The weirdness of our past never fails to amaze me.
I studied history in undergrad. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but I wanted to prove that I could do something else, too. Philosophy was fun, but there were too many people in the classes who liked using nearly nonsensical words in order to sound like they did the reading, and I spent too much time decoding statements that were much less profound in translation. So not philosophy. I dabbled, briefly, into the sciences and left with a C in Psych 101 and a Pass/Fail in Astronomy. So I went back to books, looking for the places where storytelling branched between truth and fiction. After Herodotus and Sir John Mandeville, and a myriad of other “historians” who clearly made stuff up, I decided I definitely liked history.
I take a lot of inspiration from history when I write. In my story published here, at Luna Station, I began with a fascination with Early Empire Rome and twisted it to fit my needs. In the novel I’m finishing up (and if you’re a literary agent, it’s totally ready, and I’d love to send it to you), the whole plot wraps around a collection of bizarre, little-studied fairy tales. I stole all the best images, from a husband laying down a sword in the marriage bed between him and his wife, to women born out of fruit trees.
I absolutely love finding other writers who take from the past and weave it into distant worlds or magic systems. Sometimes, writers include the note from history for style, but this multiclass in history often adds an unexpected layer of harmony into a magical world. It can help orient or disorient readers, depending on the author’s goal, and resonates with something profoundly human and deeply magical.
I want to point out a couple of books I’ve read recently that take the magic from the past and build it into something magnificent.
Sin Eater by Megan Campisi begins with a note about the historical inspiration for her premise, which involves women who eat foods upon the graves of the dead in order to absolve them of their transgressions. There’s little known about these historic sin eaters. Still, it’s enough to seed the book, and Campisi’s novel is an incredible, lyrical story set in a world just different enough from Elizabethan England that the echoes make the past that much stranger.
Or take A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine. Martine is a historian of the Byzantine Empire, and you can see the reach of her knowledge in the richness and depth of her world. In an interview with NPR, she talks about how her Teixcalaan Empire takes aspects of the Byzantines, ancient Rome, Mexica, and Aztec history. The Teixcalaan names, a number-noun combination that produces characters such as Three Seagrass and Six Direction, are inspired by the Mixtec people of Oaxaca, who had spiritual names based on their day of birth and a series of twenty signs. It’s those names that I found so fascinating and lush–they gave the book an incredible depth of culture–and when I learned they were inspired by real-world practices, I got all geeky and squealy inside. I highly recommend the book, the interview with NPR, and this post about how to find your Texicalaan name. (I’m Sixteen Sapphire by their rules, but in my heart, I’m One Hundred Book.)
I could mention so many more books that channel the magic of our past and put it into the magic of the written word, but I will run out of internet page space. It’s something I love to see. It reminds me that we’re all living in a world so much more complex than it appears on the surface, that living memory is only a surface, a facade over the strange, beautiful, wild, and wonderful world from which we all came.