S.A. Chakraborty’s debut The City of Brass is a fantasy novel rooted in reality, and heavily influenced by the very real history of the Islamic world. She joins us today to talk about the importance of doing your research—but only in service of a greater cause: shedding light on your characters.
“The past is a foreign country,” L.P. Hartley memorably wrote. “They do things differently there.”
How true this is for historical fantasy. History is a tricky, contested thing; constantly shifting with new discoveries and new voices. Add magic, alternate endings, and fire-conjuring spirits, and things get even more complicated. History can be a fantastic source for world-building; it offers a ready scaffold upon which to support your stories and inspiration whether you’re working with realpolitik or folklore.
But we don’t read for worldbuilding alone. We read for characters who grab our attention, whose trials and victories make us ache and cheer. For people who—however fantastic—still seem real. The best historical fiction, in my mind, places relatable people and emotional conflict against the foreign past.
Take for example, The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami (which while not speculative, is a master class in writing historical fiction). Lalami is working with a real person and real history: a Moroccan slave who survived an early, doomed Spanish expedition to Florida, and so she’s able to stick not only to the history, but to some of the mannerisms of a 16th century Arabic travelogue. But that’s not what makes this story come alive. Mustafa’s tense relationship with the father he disappoints, his failure to do the right thing by a pair of slaves he comes across, and his aching homesickness is what brings the character across centuries.
Another writer who does this wonderfully is Zen Cho. Her Sorcerer to the Crown is an incredibly engaging and sympathetic account of a sorcerer who no matter how powerful, must navigate the racism and bigotry of hot only his colleagues, but his mentor. (And imagine that? People trying to replace a skilled leader with someone less capable because of the color of their skin?)
Oddly enough, even before I began writing fiction, this was one of the elements of studying history I enjoyed most. My particular area of interest is late antiquity and the early medieval era in the Islamic world; a broad and fascinating era that offers up tales of the great library of Baghdad and its famed scholars, of ocean-crossing dhows laden with silk and spices, and savvy rulers who built magnificent palaces and held sway over cosmopolitan courts.
While there’s a lot to love in all this—not to mention be inspired by—it was the more human and perhaps more mundane accounts that touched me the most. A twelfth century trader from Cairo’s legendary Geniza putting together treasures for his daughter’s trousseau. The famed Ibn Battuta complaining about his accommodations in a tone that wouldn’t sound out of place in angry Yelp review. Physicians whose names grace the pages of medical history along with their bitter and petty rivalry. A magical charm made by a mother eager to get her child to sleep. Al-Mansur, the founder of the great Abbasid Caliphate and the imperial capital of Baghdad so notoriously cheap that he was called the “father of pennies” and recorded short-changing his son’s servants. There are of course, cultural lenses to each of these tales, but they’re also all so wondrously human. They invite the reader to imagine the emotion behind each: love and jealousy, exhaustion and stinginess.
It’s that imagining that lets a story blossom. For example, I have always been particularly interested in princely rivalries: history has a lot of them, and they frequently culminate in bloodshed. And yet the storyteller in me wonders, how does that happen? How do you turn open a sibling you’ve been raised alongside? How does the rest of the family react? The histories I read offered a myriad of contradicting examples: some kings painstaking dividing their empire to thwart feuding sons while others openly boasted of their favorite. Steely-eyed mothers arranging the assassinations of those who threatened their sons while others refused to even ransom their children’s lives. Otherwise savvy rulers refusing to take measures to protect themselves because the threat came from a brother they still loved. People are messy, complicated creatures; they are today and they were back then, no matter the titles and vast treasuries. But it offers a writer a blueprint from which to build off and a way to hew to the truth while imagining something more.
So if you’re a historical fantasy writer itching for a new tale, don’t forget to look past recreations of massive battles and stunning palaces. Make sure you check into the hearts and minds of the people behind them. You might find these sources as enthralling and wild as a swashbuckling epic!
S.A. Chakraborty is the author of The City of Brass, one of our Best Fantasy Picks for 2017.