Photogenic Memory: Thinking the Past Was Better Than it Was

One of the pleasures in having a history degree is getting to look for anachronisms in pop culture, period movies and shows that slip up and use the wrong music, etc. The thing with history, especially ancient history, is that it’s always in flux. We’re always revising what we think we know about a place, people or time – new information comes to light every day. History, like any other science, is prone to bias and should be self-correcting by nature.
Being a fantasy writer, ancient ruins hold a particular fascination for me, and yet they never seem to measure up. I seek out obscure temples and sites, like Brauron near Athens, which was a big inspiration in my latest book. But of course the ruins themselves aren’t very impressive: a few columns, no walls, in a marsh. What’s left barely echoes what was, or might have, been. I spent the brief time I was there watching the school children weave their way across the site as the groundskeepers worked tiredly to keep the green from overwhelming the scant, brown remains ancient of Artemis’s Bear Sanctuary.
Yet even in that, there was inspiration. In fantasy we inflate, make bigger and bolder a character’s experiences. A writer’s job is to reflect reality, but also to manipulate that reflection to tell a better story than what’s happening around us.
Ruins and history work much the same way. We twist and inflate them. Sure, history can inspire fantasy, but it doesn’t have to align. I’m always a bit confused when someone says epic fantasy needs to be “historically accurate.” After all, there’s nothing historically accurate about wizards throwing fireballs or dragons incinerating towns. So there’s clearly a line between being historically accurate and telling a good story and clearly a limitation if you allow historical accuracy to overwhelm a fantasy novel’s potential.
We correct our study of the past to correct our understanding, but also to adjust for biases. We can never truly know what it was like to be one of Artemis’s Bear Maidens. We can imagine, and that imagination can be informed by what we know of the time and place.
It took me a long time to stop writing academically when I wrote creatively. It’s taken even a bit longer to realize that a certain level of historical accuracy can provide verisimilitude, but freeing myself from that constraint and adding bolder elements makes my books better. When we try to force a fantasy novel to conform to a past we don’t fully understand anyway, we’re limiting ourselves. The two things are separate. They can be divorced. Let history inform fantasy but not dictate its laws. You’ll get a more interesting story that way.
Note: the photo above is not Brauron, but from Ephesus. All my Brauron photos are missing from my hard drive.

One thought on “Photogenic Memory: Thinking the Past Was Better Than it Was

  1. Heather says:

    So true! Our view of history is skewed by our place in it. I’m backwards, I started as a fantasy writer that turned into a history writer~though its historical fiction. Similar problem, just reversed! I love the challenge of such a different genre though.

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