When Historical Fiction Meets Spec

A year and a half ago I had an enormous hardcover copy of The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood spread across my lap, opened to where Alex is working on a pulp scifi novel about aliens. This novel-within-a-novel takes place on Zycron. At first, it’s surreal, jarring. You think: what are these aliens doing in historical fiction? But you read on, become entranced by this tale the lovers spin in their time together, how it binds them. And then, if you’re like me, you start to think: why aren’t there aliens in all my historical fiction novels?

There are a lot of reasons to consider historical fiction and speculative fiction in separate spheres entirely. After all, historical fiction is marked by immersion in the real world, right? It’s colored in by the history we’ve gone over again and again. By adulthood, we know what Victorian London or, say, depression-era New York look like enough to fill in the background without much help from the author.

I could argue that historical fiction is in and of itself speculative. We can imagine a maid living in 1897 but we don’t know one. We can dress her, take her to a party, have her fall in love. We can sew velvet curtains to cover her windows. She can bake an apple pie in a fire burning stove. All of this in any city—in any country with good research.

The history we have learned has been skewed by those who had the time, money and enough education to write down their experiences. The further back into the past a writer goes or the more obscure a topic, the closer it is to writing science fiction or fantasy. It becomes very distant from what is happening here on Earth in the 21st century. But it requires research. Enough to plant the reader in that time period. Immersion comes from carefully placed detail—detail which can only be found by sifting through the past.

But I’m not here to make the argument that historical fiction is fundamentally speculative. That would take something away from the bucket we already pour so many other stories into. If you marry the two genres instead, something special is born complete with witches or ghosts or magicians. From indigenous spiritual practices to religious rites. Tarot readings in a dirty basement. Fortune tellers. Voodoo. This list could go on forever.

Adding these elements to historical fiction doesn’t immediately transfer an historical story into a speculative one. It can exist in both spheres simultaneously.

There is an art of subtlety to the introduction of speculative elements that makes what Timeworn is looking for a little different from what most would traditionally consider “historical fantasy."

The most popular example of this is in-between-genre is The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. The story is nested in lush Victorian London. The magic is subtle and doesn't take away from the historical nature of the novel.

The Witches of New York by Ami McKay takes place during Gilded Age New York City. The magic is ethereal and gothic; it's in the background pulling us through the novel. Its existence in the book never takes away from the historical experience and instead serves to enrich it.

In The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill, there is no magic actually happening, it just feels like there is because the narrative uses magical imagery. Description blooms with the idea of magic. We never lose the backdrop of Montreal during the depression. Gritty details are everywhere, desperation written so plainly.

“She had urges. Instead of trying to fight them, Rose let them play out in her mind. She let them unwind slowly. They were like water seeping underneath a door and filling up a room. Desire flooded in. And all of the cups and plates floated on top of it. And the Chairs were knocked over and the books began to open up as they spun around, wanting each of their pages to be read at once. And then finally her bed began to rise up off of the floor and there was nowhere for it to go but out the window and toward the moon.”

Genre is a confusing beast and when we write to it, something is lost. Those borders are great barriers of the imagination. Knock them down, dabble on the other side a little bit and bring that bounty back. Sprinkle it in like cinnamon in a cup of hot coffee. Let the world drink it up.

Casey Reinhardt is an editor of Timeworn Literary Journal. She is also a writer. Find her on twitter @yoscully