Fantasy Focus: Historical Fantasy Featuring Marian L. Thorpe

Thank you for joining me to talk about your writing and about historical fantasy!

First, will you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?

The quick potted history – I’m 64, dual British/Canadian citizenship, have a bunch of degrees that have nothing to do with writing, been a research scientist, a high school teacher, a regional special education /assistive technology specialist; I’m a birder and an amateur landscape historian; married, no kids, one cat (at this point), and I’ve been retired from salaried work for 7 years, which means I can write full time, a huge privilege.

Will you talk a little about the Empire’s Legacy series?


The books fall into two distinct sets: the first trilogy, narrated by Lena (all the books are
written in first person) is a heroine’s journey, beginning with a choice to learn to fight to
defend her land and climaxing in a last, desperate battle. These three books have the most
traditional action (fighting) but it’s not a lot – none of the books are focused on battles,
but on personal growth and choice in the face of war, kidnap, and exile. The next two are
narrated by the musician Sorley, and the challenges are political and personal, focused in
both counts on betrayal and forgiveness. Empire’s Heir, the most recent, narrated by
Lena’s daughter Gwenna and Gwenna’s father, is a political thriller at one level, but also a
story about choices and sacrifices. But all of them are also (or maybe primarily) about
love, in many forms and for many things, both people and places, and its power in our
lives. Together the seven current books and the planned last two (Empress & Soldier will
be out later this year; Empire’s Passing 2023 or early 2024) make up a saga of choices,
betrayals, intrigue, and love, where some battles of power and politics are won with
swords – and some with words.

Your writing is considered historical fantasy. How would you define that subgenre?


Well, let’s start out by saying that not everyone considers my books historical fantasy,
because they are free of magic or magical beings in any form. The ‘fantasy’ in my books is
the societal structures, but they’re not alternate history either because the geography is
different and there is no deviation from real history. Think of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books but
without the ‘quarter turn to the fantastic’ of his, and you have my world.
Broadly, though, I would define historical fantasy as any book that uses history to form its
world, but either includes magic or a society so different that it is clearly not this world,
but a parallel, mirrored version of it.

What first drew you to writing historical fantasy?


I wanted to explore questions of society, sexuality and the choices people make about
personal happiness vs. the public good in a setting that wasn’t our world, but wasn’t so far
distant from it. But I wanted everything, good and bad, to be within the realm of human
choice and action, so I didn’t include magic. (I probably wouldn’t have the ability to create
a magic system.) But don’t get me wrong: I love well-conceived and well-written magical
fantasy, it just wasn’t what I wanted to write.

How did you decide which era (or civilization) you wanted to draw from when writing?
There was never any question. I’ve been interested in pre-Conquest British history for a
very long time, as well as Britanno-Roman history. When I started to write Empire’s
Daughter, the first of my series, the setting came automatically.

Does writing historical fantasy require a lot of research?


For me, yes. My world is loosely based on northern Europe/Rome/Byzantium between
about the 4th and 10th centuries of the common era. I want it to feel familiar but not quite
historical, so that my deviations from both history and social constructs aren’t going to
make people say, ‘but it didn’t/couldn’t happen that way’. So, I do a lot of research,
including travel to Hadrian’s Wall and Rome specifically for the books. When I deviate
from real history – for example in how my palace/city guard works in the Rome-analogue
city Casil – I want to know what it is I’m deviating from, and which pieces of reality I
should keep to make it seem real (or at least realer.)
I also am hopeless at writing battles, so to date all the battles in the books are based on
real ones: the final battle in Empire’s Exile is entirely the Battle of Maldon (until it isn’t, at
the very end) so I read multiple translations of the poem, looked at Google Earth images
of the site as it looks today and scholarly recreations of how it would have looked in the
10 th century, before I wrote the scene.

What are some obstacles to writing in this subgenre?


I actually haven’t found any, except that because my books aren’t fantasy in a lot of
people’s minds, they are hard to market using the genres Amazon and other platforms
subdivide books into. But that’s a problem specific to my books, not the subgenre overall.

What are some of its strengths?


I love the fact that I’m not bound by historical fact or timelines, which I would be if I wrote
pure historical fiction. I borrow from a number of cultures and events that fall into early-
medieval/late classical history, but they’re not in the ‘right’ order. Plus, with the genre’s
long history, I can include echoes of older stories which create resonance in some readers
but are very subtle. There are a lot of Arthurian themes in my books, but they are not
blatant, or direct, but reflections.

I love that you have Arthurian influences in your books because there can be so much to
draw from. Do any modern ideas and beliefs find their way into your historical fantasy?


Oh, that’s a tough question. Many people might say my approach to sexuality and
women’s rights in the books are modern ideas and beliefs, but I’m not convinced they are:
much expression of sexuality and the rights and contributions of women were suppressed
by religions and historians writing from male viewpoints and entrenched beliefs. (The
inclusion of a reliable birth control method is modern: ancient peoples had their methods,
and the herb anash, the birth control herb in my series, is inspired by silphium, a plant of
antiquity with multiple uses, including birth control, that is now extinct. But it probably
wasn’t as reliable.) Otherwise, other than that we all write from our own experiences,
which are inevitably shaped by the time we live in; I try to avoid obviously modern
concepts.

How do you get in “the writing zone”, so to speak?


I’m a morning writer, so generally I start the day (after and with coffee) by re-reading
what I wrote in the last session, making a few changes, and then going on from there. I
aim for about 800 words a day – I’m a slow writer, so that takes me about two hours.
In good weather I bike or walk for about 90 minutes most days, which is thinking time, and
I also go for long country drives alone, which is even more thinking time. If I’m stuck, I
read – going back into the research books often triggers something, and sometimes fiction
does too. If I’m really stuck, that’s telling me something’s wrong with the story, so I have
to take some thinking time to figure out what.

Who are some of your go-to authors?


Guy Gavriel Kay, first and foremost. Then Neil Gaiman. Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro,
Jonathan Nevair, Bjorn Larssen, and Karen Heenan – they’re about the only living authors
whose books I will automatically buy. I read a lot of non-fiction, so there it would be Guy
de la Bédoyère and Mary Beard on Roman history; Robert MacFarlane, John Lewis-
Stempel and Tim Dee on landscape and nature; Annie Whitehead on Anglo Saxon history,
Cat Jarman for Viking history.

Who do I re-read for the sheer pleasure of the books? Tolkien, Susan Cooper, Elizabeth A
Lynn, Mary Stewart, Rosamund Pilcher, Annie Dillard (and Kay, always.) The books that
shaped me as a writer, the writers who taught me how to write.

About the author:

Taught to read at the age of three, words have been central to Marian’s life for as long as
she can remember. A novelist, poet, and essayist, Marian has several degrees, none of
which are related to writing. After two careers as a research scientist and an educator, she
retired from salaried work and returned to writing things that weren’t research papers or
reports.
Her first published work was poetry, in small journals; her first novel was released in
2015. Empire’s Daughter is the first in the Empire’s Legacy series: second-world historical
fiction, devoid of magic or other-worldly creatures and based to some extent on northern
Europe after the decline of Rome.  In addition to her novels, Marian has read poetry, short
stories, and non-fiction work at writers’ festivals and other juried venues.
Marian’s other two passions in life are birding and landscape history, both of which are
reflected in her books. Birding has taken her and her husband to all seven continents. Prior
to the pandemic, she and her husband spent several months each year in the UK, for both
research and birding, and she is desperately hoping to return.

Purchase link: https://books2read.com/marianlthorpe