The Son Of The Morning author talks about how to research historical fantasy
This is a guest blog by author Mark Alder (who also writes as MD Lachlan) whose new book Son Of The Morning touches down on Earth next week, on Thursday 17 April. It received five stars in SFX issue 247. Here, he tells us what's involved in researching such a book...
If you decide to write a historical fantasy novel, how should you go about researching it?
My first advice is to pick a period that you're completely in love with – at least when you're a beginner writer. This way you have in all likelihood begun your research years before – as a child, in some cases. I remember being appalled by the representation of Vikings with horns on their helmets in a school play aged about nine.
"No, no, no!" I felt like saying. I grew up on a steady diet of Norse myth, wargaming and playing Viking characters in Dungeons And Dragons . I already knew small details such as Viking men's liking for makeup, the scarcity of swords and the tradition of out-boasting each other in rhyme, very much like today's rappers.
When I came to write the Wolfsangel series I could pretty much begin writing straight away without the need to do much research. Of course, I researched anyway, reading up on the Norse sagas, Viking culture and weapons but I already had a feel for the period and this is the most important thing.
Personally I want to avoid representing past times as just like our own only with different clothes. I need to reflect accurately past ideas of love, of success, of right and wrong. For instance, the Vikings don't really have a sense of good and evil in the same way we have today. They tend more to categorise along the lines of brave and cowardly, famous and having a bad name. To me, it's more important to get this sort of thing right than small details about how a tunic ties up. Though it's important to get that sort of thing right too.
Choosing the form of magic or monsters is relatively straightforward, if you decide to include them. You just take the myths of the day as if they were real. However, it's sometimes good to surprise the reader. A trick I employ is to reverse the myth, to say "what if it was all true but we saw it from the villain's side?" In the Wolfsangel series this gave me the figure of Loki who is an enemy of the gods but a friend to humanity. It's interesting that, of all the Norse gods, Loki is the only major one who isn't also a god of war and also one who is depicted helping people.
When it came to Son Of The Morning , I unwittingly applied the same trick.
This book is set in the 100 Years War – a period I knew a little about already. I knew that kings were ordained by God and ruled in his place. This made any rebellion by the poor an offence against God. So if the poor could not rely on God to help them, where would they turn? To Lucifer. A knowledge of the true history quickly gave me a jumping off point for the fantasy.
I didn't choose to write in this period, my editor suggested it. However, I quickly really did fall in love with it.
The characters are so incredible. Take Isabella, wife of Edward II. She is married to the king at 14 but spurned by him for his male favourites. He gives away her marriage jewels, abandons her to the Scots and gives her little money. However, she escapes England, takes up with the rebel Mortimer and engineers it so her young son, the heir to the throne, is sent to France with her. Then she invades England with a small army. Confronted by overwhelming numbers, she rides in her armour to the head of her force and tells the opposition they would much rather have her for a ruler than the king. Edward's troops change sides, supporting her and within a few months Edward II is dead and she is de facto ruler of England.
When you start to speculate how a woman with such limited resources overthrew a king, you begin to see where your story might come from.
Further research yielded historical theories about the fate of Edward II that formed the basis of the book.
I recommend biography as a good place to start with research. It has a story, unlike some other aspects of history and gives you a character around which you can base your novel. The character may not turn out to be the central one of your story but you have a coherent thread around which you can weave the rest.
Historical fantasy brings its own problems – how far do you depart from the truth? Is, say, the Napoleonic period simply a setting for your story or will you stick to the facts, offering interesting and entertaining alternative explanations of, say, how Napoleon escaped from Elba. Or will you replace Napoleon with a faerie king summoned by revolutionaries to help them overthrow the Ancien Regime ?
You don't need to plan this before you start. It might easily evolve organically.
My preference is to remain as true to the history as possible. For me, it's fun to try to get all the battles on the right dates, even tracking the movement of the courts across Europe day by day. For me, creativity is like a climbing rose – it needs something to cling to and the solid framework of real history provides just the right support.
History can surprise you too. As you look deeper into it you can suddenly encounter something that blasts you into a new and unexpected direction. The internet is a terrific resource. When I discovered these tapestries I had invented a cosmology in which devils and demons come to the aid of kings. I was shocked to see someone had got there six centuries before me.
Writing historical fantasy is tricky and sometimes maddening but it's tremendously rewarding, particularly when you find that real history is as wild and strange as anything imagined.
Read more about Son Of The Morning at the website of publishers Gollancz . Son Of The Morning is released on Thursday 17 April and you can order it from Amazon now, and read the review in SFX 247 which hit newsstands last week. Mark Alder is on Twitter , as is MD Lachlan .