History as Fantasy

In many ways, writing historical fiction is like writing fantasy. And reading historical fiction is like reading fantasy.

In one genre, you have to look up a lot of tiny details to make the reader accept that the world they’re reading about is real/true. In the other genre, you have to make up a lot of details to make the reader accept that the world they’re reading about is real/true. In both cases, those details have to be sprinkled into the text in ways that make sense for the story and don’t distract the reader from the story, either. In both cases, the details have to hang together.

Both genres have similar reading protocols, as well. Fantasy readers can lose their suspension of disbelief if some part of the fantasy world doesn’t make sense to them. This will vary according to how critically the reader reads, or what story elements are more or less important for them.

Historical readers can lose their suspension of disbelief when a historical detail in the story is inaccurate. This varies according to the reader’s historical knowledge; for instance, if you know a period very well, you might catch slips that a less-informed reader might miss. And some readers can accept slips, because historical details or period-appropriate diction are less important to them than the story as a whole. Occasionally, the reader might lose their suspension of disbelief because, even though the historical details are accurate, they do not believe in its accuracy because they believe it contradicts something else they know – and that, too, can be a problem of how details are used and presented, part of creating believable architecture for an imaginary world.

Worldbuilding techniques cross-pollinate.

Related post:
Historical Detail in Fiction.

About Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen [she, her] currently writes cozy space opera for Kalikoi. The novella series A Place of Refuge begins with Finding Refuge: Telepathic warrior Talia Avi, genius engineer Miki Boudreaux, and augmented soldier Faigin Balfour fought the fascist Federated Colonies for ten years, following the charismatic dissenter Jon Churchill. Then Jon disappeared, Talia was thought dead, and Miki and Faigin struggled to take Jon’s place and stay alive. When the FC is unexpectedly upended, Talia is reunited with her friends and they are given sanctuary on the enigmatic planet Refuge. The trio of former guerillas strive to recover from lifetimes of trauma, build new lives on a planet with endless horizons, and forge tender new connections with each other.
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4 Responses to History as Fantasy

  1. Shannan says:

    I hadn't thought of that parallel in particular, but you're right — fantasy and historical fiction do have a lot in common for the reader. Might be why I like both!

  2. Jeannie Lin says:

    Great points! I've found a lot of parallels between both the reading and writing of historical and fantasy.

    My historicals are practically historical fantasy. Mainly because the research only goes so far and the rest of the details are gaps we have to reasonably fill in as authors.

  3. Stephanie Draven says:

    Yes, yes, yes.

    Also, then there are those of us who are actually writing historical fantasy–where we're taking an existing historical time period and layering magic or alternative history over it.

  4. Victoria Janssen says:

    Shannan, I think that's why I like both, too!

    Jeannie, I don't consider it fantasy until there's magic…but others would disagree with me. Also, there's the "Ruritanian" method with an imaginary country in an otherwise "real" world like in Anne Gracie's current series.

    Stephanie, I love love love historical fantasy.

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