Once upon a time…
Three jaded words that should upset any fantasy author worth her salt…
It implies that the writer is fixing the events of a story in an imperfect & illusory moment in history. A time that is indefinable but, in some unspecified way, oddly familiar to us. If you were a gambler, it’s worth betting that the “when” of a story that starts with “Once Upon a Time” takes place in an abstract and (probably) spurious, eurocentric, medieval village. Yawn!
This lurch towards medievalism is presumably driven by a conscious desire by some writers to emulate their distinguished predecessors, notably Tolkien, CS Lewis, and George R R Martin, but might also stem from an unconscious desire to duplicate the fairy tale, make-believe, world of medieval Europe that was typified by Walt Disney. (Such a special & magical place that we became enchanted by the notion of it while we were still children.)
I’m not saying you shouldn’t set your fantasy story in medieval times… if that’s what you want to do, I won’t stop you. In fact, that’s why I discussed some “true” medieval insights in my non-fiction manual: “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” I even explored a range of tangible characters that you might want to use: the true knight, the minstrel, the castellan, the peasant: to provide you with (what I believe) is beneficial information about such roles, hoping to suggest some interesting opportunities for you while at the same time trying to thwart common misconceptions and stereotypes that some writers fall too quickly into: for example, peasants weren’t downtrodden morons, kings weren’t all-powerful, and women weren’t ineffective or helpless.
But back to the key point… In what period should you set your fantasy? The straightforward answer is: the period you know best.
I’m lucky, because I’ve been here a long time. Tolkein, C. S. Lewis, and George R. R. Martin were also older men who, like me, had seen a bit of life: I can set my adventure in the 1960s, seventies, eighties, or later. The three authors I mention could take their own experiences and rediscover and recreate the adventures in their novels. I am the same. I know “my times” and so they are easy for me to replicate and depict: I have a “feel” for my times. You do too. You know your time. They knew theirs. You will be passionate about your time in the same way they were passionate about theirs.
“It is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life...”― J.R.R Tolkien
But if I ever tried to place my fiction within an unexplored time zone, a period in which I did not feel altogether comfortable and familiar with, then it would present me with additional problems over-and-above the standard task of simply writing a narrative — it would become an investigation project. That’s the problem with writing “costume dramas” (because that’s what they are): the author will have to use due diligence to recreate an authentic picture of a world they have never seen and never been a part of. And that requires mental work. It takes time. And if you don’t do justice to it, it will be gibberish. And you’ll be criticized. And it’s a rigmarole too. I am not suggesting that it’s not entertaining and even quite fun to undertake historical research… but does it not take an author away from the principal task: writing a wonderful story? I think historical research is a diversion.
I guess the hardest part of the writing process is the transformational ability to convince the reader that he/she is reading about a genuine person, something real, an actual place, or an authentic situation. This is what I believe to be the transpersonal element of fiction, and I suppose it will be more profound if we derive the representations or illustrations we pen from our own (author) experiences or consciousness.
So Tolkein never fought the hordes of Sauron in Mordor, but he fought in the murderous chaos of the trenches of the Somme, during World War I.
Similarly, CS Lewis never became an adult in just a few weeks after having travelled through a wardrobe and into a magical world, but he experienced trench warfare (also on the Somme) and the experience felt as if it lasted much longer than it literally did and he suggested it felt like an “absence from Earth”.
George R R Martin never experienced The Long Night, but he was a product of the Great Depression and knew great hardship. And though he was never a sworn brother sent to patrol the Wall, he was eligible for conscription in the Vietnam War (he got conscientious objector status) and did alternative service work as a VISTA volunteer for two years. He “patrolled” his wall.
You often hear them say “write what you know” but to be honest, I think that is utter nonsense. I prefer the affirmation: write what you feel passionate about. I think Tolkein, Lewis and Martin had close scrapes with destruction. They looked barbarism in the eye and witnessed atrocity and inhuman cruelty for themselves: and this inspired them: it is what makes their writing unshakable, moving and intense.
But let’s get back to discussing in what period you should set your fantasy: have you ever wondered why authors don’t set their fantasy tales during the First World War? Or the Second World War? Or Vietnam? Or during the armed invasion of Iraq? I guess it’s the impression that there is already “too much going on” in times of conflict and that the people involved in the comings and goings of wartime have little time for the whimsical or the fantastic.
But that’s not absolutely true: a supernatural entity protected the British Army from defeat at the Battle of Mons in Belgium in August 1914 (supernatural archers and an angel witnessed by several hundred military personnel) and there were frequent reports of angelic interventions, ghostly visions, “White Cavalry” (in Bethune), many prayer-provoked supernatural events, angels seen during air raids on the front lines and at home, visions of crosses in the sky, and many miracles involving chance mists that came out of nowhere to hide (and protect ) allied armies. Imagination and fantasy were alive and very real, even during war.
So, in short, be credible, try to use your own experiences (which will make your writing more exciting), avoid unnecessary research by setting your fantasy in a time period which you are familiar with; or try to establish your story at a critical moment in real-world history. Be resourceful. Be brave. Above all, be inventive.
Let me know where your “when” is… tweet me @neilmach
Words: @neilmach 2021 ©
I heartily recommend the book shown below. It’s a sensible shape and size, written by someone who’s not at all famous and it’s relatively unhaunted: “Moondog and the Reed Leopard” is available for purchase now: