Historical fantasy draws upon real history but adds fantastical elements. World-building is a basic task for fantasy authors. Both fantasy and science fiction, by definition, take place in worlds outside our own. Contemporary fantasy may draw upon our known world, but it’s not fantasy unless some rules are bent to allow a fantastical element. Present day New York City isn’t fantasy until the Statue of Liberty comes alive and walks on water. (Or something equally fantastic.)
Historical Setting for Fantasy
But there’s nothing that says you have to invent everything. For example, Donna Jo Napoli chooses a particular time period for her retelling of fairy tales. Bound is a Cinderella retelling set in the 17th century Ming Dynasty in northern China. By setting it so specifically in a historical setting, Napoli doesn’t have to invent as much. Instead, she researches, sometimes for months. The beauty of this process is that she can also change anything she wants to fit the story. Unlike historical non-fiction, or even a straight historical novel, a fairy tale retelling can change the setting to be true to the story.
Liberty’s Historical Setting: Tall Ships
That’s what I’ve done with my middle grade novel, Liberty. It’s the story of two pigs who vow to sail the Seven Seas together. I always wanted to write a story with .
But pigs don’t sail. How could they hold onto the ropes with their hooves? How could they climb the rigging? It’s an interesting problem, but I was determined that they would sail the Seven Seas. I wanted to write a story about characters who set their sites on an impossible dream.
Once I decided on sailing, I knew I wanted to hark back to the 1850s when the tall ships ruled the seas. These are the huge sailing vessels which set world speed records for delivering goods to the Far East and India. That meant, the story must take place in a coastal town with a large harbor that was historically used for sailing ships. Boston.
Isn’t it cool to follow the chain of thought. One decision—the characters will sail—leads to the next—1850s tall ships—which leads to the next—Boston. Decisions are sequential and depend on each decision before it. If I changed a basic assumption (they wanted to sail), the entire story would collapse.
I looked for historical maps of Boston and had fun poring over them to decide where my hero/ines would lodge and work.
The plot also comes from these beginning decisions. The pigs, Santiago and Penelope Talbert, have one goal: to sail the Seven Seas. But to get there entails many steps. They have to escape Old MacDonald’s farm, cross the river into Liberty—the land where any person or animal can get ahead in the world, learn to sail, get a job on a sail boat, earn money for their own boat, and finally sail across the world. Nothing can be easy or the reader won’t stick around for the journey.
Specific details again went back to the setting. One thing that tall ships delivered to India was blocks of ice. Refrigeration wasn’t invented until sometime in the 20th century. In the 1850s, though, ice could be delivered in a city. Ice boxes were common and households paid for large blocks of ice to be delivered to keep things like milk and butter cool.
Ice was cut during deep winter. Crews went out to a pond or lake and cut out blocks of ice, which were packed with pine straw into ice houses. Of course, warm weather would start to melt the ice, but it could last long into the hot weather.
The tall ships were fast enough to carry ice blocks to India. They knew that half of the ice would melt before they arrived, but in India, ice was very expensive. The premium pricing available made it a profitable journey for an ice ship.
And there’s the setting that I needed. What if my pigs could apprentice on an Ice Ship, and sail around the world to India to deliver ice?
Historical settings reduce the work necessary for fantasy world building. But the author must still make choices on where and when to follow history blindly and when to make changes. For Liberty, that was easy because intelligent animals populate the world. That’s not historical, but it’s fun fantasy.