Recently there have been many debates about historical accuracy in Fantasy. Debates range between how progressive a character’s politics can plausibly get to whether your agrarian folks could bale hay. Beneath it all is the belief that when you adopt too much from one culture, readers will judge the internal believability of your story based on how it matches their perceptions of that real culture. When it comes to taking a real culture and only tweaking a few things, I have simple advice:
Put more elaborately: please, for the love of God, don’t write another redundant piece of pseudo-history, especially not another sword-and-sorcery monomyth in an imagined England.
This is deviant advice and makes us stray from the debates. If you truly love some strands of history such that they determine your fiction, then me saying not to follow them doesn’t matter. You’ll do it anyway, and you should, and I’ll just pray you reflect critically enough to make the work fresh.
But if you’re not fascinated with it, if castles and rolling hills are simply all you’ve seen lately, if you’ve watched the Lord of the Rings flicks and want to make your own – then don’t write another Medieval Fantasy. Fantasy ought to be a non-denominational cathedral to the imagination, where any idea, no matter how impossible in reality, can flourish and enliven us. It’s not about new sub-genres, but about use of your pages. China Mieville ought to be one colorful brick in a mosaic of new materials. Yet in conversations about the New Weird and prospects of Fantasy, he’s often treated as the only brick.
Mieville’s breakout Perdido Street Station isn’t insanely original. It’s some H.P. Lovecraft, and some Industrial Era elbow-grease, a dash of String Theory, and a Steampunk gun. There’s some Pacific folklore populating some Gothic sensibilities, and some Star Trek multiculturalism grown up enough to have a liquor license. You can identify most of the moving parts, but it feels revelatory because the parts are different from what most writers are using and their creator is madly in love with them. He’s not following a convention too far, and he certainly doesn’t have to answer to an insipid authority about whether so-and-sos were treated this way in such-and-such similar culture, because he wrote something that belonged to him, not to a text book. It is fiction rich enough that it answers to itself.
You don’t have to be the next China Mieville or a practitioner of the New Weird. But look, you don’t need Yee Old Dialogue to write about dragons. We’ve got Urban Fantasy that puts elves barbecuing in the backyard and witches necking on the subway. John Scalzi just got nominated for a Hugo basically for making fun of people for adhering too much to old writing tropes; the community knows a lot of this tired stuff. (Update: Scalzi has since won the Hugo for this novel)
When it comes to crafting Secondary World Fiction, there is only one reason that it should resemble a notion of Medieval Europe, or the U.S. Revolution, or the Arab Spring: because it’ll allow you to write interesting things. There is far too much stuffy, boring Epic Fantasy that suffers because its authors are living up to Dungeons & Dragons. And Hell, we already have official Dungeons & Dragons novels. We’ve got World of Warcraft novels. Is that really what you want to write? There isn’t anything you’d change if you were in charge? Because you are in charge.
What do you love? If you love the Dark Ages, I somehow doubt it’s because you love oppressing women. Thusly, that doesn’t have to be a linchpin of your culture, though you should explore it if it interests you.
Before what buttons you think you can push, though, you need to identify what moves you. If it turns out you only like horseback riding and foofy dresses, and everything else from period pieces seems wimpy compared to androids, well then you can write about android dress-designers and horseback-riders. Why not create a scenario entirely out of the stuff you like instead of just partially? Fantasy is quite vast. A lot can fit in it.
An immortal god that craves nothing but suicide as he watches his pet civilization of ant-people crumble. He just doesn’t have the strength to help another one start. He begins pursuing his own meta-religion in search of guidance in his eternal failure.
Or, a prissy bridge-club of gryphons must wheel and deal to keep low-class naga from overrunning their borough. It’s a comedy of errors when one of their daughters falls in love with one of the flightless paupers.
Or, a war-tragedy anthropomorphizing blood cells fighting vainly to stave off a vampiric infection. We know doomsday is coming, but damn it, they will not slip quietly into that dark night. They will fight them in the knee cap, and they will fight them in the brain stem, and in a huge twist, they will fight them in the tail when it turns out they’re actually in a dog.
What is it that gets to you? Why doesn’t that stuff make up the entire world you’re writing? Because werewolves are hot on the market this year? If so, I’m sorry to report that by the time you finish your book you’ll probably be screwed.
Secondary World Fantasy means you can construct a world that contains anything, including foofy-dress-wearing androids that always win the equestrian event at the Olympics. If you love princesses and castles, then great. If you don’t love it then you are squandering both your time and mine. Your time on this planet and your time at the keyboard, and my time when I go to read it.
If you want, play with periods in history. Remix the real world and made-up ones. Make sure their systems can bear weight internally, not externally, and most of all, make it distinct and worthwhile. There are very few worthwhile books that came out of soulless copying.
In our self-pub dominated world there’s a good chance that you’ll fail no matter what you do, but surveying those who succeeded, you’re very unlikely to join them if you don’t love it. It’s not worth being intimidated by realism if it costs you experimentation.
Fantasy ought to be enormous. Whatever you make it, yours can fit. Make it.