26 May 2020

from Author Barnett

In the marvelous May 31, 2020 Electric Spec issue we feature an interview of author Barbara Barnett. Here, she'd like to share how to ground fantasy:

Grounding Fantasy in History and Science

Nothing takes a reader out of a story faster than screwing up the setting or the history--even, or perhaps, especially--in a fantasy. Fantasy is fantasy, but as a writer you have to ground it something real, authentic to make the fantastical elements work and not seem absurd. And that’s where the research comes in. Pick and choose what you want to include in the story (and don’t overload your reader with unnecessary detail and exposition), but as the author--you have to know of what (and whom) you speak.

In writing The Apothecary’s Curse and its sequel Alchemy of Glass, I took great pains to research every assertion, setting, the science, and, yes, even, word I used. Was the word “hooligan” in common use in 1837 London? What did an apothecary do in London? What was King James’s VI take on the supernatural back at the very end of the sixteenth century? (Not very favorable, which helped me set up the execution of my hero’s father for magical healing after he’d cured the entire court of a disease).

Quite a bit of Alchemy of Glass is set in the bowels of ruined monastery in the Borders region of Scotland. I came across an article about medical archeologist working in the area had unearthed healing potions and medicines that would have likely been completely beyond the technology and skills of medieval monks that worked and dwelled there. The “how” and “why” of that became a fictional pivot point for the entire novel.

There’s a pivotal scene in The Apothecary’s Curse where my main character has a motorcycle accident north of Chicago along the Lake Michigan coast. People who do not live in Chicago (or perhaps some that do) are often unaware that to the far north of the City, along the lake, the terrain is far from the flatland with which Chicago is often associated. There are high bluffs, deep ravines, plunging eighty, one hundred, even one hundred fifty feet to the rocky shore. Who’d have thought? I used the idea because I knew people would find it strange, and maybe a bit fantastical (after all The Apothecary’s Curse is a fantasy), but before I put a number on the height of the cliff, I researched everything I knew (and didn’t know about the shoreline and the quite mystical ravines that line the shore from Wilmette to the Wisconsin border).

Although I know the Chicago setting quite well, and felt comfortable playing with it, the same is not true of the early Victorian setting of 1837-1842 London. I chose Smithfield Market as the location for Gaelan Erceldoune’s Apothecary Shop for some very specific reasons. Smithfield is a place where the immortal Gaelan could be more or less anonymous. Having moved locations after ten years in the posher environs of Hay Hill, he needs to reboot his life, and Smithfield is perfect. He’s also needed there. Few physicians (mostly gentlemen) would dare not dirty their hands in the “vile zoology” that is Smithfield (and by the way, that is exactly how accounts for the time describe place, so I copped the description and put into the story).

Also, Gaelan’s heritage comes into play, especially in Alchemy of Glass which looks back on when Gaelan first moved to Smithfield in 1826 (11 years before events in The Apothecary’s Curse)--and his youth. My research uncovered the fact that William Wallace (AKA, The Wallace, a Scottish hero) was executed in Smithfield, perhaps even right on the very same corner that Gaelan’s shop sits. Hmm. So the locale was very carefully chosen.

William Wallace was a contemporary and confederate of Lord Thomas Learmont de Ercildoune, Gaelan’s ancestor–a figure that is steeped in supernatural legend, but who also existed in medieval Scotland! History, meet mythology, meet fantasy!

So, by placing the fantasy in a real location with a real history related to the ancestor of a historical figure, I hope that grounds the story in history as well as the legend that so pervades the story. It’s a device often used by H.G. Wells--putting a single impossible thing set into an otherwise quite realistic scenario.

I also underlaid the story with real people in cameos who lived during the times in which the story takes place (or in its back story): Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his medical mentor Joseph Bell (who is related to Gaelan’s frenemy Simon Bell), Leonardo of Pisa, Michael Scot, and Nicola Tesla (who’ll you’ll meet in Chapter One of Alchemy of Glass.

All of this is to say that no matter whether you’re writing historical fiction (for which accuracy is an imperative when dealing in the “actual” factual world) or speculative fiction, everything has to make sense (at least within the world you’ve built. And if the world you’ve built is fantastical, but set (even partially) in the real world, attention to detail, gentle use of tropes, diction, setting--and fact, can give your fantastical creation an air of authenticity.

Very interesting! Thanks, Barbara! Be sure to check out her interview and all the awesome stories on May 31!

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