Fierce Fantasy Night – Writing Panel Recap

Fierce Fantasy Night

Writing Panel Recap

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Unsouled by Will Wight




Historical Fantasy vs. Historical Fiction

Knight of the Temple by AlfredssonIt has been almost eight years since I’ve been on stage — twelve since I’ve been in a major role — and yet I still have the Actor’s Nightmare at least once a month. It’s always the same: it’s opening night, and I realize that I haven’t even looked at my lines yet, much less memorized them. I can’t find my script, and for some reason my costume is ridiculous. But because the show must go on, I always enter stage right bravely, and fake it as much as possible. It doesn’t matter how often I have this dream; it always leaves me feeling stressed and panicked. I would have hoped that after all these years my psyche might be allowed to recover, but I guess ten seasons acting in and running a Shakespearean theater company have left a big impression.

The theater doesn’t just haunt my dreams. It also haunts my writing. I’ve written eight novels now, and of those eight, only one of them does not feature stage acting in some degree. I’ve written about Victorian theater on Drury Lane, community theater in modern-day California, futuristic acting in science fiction, and, naturally, a Shakespearean-esque troupe in a fantastical Elizabethan setting. The latter holds the most sway for me since I am a devoted Shakespearean aficionado, and you can always tell what play I was in while writing certain novels: I tend to steal lines. But in all of those books, theater was a minor subplot, and it wasn’t until I read Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun and Dead Man in Deptford that I found enough inspiration to make it the main backdrop in my latest novel Cast of Illusions.

Dragon Race by AndyFairhurstI could have written straight historical fiction showcasing Shakespeare himself, but that’s been done — overly, in my opinion, as of late. Also, well-researched, realistic historical fiction would have no place for the female actor I wanted, nor a religious subplot with pagan origins. Then there’s the fact that I am apparently incapable of writing anything that does not deal, even in a small degree, with the supernatural.

What I wrote instead was an historical fantasy, which allowed me to tweak the setting and facts in ways that allowed for these extra elements. While Cast of Illusions is set on a different planet, the country of Salsima is recognizable enough with its playhouses on the river, bear pits, doublets and rapiers. But happily for those actors, I’ve moved up the law by almost a hundred years that allows women to act on stage. Imagine what it was like for men to actually kiss a woman on stage for the first time, after hundreds and hundreds of kisses with boys (yes, and I’m sure many preferred it that way). Imagine what it was like for the audiences! And imagine, too, if there were an elfin-like people who wreaked havoc with that country’s religion…imagine if they kidnapped a princess, and actors were blackmailed into impersonating a rescue party. What if there were mind links with animals, shape-shifting wolves and vicious faeries?

Lady of the Lake by Michael KomarckThere is only so much fact-twisting you can expect readers to tolerate with historical fiction. But there are no limits when you’re writing fantasy. Myths and legends can now come to life, but because the setting is based on a real time and place, fantastical elements are usually kept at a minimum.

I’ve been a huge fan of historical fantasy since reading Guy Gavriel Kay back in the late nineties. To me, he is the master of this subgenre, which, increasingly, is one of the only fantasy subgenres I will read. You could call George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series historical fantasy, since it’s loosely based on the War of the Roses, and keeps its fantastical elements in check. Another good example is The Mists of Avalon, which brings to life the Arthurian legend, but with plenty of magic.

So while the man himself does not make an appearance in Cast of Illusions per se, I do have a playwright with a receding hairline and a long forehead. He’s not my principal character, but rather the person my protagonist aspires to be. Too bad he’ll be caught up in a courtly intrigue that plunges him into treachery and treason. But then again, he’ll find himself in a situation worthy of one of his plays. And for years to come, he’ll dream the Actor’s Nightmare.

What’s your favorite historical fantasy novel?

Title image by AndyFairhurst.



  1. Interestingly, my favourite probably sits somewhere between historical fantasy and historical fiction – The King Must Die, by Mary Renault. It’s a real time and place, but it’s so long ago that a lot is guesswork/made up, and it’s about mythical events (Theseus and the Minotaur). I’d recommend it to anyone who likes historical fantasy, even though I suppose it’s not strictly fantasy.

  2. Avatar Quillet says:

    Great article. And oh my, I’ve had the Actor’s Nightmare! Eeep. (Also variations on a theme with the University-Exam Nightmare, where I haven’t been to a single class all semester…)

    My favourite historical fantasy novel — is hard to choose. Ysabel or Under Heaven, both by Guy Gavriel Kay… Or possibly the Merlin trilogy by Mary Stewart which, though Arthurian, feels (to me) closer to Dark Ages history than to myth… Or Swordspoint or Thomas the Rhymer, both by Ellen Kushner… *sigh* Nope, I can’t choose just one. 😀

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