Confession time: I never really intended to write a historical fantasy. Iron Cast happened during National Novel Writing Month, in an adrenaline/caffeine/donut-fueled haze. I decided to set it in 1919, on the cusp of the Roaring Twenties, because I figured—why not? It’s NaNoWriMo. It’s not like I had to do real research or anything. I used to watch “Chicago” on repeat when I was in high school, so I was pretty much an expert, right?
In December, after plenty of sleep and healthy greens, I realized that even though the novel was (of course) terrible, the idea wasn’t half bad. Combining the problem of hemopaths with the problem of Prohibition felt almost natural. Wordsmiths and songsmiths were inseparable from jazz in my mind. And just like that, I’d been sucked into the wonderful world of historical fantasy.
As it turns out, watching “Chicago” on repeat does not make one an expert on the 1920s. Even though Iron Cast is set in an alternate history Boston, I still had to do plenty of research. I found a map of Boston from 1917 that became my bible, and I would spend hours mapping out different scenes. I studied up on the after-effects of World War I, on the Bolsheviks and the Red Scare, on the passage of Prohibition, and on every other relevant topic I could find. It was sort of like high school history homework all over again, except I could do it in my pajamas, and no one was making me memorize any dates. And then obviously I had to dedicate some serious time to looking at pretty vintage dresses on Pinterest. The things we do for art.
I had the naïve idea that once I did all my research, then I’d be able to focus solely on editing, but it didn’t really work that way. Even in the third, fourth, fifth drafts I would periodically have to stop and consult Google. Here are a few searches to give you an idea—and yes, there will be a quiz later.
- When was the term grifter coined? (circa 1915)
- Popular 1920s cocktails? (The list is extensive, but my personal favorites are the sidecar and the classic gin & tonic.)
- How cold is Boston in January? (pretty darn cold)
I can’t say that research was all fun and games. A lot of it was just me hunched over my computer or a library book late in the night, ready to pull out my hair because I couldn’t find that one definitive answer I was looking for. And even after all that work, my copyeditor still caught a dozen or so errors. (All hail copyeditors and their magic.) So if an anachronism or two managed to slip through, let’s just pretend that in my version of Boston, that’s how it happened. Problem solved.
I think the point I’m trying to make is this: I’m not exactly the most qualified historical fantasy author you’re going to find. I loved writing Iron Cast and diving into the history of Boston and Prohibition, but I’m far from being an expert (unless you need the lyrics to a song from Chicago—then I’ve got you covered). So in the interest of making this educational, I’m going to list some of my favorite historical fantasies so that you too can appreciate their expertise and magic.
- In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters. I read this a couple summers ago, and even by the sunny poolside, this book gave me the chills. I love the dark paranormal premise, and the 1918 setting (during the Spanish Influenza epidemic) is poignantly rendered.
- A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray. This novel was pitched to me as a paranormal Mean Girls in Victorian England and it delivers. Bray does an amazing job of blending 19th century social mores with the challenges and triumphs of finding your place in the world.
- Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Set in a magical England during the Napoleanic Wars, this is hands down my favorite alternate history of all time. This isn’t a beach read, but it’s well worth the investment. Also the footnotes are genius.
- This Monstrous Thing by Mackenzi Lee. A steampunk reimagining of 1818 Geneva based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I actually just finished this recently and loved every page of it. Read this one on a dark and stormy night.
- A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee. Okay, I’m going to cheat here and give Lee a second shout out for her upcoming 2017 novel. I had the honor of reading an ARC, and it is by far my favorite read of 2016, and it’ll probably sweep 2017 too. In the author’s own words, this is the big gay 18th century road trip novel that you didn’t know you needed.
Thanks for stopping by. If you have suggestions of your favorite historical fantasies, I hope you’ll send them my way!