Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Does Historical Fiction = Fantasy? @MaiaChance

LUCY BURDETTE: So delighted to welcome Maia Chance back to JRW! She always has such an unusual twist on writing...And I will be so interested to hear what the Reds think about her blog today. (And doesn't the book sound wonderful?)

MAIA CHANCE: I’ve come to this maybe strange conclusion about genre: All historical fiction writers are fantasy writers.  Weird, I know (and I think I hear some wails of protest emanating from the secret bunker headquarters of World Fantasy Con), but allow me to explain how I arrived at this idea.I write cozy historical mysteries.  So, so far away from the fantasy genre, right?  One of my series, Fairy Tale Fatal, has a smidge of the possibility of fairy tale magic but, true to the cozy genre and my publisher, there is no actual magic.  However, novels require research.  All novelists know this:

every historical novelist has a paranoid gleam in his or her eye as the result of this.  What’s a 1923 slang word for kissing?  What’s for breakfast in France in 1867?  Can my character really wear those shoes with that tie!?  A lot of this stuff can be researched.  Some of it can’t.  And even if every little detail were painstakingly checked by, say, my Dream Team of a dozen eager history majors with Red Bull issues, there would still be a couple of problems:

1. As a writer in 2015 there is virtually no way I can disentangle my contemporary viewpoint and language usage from my writing.  I try my best, but made by me and 21st Century are stamped all over my work.  And this is OK.

2. One of the biggest reasons it’s OK is that my priority is writing stories that my 21st-century readers can burrow into and enjoy.  Cozy mystery readers approach cozies with the desire to be diverted in a relaxing manner.  I know this because not only am I a cozy addict, but some of my best friends are cozy addicts.  We want that escape into the past, but at the end of a long day, a lecture on old-fashioned politics or a History of Brass Buttons is not tops on the FUN list.
This isn’t to say that I don’t obsess over research.  I totally do.  But my goal isn’t a historically-accurate diorama.  Rather, my goal is to write stories with the flavor of history, that taste of glamour, mystery, and romance that only a fantastical elsewhere can provide.

So, the European 1867 and 1923 New York I create in my books are approximations of those past times and places.  Or, as I have lately concluded, my settings are “1867 Europe” and “1923 New York.”  See those quotation marks?  Those aren’t just me being cutesy.  Those quotation marks are my tickets to writing freedom.  Without the homeworky burden of embedding history lessons in my books, I am able to devote myself to storytelling, to worldbuilding, to characterization, to plot . . . like a fantasy writer.

LB: Okay Reds, your turn! Do you agree about the fantasy in historical fiction?

Maia Chance writes historical mystery novels that are rife with absurd predicaments and romantic adventure.  She is the author of the Fairy Tale Fatal and The Discreet Retrieval Agency series.  Her first mystery, Snow White Red-Handed, was a national bestseller.  Her latest releases are Cinderella Six Feet Under and Come Hell or Highball.

Visit Maia on the web at her website, on Facebook, Goodreads, or Twitter!

About the book:


31-year-old society matron Lola Woodby has survived her loveless marriage with an unholy mixture of highballs, detective novels, and chocolate layer cake, until, her husband dies suddenly, leaving her his fortune...or so Lola thought. As it turns out, all she inherits from Alfie is a big pile of debt. Pretty soon, Lola and her stalwart Swedish cook, Berta, are reduced to hiding out in the secret love nest Alfie kept in New York City. But when rent comes due, Lola and Berta have no choice but to accept an offer made by one of Alfie's girls-on-the-side: in exchange for a handsome sum of money, the girl wants Lola to retrieve a mysterious reel of film for her. It sounds like an easy enough way to earn the rent money. But Lola and Berta realize they're in way over their heads when, before they can retrieve it, the man currently in possession of the film reel is murdered, and the reel disappears. On a quest to retrieve the reel and solve the murder before the killer comes after them next, Lola and Berta find themselves navigating one wacky situation after another in high style and low company.


  1. Not to waffle, but I think historical fiction can be both historical and fantasy. Stories that depend on the factual details of the past may be less fantasy, but with the author's unique characters and situation woven into the historical facts, it does seem as if a bit of fantasy is being introduced.

    Maia makes some interesting, convincing points. The notion of cozy stories bearing the flavor of the past coupled with the romance, glamour, and mystery that comes from the author's imaginative writing sounds absolutely perfect.

    I love the cover for "Come Hell or Highball" and I'm looking forward to reading it.

  2. Since one of my series is set in 1888 - I'm using those quotation marks, too!

  3. Isn't all fiction "fantasy" to some extent? To paraphrase: "As a writer in 2015 there is virtually no way I can disentangle my PERSONAL VIEWPOINT AND EXPERIENCE from my writing. I try my best, but WHAT made me IS stamped all over my work. And this is OK.

    And yes, the book does sound wonderful. And aren't period cocktails a great way to time travel.

  4. Maia, I love this post! Thank you so much for writing it and sharing it with us at Jungle Reds. I agree wholeheartedly and would love to sit down and discuss at length with a vintage cocktail!

  5. I agree with Hallie on this one. Fiction is a specific term for "I made this stuff up". By definition it's someone's fantasy. I think the problem is that we're used to thinking of fantasy in terms of "I made this stuff up, with elves".

  6. When I was working on How To Write Historical Mysteries, I was trying to find examples of alternative history mysteries (This was pre-Steampunk) for the chapter on various types of historical mysteries. I threw the question out to a couple of listservs without much success, but someone (I'm pretty sure it was Charlaine Harris) came back with a question of her own: isn't all historical fiction alternative history?
    Food for thought. As is this post. I can say, grandly, that I'm extrapolating from known facts, but the truth is, I'm making stuff up. No elves, but sixteenth century England did have plenty of witches!


  7. Oops. Don't know my own title! It should be How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries.


  8. Yes, all fiction is fantasy. How closely you have to adhere to reality, well, we all get to decide that for ourselves, don't we? And we'll either be successful - or not - once we put it in front of the reader.

    I love the cover and the title for this. Too bad I don't drink that much any more. I could see myself sipping a few classic cocktails while I read.

  9. Fascinating perspective.
    I think it is a fine line between too much "accuracy" and references that are not appropriate to the time that pull you out of the story. (The "pulling you out of the story" is the key. If it doesn't stand out and cause the reader trouble, who cares, really?)

  10. Susan I was hoping you'd make it over here, even after turning your book in--hooray!

    Jennifer: "I made this stuff up, with elves." I'll laugh about that all day!

    Kathy, you should be the expert on this! Do you have people complain about historical details?

    Yes, Mary, in the end our readers decide! And Libby is saying something similar--if a detail pulls you out of the story, you can lose someone right there.

  11. Hallie nailed it about fiction--it's all fantasy. And so often while reading historical fiction I have to remind myself that no one could possibly know exactly conversations that happened between any two (or three, or many) people now long dead. Or even still alive, truthfully. Dialogue by necessity is mere conjecture and extrapolation, isn't it?

    Personally, I don't get hung up on details unless they are egregious inconsistencies or anachronisms. A good read deserves better than such nitpicky scrutiny.

  12. Historical fiction is definitely fantasy in its way, I think because it often includes an element of wishful thinking. We like to create historical characters who understand the past better than people in the past really did--either by being more sensitive, more prescient, or in some way more progressive. And there is so often the temptation to re-adjust history to suit our purposes, to make the villains more villainous and the heroes more heroic. This is especially true in the so-called alternate histories of people like Harry Turtledove or New Gingrich (!), who subtly or not-so-subtly change history to suit an agenda. Doesn't make them less fun to read, if that's your thing, but it is worth keeping in mind.

  13. Oh, great post! I so agree. All fiction is fantasy, and not only fiction, but biography is fantasy, too. Writers cannot disentangle themselves from their own times and personal biases no matter how much research they do. "And that's okay!!!!!!!!!!!!" Love it. And the period, cocktails, of course:-)

  14. As soon as I saw the title of your post, I knew where you were going, and I do agree. I think some people stick closer to history than others, but everyone puts a bit of themselves into any of their fiction, so it's not like we are getting true history when we read any historical fiction. After all, it is called fiction, right? It's always dangerous to assume you know what you are talking about after reading fiction. (Unless you are talking about that plot or characters, of course.)

  15. Thanks for all the comments, everyone. I WAS originally toying with the assertion that all fiction, not simply historical fiction, is fantasy . . . glad you guys said it for me. And even biography! I'd have to agree.

  16. As I said on Twitter, I'm with Ray Bradbury on this one. Science fiction is the art of the possible. Fantasy is the art of the impossible.
    As a fantasy writer, fantasy--by definition of the genre--deals with magic, mythical creatures, etc.

    Many historical fiction novels can be fantasy if they involve something of the fantastical (magic, creatures, whatever), but not all historical fiction (or fiction for that matter) is fantasy. On the flipside, not all fantasy is historical fiction either. ;)

    Maia, your Fairy Tale Fatal books are more historical fiction than fantasy. While they are based on the fairy tales, there isn't actual magic floating about or mythical creatures involved--at least, not yet!

  17. Lucy/Roberta,
    Do readers let me know if they think I got something wrong? Oh, yeah. In spades. The thing is, "facts" change with new discoveries. Look at Richard III. The best most of us can do is try to be as accurate as possible. For the critics who complain, in particular, about female characters in historical fiction being too modern, I now refer them to a biography titled Shakespeare and the Countess for a real 16th century Englishwoman who was definitely ahead of her time.


  18. Maia,

    Sometimes I'm impressed with my sister Reds ability to get exactly the writer-of-the-moment: I've recently been seeing COME HELL OR HIGHBALL pop up all over the place, and was thinking it sounded - to coin the 20s - divine.

    I agree that in a sense, all fiction is fantasy, or fantastical. Lawrence Block says the writer's job is not to recreate reality, but to represent it. And I was listening to an NPR commenter this afternoon who said history isn't the study of the past - it's an argument with the past.

    As a reader, I want my historical fiction to be filtered through some modern sensibilities. I love Kathy Lynn's Lady Appleton series, and I know they're meticulously researched, but if I had to "listen" to everyone speaking in the fashion of actual Tudor documents and letters, I'd never finish the mystery. Not to mention delving into unpalatable details of hygiene, casual antisemitism and characters having a good old time at a bear-baiting or dog fight.

  19. Tricky to get all those details right. After seeing _All the Way_ at the St. Louis Rep. an audience member questioned a reference to credit cards in 1963. It hadn't pinged in my brain, but she made me curious enough to go check its authenticity . . . and they were in use, not in my home, but certainly there.

  20. If we were to use the word 'fantasy' in the sense of genres of writing, then I'd say most historical fiction is not fantasy. On the other hand, the dictionary definition of 'fantasy' is 'the free play of creative imagination'--and THAT surely seems a great definition of fiction writing.

    Not to slight any authors here--but just to use an example that I'm most familiar with--Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael series sets the bar for me in terms of historical fiction for mysteries. She did not resort to 12th century English in her dialogue, but it seems to me that her background research and knowledge fueled an extraordinarily realistic and rich setting and characters. She so deftly captured the sense of those times that I never had a problem willingly suspending belief and diving head-first into that world.

    Research/facts may be the colors in your paintbox, but it's how you put them on the canvas that matters. I'd say JRW and friends get it right!

  21. FChurch answered how I think about this question of historical fiction being fantasy.
    "If we were to use the word 'fantasy' in the sense of genres of writing, then I'd say most historical fiction is not fantasy. On the other hand, the dictionary definition of 'fantasy' is 'the free play of creative imagination'--and THAT surely seems a great definition of fiction writing." So, I think it depends on which definition of fantasy you're using to answer the question. No, if you're using the genre definition, and yes, if you're using the creative imagination definition. One of the strengths of the Red Writers who write historical fiction mysteries is that you do get that sense of the time (again, I must credit FChurch with that phrase) in their stories. Maggie Hope in London in WWII is just what I'm looking for to feel what daily life challenges had to be dealt with and behind the scenes operations. Molly's experiences as an immigrant makes the reader realize that "give me your tired, your poor" was an accurate description. Georgie gives us a side of royalty in that time that is quite eye opening. Hallie brought the dark side of Hollywood glamour right to our door.

    Thanks, Maia for a great discussion topic today. I have to get reading on your books, as I find them all tantalizing. I do have a copy of Snow White Red-Handed in my TBR pile that I will definitely be getting to after Bouchercon reading. I love your titles, and for me, if the title is quirky and interesting, then the book is sure to be a great read.

  22. Can you see my fist pump? Time was when I read a lot of historical cozies - ok, some were actually contemporaneous with the time they were written, but historical by the time I read them. While I still read those books (the contemporaneous historicals) I stopped reading the "modern" historicals. Why? Well I have a degree in history, I didn't want to go back to school! You are so right, the audience has to be kept in mind. So glad to hear you, the writer, agree! I love your covers, now I know I will love want's between them too. Off to Amazon!

  23. Thanks for these, Julia:

    "Lawrence Block says the writer's job is not to recreate reality, but to represent it. And I was listening to an NPR commenter this afternoon who said history isn't the study of the past - it's an argument with the past."


    I'd also add that in my academic field (English lit), we think along these lines. When we're reading a historical text we're not trying to get at some absolute meaning it has; we're trying to get the historical text to speak to us, right now.

    And yeah, Kaonevar, I'm not using "fantasy" in the strict genre sense. I certainly wouldn't shelve any of my books on the fantasy shelf at the library!