historic fiction through a side door

I’m getting critiques back about the first 50 pages of my second draft. Responses are mostly positive: definitely still needs work but it’s evidently it’s a compelling read.

Most of my critique partners aren’t historical fiction enthusiasts so I find their input valuable re: possible cross-genre appeal. One even said that though she’s not a history buff she’d read my book for the alchemy and magic alone.

I never thought I read historical fiction as a child, at least in the “pure” Dorothy Dunnett/Philippa Gregory/Margaret George mold. I preferred “real history” (I cringe at my childhood snobbiness). But after this discussion it occurred to me: I was reading histfic all along. I just found it in other genres.

Take Anne Rice. I was a teenage goth so of course I read and reread her Vampire Chronicles and Mayfair Witches series. Rice typically falls on the horror/fantasy but Lestat and co. survive through pre-revolutionary France and antebellum New Orleans; the Mayfair family moves from England through to the Caribbean and thence to the New World over five centuries.

Anne Rice shelfie
My carefully preserved Anne Rice novels from yonks ago. Many hours spent in line to get them signed.

Octavia Butler’s Kindred also stuck with me. Time travel puts this sobering read squarely in the sci-fi box but Butler’s nuanced depiction of slavery in the American south suggests painstaking research of the type associated with the best historical fiction.

Kage Baker’s Company series goes everywhen: Tudor England (Baker taught Elizabethan English as a second language and it shows) to 17th century Spanish California to the 19th century old west and elsewhere…with time-traveling, historical-artifact-saving cyborgs.

More histfic with scifi/paranormal elements:

Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series goes without saying.

Sarah Waters’ 19th century spiritualists in Affinity  and post-WWII haunted house in The Little Stranger

M. J. Rose’s Seduction is a fictional account of Victor Hugo’s seances in search of his daughter’s ghost. Witch of Painted Sorrows involves fin de siècle Parisian occultism and possession.

Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy has it all: witches, vampires, werewolves, and time travel

The Witch Who Came in From the Cold: John LeCarre-style Cold War spies…with witches

The Voynich Manuscript motivates the antagonist in Linda Lafferty’s The Bloodletter’s Daughter (and oh hey – someone over at CipherMysteries made up a huge list of novels revolving around Voynich)

Chelsea Quinn Harbor’s Saint Germain series – the vampire St. Germain through multiple time periods

Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series – mixes Victorian vampires and Jack the Ripper

The quality and success of all of these genre mash-ups reassure me that there’s a place for my hybrid WIP someday.

Please share your own favorites in the comments!



biweekly links 2-10-2016

Witches and manuscripts this week:

Field Trip! Deborah Harkness at the Chemical Heritage Foundation

Research for the WIP involves such narrow, specific subjects that it’s a rare treat when there’s a lecture or something else for the public about any of them. When I learned Books of Secrets: Reading and Writing Alchemy was only 3 hours away I knew I had to go. If this weren’t reason enough, a related lecture by author Deborah Harkness tipped the scales. So last Tuesday I day-tripped to the Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum in Philadelphia.

Book of Secrets sign

The CHFM is a little gem, not as well publicized as Philadelphia’s better-known science museums like the Mutter or Franklin Institute, but it should be. Their focus is the history of chemistry, and besides two floors of exhibit space they have an extensive library with many rare books. It supplied most of the books in the show and many of the paintings of alchemical labs. Afterwards I discovered several episodes about alchemy in CHF’s Distillations podcast archives.

“Books of Secrets” is small but excellent, and the books are displayed so it’s possible to get close and read the (often painfully tiny) text. All volumes appear heavily used; in an informal chat in the exhibit hall Dr. Harkness clarified that these books saw constant use both in and out of the lab.

soot stained book of secrets
Soot stains from hours over a burning furnace?

Alchemical laboratory equipment is situated alongside the books and paintings. I don’t understand their use any better but now I know what they look like in three dimensions!

alchemical lab equipment
Still don’t know what those triangular cups are for, or why they’re triangular
Unexpectedly, this furnace was only the size of a can of house paint.

Dr. Harkness’ lecture was impressive. I enjoy her All Saints Trilogy for its well-developed story, so full of things I like – magic, vampires, history, romance, occult weirdness! – but I discovered her research before her fiction. Managing an Experimental Household inspired me to make Jane Dee a POV character, and  The Jewel House provided much-needed context about the Elizabethan scientific community. She spoke about the intersection between the writing and reading of alchemical texts and laboratory experimentation.

Alchemical books were rare, often expensive, and full of “trade secrets”. Practitioners copied and shared their texts, and, to my vague horror, also wrote all over them. The idea of defacing a book made my inner 5th grader flinch until Dr. Harkness pointed out that they functioned as lab notebooks, full of observations, emphasis, and additions.

book with heavy marginal notes
This alchemist carefully boxed off the original text…and filled up the margins with notes.

This makes even more sense when I learned that alchemists thought of writing as a way to change reality. By Judaeo-Christian reckoning God wrote the world into existence (“In the beginning there was the word”). Alchemical experimentation was a way to read this “book of nature” and by extension understand God himself. Based on this assumption writing could be a divine act and even a means for the alchemist to transform the physical world.

A book signing followed the lecture, and Dr. Harkness was wonderfully approachable and often funny (alchemists as reliable as politicians – sounds about right)! Not only did she sign my copy of The Jewel House, but answered some of my questions about the manuscripts and recommended further reading.

Deborah Harkness signing book


After that came the long drive home. A busy day, but well worth it!