Historical Fantasy: the pitfalls and pleasures of
writing crossover fiction
A few months back I wrote on my own blog about what it was like writing historical fantasy. I came up with an analogy: that it was like renovating a building listed by the Historic Preservation society—but without planning approval. You keep the fabric of the structure and build on what’s there, but with some rather strange additions along the way.
I’ve published non-fiction history, and even worked on writing straight historical fiction, but until Gideon’s Angel, had never attempted historical fantasy before. Admittedly, it’s a strange, hybrid creature (like its cousin genre, alternative-history), slightly out of the mainstream of fiction. But, if one accepts the challenge of combining good, solid historical research with well-crafted fantasy plot elements, then the results can be as entertaining as any epic fantasy built from the ground up.
It pays though, to research the chosen period well. Many readers expect historical accuracy and they will drop a book fast if too many errors of fact or jarring anachronisms pop up. With “crossover” genres like this, you’re trying to please readers who know their favourite time period as well as fantastic literature. With a world-building fantasy novel, that particular pitfall is taken away so long as you remain consistent within the cosmos you’ve created. One particular bugbear of mine is bad sword-fighting, whether in film or books, and there’s a lot of it about. I worked particularly hard to get my fight scenes as accurate as possible. It helped that I had done a fair amount of medieval combat with the Society for Creative Anachronism since the mid-70s and later, some fairly realistic (and risky) rapier and dagger practice with groups in England. Those experiences inform my writing and my duelling scenes.
I actually had intended to write a conventional historical adventure when I was outlining what would become Gideon’s. The idea was to create a suspense thriller—sort of a 17th century “Day of the Jackal”—centring around a plot to assassinate Oliver Cromwell. But I had also been toying with ideas for a novel that was 100 per cent fantasy. None of my epic fantasy ideas were gelling for me and then I hit upon the notion of injecting some fantasy elements into the historical adventure novel I was fleshing out, specifically some supernatural plotlines.
One trope I’ve used is taking real life people from the pages of history and having them interact with fictional characters. Gideon’s has some significant roles for Cromwell, Cardinal Mazarin, Elias Ashmole, and most importantly, Charles deBatz-Castelmore—otherwise known as d’Artagnan. Outside of France, most people think he was a creation of Alexander Dumas. Actually, Dumas plucked him from the history books and fictionalised him. My d’Artagnan is closer to the real man than Dumas’s was. Soldier, diplomat, spy, he was the trusted servant of the said Cardinal, a real 17th century action man. The interaction of the fictionalised real-life and the purely fictional characters such as my protagonist Richard Treadwell, lends itself to building tension in the story. Some of the characters refuse to believe what is happening to them until they are thrust into a maelstrom of otherworldly horror. This is the thing Stephen King does so well, and before him, authors like HP Lovecraft. Taking mundane surroundings and ordinary people and dropping them into situations that stretch their understanding and comprehension—that is, converting a sceptical character into a believer of the supernatural.
I hope I’m not done with my very middle-aged, slightly broken-down and world-weary Cavalier, Richard Treadwell. And I hope readers would like to see him again. I’ve already penned a complete prequel (just how did he get so good at running into supernatural horrors?) and in my mind at least, Colonel Treadwell’s otherworldly adventures in the 17th century aren’t over yet.
About Gideon's Angel
Solaris, February 26, 2013
Mass Market Paperback and eBook, 352 pages
He came back to kill a tyrant. He found the Devil instead. An amazing historical novel with a supernatural twist set after the English Civil War. This is the stunning debut from Clifford Beal.
He came back to kill a tyrant. He found the Devil instead.
1653: The long and bloody English Civil War is at an end. King Charles is dead and Oliver Cromwell rules the land as king in all but name. Richard Treadwell, an exiled royalist officer and soldier-for-hire to the King of France and his all-powerful advisor, the wily Cardinal Mazarin, burns with revenge for those who deprived him of his family and fortune. He decides upon a self-appointed mission to return to England in secret and assassinate the new Lord Protector. Once back on English soil however, he learns that his is not the only plot in motion.
A secret army run by a deluded Puritan is bent on the same quest, guided by the Devil’s hand. When demonic entities are summoned, Treadwell finds himself in a desperate turnaround: he must save Cromwell to save England from a literal descent into Hell. But first he has to contend with a wife he left in Devon who believes she’s a widow, and a furious Paris mistress who has trailed him to England, jeopardising everything. Treadwell needs allies fast. Can he convince the man sent to forcibly drag him back to Cardinal Mazarin? A young king’s musketeer named d’Artagnan.
Black dogs and demons; religion and magic; Freemasons and Ranters. It’s a dangerous new Republic for an old cavalier coming home again.
The very different UK Cover (out February 28th)
For recreation, Clifford used to don plate armour and bash the tar out of people in the Society for Creative Anachronism before moving to more civilised pursuits such as 17th century rapier and dagger fighting and motorcycling (though not simultaneously). Today, he is more likely to be found at the seaside or the Savile Club in London, sharing good wine and conversation in a place where the sparring is usually only verbal.
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