Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Creating a new "Middle Ages"

Even before I knew I wanted to be a medievalist, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I started writing a short story eight years ago, when I was twelve, and quickly decided that it could make an interesting book, though I had no idea where the rest of the plot was headed. The story is about a young woman who wakes up in a prison and has absolutely no memory of who she is or why she is there. She learns that she was captured as a prisoner of a war which has been raging for six years, and she has a long internal battle left just to figure out who she is and what the nature of her involvement in the conflict was before her capture. While she is piecing her past together and trying to escape the prison, an enigmatic sort-of-assassin is searching for something which is very valuable to his king - something worth a massacre just to get his hands on it. He, too, struggles with deep internal conflict and piecing together the mystery of his own past, but his is a vastly different sort of history.
The two have no knowledge of the other's existence, nor any idea of just how closely intertwined their stories already are - nor any hint of the devastating results if they fail to find their purpose.

When people learn that I'm writing a book, they want to know what it is about, and the first thing I tell them is that it is a work of "Historical Fantasy," meaning that it's only "fantasy" in that the story does not take place in our world. Absent are all other aspects of a typical fantasy story: the Fire-Breathing Dragon, Magic, Goblins, or any other fantastic creatures or races. I've christened this story world, "Tellus," which is an ancient name for our own Earth, used most notably in C. S. Lewis' The Space Trilogy. I want to show the relationship between this world and ours; my story takes place when [at least a part of] Tellus is going through her own "middle ages" and the technologies, culture, and societal structures are similar to those of our world's middle ages. That's where the "historical" part of "Historical Fiction" comes into play. And that's what this post is all about: Tellus is not identical to Earth (and no, there will never be any travelling from here to there in any of my stories regarding it. It's not Narnia, it's just another sort of Earth, another sort of idea of what might very well have happened here if our own history was different).

So I have this task of creating a new and alternate sort of "middle ages," one that captures the ideals, histories, and hopes of a world which only vaguely exists in my mind and a little bit on paper. I have this task to bring to vivid and breathing life a world rich enough that my readers could imagine themselves exploring it and having their own adventures, far away from the story I'm telling. I have this task to weave an intricate fabric of societies, clashing cultures, landscapes, architectures, martial arts, religions, languages, and histories. I have this task that is so vast and daunting that it scares the bejeebers out of me. But it also lures me in to seek out the exotic and unknown reaches of this place called "Tellus," to have my own adventure exploring it and filling in the misty blank places with the rich detail of the veins in the leaves of ancient trees and the crumbling grout between the stones of a changing civilization.

The interesting and slightly disappointing part about all of this planning and creating and imagining, is that my readers will only get a little part of it. You see, by creating this vast and detailed description and history for Tellus, I am better equipped to dwell fully in this imagined world while writing the story in my book: better able to articulate why certain people act as they do, or speak with different accents, or hold cultural grudges, or are darker or stockier in build, or why the borders have been drawn as they are. The readers may never get even a quarter of all of the backstories and descriptions, but they will get enough of a taste in my book that their imaginations can freely and wonderfully fill in the rest. And that is exactly the fantastic beauty of reading a book, after all, isn't it?

You have no idea how much I want to jump right into the world of Tellus and describe to you the gorgeous landscapes and rise and development of the current cultures, and give you a taste of the whole complicated story of my book, but I can't. Wouldn't you rather see it for yourself? Wouldn't you rather read it in the faces and travels and fights of Eladar and Kaael, the amnesiac soldieress and tortured assassin of Tellus, as they embark on their life-voyages? While you are waiting for them to be ready to tell their story, why not set out for the exotic corners of your own mind and see what adventures await?


  1. Also, if you ask nicely, I might let you take a peek at a few chapters from my book. ;)

  2. I really enjoyed Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories. They have a lot to do with Vikings and the uniting of England.

  3. Yes! I came across Cornwell's "The Lords of the North" at a used book sale a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it! He did a great job of inserting his story into a very realistic, and (as far as I could tell) accurate, depiction of Anglo-Saxon England. Thanks for mentioning it; you've reminded me of how I wanted to go and read the other books in that series!