The Balance of History and Fantasy Writing
by Craig Cormick
So I’ve been set a challenge: to talk about how I balanced the need for convincing and accurate historical research while maintaining an exciting fantasy narrative in my novel The Shadow Master.
First a quick description of the novel. It’s a kick-arse tale of alternative history, love and conflict, madness and magic, with sword fights and mad clerics and assassins and bombs and magical shape-changers and dark catacombs and tall towers and an army of plague people – with everything except a car chase. And through it all is this mysterious figure, the Shadow Master, who is manipulating everyone towards his own ends. Sound interesting? I hope so. I know I’d read it (!)
Anyway – the story is set in Renaissance Italy – and never having lived in Renaissance Italy that presented a few challenges. You know that author’s mantra – Write about things you know. Well I dived into this book with opposite approach – Write about things you don’t know.
Here’s a story about how inspiration struck me to write the book to explain this.
My day job is as a science communicator, and I’ve been lucky enough to travel to lots of interesting places, including Antarctica for work – but a few years back I was at a conference in Florence in Italy, and while walking around the Galileo museum I got this idea – like one of those serendipitous moments that just appear in your head – pow! I thought, what if science behaved like magic?
I mean, what if, when Galileo invented the telescope, it actually transported you across to what you were looking at. And what if the early chronometers actually slowed down time? And what if when you strapped on Leonardo da Vinci’s flying harness you actually transformed into a giant bird?
And that became my vision – to create an alternate history world that was fairly similar to the world that readers knew from history, but was also different enough to be intriguing – but to work within itself.
But that meant learning a whole lot more about the Italian Renaissance than I knew about it.
And here is the historical novelist’s dilemma. You need to do a lot of research so that the era you are writing about is credible and accurate – but when do you stop researching and just sit down and write. It’s a bit like baking a cake – don’t do enough research and it’s like taking the cake out of the oven before it’s done (half-baked novels, we’ve all seen ‘em), but if you do too much research – it’s like leaving a cake in the oven too long, it gets overdone and you just can’t resist putting every fact you’ve discovered into the book and weigh it down with them (I’m sure we’ve all read a few of those too).
Fortunately most of my books to date have dealt with history and I think I’ve gotten the balancing act sort of worked out – but this book had another element to juggle – being a fantasy book dealing with an alternate history I had to make sure those elements worked.
And that’s the tricky thing with alternate history – the whole thing has to be believable, even though it’s playing around with known realities. And if you read some alternate histories you quickly find it’s another balancing act. If you tip too much to one side, then it starts becoming too far off the path from history and you lose people who want that element of historical certainty, and if you tip too far the other way, you’re seen as not being alternate enough and not challenging the reader.
I’ll tell you another story to explain this.
When I was studying music growing up, my jazz teacher used to tell me that you need to learn all the rules of music before you start breaking them and improvising. So you really need to do enough research to find out what the world was actually like in the time era you are writing of, and then you can start breaking the rules and introducing new elements.
It also gave me quite a bit of freedom. So when I found that dates clashed – such as Leonardo da Vinci’s life and Galileo’s – it didn’t matter. In my world they could live at the same time.
So I did a lot of reading and watched a lot of documentaries about the Medici’s and the Church and the artists of the Renaissance, but I looked at everything with a critical eye, thinking, how can I use that? Or can I turn that so it works in my alternative world?
There were times I was tempted to wander quite off the track and go into some far-fetched ideas (not quite as bizarre as Leonardo da Vinci being an alien shape-shifter from the future, but ideas that clashed just as much with the world I was creating). If it didn’t feel like it belonged it this world, I left it out.
There’s another instructional story to share: Michelangelo supposedly once said that to make a sculptor you just took a hammer and chisel and chipped away all the bits that didn’t look like the end shape you were after. I threw away a lot of really good ideas, that just didn’t look like they belonged in the alternate world I had created.
So hopefully all those facts give the book some credibility – capturing the atmosphere of the era, and the fantastical elements give it intrigue and creative satisfaction for the reader.
You’re going to be the judge on that one though – not me. Though I’d love to hear if you think I got the balance right.
Incidentally a highlight of the Galileo museum in Florence, if you ever get to go there, is finding Galileo’s mummified middle finger in a glass jar, turned to point at the main cathedral in the city. Payback for all the persecution he received from the Church. Check it out!
About the author:
Craig Cormick is an award-winning author and science communicator who works for Australia’s premier science institution, the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). He is a regular speaker at science communication conferences and has appeared on television, radio, online and in print media.
As an author he has published over a dozen works of fiction and non-fiction and over 100 short stories. His awards include an ACT Book of the Year Award and a Queensland Premier’s Literary Award. His most recent book is the young adult novel Time Vandals (Scholastic, 2012). You can find Craig online at his website craigcormick.com.
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