E.C. Ambrose on Getting History in Your Fantasy


Cover detail from Elisha Mancer by E.C. Ambrose/Penguin Random House ©

Writing historical fantasy is an interesting proposition requiring a fine balance between the real, and the imagined — where the imagined elements must be wholly convincing, and the real elements must be fully imagined until these two spheres seamlessly become one.

In my case, I started with history. I’d been researching medieval surgery to add realism to a scene in a secondary world fantasy novel, and I got a little carried away — buying a shelf-full of books on the history of medicine, until I realized I had the idea for another book entirely, one that led to another series. I had the character of Elisha Barber, a barber-surgeon who, after his brother’s death, is sent to war where he must confront the injustices of nobility and of battle. At first, I thought this might be a strictly historical novel, but I wanted more, to reach for that fusion of history and imagination.

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Medieval leper hospital. Photo credit: E.C. Ambrose

When I teach about the craft of fantasy fiction, I often use a quote from poet Marianne Moore, in her “Poetry,” where she speaks of “imaginary gardens, with real toads in them.” In order for people to believe in your garden, they must be able to see and touch and trust the toads, then all else surrounding the toads becomes that much more believable.

So, how to integrate fantasy with 14th century medical study? I started with a firm foundation of research into the general era I wanted to re-create. History exists on several levels. There is the overarching “story” we are told in history books — great men (sometimes women), involved in pivotal events, usually at the top of the local hierarchy, with the vast majority of people in the history text being lumped together and treated by class rather than as individuals. But it is those smaller, individual stories that make history engaging and accessible. To craft a moving historical fiction, the macro level of the period must be experienced through the direct, daily actions, choices and surroundings of particular characters.

I already knew that, for plot reasons, I would pre-empt the course of the monarchy, which left me a bit at a loss for establishing the big picture of medieval England. One easy way to situate the reader in history is by reference to those famous people or events at the macro level. Those familiar with the history will immediately know when and where they are, and those who are not will gain a sense of setting, and may choose to learn more outside the books. I chose a hinge-point in history, and a way to slide the monarchy in a different direction, through the notorious person of Hugh DeSpenser, one of Edward II’s cronies.

An interesting bit of historical timing led me to this idea — because Hugh’s mother went to Edward I (known as Longshanks) to request permission to marry, and Hugh’s birth followed at an awkward interval to the actual marriage. She was notoriously one of the most beautiful women of the time — what if the king succumbed to a moment of passion, and his highly public grief for his wife stemmed, in part, from guilt over the lapse? What if, during one of his numerous arguments with his son and heir, he claimed Hugh as a son of his — a threat to hold over Edward II? The actual life and death of Edward II are so striking as to be nearly unbelievable to begin with …

Bits of this history are integrated into Elisha’s story in Elisha Barber, the first volume of the series, and explored more in a prequel novella, The Grail Maiden. I introduced coinage and specific dates (like Easter, 1347) to help establish the macro level of history.

It was also important to me that Elisha experienced the monarchy the way many of us experience our nation’s political powers. They are distant — known by name, and sometimes by action. In an era before wide-spread transmission of images, people wouldn’t have even known what their nobles looked like. They might have a word-of-mouth description, or be able to recognize the heraldry that set apart knights and noble households from each other.

Most of the time, all of the pageantry we associate with the Middle Ages happened on a far different level of society from ordinary people. For Elisha, a peasant, royalty often seems distant, a force that sometimes pushes his life in a new direction. As his own power grows, he increasingly becomes part of the macro world, a shift in perspective revealed in the book titles and in Elisha’s changing perspective and interactions. The man who stops to stitch a child’s wound in the first book finds that, a few months later, he must deal on the level of kings and emperors — and his impulse to aid on an individual basis might cripple his ability to affect the broader world.

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Medieval surgical tools. Photo credit: E.C. Ambrose

Elisha’s direct experience is informed by my reading into medieval surgery and medical practice in general. I started with works for the general reader and secondary sources, like H. Rider Haggard’s Devils, Drugs and Doctors, or The Illustrated History of Medicine, then drilled down into the footnotes and bibliographies to find the kind of detailed, specific sources I needed. Often, this brought me to academic works, or to primary sources, like Guy De Chauliac’s Chirurgia Magna, a manual written by the 14th century surgeon to Pope Clement VI. I discovered the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, an unsurpassed gathering of medieval experts, and joined several academic societies that specialize in the kinds of knowledge I needed:  Societas Magica, for the study of magic in the Middle Ages; Medica, for the study of historical medicine, and AVISTA, a group devoted to the technology of the time.

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Medieval street in York. Photo credit: E.C. Ambrose

Reading wasn’t enough to fill my imaginary garden with those real toads. I also made opportunities to visit England, studying and staying in houses of the period, visiting museums and talking with local experts. In order to truly capture the feel of a historical era, it’s important to be aware of material culture: what do people own? What do they wear? How do they acquire these things? Where and how are they made? Living in places Elisha would have recognized, walking the streets he would have known, viewing and handling the materials and tools he had access to helped to make him real to me in a whole new way. Some of these visits, like one to St. Leonard’s at Hythe, or to the Roman baths at Trier, involved settings that appeared in the books (in books 3 and 4 respectively). At one point, I found myself considering a rental apartment, and remarking that I could see Elisha’s brother’s grave from there …

Which brought me back to reality. There is no Elisha, and he has no brother to be buried anywhere. My hope is, in all of the research and selecting the details whether it’s describing the distinctive appearance of St. Bartholomew’s Church, or the fact that Elisha’s windows have oiled paper instead of glass, the reader, too, will slip into the trance of history.