When I was 14, baking in summer sunshine on a friend’s upper-floor balcony, I decided to begin writing a history of the relationship between Alexander the Great and his best friend/lover, Hephaestion. This wouldn’t be a fictionalized trifle: it would be academic, serious—and yet it would be shot through with creative re-imaginings and deft scene-setting. I could feel the scope of it, widening and widening behind my eyes. My heart was hammering. I drew a blank piece of three-ring paper out of my knapsack. With confidence and a flourish of underline, I wrote a title I can no longer recall. I believe I made it one line in (the line went something like, “Alexander the Great met Hephaestion, son of Amyntor, when they were boys, under the tutelage of Aristotle, at Mieza”). And that was it. I chewed the pen cap. I stared at the paper. I sensed a pall that had no chance against the summer sunshine.
The scope was wide, all right: it widened and widened behind my eyes and farther yet, to a place way beyond the confines of my skull. This was a big undertaking. It was scarily huge. It would require libraries and dry, dull texts that wouldn’t read at all like Mary Renault. I admitted this to myself, on the balcony, and wanted to cry.
Months later, I wrote the first of my many Alexander stories. Forget biography: fiction was how I’d always wanted to do this. And anyway, it was easier. Quicker. More fun.
Decades later, I toyed with the idea of writing something about Louis Riel, set at the insane asylum in Quebec where he was patient, for a time. “Toyed with” is, in fact, too glib a term: I read and scribbled and read some more. I researched. I bookmarked. Spent months plotting things out, after spending hours on the phone with my agent. Louis Riel. The story was breathtakingly exciting. The story was nauseatingly scary. He was a real man: he left letters, diaries, legacy; he left people who knew, admired, hated, loved him, and people who felt powerful things for him still. Who was I to attempt to capture any of this? How could I sacrifice the truth of what that sanitarium had really been for a magic-realist vision of how it never was?
I didn’t end up writing a word of this one. Even my attempt at that biography of Alexander and Hephaestion was more productive.
My forays into a fantastical Bronze Age, thankfully, were a delight. I did just enough research to capture some of the broad strokes, but the rest was imagined—and that was okay, because the story came from myth. Ah, myth: the ultimate in plausible deniability. Don’t like what I chose to do with this plot element? It happens to be consistent with a very old version of the myth. And anyway: it’s myth, people. It never happened—or we can never prove it did, anyway. I’m just the latest in a long line of interpreters, layering on my own images and personalities and twists. Sure, I might have kind of wanted to make a stab at actual Bronze Age historical fiction—but that would have taken a ton of research, and despite all of the research, I could have been wrong or lame about something, and people might have called me out on this.
I write fantasy, in part, because of a heady, addictive need to seek out wonder, to ask profound, elemental human questions via other worlds, using imagery both impossible and immediate. These reasons are easy to give—but there are others. Yup. Laziness and fear are also part of why I write fantasy.
Even without the historical fiction angle: laziness and fear. Take The Pattern Scars, which is narrated by a young woman of extremely humble origins who ends up living in the royal court. Readers have commented on how impressed they are that I chose to use the first-person point of view of a character who’s close to the great goings-on of the highest in the realm, but not quite there: someone who’s privy to some important conversations, but not nearly all of them. One reader might even have referred to this choice of mine as “brave.”
First of all, the “commoner in the court of the king” trope is exactly that: a trope. And it didn’t feel like a brave choice; it felt like a necessary one. I wanted more of that plausible deniability. Political decisions that shape history? Not sure I’m up to writing about that—so Nola wasn’t in the room when those decisions were made. Battlefield strategy? Oh god, no: she hears there might be some, at some point, but that’s about it.
There are narrative reasons other than lazy fear for my point-of-view choices, of course. I’m genuinely fascinated by the idea of thrusting regular people into situations that would normally be beyond them: fish-out-of-water characters, stand-ins for the reader, carefully or fretfully navigating strangeness, rather than striding about knowing everything already.
Lazy fear and narrative appeal are not, it seems, mutually exclusive.
I’m between books now, struggling to come up with what’s next. I’m giddy with barely-formed ideas, snippets gleaned from articles, photos, maps, the tangles and tangents of Wikipedia. I’m scared, because the business-y ground beneath my feet isn’t so much bedrock as it is sinkhole-ridden sand, and I want to make the right choice, for both market and me. So what is next?
What about historical fiction? I’m not 14 anymore, and the Internet exists now: surely I could essay a subject both obscure and possible to substantiate. A fresh new take on fill-in-the-blank; a “wow, I had no idea that was happening in Canada in 1877!” kind of thing.
Literary spins on historical fiction seem to sell, in Canada. They seem to do well, critically. Some of them even involve a whiff or two of fantasy—few enough whiffs, somehow, to keep these novels off the genre shelves. Part of me is eager to try a spin like this. It would stretch my writerly abilities, get me out of my comfort zone. It might garner me some attention outside the genre world—something I’ve never even seriously envisioned, but which might be kind of cool.
But what if someone calls me out on something? “Does she seriously think a working-class Victorian child would speak that way?” “The architecture of the workhouse is all wrong!” “Her grasp of animal husbandry is loose at best.”
I’m kind of trying, though. I’ve started to make notes on some of those exhilarating, mostly formless, historically-based ideas I’ve been having—but the impulse toward lazy fear is already kicking in. Too much work to do this “straight”, and the accuracy stakes are high; why not do the usual Sweetian thing? Historical fantasy, mythology-based fantasy, contemporary fantasy: in the past month or so, I haven’t had a single idea that hasn’t become infested with fantasy elements shortly thereafter.
I should probably start writing and see what happens. If research happens, maybe that’s fine. If fantasy happens, that’s fine too. I should stop trying to crystal-ball the market, and just follow that overthinking, overwrought muse of mine.