A Fractious Duo: The Historian and the Fantasy Novelist

On one side, I am a historian.  I gleefully record dates, names, and important events, carefully wrap them up in concisely constructed sentences, and then lovingly footnote, taking pride in how pretty my neat little citations look in their tidy rows (okay, I admit it, I’m sick).  I build coherent arguments, making certain to give as many of the facts as possible to back up my conclusions.  I research until my vision grows bleary and my contacts stick to the inside of my eyelids . . . and love it!

And then, one day, I sat at my computer and started writing fantasy (?!).  Conflict between Stephanie the historian and Stephanie the fantasy writer was inevitable.  When I proudly read the first draft of the first chapter of Sidhe Eyes aloud to my friends, I was caught off-guard by the response: “Stephanie, you’re being a historian!”  Apparently, Stephanie the historian was diligently working to give the reader all the facts, at the cost of suspense.  In short, I started out writing fantasy exactly in the manner one would write a history book.  A story requires a level of suspense to maintain reader interest; a history book requires facts which feed their knowledge and keep them turning the pages to learn more.  A marriage between the two . . . well, it’s dry enough to use as a fire starter on a camping trip.

About a month later, Stephanie the fantasy writer got her revenge on Stephanie the historian for her interference in Sidhe Eyes.  A paper that I had handed in to a professor came back with a large red circle drawn around a horrendous breach in proper writing which I had committed:  I put a contraction in a formal history paper, for the first time since my freshman year of college.  My professor was mystified, having never before seen such a mistake in one of my papers (honestly, this really really is a big no-no in a formal paper).  I, too, was mystified, until I read over another history paper in progress and realized that my tone was far more conversational than normal.  Additionally, I was now subconsciously attempting to make my history suspenseful.  Writing fantasy now affected how I wrote history!

Things really really came to a head over these past six months in the ultimate showdown of historian vs. fantasy writer.  The historian wanted (well, needed actually) to write her thesis, but the fantasy writer desperately wanted to work on stories!  I tried to affect a compromise between the two, but that didn’t quite work.  Somehow, my brain kept crashing whenever it needed to switch between American secret agents in Turkey during World War II and the ongoing troubles of Edric and Flavia in Glemaria.  My thesis chair kept complaining that my writing was losing its conciseness and kept yanking out stories that I felt were charming and that he felt were superfluous — no matter, I’ll just use them for inspiration in my fantasy!  My fantasy, as we’re all well aware, is of course well-footnoted.

In the end, I’m sure that fractious duo fighting for supremacy in my brain will eventually either make a charming anecdote at dinner parties or a thrilling project for a team of top psychiatrists, who will then go on to write the next groundbreaking study based on me.


About HistoryGypsy

I'm a high school history teacher and author of upcoming novel Sidhe Eyes. I live in gorgeous Qingdao, China, where I spend much of my free time studying the fascinating and frustrating Chinese language, eating odd things, or taking long walks along the Yellow Sea. At "While We're Paused" I have the pleasure of blogging about things that catch my interest: good books, language, history, poetry, writing tips, grammar rants, random humor . . . I don't like to get in a rut! Some of my favorite writers include (and this is by no means an exhaustive list): Dorothy Sayers, J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Jules Verne, Baroness Orczy, Geoffrey Wawro, John Lynn, Bill Bryson, the Bronte sisters, John Christopher, J.M. Barrie, O. Henry, Roald Dahl, and Robert Graves. I usually find myself reading no less than three books at a time!

Posted on April 24, 2011, in Fantasy, History, Stephanie Thompson, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Actually, you need to get these two marital counseling, because only when they learn to get along will you be really great at either.

    Surely you have noticed all that Tolkien did to make LOTR sound like real history–and now I mean beyond the linguistic bits. You have earlier and later versions of legends, just as a historian would find them (raw material), Tolkien presented with a straight face as simply the translator into Modern English of the Red Book of Westmarch, the appendices, etc., etc., etc. You have to be a skilled historian to make your fantasy world seem completely real (even if you also have to know when to put certain things in an appendix in order to avoid destroying the suspense and the narrative flow).

    And you have obviously been reading the wrong academic historians (i.e., most of the ones available today). Unfortunately History as a discipline has forgotten its roots as a Liberal Art and, in a misguided attempt to appear falsely scientific, has tried to reinvent itself as that horrid oxymoron, a Social Science. But all the great historians from the past were good at narrative as well as at cataloging facts. To be a great historian (as opposed to a mere cataloger and analyst of data), you will have to call on all your skills as a fantasy writer.

    Pay only a little attention to that Committee behind the curtain. Good writing is not allowed in dissertations or theses, and it is their job to stamp it out whenever it rears its pretty head. Your job is to figure out how to get away with it anyway–after you get the degree!

    Yes, marital counseling is definitely indicated. In this case, divorce is not an option.

  2. Wayne the Shrink

    I’ll agree with the above wholeheartedly. For an example read Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August, A Distant Mirror, or others. She knew narrative, and made history interesting. Read Neptune’s Inferno: The US Navy at Guadacanal by Hornfischer, you feel the heat of the ship burning, you hose off the blood and body parts from the ship after the battle. Description that you experience. History is His Story – and the stories of those of us who follow after. The emphasis is on Story.

  3. Reading your post I was thinking exactly what Don was thinking: Writing fantasy as historian-narrator works exceedingly well, as Tolkien proved, conclusively.

    “Unfortunately History as a discipline has forgotten its roots as a Liberal Art and, in a misguided attempt to appear falsely scientific, has tried to reinvent itself as that horrid oxymoron, a Social Science.” Nice.

  4. I’d like to hear Brian’s thoughts on this subject, as he is the only practicing historian, as far as I know, in the group.

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