Please join me in welcoming the immensely talented Victoria Strauss to BCM today! Her latest novel, PASSION BLUE was released just last week (November 6th). I've read PASSION BLUE and it's amazing! Stay tuned for my review later this week. For now, please enjoy our guest post with Victoria and don't forget to leave a comment below to tell us what you think!
WRITING HISTORY, WRITING FANTASY
By Victoria Strauss
Growing up, my favorite reading was historical fiction. I adored losing myself in stories of other times and places—stories that transported me, through the author’s imagination and my own, out of my mundane everyday context and into new worlds of excitement, danger, mystery, and beauty—so strange and exotic, sometimes, that it was hard to believe they’d once been real.
Then, when I was in my teens, I fell in love with fantasy. It, too, swept me up in epic tales and fascinating new worlds. Unlike the real worlds of historical fiction, these fantasy worlds were completely imaginary. But the best writers were able to make them so vivid that, while I was reading, I felt as if they’d actually existed—in an alternate universe, perhaps, very close to our own.
It wasn’t until I started getting serious about writing that I realized how similar fantasy and historical novels truly are—from a writer’s perspective, at least. Fantasy writers create worlds that never were. Historical writers re-create worlds that no longer exist. Both are acts of imagination, fueled by research.
I write history, fantasy, and combinations of the two (my latest novel, Passion Blue, is a historical with fantasy elements). My fantasy settings are always based on real-world templates and incorporate real-world details, and I do as much research for them as I do for my historical settings. If you want your fantasy society to be reminiscent of ancient Japan, for instance, researching that complex culture will give your made-up world far more depth. If you’re going to write about a blacksmith, it doesn’t matter whether he’s smithing in medieval Europe or in your own fantasy version of a pre-industrial society—you’d better know how a forge works. If you’re writing about steam engines, your steampunk epic should make them as plausible as they’d need to be in a historical novel about the industrial revolution.
Research can’t tell you everything, however, and the past is a place you can never visit. In re-creating historical settings, you’ll nearly always encounter information gaps--dark areas where what people really did, or what life was really like, is just not known. Writing historical fiction is a constant process of extrapolating from what you know so that you can convincingly—and authentically—portray what you can’t know. As with fantasy, in other words, you must make things up.
Much of Passion Blue takes place in a painter’s workshop inside a Renaissance-era convent. This is not exactly a common setting. I did have a real-world model to work with—a studio of nun-artists in 16th century Florence that was quite famous in its time—but the information I could find on this studio was extremely limited.
So, to create the workshop where Giulia, Passion Blue’s heroine, discovers her passion to paint, I combined what I’d learned about the Florence studio with details gleaned from research on other Renaissance painters’ workshops, as well as my readings on 15th century Italian convents. The look, feel, smells, and routines of Giulia’s workshop are firmly sourced in historical fact--yet the workshop itself is a product of my imagination, not just because it never existed, but because so much of how a convent painters’ workshop would actually have functioned is simply impossible to know.
Historical novels do pose a challenge that fantasy novels don’t. Yes, there is invention, but historical writing is based on established facts that can’t be pushed around, and which authors must be careful not to get wrong. Sloppy research drives me crazy, as do books where the writer hasn’t bothered to internalize an authentic period mindset. Characters in a historical novel have to be accessible to a contemporary audience, but that doesn’t mean they should just be modern teens in fancy dress. Nor does using a historical setting to frame your fantasy premise give you a pass on the details. Teenagers in Victorian England did not say “Whatever.”
On the other hand, even though fantasy lets you make up the rules, once you do, you’re stuck with them. Good world building creates a structure that the fantasy author has to adhere to as rigorously as a historical novelist must adhere to real-world places and events.
Despite the differences, writing fantasy and writing history call on very similar skillsets. I think that’s why I’ve always felt so comfortable moving back and forth between the two.
***ABOUT THE AUTHOR***
Victoria Strauss is the author of eight novels for adults and young adults, including the Stone fantasy duology (The Arm of the Stone and The Garden of the Stone) and Passion Blue, a YA historical. In addition, she has written a handful of short stories, hundreds of book reviews, and a number of articles on writing and publishing that have appeared in Writer’s Digest, among others. She’s co-founder, with Ann Crispin, of Writer Beware, a publishing industry watchdog group that provides information and warnings about the many scams and schemes that threaten writers. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.
***ABOUT PASSION BLUE***
When seventeen-year-old Giulia, the orphaned, illegitimate daughter of a Milanese nobleman, learns she’s to be packed off to a life behind convent walls, she begs an astrologer-sorcerer for a talisman that will secure what she’s certain is her heart’s desire: true love and a place where she belongs. But does she really know the compass of her heart? The convent of Santa Marta is full of surprises, including a workshop of nuns who are creating paintings of astonishing beauty using a luminous blue mixed from a secret formula: Passion Blue. As Giulia’s own artistic self is awakened she’s torn: should she follow the young man who promises to help her escape? Or stay and satisfy her growing desire to paint?
This richly imagined novel of a girl’s daring journey towards self-discovery transports readers into the fascinating world of Renaissance Italy where love and faith and art inspire passion – of many different hues.
A rare, rewarding, sumptuous exploration of artistic passion. - Kirkus (starred review, editor’s pick for Fall 2012)
Vividly set during the 15th-century Italian Renaissance…a strong and thoroughly likable heroine. - School Library Journal
I don’t just like Passion Blue, I love it…I simply galloped through it. - Jane Yolen, author of The Devil’s Arithmetic
An elegant retelling of that old, crucial story of finding one’s place in the world, set against a vivid evocation of the Italian Renaissance. - Robin McKinley, author of The Hero and the Crown