Today I have something rather awesome for you all. Today I have the lovely Nicholas Bowling, author of Witch Born talking about why it is he writes historical fiction. I hope you all enjoy this guest post, it had me from the Bowling says KFC.
Why Historical Fantasy?
Aged thirteen – so, old enough to know better – I wrote a history essay in which I tried to claim that the Bayeux Tapestry was a fake, because I had spotted a KFC family bucket among the legs of the charging Norman cavalry. To this day, I don’t know what it was that I had actually seen. I still somehow managed to get 14/20, thanks to the patience and indulgence – or perhaps genuine credence? – of good old Mr Neal.
Let the record show: I am not a historian. It’s perhaps a surprise, then, that I have found myself writing historical fiction, or, more accurately, historical fantasy.
Or perhaps it’s not (a surprise). Other, more articulate, more intelligent writers have put it better than me (if you haven’t listened to Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures, go do it, now), but suffice to say, history and fiction are not such strange bedfellows. It’s no coincidence that “history” is just “story” with a couple of extra letters, and I’ve always liked, and been quite good at, telling stories – particularly those at the stranger and more imaginative end of the spectrum (c.f. William the Conqueror and his bucket of chicken).
But why historical fantasy, as opposed to “pure” fantasy, or magic realism, or any other type of story for that matter?
In the Early and Pre-Modern Eras, most of the things that we would term “the stuff of fantasy” were vividly, frighteningly real. For us, “fantasy” books and films are thought experiments in which we can play out not just stories around us, but the stories we tell ourselves, in our heads – our dreams and fears and desires. Pre-enlightenment, though, these fears and phantoms could not be rationally explained away as the product of the subconscious or the imagination. The great thing about historical fantasy is that it can take those monsters conjured by the Early or Pre-Modern mind and make them as real as they seemed to the imaginer.
And this is not just bringing to life the superstitions of the uneducated. In the 16th and 17th centuries, magic, science and religion had not yet been comfortably categorised, and there was a good deal of handwringing (and occasionally bloodshed) when definitions were unclear, or misunderstood. A man like Doctor John Dee, who appears as a character in Witchborn, is a perfect embodiment of this. He was an alchemist, magician, astrologer, who claimed he spoke with both the dead and the angels; but he was also a talented mathematician, navigator, and counsellor to the Queen herself.
The prevalence and acceptance of the fantastical in a particular historical period also presents a functional solution to a writer of fantasy fiction. I am realising, as I write this, that this will probably just going to come across as laziness on my part. But here goes. World-building is hard to do right, and so often the choices made in creating a fictional world seem essentially arbitrary. (What do I call this town? Blenwyth? Blythven? Blythvenville? Belyhythhhg? Why? Because it sounds a bit Welsh, and hence sounds a bit like Tolkien? Oh.)
The restrictions of a ready-made historical period, you find, are not restrictions at all, but in fact the opposite: they free you to explore human drama in a world already replete with mystery and otherness. It’s a little like writing poetry – the strictures of rhyme and metre, the rules of the poem, create something far more interesting than anything in sprawling free-verse.
Besides, if there are no rules, you don’t get the fun of breaking them.
Find out more at www.chickenhousebooks.com and @thenickbowling
by Nicholas Bowling
Publisher: Chicken House
Publication Date: November 2nd 2017
It's 1577. Queen Elizabeth I has imprisoned scheming Mary Queen of Scots, and Alyce's mother is burned at the stake for witchcraft. Alyce kills the witchfinder and flees to London - but the chase isn't over yet. As she discovers her own dark magic, powerful political forces are on her trail. She can't help but wonder: why is she so important? Soon she finds herself deep in a secret battle between rival queens, the fate of England resting on her shoulders...
Nick Bowling is an author, stand-up comic, musician and Latin teacher from London. He graduated from Oxford University in 2007 with a BA in Classics and English, and again in 2010 with a Masters in Greek and Latin Language and Literature, before moving to his first teaching job at Trinity School, Croydon. While writing Witchborn, he has also performed a solo show at the Edinburgh festival, and has co-written, recorded and released an album and two EPs with soul-folk singer Mary Erskine, Me For Queen. Witchborn is his debut novel.