Dawn Vogel is one of those authors and editors working in the publishing trenches that most people don’t know about but should. Here, she tells me how she incorporates real world history that is stranger than fiction into her writing.
The stories I included in my collection, Denizens of Distant Realms, are all secondary world fantasy stories. They didn't all start out that way, however. The first version I wrote of "Dry Spell" was a historical fantasy story, set in Colonial Virginia. In doing some research related to Roanoke (one of my favorite unsolved mysteries of history), I found an article that talked about extreme drought in the Virginia Tidewater in the late 1500s and the early 1600s. The earlier drought, which lasted three years, might have been a reason behind the disappearance of the Roanoke colonists. (article: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1998/04/980428075409.htm)
I also researched the presence of Romani slaves in the American colonies, and found that though their numbers were few, the Romani had been enslaved and brought to the Americas as early as 1492, and then again later by the Spaniards. With these elements in place, I pulled together a historically accurate story that included a little bit of magic on the side for the fantasy portion of the historical fantasy story.
The problem with writing historical fantasy that revolves around little-known facts is that it sometimes winds up unbelievable, because oftentimes, history is a whole lot weirder than people think it is. There are all sorts of strange facts and incidents you can find if you dig into the history books, but if you put them in a story, they wind up throwing the reader out of the narrative because they seem so implausible. So, even though my Romani slave helping to free other enslaved people during an extended drought in Colonial Virginia was historically plausible, it didn't work as a believable story.
Instead, what I had to do was turn it into a secondary world fantasy story, changing the names of locations, the ethnicity of the main character, and the language she and her friend had to struggle to translate. At that point, the story suddenly became plausible fantasy, because readers were no longer in need of knowledge about droughts in Colonial Virginia and the colonial slave trade including Romani slaves. But those elements of my research helped me pull together the plot, and the details could be swapped out like a scarf on an outfit, changing the entire feel of it.
If you like writing historical fantasy, I've found it's often easier to stick to the bits of history that people know a little bit better, rather than the obscure portions. You may still have to get rid of some of the really outlandish (though historically accurate) bits, but you can still use the general time period. Failing that, you can always take the weird parts of history and reskin them into something more solidly within the realm of fantasy, like I wound up doing with "Dry Spell."
Dawn Vogel's academic background is in history, so it’s not surprising that much of her fiction is set in earlier times. By day, she edits reports for historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, co-edits Mad Scientist Journal, and tries to find time for writing. She is a member of Broad Universe, SFWA, and Codex Writers. She lives in Seattle with her awesome husband (and fellow author), Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats.