East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Historical Fantasy – Fleshing Out the Background


Sometimes being too clever is not so clever in the long run.
When I first sketched my characters of Aculeo and Amunet, I was not actually writing a story.
I was explaining how to play fast and loose when putting together a very basic sword & sorcery plot.

So, when sketching Aculeo, it felt like a good idea to make him a veteran of the Siege of Palmyra, AD 272.
Sounded cool.

revolt_barbariansFast forward 12 months, and Aculeo & Amunet had their own story – which is set in a swamp somewhere north of Menphis and south-east of Alexandria, Aegypt, AD 276.
Total background research required – one afternoon, plus one evening watching two old peplum movies.
Nice and smooth.

Another six months, and my heroes have their first ebook, a number of nice reviews, and their own series, with two other stories being written.

And here’s the problem – because it’s all right playing fast and loose when you are writing a one-shot short story.
But when you start handling a series, and your characters start exploring their world, you need to put down something more than six paragraphs of notes. Especially if you are using a psaeudo-historical setting.
The historical part is the one which requires some care – you can still improvise in the psaeudo- sections*.

And here’s the big surprise – choosing the Third Century AD in the Mediterranean area was either very smart or very stupid on my part.

9780521301992Very stupid, because there’s a thing called Crisis of Third Century, which is an absolute mess, politically and historically, and also a very specialistic subject; it’s not so easy getting quick & dirty color details for my writing. Wikipedia is damn dry on the subject, and most books focus on very specific factors.

Very smart, because once you get into it, the Third Century Crisis sort of blows the Roman Empire apart – political confusion, economical crisis, social upheval, communication breakdown, warlords, barbarian raiders, religious zealots and what else.
An ideal setting for swords & sorcery, if I say so myself.
The closest thing you can get to the Hyborian Age this side of the fall of Atlantis.
The sort of setting where you can play fast and loose, as soon as you’ve laid down the basics.

So, after some searching, and having spoken with a few classically-educated friends, I got me the 900+ pages of The Cambridge Ancient History Volume 12: The Crisis of Empire, AD 193-337, which is exactly what the doctor ordered – and goes for very extravagant prices.
The book is absolutely fabulous – tons of highly detailed maps, and essays on every aspect of the crisis (dynastic, political, economical, social, religious), plus spot summaries for every area of the empire.
And if the Noth-Eastern sector and the Danube frontier get the most coverage, Africa, Arabia and the Middle East are also finely detailed.
I can’t praise this monumental work enough.
It’s a gigantic source of information, and it’s an unfathomable source of inspirations for new stories and plot twists.

So, all in all – sketching characters quickly is all good and fine, but series work is hard.
You have to let the characters grow.
You have to come up with novel ideas.
You have to keep the punters happy.
AND you have to document the world.

And yet, it’s also a load of fun.

* Also a good friend of mine is a historical novelist, and she’s quite clear as to how fast and how loose you can or can’t be when it comes to historical detail. And she’s quite vocal about it.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

4 thoughts on “Historical Fantasy – Fleshing Out the Background

  1. Quite vocal, is she? 😀 She may have developed a set of notions on the matter over years of toiling in the genre – notions that allow for more or less leeway according to the shade of historical one is writing – and she may feel… er, strongly about them. Don’t we all, when it comes to the tenets of our craft? And when you write historicals, some kind of belief in the matter of historical accuracy becomes a pretty basic tenet.


    • And one should always be careful about what stupid jokes he does in his posts, or he will be severely thrashed.


      • You feel severely thrashed? Please don’t! Your friend laughed a good deal at the description… She only meant to explain how she is no blind zealot, offering human sacrifices on the altar of Historical Accuracy… and only managed to sound like one, I fear. 😀
        So… a necessary disclaimer: no thrashing involved. And no human sacrifices either… Honest!


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