As a part of the Book of Apex Blog Tour, author Marie Brennan wrote the following guest post on the impact of different cultures on her writing.
About the Author
Marie Brennan is the author of eight novels, including A Natural History of Dragons, the Onyx Court series, and the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. She has published more than forty short stories in venues such as On Spec, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the acclaimed anthology series Clockwork Phoenix. More information can be found on her website: www.swantower.com
-Author bio from The Book of Apex: Volume 4 of Apex Magazine
History Can Be Stranger Than Fiction
There’s an old cliche about “the past is a foreign country,” but like many cliches, there’s some truth to it.
I had my eyes opened to this when I was researching Midnight Never Come, the first of the Onyx Court series. I’d already written a small amount of the book before arriving in London, including a scene taking place at Hampton Court Palace. During that scene, two characters who were having a conversation walked down a corridor and out onto a balcony.
When I got to Hampton Court Palace, I discovered my first error: no balconies. Scratch that, then. But my guide, an architectural historian, pointed out to me that it went further than that: no corridors, either. In the Elizabethan period, rooms usually just opened directly on to one another, rather than all facing onto hallways.
This was the tip of the iceberg, the thin end of the wedge. As I read more about the period, I kept uncovering details that jarred me out of my assumptions and defaults — even my assumptions and defaults about something as close to modern America as early modern English history. Elizabeth didn’t sit around in a “throne room.” Her residences had a sequence of rooms instead: the watching chamber, for courtiers of relatively little importance to hang out and hopefully get a glimpse of the queen; the presence chamber, where more favored courtiers could be in the royal presence; and the privy (private) chamber, where she could go to have important conversations. It isn’t just a little architectural detail — it’s a whole system of power and privilege, a reflection on how the government operated, that the right to enter the presence chamber was a mark of prestige and something courtiers competed for.
And like I said, that’s for something that’s relatively familiar and recent, at least to Anglophone audiences. If England was that different from Ye Olde Stereotypical Fantasie Monarchie, how much variation is there in the rest of the world? What happens when you encounter the places and times where things don’t match your defaults, and start thinking about the kinds of stories they can tell? My husband and I recently went to an exhibition at the British Museum about the Japanese genre of shunga, which is to say porn. Except not porn, because that word conjures up a host of associations that don’t fit in this case. Shunga wasn’t a tawdry, scandalous thing, tut-tutted by religious leaders. (In fact, one of the walls had a quote from a historical Japanese abbot — an abbot — to the effect of, “Naturally the artists draw the male thing as being absurdly large. Otherwise it isn’t interesting.”) It was a respectable art form that many famous artists engaged in; they only got in trouble when they didn’t disguise their political commentary well enough. (Yes, political commentary in their porn.) Newlywed couples were given sex manuals. Samurai read shunga before going into battle, in the belief that it would protect them from dying. People even kept copies around as anti-fire charms in their houses, apparently on the notion that having lots of vigorous sex would channel all that heat in safer directions. One of the items on display at the museum was a parody of the famous “Death of the Buddha” image, where the Buddha was a giant penis and around him all the wailing people were anthropomorphic genitalia. Anybody trying a Christian equivalent in eighteenth-century Europe would have been burned at the stake!
I honestly believe that writing historical fiction — or rather, doing the research for it — has done more for my worldbuilding than any amount of fantasy would have done on its own, simply because fantasy has defaults, whereas history has whatever actually happened. Nobody will write about a world where it’s rude to show your bare feet to someone unless they think of it, and with the number of things you have to think about when writing a book, details like that are pretty far down the list. But there have been billions of people in history, all thinking of things, and often going in directions that are weirder than anything you could get away with in fiction. (Try convincing your readers that any fictional character would voluntarily eat rotted, fermented shark meat.) Every time I encounter some detail that doesn’t match my default — especially if it’s on some topic I never would have thought to consider, like architecture — my vision of what’s possible becomes a little broader.