoy the good things in life.
Is the worldbuilding done after Book 1 is published?
Writers are often compared to magpies, exceptionally curious birds which, like many members of the corvid family, collect random objects. A quick check on Wikipedia (because my daughter is a birder and will expect me to get my bird story straight) informs me that magpies are often said to collect shiny objects, especially wedding rings, but Science has determined that this isn’t exactly true; they have no preference for collecting shiny objects over dull ones. I had no idea magpies were supposed to steal wedding rings, but now that knowledge will sit in my brain amid the other shiny, dull, interesting, and just plain odd bits and pieces of information I’ve collected over the years, waiting for the opportunity to become exactly what I need to tell a story.
Is worldbuilding done after book 1 is published and the series has a foundation? Well, not if you’re me. In the first place, I’m constantly magpie-ing new information, and in the second place, I’m the kind of writer who doesn’t realize what I don’t know until I need to know it. For me, the mark of a rich world is that there are constantly new areas to explore, more ways to make the fantastic feel like history—always new ways to riff on what has come before to make your own historically-inspired music.
About the author:
Angela Boord writes giant fantasy books that blend genres–from romance and historical to espionage and epic and beyond. She likes collecting weird historical and scientific trivia to turn into scenes in her books, and she thinks way too much about food. Her Eterean Empire series, including SPFBO 5 finalist and Stabby-nominated FORTUNE’S FOOL, is historical fantasy inspired by Renaissance Italy with gunpowder and romance and big battles. Her Rai Ascendant series, forthcoming in 2022, is Cold War portal fantasy inspired by all those spy novels she read as a teenager.
Angela lives in Mississippi with her husband and the six of their nine kids still under the age of eighteen, where she writes most of her books at the kitchen table surrounded by Nerf guns and Legos.
Fortune’s Fool (which will be on sale for $0.99 from Jun 24 to Jun 30 for its publication anniversary)