Guest Post: Gerrard Cowan on History in Fantasy

gerrardcowan-themachineryGerrard Cowan’s The Machinery is one of the books that disappeared down the black hole that was my blogging (and in some ways reading) hiatus. I had just started the book when everything stopped and once I got back to reading I found that in order to give the book its proper due I’d have to start reading it from the top. And I’m absolutely planning to do so, as what I did read really intrigued me. And with the release of the paperback edition of the book today, I have a solid reason to bump it up the reading list again. And to celebrate said release, Gerrard is once more visiting A Fantastical Librarian, this time with a post on how to create a fantastical history convincingly. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. And keep an eye out for my review of The Machinery at some point in the coming months! 


Gerrard Cowan – History in Fantasy

Fantasy is unlike any other genre. The writer is responsible for creating not only the story on the page, but also the whole setting behind it – an entire country or even world with its own geography, peoples, and rules. Perhaps most important is the need to give your work a tangible sense of history.

Writers in every genre must build up a backstory to their narratives – they need to know where the characters have come from, as this normally has a direct impact on the plot, either directly (people or events from the past rearing their ugly heads) or indirectly (feeding into the motivations or opinions of the protagonists).

However, while fantasy writers must of course do the same thing, they face additional challenges. If you’re writing a book set in the aftermath of World War One, for example, you have all that history to fall back on. We are familiar with the events, and with the culture of the time – the clothes people wore, for example.

You may still need to do a lot of research, of course, and writing about events that people know so much about poses challenges of its own – the history needs to be referenced in a convincing way. But the challenges in fantasy are different.

The writer has a great deal of freedom, in many ways – the history of the world is up to you, and can be shaped and reshaped until it feels right. However, this creates challenges of its own.

First, you need to ensure the historical backdrop actually makes sense. This sounds obvious, but it really isn’t. In my first novel, for example, the history of the country in focus takes place entirely on one giant continent – in fact, the people are largely prevented from ever leaving this landmass, and the only ships that are permitted are small fishing vessels etc. I remember reading over one of the late drafts and discovering a character – a young boy – dreaming of great battles on ocean waters, thanks to a history he had read. Of course, that could not have happened.

This leads on to the second challenge – avoiding silly mistakes. When you are dealing with a long period of history, as is the case in most fantasy books, there can be a temptation to throw in a new war or a new king etc into some point in the distant past, without worrying too much about the consequences. But this is dangerous – it’s important to keep track of these references. You could find yourself referring to the third queen of a certain name in several different contexts, for example, if you haven’t nailed down the history exactly.

The third element is working out how you introduce the history into your book, without overdoing it. Its very important not to crowbar in random chunks of information – this sounds obvious, I know, but I have struggled with it. For example, let’s say an event in the ancient past is set to have ramifications in the present – a common occurrence in fantasy novels. How do you bring it to the reader’s attention? I think it’s fine for characters to discuss these events, but it’s important that they do it in a natural way. It can’t be a case of: ‘by the gods, this reminds me of the time …’ It’s important to think about how people would really talk about history. They are likely to know only snatches of it, depending on who they are.

Finally, there is perhaps the biggest challenge of all – how much history do you actually need to create for your fantasy world? This is one of the most intimidating things about launching yourself into the genre. After all, you’re following in the footsteps of Tolkien.

I would be lying if I said it doesn’t take a lot of work – if you haven’t mapped a good portion of the history, then it’s unlikely your world will be convincing. That being said, I don’t think you have to sit down and literally write out the entire history of the countries or empires or whatever at the centre of your narrative. That would be a gigantic task, and could well harm the book, quite frankly – you could find yourself a prisoner of the history you’ve constructed, or you could be tempted to overload the reader with all the background you’ve created.

I found the best thing to do was to build the bare bones of the history – the big changes in the world and when they occurred. I then finessed it as I wrote the book – often, it’s best to see these things from ground level, through the eyes of your characters.

For me, it all comes down to conveying a sense of authenticity. You need to have a good grasp on what has happened in your world – the reader will pick up on it, and if you’ve done it right, the experience will be totally immersive for them.


Gerrard Cowan Author ImageBio:

Gerrard Cowan is the author of The Machinery (HarperVoyager UK), a fantasy about a world whose leaders are chosen by a machine – until the machine breaks. It will be available on paperback and ebook from March 24th.

The Machinery is the first in a trilogy; part two, The Strategist, will be released in May 2016.

Gerrard is from Derry, in the North West of Ireland, and lives in London with his wife Sarah and their two children. His first known work was a collection of poems on monsters, written for Halloween when he was eight; it is sadly lost to civilisation. When he isn’t writing strange fantasy books he works as a freelance journalist.

Visit Gerrard’s website here, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.