Myth and History: World Building in Historical Fantasy

The Fantasy Literature track at Dragon Con 2022 welcomed a distinguished group of authors to their track room in the Hyatt Embassy Saturday evening to discuss the use of historical material in the construction of fantasy worlds. Joining moderator Mera Rose were urban fantasy and paranormal romance author Jennifer Blackstream, military science fiction and fantasy author Marc Alan Edelheit, Chris Jackson, author of the Pathfinder Tales series, and Philip Ligon, author of the Strange Engine series.

Each author tapped into historical material in their own way. Jackson mined nautical history, Blackstream studied Voodoo, myth, and anthropology, Edelheit drew heavily upon Roman history and the history of technology, and Ligon explored the Victorian era. The challenge with these areas is less a matter of too few resources but rather too many. More than one panelist referred to “rabbit holes” they found their way into. When considering the role of historical research in their work the consensus view was that writers need to get historical material right but at the same time not be captive to it. Authors want to be thorough in their research, and when using historical elements be, as Edelheit said, “authentic,” but it is important to remember that the writer is the creator. Jackson encouraged authors to remember the importance of being “inspired by” historical material rather than being slaves to it.

The panel also grappled with issues related to moral considerations in their worlds. When using historical material to build worlds, Login emphasized believability. That means that authors must recognize and acknowledge the differences that exist between, for example, Victorian era attitudes and those of today. Edelheit built on that pointing out that there are real differences in thought, attitude, and outlook between an ancient culture and a modern one, and authors must deal with that honestly.

In building worlds, authors also need to develop rules and do their best to stick to them. Jackson pointed out that this was especially important when creating a system of magic. Edelheit emphasized the need for balance. For example, if one side in a conflict has a dragon perhaps one should give the other side a dragon as well. Authors must recognize, however, that they will inevitably miss things that violate the rules, one of the most famous examples of that being Tolkien’s eagles in The Lord of the Rings. In the end, what’s most important is that the author establish operational rules that make sense for the world and for the story!

As the hour wound down Blackstream offered the most fundamental piece of advice every aspiring author needs to hear. “Start writing,” she declared, “for you cannot edit nothing.”

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