Historical Research with Miles Cameron and Anthony Ryan
The fantasy genre has always been happily aware of its deep connection to history. Pull a book at random from the fantasy section of your bookstore and you’re sure to find something that jogs your high school memories of Scandinavian Vikings (The Blade Itself), the Napoleonic Wars (The Thousand Names), The Wars of the Roses (Game of Thrones), or a slew of other subjects. History is, after all, the foundation of all worldbuilding. Some fantasy authors write with this in mind more than others, finding focused research adds authenticity and detail to their stories.
I have always been curious about how authors approach historical research, and how it bleeds into creating kick-ass fantasy. Miles Cameron, author of The Red Knight and The Fell Sword, and Anthony Ryan, author of Blood Song, enthusiastically answered my list of nerdy, spoiler-free questions.
As a preface to the interview, Miles summarized his general thoughts on the relationship between history and fantasy:
MC: To me, fantasy is nothing but history (and vice versa, but that’s another blog). As I am an historian first and foremost, I’m steeped in history, and history is the referent by which I create–but I believe that’s true of every single storyteller on the planet. History is–quite literally, and pardon the pedantic tone–the story of all the experience of the human race. Sometimes we say it was written by the winners (it wasn’t, or we would have no narratives of the Holocaust or the Highland Clearances or any other horror perpetrated on humans by other humans) but in truth, history is nothing more or less than our story. And all our writing–anything we can imagine or imagine that our characters experience–is shaped by these stories.
I have a wall full of fantasy novels, and in each one I could rattle off to you the cultures and historical material that shaped the writing (and be wrong a third of the time, but I think the point is valid). Tolkien? Pretty obvious. China Miéville? Sometimes less obvious, but still culturally pretty straightforward to examine.
And to me, where authors depart utterly from historical tropes, I often find them weakest, unless they’re writing allegory. My best friend used to lob novels at me with the shout ‘where does the food come from!’ and that sort of failure of detail can infect otherwise good writing and usually, eventually, impacts plot and character as well.
Which historical topics, if any, should fantasy authors absolutely research to improve their writing? Which do you think would be most useful to authors writing their first fantasy novel?
MC: I don’t think there’s any one answer. Or rather, ‘it depends.’ I’m an Aristotelian writer. I believe that character is the bedrock of everything: character gives us motivation, and motivation gives us plot and action. If I’m writing about thieves in a thieves’ guild and their amazing heists, I might choose to learn an enormous amount about some cultures jewelry and that might lead me to the economic system that gave rise to the jewelry and then I’d be interested in how they protected the jewels and how my characters, who by now might be different from the way I’d originally imagined them, might steal the jewels.
Or I might start at the other end, with the characters. Here’s one that always guides me–let’s say I want strong, self-motivated and victim-free female protagonists. What cultural decisions will get me there? What cultures seem to have worked this out in history? Or, rather, what subset of women can be strong and proactive in a given culture?
Or I might find that history answers some vital question. If I wanted to write a novel about the process of becoming a sword master, I have three historical models (I have more, but I’ll stay with three most people know) China under the Tang, Japan in the Muromachi, Italy in the Renaissance. By choosing one, and reading intensively about that culture’s sword arts, I’d probably pick up most of the detail I needed for a novel.
Except–except that I also believe that good writing stems from experience. If I was a competent swordsman, I’d go that path, because I can ‘feel’ much of the plot–at least, the pain of training, the boredom of repetition, the wasted time of serving under a poor teacher–all good plot and character elements, and not something you’d find in a book on sword arts of Muromachi Japan. Reading history will only add relevant detail to an author’s experience. If I had the experience of farming grape vines, I could make the life of Arimnestos of Plataea (Long War series) much deeper. (In fact, I found someone with that experience and picked his brain repeatedly while drinking his wine.)
AR: I think a broad understanding of history in general provides a firm foundation for most forms of fiction, a basic understanding of the past is important when considering the present. For the fantasy author, however, it’s important to understand the way a completely different society to your own actually worked. To create an entirely new world requires a decent grasp of history as it relates to culture, economics and governance, rather than just concentrating on the exciting stuff like battles and dynastic rivalries.
Do you agree that the fantasy genre has been too focused on a small number of similar historical narratives? If so, what could authors and publishing companies do to create less derivative work while also satisfying loyal readers?
MC: I do not think that the fantasy genre is too focused on a small number of historical narratives. I think that 21st century criticism puts too high a premium on what it calls ‘originality.’ Since almost nothing in storytelling is ever original, it’s best to admit that we re-tell and re-tell. I think that any culture can be incorporated into good fantasy, but I also think that most readers need to understand the culture about which they are reading.
As an example, when I first read Shogun by Clavell, I thought it was brilliant. After twenty years of reading about Japan, and some contact with Japanese people, I realized that Shogun is not a historical novel about Japan, but a historical fantasy in which people with Japanese names behave like westerners. I have on my wall Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi which is well-beloved in Japan, and deals with almost the same period. It is–an utterly different book. The characters have utterly different motivations. It’s often difficult to understand them, and I don’t think it would ever be a bestseller in the west. I mean this as an allegory of writing about any culture. As our own culture becomes more ‘multi-cultural’, more outward looking and more accepting and more comfortable with the alien, good fantasy will, I hope, continue to patrol the borders of the comfort zone–and cross it. But forays into alien cultures need serious grounding to make them comprehensible to readers. It is a truism of history that most historian, no matter what they think they are saying about other cultures, are often describing themselves, and I too often find that true of BOTH fantasy and historical fiction.
One example–sex and sexuality. We live in a highly sexed culture and one artifact of that culture that we take for granted is birth control. Historically this is a fairly recent development and has had far reaching (and almost entirely positive) implications, but without it any world would look very different, especially to women. In a world where the consequences of sex can be pregnancy, and where there is a high mortality rate from pregnancy characters are likely to treat ‘romance’ very differently.
And that’s just one of a thousand ‘small’ issues that add up to great cultural changes. Any well designed world in fantasy needs to look these cultural issues in the eye, and this is where historical evidence is probably most vital. You don’t have to mimic ancient Rome in a novel, but you might look there for attitudes about medicine and child-bearing at a slightly more enlightened (and even that word is fraught with peril) level than, say, the Norse. History as a whole can be a sort of ‘petri dish’ for testing ideas. We have a LOT of history to examine…
It’s also worth noting that we can test other borders besides the cultural. When I sat down to write Red Knight, I really wanted to write about some issues in ethics that I think are still worth discussing in fantasy. Far from heading for new cultural frontiers, I wanted to make my readers comfortable before I made them uncomfortable. I wanted to look at how a medieval economy and law system might work–and at faith and piety and philosophy and chivalry, all of which, based on fan mail, make some people deeply uncomfortable.
Because of all that–we tend to write about the cultures we think we know. What I see as the danger is the repetition of tropes and artificialities that are not based on either history or experience but on, let’s say, Hollywood special effects and online-gaming ‘realities.’ Even there, though, I’d be careful not the throw out the baby with the bath–one of my favorite sets of novels are Dan Abnett’s various Black Library titles, which are fun and really well-written; and I suspect various RPGs lie behind a dozen other very enjoyable fantasy series I’ve loved; I am a passionate fan of Steven Erikson’s work, for example, and I suspect an RPG campaign somewhere there…
AR: I’m probably as guilty as anyone in pursuing the well trodden path of a medieval secondary world, though I like to think I added some wrinkles to it. Recent years have seen an attempt to broaden the range of cultural influences on fantasy, see the works of Guy Gavriel Kay and Saladin Ahmed, which can only be a good thing. Ultimately though, I think a good story well told will find an audience regardless of the setting; Watership Down is essentially a fantasy story with talking rabbits and its success speaks for itself.
Which historical periods, events, or cultures would you personally most like to see successfully incorporated into a fantasy novel? What is the genre missing right now?
MC: I’d like to see more fantasy set in North America, and I’d like to see more First Nation’s people in heroic or even villainous roles, complete with their cultures, their belief systems, and their shamanistic practices. Not just the Lakota Sioux and the Aztec, either; I’d like to see Inuit and Woodlands lifeways and the Cherokee and the Ohio mound builders explored. I’m doing this in the Red Knight and The Fell Sword, by the way. And it is not uniformly popular, which may get back to your take on the last question–I’ve actually had anti-fan mail from people saying they don’t want to hear about ‘Indians.’ I once heard the same from an editor.
Too bad, folks. It’s what I like. Watch out–I have an Islamic/West African plot coming too…
AR: I think native American culture provides something of an untapped well for fantasy, as do the Maori and Polynesian traditions in the pacific. It would also be nice to see an epic fantasy set in Africa, or a version of Africa.
How has historical research increased your potential as a writer? Which aspects of writing fantasy has it particularly strengthened?
MC: Historical research has probably increased my potential as a writer by sharpening my fight scenes most of all. In fact, it sharpens everything, because it’s good to know how EVERYONE lit fires before there were matches (Japans and China and Korea and the Spartans and just about everyone else…) and it’s good to understand how precious music is to a world without headphones and iPods, but understanding a dozen different ways of fighting with different historical weapons and no weapons gives you a feeling for the cultural roots of violence–and for the minutiae of a fight. By the same token, though, researching hermeticism gave me a handle on how Europeans in our world in the late Middle Ages thought magic worked. That was fun and very instructive.
AR: I think it’s given me a stronger grasp of how a society of any longevity works, which is a great help in worldbuilding. It also left me with an ingrained awareness of the fact that no historical event, regardless of how unexpected it appears to be, happens in isolation. What’s happening in Ukraine right now can only be understood if you know about the history of the Cold War, and that only make sense if you know about the Second World War, and so on. So when constructing my own world I always tried to include the influence of the past, old grievances and ancient disputes can plague a society for generations after all.
Are there any scenes or details in The Red Knight/Blood Song that you remember writing with a particular attention to history? If so, which ones?
MC: All the scenes about Liviapolis — a thinly veiled Constantinople–were written with some attention to the real city. The palace functions as I imagine the late Byzantine palace to have functioned but there’ borrowings there from Ancient Rome, Han China, and Ancient Greece. The Sossag are very consciously modeled on the pre-contact woodlands peoples that my uncle dug (he was an archaeologist) when I was a boy, trying to imagine how these palisaded towns looked, and trying to imagine what it was like to live surrounded by wilderness that went on forever…
AR: I read up on sword-smithing for one particular scene, though much of the fine detail had to be omitted for pacing reasons. Robert Hardy’s Longbow was a key text in formulating the fearsome abilities of the Cumbraelin archers as well as providing useful background on the course of medieval military history. Also, Philip Ziegler’s The Black Death had a big influence on my own Red Hand.
Have you ever wanted to incorporate an event from history into your writing and decided that it was too strange or unbelievable? If so, what was it?
MC: History is far stranger than fiction. The death of the real life D’Artagnan (who died about five feet from the man who grew up to be the great Duke of Marlborough, Churchill’s ancestor and Captain-General of England) was probably more dashing and romantic than anything anyone would believe in a story. I have a half-written steampunk novel in an alternate 18th century (It’ll never be published because I wrote it when I was seventeen) and I passed on using the D’Artagnan scene. Too amazing to be believed. And the Three Hundred Spartans–it’s been mythologized to death for a reason…
AR: I briefly toyed with the idea of somehow incorporating the tale of the King of Bohemia at the Battle of Crecy. A brave and skilled knight in the classic chivalric mode, the king was cut down whilst valiantly fighting the English in the thick of the battle despite the fact that he was almost completely blind and had to be led about by his attendants. I just didn’t think anyone would buy it.
Joseph Campbell popularized the idea that people form identities from their culture’s myths and historical (usually national) narratives. Do you think that literary fiction performs the same social function on a smaller scale? For example, are fantasy readers’ identities influenced by the stories they remember and love? Is it plausible that a genre functions as a culture for its readers and provides the shared history they need to create a society?
MC: I think it is more likely that genre fiction reflects the cultural values and historical myths shared by the audience. I think that’s a reason it’s so difficult to break out of certain Euro-centric tropes. I suspect that, since various forms of computer-driven games and other media are so popular, they will (it breaks my heart to say this) eventually become the dominant source material for the genre because they will represent the shared experience on which a generation of writers will draw.
I’d like to believe your thesis, but the struggles of two generations of fantasy writers to produce less misogyny has not, to my mind, been a success. Violence continues to be fantasy’s main action (I’ve done my bit) and one thing that would seem to me truly original would be to produce a fantasy with a Ghandi like main character who either died for what that person believed or triumphed. Non-violence might be a game-changer.
As a former soldier and sometime martial artist, I’d like to observe that violence is the new sex–that is, as we become more open about sexuality as a society, we now hide our attitudes to violence. We decry it, but use it all the time, and secretly enjoy it in our games and in our genre novels. And yet–and this scares me–most modern North Americans have no idea what violence is, or what it does to the people who engage in it. I think it’s fantastic that we’ve given several generations a freedom from violence, but the men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have been to a different world, and they have, I suspect, some very different ideas of violence.
In closing, I’m very old fashioned. I think it is an author’s moral duty to inform and instruct–to try and leave the world better. So–in the end, the moral end, I DO believe that fantasy authors and the people who ‘manage’ the genre have the power to affect society and culture. And I believe they should–or what is art for? But will they? Or will they just try to make all the money they can?
AR: In a sense all fiction is fantasy because it’s all made up. Even the most contemporary, reality based literary work is still the product of a writer’s imagination. Myths and legends are probably vital in building a sense of national or cultural identity, but I think the role of fiction is both more subtle and more compelling. There is something inherent in the human psyche that requires story, people in ancient times huddled around storytellers for a reason, sometimes to learn but mostly I think to lose themselves in another narrative.
Modern fandom produces extreme examples of people who have, perhaps, become too lost in their favourite worlds, but I see them as the exception. Fans of genre fiction are often passionate but, in my experience, also intelligent and articulate; they know why they like what they like and their favourite characters include the villains as well as the heroes. In some ways you could see the rise of fan-fiction as a modern expression of the ancient practice of continually adding to the pre-existing body of Greek myth; Euripides’ Medea is essentially a fan-fic tale where the heroin kills her own children, she didn’t in the original but this is the version of that character most known to modern readers. Maybe in two thousand years students of ancient literature will be discussing the finer points of the legend of Frodo, Dark Lord of the Shire.
Thank you, Miles and Anthony, for taking the time to give such detailed responses. If you enjoyed the interview, let Miles (a.k.a. Christian) and Anthony know by messaging them on Twitter and visiting their websites which are listed below.