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When Fantasy Meets History: Inside the Mind of Emily Whitman

Posted by inkpopbecki on September 8, 2010

History and fiction, these are not two elements people usually see going hand in hand, yet many authors have had incredibly successful novels merging to the two. So how do you do it? We sat down to speak with Emily Whitman about her new book Wildwing and what it takes to write historical fiction with elements of fantasy. Intrigued? Want to hear more? Join us for a live chat with author Emily Whitman today at 5 p.m. EST here on the inkpop forums.

How much research do you have to do before writing historical fiction?

Enough to feel like I’m in that world, but not so much that the research overwhelms the story. I love research—the hunt, the surprising discoveries. But the fact is, you can get so seduced by research, you never get around to writing! So I’ll often write the heart of a scene—say, the interaction between two characters—and then go back later and fill in the details. Even big chunks of description can wait for a second draft. The first draft might say, “She walked through the bailey.” Then in the second draft you could add the sounds from the kennels, the aroma from the ovens, the clanking coming from the blacksmith’s shed.
As for using that research, one way to make your discoveries more real is to turn them into sensory details. There’s a lot of falconry in Wildwing—in the Middle Ages, a gyrfalcon was the ultimate prestige possession. How does a falcon feel on your arm? What’s the texture of the leather jesses, or straps, on their legs? How does the bell on that strap sound when the bird steps to your arm, when it’s flying high above you? I worked with falcons to find out—FUN!

How do you create a voice that reflects the language of the time, but is still accessible?
I am not a purist here. I come down more on the side of accessibility. For Wildwing, that means whatever helps me, and my readers, feel we’re inside my character Addy’s head. If I were being totally accurate, Addy wouldn’t have understood a soul in 1240, since they spoke Norman French! Instead, I like to give a flavor. I read up on medieval curses, which use all the parts of God’s body—blood, bones, kneecaps, you name it. And then I had some fun with Addy trying to sound medieval, tossing in words like anon and mayhap, but not getting it quite right. I gave myself a fair amount of leeway because I don’t really think of Wildwing as a historical novel. For me, it’s a time-travel adventure that takes place in the past.

Wildwing talks a lot about society and stations in life while exploring two different time periods. What are the contemporary elements that allow Addy to transcend time and speak directly to teen readers today?
We all struggle with the labels and definitions that are put on us by others, that shape how they see us and, too often, how we see ourselves. I chose two times that intensify that issue. When Wildwing starts, in 1913, Addy feels trapped by the labels “bastard” and “maid.” She escapes to the past, thinking she can totally reinvent herself there. But in the Middle Ages, she finds an even more hierarchical world where your place is seen as ordained by God. Then she discovers how Will, the falconer’s son, has an independent spirit even in this most rigidly structured world—he knows his own center, thinks for himself. Addy starts to look at freedom in a new way, as something that comes from within and transcends social status. I think that’s extremely relevant today. You are so much more than what others think of you, what you wear, how much you earn.

What are some of the pitfalls young writers should watch out for when attempting to write historical fiction?

Learn about the time, but don’t let research derail your writing process; find a way to encapsulate it. Beware the information dump—don’t get so hung up on giving details from the era, you lose sight of your story. Beyond that, you

have to watch out for many of the same things as in any kind of writing, whether historical, fantasy, or contemporary. Make sure your world is consistent. Make your characters real and accessible. What’s the inner truth at the center of your story that will resonate with your reader? If setting your story in another time or place illuminates that truth, you’re on to something.

Want to hear more check out our live chat with Wildwing author Emily Whitman check out the live chat today at 5 p.m. EST.

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