Notes toward an essay on worldbuilding in historical fiction

I’m starting a new novel, which is (like a lot of the stuff I write) historical fantasy.

I’ve been thinking a lot about one of the answers that Lin-Manuel Miranda patiently gives to interviewers who ask him why he used hip-hop to write Hamilton, why the cast isn’t all-white: “we want to eliminate any distance between a contemporary audience and this story.”

I do think that’s a good goal for all writers of historical fiction to keep in mind.

But we’re also all hard-core history nerds, and one of the reasons we want to write about this stuff is that it is very different from contemporary life. It’s fascinating.

So that’s the tension: immerse your audience in the weirdness of another time, but make it feel like it’s happening now. This is why Hamilton has the (slightly askew) period costumes, the surreal exchange of letters in “Your Obedient Servant.”

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel does a great job of managing this tension in prose.

There’s the question of language. And then there’s the tricky business of knowing how to play with anachronism to illuminate the truth.

I want to write something longer on this, but I have a gajillion things to do this evening and that’s not one of them. But I needed some place to jot down my thoughts on this and figured a blog’s as good as a notebook — er, especially when one hasn’t blogged in a month…

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