Today we have debut author Sylvia Izzo Hunter at That’s What I’m Talking About. I asked her to talk tell us about what it’s like to write a cross-genre story. Ms. Hunter’s new book, The Midnight Queen, was released on September 2, 2014. Please help me welcome her to the blog.
Crossing the Streams: On Writing a Historical Fantasy
It’s interesting that you raised this topic (thank you!), because I’m not sure I had thought of Noctis Magicae as a cross-genre series before. The more I think about it, the more I think that’s because many of my favourite books cross and mingle genres in a similar way. I’m going to actually add one more genre to the mix: alternat(iv)e history. (See next paragraph but one for explanation.)
When I first got the idea that began THE MIDNIGHT QUEEN — it was just two people having a conversation in a garden in my head — I thought they might be Edwardian, or maybe Victorian. I knew that the young man was a university student, that he was working in his tutor’s garden under duress; I knew that the young woman was the tutor’s daughter, that she was the middle of three sisters, and that she was unhappy with her life; and I knew that their names were Gray Marshall and Sophie Callender. I didn’t yet have a firm sense of what their story was going to be, what country the garden was in, what the time period was — believe it or not, I didn’t even realize that there were going to be fantastical elements in the story! But the more bits of story I wrote, the more the characters started to speak and behave in ways appropriate to an earlier period, and thus we ended up with a setting that looks and feels more like Regency England than like the vaguely Edwardian era I started with. And once I’d made that shift, something interesting happened: the setting felt more real, elements of plot started to emerge more strongly, the characters and their voices took on a more defined shape, and the writing started to go faster.
The historical and fantasy aspects of the book interacted in interesting ways during the writing and revision process. The first thing that happened was that, having established that this world has magic in it and how that magic works, I started trying to imagine how the Church of England would deal with that and found that I couldn’t really reconcile the two; but I knew that the magic in this world wasn’t hidden or furtive or subversive, it was officially sanctioned and out there in the open. So, clearly, the belief system of this world was going to have to be different to the real one. That led me to back to a thought I’d been having for a while (specifically, since that one Yom Kippur a number of years ago which I devoted quite a bit of to reading a fascinating, very heavy book called Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews by James Carroll): What if the Roman Empire hadn’t adopted Christianity? Eventually, that line of thought evolved into the world of THE MIDNIGHT QUEEN, which posits — among other things — a version of Europe in which Christianity never really took off.
That decision had a lot of knock-on effects, both large and small. One that might seem small but actually caused me some aggro was researching and choosing personal names, toponyms, and … expletives. Of course, they had to be period-appropriate; but eliminating names of Hebrew and otherwise Biblical origin narrowed that period-appropriate pool a lot.* If the Christian Bible isn’t a near-universal cultural referent, you not only can’t call people John or Peter or Susan or Mary** but also can’t call them Davies or Jones or Gilchrist or Thomson. My Oxford colleges are all completely made up — not just Merlin, which is loosely modelled on Balliol College — partly for in-world historical reasons, but also so many of the real ones have Christian-derived names (Magdalen, Jesus, Christ Church, All Souls …). And I had to devote some time and brain cells to coming up with nice, resonant exclamations to replace the period-language-appropriate ones I couldn’t use (and won’t repeat here). You have to get the rhythm just right!
The worldbuilding for this book was, I would estimate, about 40% looking stuff up (How did marriage and divorce work in ancient Rome? How do you say “I’m sorry to interrupt, but there’s a crisis upstairs” in Breton? Exactly which bits of France did Henry V conquer?), 40% making stuff up (What things can you do with magic? How do people learn to do those things? Suppose Henry V didn’t die of dysentery when his son was still a child; then what?), and 20% sorting out how the first two things affect one another (If you can do X, Y and Z with magic, how would that affect people’s motivation to invent a technology to do X, Y or Z more easily or more quickly?). Making stuff up — stuff that holds together logically and makes psychological sense — is obviously harder than finding information about things that actually existed/happened; but historical research can be a gigantic time suck, since it’s hard not to just … fall in. (You know when you click a link to TV Tropes, and emerge blinking several hours later? Like that.) In this case I was researching not just one historical period but several: politically, the world of TMQ is sort of a blend of Elizabethan and Georgian England with pre-Revolutionary France; the manners and aesthetics are largely Regency, but with stronger Classical influences; the belief system is what I thought might happen if a wide variety of Roman and Celtic cultic traditions interacted and influenced each other over a period of centuries; and there are a couple of fundamental things — notably the sacredness of hospitality, and the symbolism around that — which in spirit come straight from the ancient world, but in practice I largely made up to suit the setting. Undoubtedly there are things I got wrong, and choices I should have made differently …
And of course there’s the all-important question of how to make sure the amount of research that gets onto the page is just right — not too little (confusing!) but also not too much (tedious!). There’s a bit toward the end — I won’t describe it, because spoilers — which in the first draft was at least three times as long because I’d had such a good time figuring out how this thing would go that I tried to cram in every. single. detail. You’ll be happy to learn that two-thirds of that scene went away during revisions ;^)
*Consider the given names in an Austen novel: if you’re like me, the first five women’s names that occur to you are Anne (Elliott, Steele), Elizabeth (Bennet, Elliott), Jane (Bennet, Fairfax), Mary (Musgrove, Bennet, Crawford), and Emma (Woodhouse), and four of those are derived from Hebrew. (Men’s names were a bit easier: though John [Willoughby, Knightley, Dashwood, Middleton] is a Hebrew-derived name from the Christian bible, George [Knightley, Wickham], Henry [Tilney, Dashwood, Crawford], Frederick [Wentworth], and Charles [Musgrove, Hayter, Bingley] are not.)
**The alert reader will note one character name that very much breaks this rule. I tried and tried to change her name, but she was having none of it, so in the end I hung a Iampshade on the problem in an attempt not to break the story.
About the book:
Gray Marshall and his friends from Oxford’s Merlin College, a school for magic theory and practice, went out into town around midnight when carelessness and drunk townspeople strike, resulting in a dead student. Suspended from the College that summer, Gray is under the watchful eye of the domineering Professor Callender. Until one afternoon, while working in the professor’s garden, he meets his daughter.
Sophie Callender wants nothing more than to be educated in magic, even if being a female student is unheard of in the community. But secretly, against her father and society’s wishes, she has spent countless lonely hours studying the ancient volumes on the subject. Now with the arrival of the lanky, tall, and yet oddly charming Gray, she finally finds someone who can encourage her interest and awaken new ideas and feelings. Between them, they forge a beautiful and touching relationship that sets off a series of events that begin to unravel secrets about one another —and that fateful night at Oxford.
Thank you to Sylvia for stopping by the blog today. Please come back later for Una’s review of The Midnight Queen.