I’m announcing, proudly, that I’ve had a poem published in each of these two anthologies: On the Dark Path, An Anthology of Fairy Tale Poetry, and the cancer poetry project 2. The first is probably appropriate for high school and above. My poem, called “Becoming Cinderella,” presents an entirely different version of the story from Ella Enchanted. I love that the fairy tale can accommodate both interpretations. The cancer anthology is also for high school and above, but I think it will be most meaningful if you at least know someone who’s struggled with cancer. My poem, “Because,” is in the “friend” category – I don’t have cancer.
Now for the post. On February 13, 2013, Athira Abraham wrote, I had a question that involved voice. My story might be from the middle ages or 1800s or something like that, but I also wanted to include things that were modern, like a camera, a café (yes, a café, not a bakery) and also events like Valentine’s Day, but I’m not sure how I would express it in the story to myself and the readers. I’m also finding it hard to include religion, like a church, if my story is a fantasy and includes a witch, or a sorceress, because some religions can be against this. How could I express these things in a story without making it sound too complicated?
Several subjects are wrapped up in here. First, time period. The middle ages and the 1800s are vastly different, politically, technologically, culturally, even religiously, and probably more. If we really want to give an impression of a particular period, it’s worth doing a little reading. There are books about the daily life of just about every period. I have two on the middle ages and one on ancient Mesopotamia. I usually read the chapters that have bearing on my story. For example, I’m always interested in food and the home. If we’re writing fantasy, we don’t have to stick slavishly to the information, but it’s helpful to have a general idea. In addition to daily life, it may be useful to google geopolitics for the period just to get a sense of what was going on.
And our research pays off delightfully in the details that we come across that inform and enrich our story, details we never would have thought of on our own.
It is possible to write a story that pulls in bits and pieces from all over the time line. Terry Pratchett is a master of this in his Discworld series. If we’re going to do something like that, we need to establish it very early in our story, certainly in the first chapter, so our readers don’t get confused.
If we’re not going to hop all over the historical map, let’s back up to consider why we pick a particular period. The answer doesn’t have to be deep, but, in my opinion, we should have one. Maybe we want a medieval story because we want the action to take place in a castle, and we don’t want to write twenty-first century people who are renovating a twelfth century castle. That’s good enough for me.
Generally, we need a reason for everything! Let’s take the three Athira Abraham mentions: a camera, a café, and Valentine’s day. It’s not good enough, in my opinion again, merely to like these elements. They need to fit into our plot. We can like one of them, say Valentine’s Day and what happens on that day, and decide to build a book around it. That’s fine. But then we need a reason for the café and the camera. Maybe our lovebirds meet at a café and ask a stranger to take a photo of them, and the photo falls into the wrong hands, because one of our MCs has been hiding from her great enemy, the powerful and vicious Earl of Eagleton. Cool!
These three elements may suggest our time period. As I wrote in my comment to Athira Abraham when she posted on the blog, the camera (not the digital camera, not a phone camera) has a pretty long history, and its forerunners go back even further. But in the old days you couldn’t just point and shoot. Taking a photo took time. Look it up.
Valentine’s Day goes way, way back, I discovered in my quick peek into Wikipedia, but the traditions evolved. Look it up, too.
Often etymology (word origin) will give you a sense of when something came into existence. According to Dictionary.com, the word café came into English at the end of the eighteenth century, so there probably weren’t cafes before then. If you’re alarmed about how long research will take, this filled about twenty seconds.
Suppose we decide to set our story in the middle ages. Valentine’s Day, in whatever form it took then, works. Cameras and cafes don’t. What to do?
We need some sort of substitute. Maybe for the camera it will be an artist who excels in recording impressions in charcoal on parchment. Or maybe, since this is fantasy, it’s a certain kind of owl that fixes images in its eyes. If you feed it a mouse and say the magic words, the moment you wanted to preserve will appear in the owl’s eyes. For a café, we’ll need to dream up something else, a gathering place of some sort.
Onto religion. We can have witches and sorceresses without mentioning religion – my opinion again. But if we need religion, this is fantasy, and it can be a fantasy religion. We can invent gods, demons, witches, sorcerers, sorceresses, cherubs, half-gods, creatures that are lower than humans in the creation hierarchy, whatever we like, whatever serves our story. The more different our fantasy religion is from actual religions, the less likely we’re to offend anyone. If our main god is in the shape of a dishwasher or, since this may be a medieval fantasy, a pot of porridge or even a unicorn, it’s unlikely to be connected by readers to their beliefs.
But, and I’ve written about this on the blog before, we may offend someone or more than one, and the anger may be for something we entirely did not predict. It may have nothing to do with religion (or it may – the religious aspects of Ever have bothered some readers). Maybe it has to do with the knights’ code of chivalry, which we expected would please everybody. The point is, if we worry about offending people, we may as well stop writing – and speaking, and leaving our bedrooms!
Here are four prompts:
• Put Valentine’s Day, the café, and the camera into a story set 200 years in the future. Each one has changed. Invent what they’ve become and decide how they fit into your tale.
• Research an aspect of life in the middle ages, could be market life, or costume, or cooking. Put your MC in the middle of it and give her an objective and obstacles to fulfilling it. Write the scene.
• Make her a modern girl in this medieval situation. Write the scene again, including her mistakes and her bungling good luck. A book I adore along these lines is Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – funny and exciting.
• In the middle of an escape from the villain, both your MC Mallory and your villain Hamilton wander into a religious ceremony unlike any either of them have known before. Mallory’s goal is survival; Hamilton’s is destruction. But nothing in this religion is as it seems. There are hallucinations, mazes, smoke, weather events, disembodied voices, and whatever other mayhem you want to toss in. Write the scene. If you like, continue and write the story or the novel.
Have fun, and save what you write!