Back in Time with Historical Urban Fantasy

On Saturday afternoon, Laura Mathews, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Tina Glasneck, Walter H. Hunt, Marie Brennan, and Leanne Renee Hieber discussed writing urban fantasy in historical settings. Moderator Mathews asked the other guests what periods they used as settings and what sources they use to create their worlds. Yarbro writes in numerous periods. She researches by reading as much as possible before taking graduate students at UC Berkley to lunch. She takes at least two, because they then argue over interpretations, providing a look at more than one side of current theory about that period. Glasneck is trained as a theologian and so is interested in the 1520s and the European Reformation, but from a pagan perspective. She uses the Norse gods in her books. Because she can read German and some Latin, she uses original sources in addition to YouTube videos.

Hunt follows Tim Powers’ recommendation to read nineteen books and become a conspiracy theorist. He likes reading about real people and finding the connections between them. Brennan comes from a gaming background. At one point, she ran a tabletop game with fae reincarnated as humans in periods from the Black Death to the modern era. Her Onyx Court series is based on the premise that Elizabeth I had a fairy queen counterpart in London. She took her series forward century by century, ending with the Victorians. She has the use of the library at Stanford University and enjoys having access to academic libraries. Hieber has loved all things Victorian since childhood. Reading Dickens’s A Christmas Carol spurred a fascination with ghosts. She writes in the late Victorian era because so much was in conflict, including women’s rights, civil rights, and voter rights.

The guests have various methods of doing research. Hunt emphasized the importance of learning the mindset of people in the era he’s studying. Glasneck took a course on magic in the Middle Ages that focused on the persecution of magic and looked at the way it was perceived in time. Brennan changed the way she looked at research after a visit to Hampton Court Palace for a book she had written. The architectural details in her manuscript were incorrect, and she learned to look at daily life, including architecture, and not make assumptions.

Yarbro also emphasized the importance of learning what people thought. What they actually did may not have been anything like what they believed they were doing.

The authors integrate their research into their books by looking at factors like how people saw themselves in relation to nature, whether it was benevolent or oppositional, by noting that in cosmology, everything has a price, and by looking at the holy texts and mythology of the culture. Glasneck pointed out that many Viking texts have been filtered through a Christian lens and that going deeper, into ancient texts, sometimes provides the information. Brennan concurred, noting that her research on fairy lore lead her to realize there wasn’t much of it near London, where her story was set. Hieber mentioned that spiritualism was very real to people in the nineteenth century. They considered it legitimate, and while there were scammers who tried to take advantage, many psychics worked as grief counselors.

When asked how they use their fantasy elements in historical settings, Brennan said the urban part matters and that her Onyx Court series shows London growing and changing. Hieber said paranormal elements can give women and other marginalized characters ways to gain agency in a world that doesn’t naturally give it to them. Glasneck highlights the humanity of the characters so modern people will understand that those from different cultures are all still human.

Mathews asked what periods the authors haven’t used but would like to. Glasneck immediately said, “Jack the Ripper, with dragons.” Brennan also expressed interest in that period.

The authors also offered advice for aspiring writers. Brennan said, “Pick something you love because you’ll spend a lot of time there.” Researching the English Civil War, she came to hate both sides in the conflict. Hieber suggested maintaining awareness that narratives are written by those in power. They also discussed the importance of knowing how to move in period costume. Brennan described hearing a costumer at London’s Globe Theater talk about all the ways actors tore period costumes by moving as though they wore modern garb.

Discussing magic, the authors noted that rural areas tend to be pragmatic about magic, tending more toward folklore than urban areas, which can have more scholarly systems.

As for research that seems correct or actually is at the time of the writing but later is shown to be incorrect, the authors agreed that readers are quick to point out such problems, which are a “cost of doing business.” Some things, however, are actually true but difficult for readers to accept, like the fact that Tiffany was a commonly used woman’s name in the medieval era or that the Romans actually had spectacles made with little colored lenses and built in concrete.

Thanks to the wide range of eras and methods the authors discussed, the audience left with greater understanding of researching and writing not just urban fantasy but any historical fiction.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.

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