Lighter and more self-indulgent fare today.
It is no secret that I am a failed, in the sense of not being successfully published or agented, writer. While writing this commentary on how imitative AI can be detrimental to culture at large, I mentioned that my fantasy writing has a tendency to be deeply influenced by actual historical events, much as Terry Pratchett’s work did. I am not the writer he was, of course, nor the moral philosopher. And it has been asked of me why I just don’t write historical fiction. I have tired, but it doesn’t work for me for reason I am now going to explain to you, lucky reader you, on an otherwise slow Monday.
First, doing historical fiction correctly is really hard. The last piece I tried to write was about a woman trying to keep her clockmaking shop in early modern Nuremberg. It is a fascinating subject for me in a fascinating time. Luther was active in the city, what would become the Protestants were closing down options for woman and the working classes, but the merchant classes were asserting their power and religious reformation and exploration was making the world feel dangerous and open. But finding all of the physical details of that world was incredibly difficult. What did working women wear? What did a clockmaker’s shop look like? How did Catholics differentiate themselves in slang from their reformation brethren? How much of the anti-Catholic regulations were honored in the breach? What did the card games look like (believe it or not, a critical plot point)? I don’t know, and it turns out that not very many people do.
Every couple of sentences, it felt like I had to stop for a week to do research that would inevitably fail (I swear, this book was five minutes from becoming an alternate history where the point of departure lead everyone in Europe to becoming a nudist). Given the amount of research I do for a living, it just felt too much like work. You could argue that I am worrying too much about those details, but it feels wrong to get make mistakes about facts when writing about actual history. In fantasy, I can be informed by actual cultures without being beholden to them. What matters to me are the characters and the idea behind the story — how the majority of people get by. Most people in history have had hard lives and the calvary was not coming over the hill to save them. But they lived their lives anyway, and how they carved out their happiness, or not, is as important as the times the revolutions happened. More so, I would argue. That was what drew me to the time period, not the specifics of what length skirt the daughter of a clockmaker wore.
My stories have been described as sarcastic little tales about killing monsters and fighting capitalism. Which is another reason to lean away from actual history — because the cavalry almost never arrives. And when it does, its usually on the wrong side. The Levelers lost. The Luddites lost. The Portuguese destroyed the freedom of the Malabar Coast. The Aztec … okay, no one mourns the Aztec. But the liberals failed to hold the Revolution of 1917, the French Revolution ate itself, the American Revolution retreated from its egalitarian promises, the Cultural Revolution swept China, the Reconstruction failed. From the perspective of most of the people who have lived, there is not a lot of hope in history. And yes, there is value in not flinching from that hopelessness, but i have lived on this world long enough to understand that it is terrible. I prefer stories to have some hope. I have written this before, but hopeless stories are proven to encourage conservatism and nihilism and we already have enough of that. Even the work I have out on query now, which does not have the happiest of endings, has some room for hope.
Fantasy has space for a bit more hope in it, while still respecting the source material. By being informed by the history (and current events. Yes, the necromancers vs. luddites piece I am plotting out now is informed by AI, why do you ask?) by using the tools of fantasy, you can imagine a world where the powerless have slightly more tools to bend the world to their favor. Where you can imagine better choices, better structures, show how things can be done better for all the next time similar circumstances appear. Because there will always be a next time. And while history does not repeat, the current speed run through Gilden Age we seem to be embarking on should prove that it does rhyme.
So, the Clockmaker’s Wife will live on with the same sarcasm and a bit of fantasy flavor. The calvary still won’t come over the hill, or if it does, it will still be on the wrong side. But maybe this story can have a little less depression and show a little bit more about how a more just society can at least start to be built than the actual history allows.
It is, after all, a fantasy.
(As a side note, I am debating serializing in the newsletter the work out on query now once it gets its final rejections, assuming it does. It’s had some semi-positive feedback form this round of queries, but not been picked up. So, it might be good enough to read just not really marketable. But it hasn’t been picked up, so it might be objectively crap. Thoughts?)