Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Some thoughts on writing a mythological/historical setting for a modern audience

I love mythology, I love everything about it; the monsters, the Gods, the heroes and magic. I love mythology from all over the world from Chinese folklore, to Celtic cycle epics and Norse poetic epics. I got into history back when I was in elementary school because of how much I loved my books on Egyptian mythology for kids. I love Greek myths, French and Germanic fairy tales, I love Japanese legends and early Christian saint stories. I love it all.

So when I write fantasy I'm often building worlds based on a historical moment as seen through the lens of the mythological and fantastical. Most of the time these myths and legends come from worlds and societies already very different from our own. Because of this sometimes I run into a problem. I'm sure this a problem very familiar to any writer who's ever written fiction with a historical setting: how do you represent that historical moment to the best of your ability while not totally putting off a modern audience?

For instance both Heart of Water and Stone and The Kraken Lord and the Eater of the Sun are based on Norse mythology and Viking age culture while still being very clearly fantasy stories. While writing both of these stories I really struggled with how to best portray my human culture which was strongly based on Viking age culture. This was mostly because, while not being how Hollywood portrays it, Viking culture was very different from what we, living in the modern age, are used to. That seems self-evident but lets be frank things like blood-feuds and slavery were big parts of this culture as was raiding and all three of these things are very hard for us to understand as modern people. In the cases of my two stories I gave myself a little leeway by concentrating on trolls and troll culture and not talking a lot about humans and human culture. Yet in Heart of Water and Stone I do address the issue of slavery while in The Kraken Lord and the Eater of the Sun blood-feuds are mentions briefly.

In Like Fire Through Bone I had to deal with issues such as slavery, sexism and male castration. That was even before getting to the demons, half-snake monks, and angels part of the story. Also, speaking of angels, religion played a huge role not only in the society in the story but also in most of the characters' lives. With our modern attitude towards religion and the Church, I can see some people being uncomfortable with the strong religious theme. Yet I based, the setting, in part, off of the Byzantine Empire so I don't feel like strong focus on religion is out of place. In fact I couldn't imagine writing such a setting without it.

Any mythology and culture you choose to work with comes with its own issues and things that just don't translate well. While taking notes for a possible story based on Greek mythology I wondered a lot about how to accurately represent sexuality in Ancient Greek culture for a modern audience. One of the reasons why that stories is on hold at the moment is because I haven't decided how best to handle the issue.

I am writing a story right now based on ancient Egyptian mythology. I am struggling to translate ideas about life, death, humans' relationship to Gods, the power of the Pharaoh and the nature of the universe in such a way that characters come across as empathetic not simply alien. Not to mention my mixed feeling towards how to deal with the issue of incest which played a big role not only in the ruling class' claim to power but also in the interactions between the Egyptian Gods.

In most of my stories based on history and mythology the characters drink alcohol at every meal including breakfast, a few of them smoke like chimneys, and most take violence as an everyday fact of life. I know a lot of these issues and the others I've discussed will turn people off. Maybe not so much in Heart of Water and Stone and The Kraken Lord and the Eater of the Sun where we don't see a lot of human culture, but definitely in stories which humans play a bigger role. In a lot of ways that's okay, it's more important to me that the stories have the right feel to them and that they represent a mythological/historical moment in a fantasy setting as much as possible. On the other hand I don't want my characters and their basic humanity (even the ones who aren't human) to get lost in translation. Most of all I want people to have fun while reading my stories. I think it's it definitely possible to have it both ways, it's just a little bit of a tight rope walk, one I hope to get better and better at.

What do other authors think, especially those of you who take your inspiration from history/mythology/folk lore? How do you make the very distant past enjoyable and accessible for your readers?


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