Writing Historical Fiction vs. (kinda) Historical Fiction - Part I: A Common Source of Inspiration
I've mentioned elsewhere on this site just how different the experiences were in writing Bulls of War and Fortress of the Sun, and thought I'd use my initial blog posts to explore that a bit further. This will be part of a recurring series, not necessarily in linear fashion. - EMT
I never thought my first itch to write about the ancient world would materialize as Bulls of War. To me, BoW was simply meant to be a fantasy in the truest sense of the word and genre, with no ties or connections to the world we know or the history she's seen. Nevertheless, it became apparent rather quickly that while the story may not have been of this world, the interests of her author certainly were, and for better or worse (I believe the former, of course!), those interests informed BoW's universe.
I've been enamored with Greco-Roman history for some time. Some may say (okay, have said) I'm a bit obsessed with it, and I would be hard-pressed to deny or be offended by it. I count my experiences amidst the ruins of Greece and Italy among the best I've ever known - the grounds of the Colosseum, the Palatine Hill, the ghostly streets of Pompeii, the sanctuary of Delphi, the castle of Corinth. They're all unique, all magical in their own ways.
Thus, when I put pen to paper (or keys to screen?) on BoW, whether I was aware of it or not, the images of those magical places stood in for much of Andervold, at least those parts with respect to the Rokhish Empire. So too did the constant political intrigue and turmoil of the Late Empire provide inspiration for the frenzied state of Andervold in the 383rd year Post Cataclysm. Plenty more would have looked familiar to a Roman of noble birth in the second or third century A.D., be it the soldiery, the breadth of the realm, the military acting as a literal and figurative backbone of the Empire, etc.
With fantasy, of course, one isn't bound or confined by actual events, nor does the reader run the risk of already knowing "what actually happened." Characters are free to walk along roads familiar to history just as much as they may take the nearest detour and even descend into the directly counterfactual. The story can move out of one source of inspiration, pull from another, or perhaps deviate entirely. It's that freedom, I found, that marks the biggest distinction between writing historical fiction and fantasy. Well, that freedom and the staggering hours of research required for historical fiction.
This certainly isn't a profound statement or sentiment, but I recall its simplicity hitting me within a few paragraphs into the outline of Fortress of the Sun, let alone the novel itself. Whereas the characters of BoW or certain aspects of the realm may have drawn inspiration from the historical record, in Fortress, they had to mirror that historical record. And to me, at least, mirroring means canvassing every aspect of the inspiration, from the terrain upon which characters walked, to the climate, to the items in marketplaces, to the swords theY bore, to the dialect they spoke, to the gods they worshiped, to which city-states hated who and why and for how long, etc., etc. Historical fiction is the closest we will ever get to a time machine, and if an author is going to make that trip worthwhile, if he or she is going to immerse the audience in that time and space, the homework must be done.
Hence, my hundreds if not thousands of pages of notes and dozens upon dozens of books, articles, and webpages dedicated to the study of Ancient Greece. I recall reading on Steven Pressfield's website at one point, Pressfield's opinion as to when a writer of historical fiction has done 'enough' research - it's when the writer starts catching the mistakes of the very primary source authors he or she is studying. I hope my paraphrase does it justice, as that maxim stuck with me ever since; the sensation of needing to "read just one more article..." about x-y-z area(s) of Ancient Greece is one that is omnipresent throughout the drafting of the novel, one that can very easily and often does overpower the need to actually, you know...