Every child is subjected to the horror of dry boring history lessons at some stage. They are usually a cavalcade of dates and names that pass through the brain, are used at test time, and then discarded with some relief.
For me, history has been more than that. I had an excellent history teacher who made things come alive, and I could see the people she was talking about as more than historical figures. I became fascinated with the everyday lives of people that came before us. I use to listen to the tales my grandparents told me, when the world was a far different place. All these things served me well as I set off on my journey to become a published writer.
Soon I realised that the older people around me were a part of that history. Though at times it was hard to believe that my grandparents had ever been young, vibrant people with the whole future before them. I puzzled over what it must have been like to see the arrival of cars, and jet planes.
I suddenly realised that you can draw on history to embroider your story. If you need the name of a song popular in that time, you can do a bit of research. Or if you need ideas on what the streets looked like, you can find out through a wealth of online images. The past is still accessible to use, with a bit of study and imagination.
Given all these things, it was no surprise that my second novel, Chasing the Bard was a fantastical novel set in Shakespearian England. The heady combination of magic and history quickly had me hooked. Now, the first time I tried messing with history, I chose an easy subject. Shakespeare is a bit of a mystery. While his plays are loved and produced everywhere in the world, historians actually have only a few concrete facts about him. We know he when and where he was married, but we don’t know how he become involved in theatre. We can be sure when his children were born, but have only educated guesses on what parts he took on in his own plays.
It’s in among those sort of gaps that an author can have a fine old time. I chose a fantastical path for Mr. Shakespeare, but I tried to keep true to the remaining evidence of his life.
For my next novel, Weather Child, I decided to be a bit more daring. What if New Zealanders were magicians? What if something in the environment made them that way? I had a lot of family history that I was yearning to turn into a novel, and so I wanted to set it between the two world wars. However, unlike Chasing the Bard, these changes were going to be huge, and not limited to one person’s life. By making my countrymen magical, I changed the whole dynamic of what it meant to be a New Zealander. I had to consider what would happen in battle? How would the people be perceived, and how would they be tempted to use that power?
That is the trick with working with history, even in a fantastical setting; how far do you bend it before it breaks. You want to keep the flavour of the period, because that is the whole point of writing anything historical. A genre that makes the most of that flavour is steampunk.
The rise of the steampunk shows that people are craving a little of that nostalgia in their lives. Though things were tough in the Victorian age, there was also a sense of optimism and boundless possibilities that this modern age sometimes is lacking. In the sequel to Phoenix Rising, my co-author Tee Morris and I, have shamelessly used the history of the suffrage movement as a backdrop for our tale of derry-doing and nefarious plots. A certain famous New Zealand suffragette is included, though her appearance in our book includes a steam and clock-powered face, after a rather unfortunate accident. Having these touchstones to work with gives depth to the characters, and while they may not be the real people, I think they celebrate and enliven their legacy.
Part of me really does hope, that books I have written when messing with history, have inspired or informed—just a little—in a fun way.
History can be a truly wonderful resource to a writer. It can add real depth to a story and give you tremendous ideas for plots and character development. So dive right in—there is a huge amount of world history just waiting to be explored, characters to inspire and dark deeds to use in your work.
Philippa (Pip) Ballantine is the co-author with Tee Morris of Phoenix Rising: a Ministry of Peculiar Occurrence novel coming out soon from Harper Voyager. It contains airships, archives and large amounts of derry-doing. Find out more at ministryofpeculiaroccurrences.com