This was originally a manifesto of sorts that I wrote for a fiction class during my last semester of college. Since I have been working so hard on my historical fantasy WIP lately, I thought it might be fun to share it with you all as an insight to why I love the genre.
People read for all kinds of reasons. To learn, become more cultured, to stay informed… The options are endless. But for many readers of fiction, their main objective is escaping. They want to forget their own problems. They find it a breath of fresh air to step into someone else’s shoes because dealing with their trials and tribulations is often much more exciting than the readers’ boring, predictable, stressful lives. In books, a reader can be a brave knight, or a powerful wizard, or a soothsayer enshrouded by mysteries and secrets. They are free of restrictions.
As I’ve grown older, one of my favorite genres has become historical fiction, specifically the subcategory of historical fantasy. But in my exploration of the subject, I have come to find that few people of younger, elementary and middle school generations enjoy these genres with the same passion. Not that I can really blame them.
The very idea of historical fantasy as a reading category may seem counterintuitive at first glance. After all, some people consider history to be the most grounded of the traditional school disciplines because it teaches lessons by drawing on real events of the world’s past. These subjects are often hard for students to swallow because they either hit too close to home or are so far in the rearview mirror of today’s classrooms that it is hard to wrap their minds around a world so different from the one they know.
In contrast, fantasy is often seen as a form of escapism. It is the genre in which anything is possible and few to no rules may apply. Authors and readers alike are unbounded from the problems facing current society, having instead the freedom to wander their own minds for no other purpose but enjoyment.
But I would argue that historical fiction and fantasy are both equally escapist. Historical fiction is based in reality, but how much so varies from author to author, because they strive to balance the factual attributes of history with the most basic experiences of human existence; such as love, loss, reward, and disappointment. If the author has done their job well, the reader will likely forget they’re reading about a true event and instead find themselves wrapped up in the journey of the character.
That, to me is the magic of historical fiction. Authors in that genre have the ability to straddle themselves between two worlds. They can be held accountable for accuracy in the facts of the past, but they also know how to insert the familiarity and reverence of the current time period. They create characters in which the reader can often see a piece of themselves, and therefore they are able to more easily emphasize with their plight while simultaneously absorbing knowledge.
Likewise, some people consider fantasy as a genre of fiction to be frivolous; ridiculous imaginings they couldn’t fathom coming true because those stories have nothing to ground them in sensible reality. For me, though, that’s a large part of why the genre, and the subcategory of historical fantasy, in particular, is so intriguing.
The mythology of vampires, werewolves, fairies, Lock Ness monsters, dragons, and the like had to come from somewhere. Someone had to be inspired by real life events or creatures etc. in order to come up with such a mythology. Historical fiction and historical fantasy start their adventures based on true events, but the real magic comes when the authors twist those events just enough so they veer off into the unknown while still staying true to the history that sparked the idea.
In school, I was always exposed to history as a list of endless names and dates that signified important people or events. The task for me as a student then was simple: memorize the list, past the test, and then forget everything and start over. It’s ironic, really. The study of history was designed to teach us about our past, our heritage, where we come from. Our histories make us who we are.
Yet even with the advances of Common Core and other teaching methods, history classes, or social studies, as my teachers called it, are still taught in the exact same manner of rope memorization. In some cases, the study of history has even been eliminated as a separate subject altogether.
In my opinion, both methods are inadequate because neither reaches the heart of what it means to learn about our pasts. When our parents or grandparents tell us stories of their childhood, and we pass them down to our children, we’re making connections. Building bridges and filling in gaps so that even when years have passed and all we have left to hold onto are memories, the ones we love will never be forgotten. That is what teaching history should be about.
It’s no wonder that kids can’t relate to the subject when textbooks and lesson plans put such an emphasis on concrete facts. I’m not faulting the writers of those books or the teachers of those classes: we are each only as good as the tools we’ve been given. What I am saying is, if curriculums as a whole focused on history as a way to connect the past with the present, students would be less inclined to view the subject as something that already happened, and therefore does not affect them.
The amazing thing about historical fantasy to me is not the amount of well-crafted research that goes into writing the novel, but that the authors who write it are able to portray history accurately while still adding an edge so that the time periods are not quite as they were in real life, but as they could have been.
One of my favorite quotes is “She saw the world, not always as it was, but as it could be…with a perhaps a little bit of magic” – Disney’s 2015 live action Cinderella.
The quote, in essence, is why I love to write. It’s a way to see the world through a lens of endless impossibilities. We, as human beings, know that such fantastical events could never happen in our own reality. Yet, if the writer weaves their words well enough, they have the potential to convince even the most grounded person that maybe, just maybe, anything can happen.
So, why do you love your genre? Tell me down in the comments! And, as always, keep making magic, word weavers!