Building a History

(A/N: Post title is a play on the song Building a Mystery by Sarah McLachlan.)

I never planned to become a writer of historical fiction.

Cooking and feasting – The Bayeux Tapestry, circa 1070, England

From what I gather from various authorities on the matter, no sane person ever would.

When I first started taking myself seriously as a writer and writing with a view to someday attempt getting my work published, fantasy was my genre of choice.

Fantasy, after all, was the genre unbounded by the rules of the modern world, and even the natural world.  It was the genre in which anything could happen so long as it was properly motivated and followed some manner of internal consistency.

It was the genre in which you could make your own rules.

History and me

This is not to say I was disinterested in history, for I’ve always been fascinated by the way the world that was, particularly ancient history.

Medieval Europe especially has always held my interest.  This was both a cause and effect of childhood of fairy tales and fantasy books, I’m sure.  I was so taken with this time period, I willingly performed independent study of the medieval era for a term paper in my grade 12 ancient history class rather than write about any of the eras we’d already covered in class (Prehistoric, Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, or Ancient Greece).

(I got an A on that paper, just so you know.)

The secret life of my novel-in-progress

Years later, when I was planning my current novel-in-progress, which began its life as fantasy, much of that earlier research I’d done in grade 12 was pressed back into service.

There were certain aspects of life in medieval England that appealed to me from a storytelling point of view that I wanted to assimilate in my fantasy world.  But I also wanted those medieval elements to be historically accurate, the fact they would appear in a fantasy story notwithstanding.

Ten reference sources, nine months, and a completed first volume of the two-volume tale later, however, I realized there was no compelling reason for my story to be fantasy.

There was a bit of magic realism in the plot, but nothing overtly fantasy-esque, and the world was essentially feudal England in disguise.

The whole point of the novel – which was to share with the reader some of the more surprising aspects of that historical society by framing a story around it – was being lost through my presenting the novel up in a fantasy wrapping.  For since fantasy writers get to make all their own rules – since they get to make up everything – there would be no way for the reader to know what in my story setting was made-up and what was straight out of the annals of antiquity.

In short, the idea I came up with wasn’t a fantasy idea.

Or, similar to what happened to author David Mitchell as he began writing his debut novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,

I didn’t set out to write a historical novel just for the heck of it – you’d have to be mad. Rather, only within this genre could the book be written.


I thus had no choice but to unwrap my story – to pull out all the fantasy elements until only the dramatized core of my research remained.

I transformed it into a work of historical fiction.

Which required even more research to truly do it right.

And still does, not the least of which is research into historical fiction in and of itself.  For indeed, what is this genre I’ve stumbled upon yet to date have read only a little?  What are the rules, the conventions; what things must I remain mindful of as I spin out this new version of my story?

I still don’t quite know yet, but I’m going to find out.


I’ll be exploring the answers to these questions about historical fiction over my next few posts, but in the meantime, to all the other historical fiction writers out there, how did you get started writing this genre?  To all the fantasy writers, have you based your fantasy world on a real setting from history?  Fantasy readers, would you read a historical novel that contains elements of magic realism?  Historical fiction readers, would you read a fantasy in which the world was modeled after a bygone era.  Consider leaving a comment.

Related post: Only in the Past


3 thoughts on “Building a History

  1. Hello Janna
    Just found this one in your older post’s…I enjoy reading your thoughts on putting together the history of this type of writing. For me, I tend to write Western & Civil War stuff, I became so consumed by the history ( although I am an avid reader of American history anyway ) I became a Civil War reenactor.
    My particular part of history is easy to gather information on…I feel for you working on the English 1300’s
    Take Care & Keep Writing


    • Thanks, Chris. I really enjoyed writing that particular series of posts. As I mentioned, I never planned to write historical fiction, but once I came to realize that’s precisely what I’m doing, I figured I should try to get my thoughts in order about how I’m going to do it. I don’t know if I actually writing capital-H “Historical” (from a “genre” point of view), but I’m still having fun. 🙂


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